Runcationing in Rishikesh

A year since I ran my first Himalayan run, I sit down to write about my experience. I had been on a hunt for an exotic run in India when I heard about Running and Living’s Rishikesh Cross Country run. I signed up for the 15k trail run and geared up for the mountains. Most of you know how much I enjoy running (read: Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad). But when you throw in a vacation to the mix, you get a girl giddy with glee! 🙂

My private sundeck with a view of the chocolate-hills

My private sundeck with a view of the chocolate-hills

Austerity Before Indulgence

My first night in Rishikesh was an Airbnb find. It was a meditation centre run by monks from Spain. The place was slightly expensive, considering how basic the room and facilities were. But if you decide to stay here, don’t forget to use my Airbnb travel credit – for a 1679 INR (~25 USD) discount.

My Airbnb homestay - with the Spanish monks

My Airbnb homestay – with the Spanish monks

Getting to Know the Ganga

Before the sun could set, I hopped and skipped over to one of the stepped embankments of the River Ganga. This river of national pride is rapidly becoming an open drain that carries garbage along its course. This garbage is of a special kind – full of paraffin, flowers, sweets (used as prayer offering) and toxic oils. It worries me to think of all the innocent fishes which are dying a slow death in what might otherwise have been a holy place for them to swim in.

Ganga aarti in full swing

Ganga aarti in full swing

Flavours from the Street

After the disturbing sight of the rituals at the Ganga, I strolled over to the inner sanctums of Rishishesh, to explore its street food. If you have been cheating on your workout, this is a dangerous place for you to be. There is gorgeous looking food peeping out of every roadside establishment – kachoris, samosas, pooris, and all of their cousins. I gave in to my temptations and sat down inside a shop where the man behind the cooking pot knew that his stuffings of sin were stronger than my weak spirit.

Deep fried street food - carboloading for the run! ;-)

Deep fried street food – carboloading for the run! 😉

Spanish Food in Rishikesh

After feasting on North Indian street food, it was time for me to eat some more! 😀 I had the Spanish dinner (read: Lleida – A Reminiscence) which a new monk freshly prepared for me. I had a bowl of salad, baked bread, tortilla de patatas and pisto (a ratatouille of sorts). This meal was indeed the best part of my stay at this homestay.

An appetizing Spanish meal cooked by a Spanish monk

An appetizing Spanish meal cooked by a Spanish monk

Rafting through the Rapids

I spent my next morning doing what every adventure junkie does in Rishikesh – RAFTING!!! 🙂 White water rafting was not new to me (read: White Water Rafting in Kolad). But rafting in the Ganga is an experience of a lifetime! We negotiated some really nasty rapids, some as difficult as level-4. At the end of the last rapid, our guide let us jump into the river and swim in water that was easily 90 feet deep.

Selfie from my raft!

Selfie from my raft!

Nature never stops showing me how small I am in the grander scheme of things. My existence and dreams and opinions simply don’t matter when I look up at the sky and see how big the real world really is. I smiled as I saw the Himalayas from inside the river – so majestic and inviting (and the reason why in a few months I did my first Himalayan trek).

A view worth rafting for!

A view worth rafting for!

A Luxury Retreat

My next two days were spent in the most opulent resort in all of Rishikesh – Raga on the Ganges. I will do a separate blog post on my stay there as I was thoroughly impressed by their hospitality. My lodging and boarding was fully sponsored by them. It is quite luxurious to have the waters of the River Ganga flow through your shower! 😉

My luxurious hideaway at Raga On The Ganges

My luxurious hideaway at Raga On The Ganges

The Day of the Run

My big day was finally there, and I realized I was going to run 15 kilometers with only a handful of other runners (15 to be precise). I have never felt like an elite marathoner, but that day, I felt special because I was one of  select few people who decided to get out of their comfy blankets on a cold wintry morning and show up in the middle of the mountains to run over stones and pebbles.

The running trail

The running trail

This was one of my scariest runs so far. I had wild langoors and mountain dogs for company. I remember stopping on my tracks a zillion times as I ran into monkeys who looked liked they wanted to snatch my cellphone. There was also the danger of getting run over by a truck on the national highway.

We had macaques to cheer us on the way

We had macaques to cheer us on the way

I met some stray cows too after I crossed a bridge after the 9k mark. But all of this was nothing compared to having a herd of wild mountain goats block my path on a narrow trail. I was praying I’d meet their shepherd somewhere, but I was plain unlucky. I wanted the Earth to open up and swallow me because there was the vast expanse of mountain behind me, a group of crazy goats in front of me, the vertical wall of rock to my right, and the endless river (which I’d get to only if I rolled to my death down the steep escarpment) below.

