Organizing, promoting, and dialing in the minute logistics necessary to host a successful international ultramarathon is mind boggling. However, putting on an ultramarathon in a largely unexplored, remote corner of India’s great salt desert is an entirely different animal all together. Run the Rann is an event which takes place in the far western edge of India in the Gujarat state near the border of Pakistan. The race is held on and around the island of Khadir Bet in the Great Rann of Kutch, which is the world’s largest salt flat, stretching as far as the eye can see into distant Pakistan. The salt flat is a seasonal marsh remarkable for the nesting of thousands of greater flamingos, as well as “Chir Batti,” a bizarre lighting phenomenon which occurs on dark nights that the locals refer to as “ghost light.”
The remote location of the event and the protected terrain of the area present many challenges for the race director, Gaël Couturier, a French nationalist who has spent the last three years living in India. Given that the island and salt flats are protected by the Gujarat environment and forestry department means that no cutting or clearing of brush can be conducted on the race course. Couturier, who has an impressive racing resume himself including five Marathon des Sables finishes, four Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc finishes, and one Diagonale des Fous finish, set out to redesign the courses this year, offering four race distances: 21 kilometers, 42k, 101k, and 161k. You may be wondering why the odd race distances? I had learned from Krissy Moehl’s account of last year’s race that Indians believe that ‘1’ is an auspicious number and brings good luck.
The unique experience for the runner includes incredible accommodations and Indian food, GPS-guided navigation, and terrain and flora that you’ll likely never otherwise experience. After a successful inaugural event in 2014, the courses were redesigned and a 100-plus-mile race was added to attract international runners. Unfortunately, this year the event struggled with shortcomings rarely experienced by more established ultras including missing and poorly stocked aid stations, lapses in communication exacerbated by a language barrier, and challenging courses which greatly exceeded every participant’s expectations.
Couturier has a mission to make Run the Rann one of the premier international races on the calendar, and UphillEMG, the race organization, drew their inspiration from Marathon des Sables. Given the races’ remote location and the relatively new popularity of distance running in India, Run the Rann has some lofty goals.
Due to the remote location of this event, extensive travel is required from Ahmedabad, India, which is the jumping-off point for the seven-hour shuttle ride to Dholavira, India. Dholavira is a 5,000-year-old archaeological site from the Indus Valley/Harrapan Civilization, and the excavated site, only a few thousand meters from camp, made for a fascinating tourist experience by itself. The Harrapan Civilization is one of three ancient civilizations of the old world along with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is believed to be the most widespread and populated of them, with an estimated five million people living in northwest Pakistan, northwest India, and northeast Afghanistan. The site at Dholavira features up to 16 large reservoirs used for harvesting, filtering, and storing water in such a harsh climate. This water hydrology and conservation mechanism is considered one of the great engineering feats of the ancient world.
Once we reached ‘camp,’ runners encountered almost surreal creature comforts in this hostile desert environment including luxurious tents with soft bunks, western-style toilets, and a bucket shower. Delectable Indian dishes were prepared three times daily in an outdoor-buffet area that I can only describe as feeling like a wedding reception. White tablecloths, festive lighting, and uniformed servers made me forget that I was in one of the least-populated areas of one of the world’s most-populous countries, only 30k from the hostile ‘free fire’ border with Pakistan. Despite this proximity, the race course never veers toward Pakistan and the presence of Indian military outposts on the island make runners feel safe.
Navigation during the race required the use of GPS navigation which was provided in the form of a Garmin eTrex 10 GPS unit. However, the race organization struggled to get every runner a working GPS unit with the right track uploaded. Receiving my unit at 8:30 p.m. the night before the race only to find I had the incorrect tracks loaded was a bit disconcerting. I faithfully handed over my GPS unit to the race director at 10:30 p.m. as he decided to correct mine and several others’ units personally. This was to be my first experience navigating with GPS, and I was both excited and terrified of the possible pitfalls. We were to follow the marathon race course, which was flagged, for around 12k prior to splitting off on our own, unmarked route, with all of our faith placed in this little yellow block in our hands. After playing around with the unit on race morning, I found navigation to be easier than expected.
On race morning we were bused to the start on the edge of the expansive salt flat for my journey of 101k. The race started an hour behind schedule; punctuality was something I’d learned not to expect in India. The first 10k involved very easy, pleasant running on the salt flat which lead into a brief stint on a jeep road. Little did we realize that this would be our only ‘on trail’ running for the remainder of the race.
The GPS track for the 101k and 161k distances quickly took us overland through scrub forest and loose, rocky shale. This was also our first of many encounters with Acacia nilotica, known locally as the Babool Tree or Egyptian Thorn. This invasive species is covered in inches-long spiky thorns, and is often planted by farmers and herders to keep livestock hemmed in. Running with Estonian ultrarunner Tarmo Vannas, we both exclaimed, “Do they really want us to go through this?” There simply was no escaping the wrath of the Babool, as its thorns snag every part of your being, getting caught in clothes and scraping bare skin. Often times we found ourselves crawling on all fours only to have our hands and knees punctured by fallen thorns unseen on the ground. So formidable were the thorns that we periodically had to remove our shoes to extract those long enough to go completely through our shoes.
You’re entering wild country but [the] risks are worth the rewards: uncharted territory, unknown land for most, peaceful unique mammals on the ground and exotic birds like big eagles flying above your heads, watching every step you take. The hills will bring you to breathtaking views of the white desert. Keep your eyes on the ground. It is an extremely difficult terrain and sometimes falling is out of question. Once you’re done with this north side, you’ll pass another BSF [Border Security Force] post and quickly finish touring the island. It will be time to head back. The return to the finish line is not going to be easy. You’re now crossing the island in the middle. Welcome to the kingdom of thorns! -An excerpt and course description from the race website
“They can’t expect us to go down this?” I asked quizzically, staring at my GPS which took an abrupt left turn off a rather picturesque cliff I’d been actually running on for several miles. Sure enough, we scrambled down the cliff band, over loose rock, and through gulches choked by thorns, back out toward the salt flats. The moment I felt relief at getting down the cliff in one piece, I realized the GPS track would soon loop back toward another bushwhacking ascent rife with cursing, extensive hemming and hawing over the GPS track, and finally a bit of actual climbing at the top. This pattern would be repeated several times throughout the difficult adventure-race-style course which none of us were expecting. The course description on the website was vague at best, aimed at inspiring runners rather than providing specific course information. Nowhere was it mentioned that the race was completely off trail, and that nearly constant bushwhacking would be required. A casual pre-race meeting the night before informed us that minimal shoes were ill-advised, and calf sleeves would be appreciated on the course. It really wasn’t until we were 15k into the race that we understood the true difficulty of this terrain and its wicked thorns.
The race organization experienced quite a few difficulties on race day due to inexperienced volunteer staff. Many runners experienced catastrophic shortcomings, including a poorly stocked fourth aid station in the two longer races, which ran out of water. This was followed by a fifth aid station which was never set up, resulting in runners enduring three to seven hours without water in temperatures that topped out at 94 degrees Fahrenheit. These issues caused quite a few DNFs and a loss of faith in the race organization. I dropped at this point in the race with dehydration and serious concerns that additional aid stations would not be stocked or set up.
Dan Lawson, an Englishman living in Goa, India, entered the race with little fanfare. A quick search of race results revealed that he’d run 152 miles in a 24-hour race, as well as setting the world record for treadmill running over the span of a week, covering 521 miles. His demeanor was calm, easy going, and mysterious. Competitors were baffled when he showed up on race morning shirtless, with a drawstring backpack across his chest, and wearing a battered pair of Brooks PureConnect road shoes. Dan was completely unfazed by any of the difficulties encountered in the race. He moved easily over the rough terrain, took very little water or food, and completed the 100-plus miles in 24:06. Having fallen into a bog of sorts on the salt flat hours before, he crossed the finish line covered in mud, chatted with onlookers, and quickly cleaned himself up for the long bus ride back to Goa.
Damian Stoy, two-time winner of the Bighorn 50 Mile from Bozeman, Montana, stayed with Lawson until dehydration caused him to spend over an hour rehydrating after the missed aid station that was never set up. He rallied and continued on, running with South African Linda Doke, a very accomplished runner who tackles races all over the globe, usually with a podium finish. The two runners partnered and soldiered on through the night, finally able to run on the salt-flat sections, to finish in 32:30. Brit Mimi Anderson who holds three world records and is the fastest female double Badwater finisher, toughed out a finish in 39:55.
Running along the top of the ridge at about 34k, my Garmin GPS indicated I had to go left. I searched for a path but couldn’t see one, the only way down was over the edge, relying on sandstone rocks for support and thick thorn bushes I would have to fight my way through; one wrongly placed foot and I could end up badly injured. All this with no water. There are adventures and adventures and this certainly was a true adventure! -Mimi Anderson
Out of the international field, all of the invited runners finished the 161k distance taking as long as 50 hours. Out of the 15 registered runners, 10 finished including three Indian runners over 43 hours.
The 101k race was won by Indian runner Konesh Chopra in over 22 hours. I surrendered to the thorns, my confidence in the race organization shattered, after a seven-hour 50k.
Survive the Rann
Run the Rann could be characterized as an adventure race, rather than a trail ultramarathon. The combination of off-trail trekking, GPS navigation, bushwhacking through constant thorns, and extreme temperature changes fit more into a category with The Barkley Marathons rather than trail races. Certainly, Run the Rann is not as difficult as Barkley, but it bears resemblance through the combination of bushwhacking, navigation, and the sheer hard-headed determination it takes to finish the race. Race Director Couturier seems to relish in the difficulty of the event, pointing out that UTMB had a 90% DNF rate in its inaugural year. That being said, UTMB faced very poor weather during that first year, with many runners ill equipped to deal with it. The Barkley simply sets out to be insurmountable in its difficulty. Run the Rann must decide which of these philosophies it will adhere to, and if it’s the former, a great many changes are needed in the level of support to runners prior to considering this an international event worth the travel.
Run the Rann was a truly unique experience. The combination of GPS orienteering, heat, and never-ending thorns made this the most challenging ultra I have ever done, by far. Wasatch 100 is considered one of the most difficult 100 milers in the U.S. Run the Rann was way more painful, challenging, and mentally trying. -Damian Stoy
What is trail racing? It is a philosophical question at best, with my initial answer describing events which follow a discernible trail and route. Other runners at the race disagreed with me and had valid points about the idea of cross-country travel, navigation, and being prepared for anything. Regardless, any race organization must adequately prepare runners for what they may encounter on the course, and the combination of the course difficulties and logistical errors made by the race organization made the second year of this event problematic.
The unique location, culture, and atmosphere of Run the Rann provide a great deal of possibility. The culture and hospitality of the Gujarat state of India as well as the local Kutchi villagers offer a very unique travel opportunity. After dropping out around the 50k mark, I requested a ride back to the camp, some 30 minutes away, on the back of a local Kutchi villager’s motorcycle. He told me through broken English that we would need to stop somewhere first, and I was driven to an outpost only to be introduced to the local patriarch of his village. Sitting on the only visible chair while being served chai tea in my short shorts and salt-stained shirt, I was amazed at the level of generosity that complete strangers would provide me. After we rode back to camp, amongst roadways choked with sacred cows and brightly clothed Kutchi women carrying bronze bowls on their heads, I tried to offer the rider money to which he graciously declined.
Given that the race had a successful first year shows that they can host a race without logistical issues. But Couturier and the gang have to decide whether they want to host an easily organized and largely ‘runnable’ race, or if the far more difficult courses used in this second edition will create more of an adventure-race atmosphere. Post-race, I was impressed that the race organization gathered the international contingent for feedback on the event with the hopes of ironing out difficulties for their second year of putting on a 100-mile race. Either way, this race will appeal to adventure racers and those athletes looking for the most challenging combination of terrain and environment. I asked Couturier after the race what he will be focusing on changing for next year, and I believe that his response deserves to be aired in its entirety:
I think one of our objectives within Uphill EMG is to become a more and more effective team each time we create or manage an event. This being said, every major long-distance race that I’ve ever looked up to, growing up as an endurance age grouper for the past 20 years, has been through some minor or even serious missteps in the early years of their existence. As a professional organizer, you’re trying to think about everything that can go wrong and prepare your team for it but eventually, something you haven’t been able to anticipate still goes wrong. And the participants need to understand it. The thrill you get by participating in an adventure event is immense, but the downside of it is that it’s risky.
Now, to answer more precisely your question:
1) I am not in favour of removing some aid stations because they could be hard to reach for our team. In the Réunion Island’s Diagonale des Fous, volunteers and medics have to trek six to eight hours before reaching some very remote aid stations, simply because there’s no other way. So they do it. Period. No big deal. It was a lesson for us this year that we need to get more athletic people within our team to tackle this task.
2) We also need more athletic people in the rescue team. This is why we’ll now use the services of the paramilitary Border Security Forces. Not only are those guys are super fit but they also know the region very well. They can navigate easily at night as well as during the day, and they have the right vehicles for search-and-rescue missions. We used them this year to locate a runner who was lost but I reckon we did not activate this QRF [quick reaction force] as early as we could have.
3) We’ll stick with the use of a GPS for the 101k and 100-mile races but we’ll also mark critical points of the route, like those downhills on the north side for example so there’s absolutely no misunderstanding. We’ll probably do the same thing with some of the most thorny areas because I can assure you that there’s always a way to go through it or around it without having to spill too much blood. I understand some participants don’t want to spend time looking for a better way but then it’s their strategic choice. You can go the French Foreign Legion’s way, which is about going brutally straight no matter what’s in front of you, or you can spend some time thinking and searching for a better path. I have designed the race with large cutoffs also because I knew some portions of the race were harder than others to cross. Consider it as a Barkley reference maybe.
3) We’ll reinforce the idea among runners that they should not follow the GPS blindly and that cutting a few hundred meters here and there will not be considered as cheating.
4) We’ll also make sure that all aid-station coordinates are loaded on the route appearing on the runner’s GPS. It wasn’t the case this year and that was definitely a mistake.
5) I’m not sure about adding a GPS locator device into every runner’s backpack. It’s true that it will be useful for a rescue team if a runner for whatever reason ends up lost.
6) We need to replace all those silly plastic bottles at aid stations with big water jars and force each participant to carry his own cup or pouch and fill them in there. That way we’ll reduce our impact on the environment. -Gaël Couturier, Run the Rann Race Director
After the race I was asked if I would ever consider my own personal redemption at this race. My immediate thought was, Absolutely not. After some reflection on the uniqueness of the event, the journey, and the wonderful hospitality, my answer is ‘yes.’ But, next time I’ll be wearing Kevlar.