The bridge to victory was finally visible!

The bridge to victory was finally visible!

I was saved by another runner who tore a branch, herded the goats away, grabbed my hand and led me across the trail. I cannot thank that man enough! He was my angel that morning. I had some much needed potatoes and eggs with electrolyte after my adventure, and even managed a grainy picture at the finish line with Rahul Verghese – the organizer of this scenic run. He happens to be a veteran runner himself.

At the finish line with Rahul Verghese - the organiser

At the finish line with Rahul Verghese – the organiser

The bounty of nature provides a nice space for us humans to sit and ponder over why the world was created and who we really are. I ended my trip by gazing into infinity and thanking God for revealing the beauty of His creations to me in the lap of my favourite mountains.

I indulge in some self reflection by the Ganga

I indulge in some self reflection by the Ganga

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Let me know if you too are into runcationing. Have you been to Rishikesh? Has your experience been any different? I’m all ears! 🙂

Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad

I had been running various long distance stretches for almost two years, and half marathons in particular for about nine months. I did not think I was ready for what I was about to do in September 2015. But I took a leap of faith in myself and decided to do it anyway. A little more than a month before the D-day, sitting in my room in Mumbai, I booked my slot for the Vilnius Half Marathon. And that, my friends, is how this story started!

The pacers gather before the marathon

The pacers gather before the marathon starts

The Quest

For someone who had never run outside of Mumbai, this was BIG! I had not even run in a different Indian city or even Asian for that matter. One fine afternoon, when I was possessed by the idea of vacationing in Europe and running while I was at it, I started searching for half marathons in the continent. I had to park various marathons because they were either too expensive or had a qualifier which I did not meet or would have water/snack stations more than 5km apart (I just need something to sip/eat every 2km). When I came across the Danske Bank Vilniaus Maratonas, I had a feeling this one was made just for me – affordable, no qualifier, snack stations every 2 kilometers and also an English version of the site (and that is rare for European marathon sites, believe me)! 🙂

Who wouldn't want to run on roads like these!

Who wouldn’t want to run on roads like these!

The Litmus Test

I had a few challenges to conquer before I reached Lithuania. Firstly, the Lithuanian consulate in Mumbai does not do visa processing. But more on that later (in a different blog post). Secondly, if you participate in extreme sports (and marathons are considered extreme sports), you need a special kind of visa and your travel insurance amount goes up. I only had about a month to get to Vilnius and I had so much to do – book flights, plan my stay, arrange for documents for the Schengen visa… sigh! Administrative worries aside, I would also have to train for the run. With a full-time job that ate up most of my weekday time, I barely had weekends to get any running done. (And we all know weekends are sacred days meant for resting, partying and catching up with friends! 😛 )

The Neris River which flows all the way from Belarus!

The Neris River which flows all the way from Belarus!

Silver Linings

With the challenges though, came innovative solutions. I figured out my visa and tickets and everything bit by bit. I realized it is very easy once you tackle just one thing at a time. And for the marathon training, I joined a high-intensity cardio and pilates workout class in my office building. It did not seem to make much sense in the beginning. (Why would I waste my time worrying about flexibility and upper body strength when I would actually only need strong legs!) I thought initially that the post-work sessions were doing little else than raising my heart rate for those 45 minutes. But as the days progressed, I found that I was running better as my core muscles strengthened. My strides had become longer due to the increased flexibility in my legs. And as I had expected, my heart learnt to cope better with a faster heartbeat for prolonged durations. I had never trained for any run like this before. I would only rely on running, and simply more running. But only time would tell if this new regime would make a difference to my finishing time!

First Impressions

When I was finally in Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania), my Airbnb hosts were delighted to learn that I was going to be running. When I went to pick up my race-packet, I could feel the excitement building up. The volunteers wanted to take pictures with me and the locals were excited to see a foreigner from a faraway country. I must tell you now that I was the only Indian (and possibly the first one ever) to be participating at the Vilnius half marathon (I still can’t believe I hold that record 🙂 ).

Vingis Park from a bridge above

Vingis Park from a bridge above

The Goody Bag

The running kit had the usual suspects – my running bib, instruction sheets for the half marathon and some freebees (beer can, porridge mix, cod liver oil tablets, ankle guards and cold gel for pain relief). I was really thrilled though to see them give a complimentary energy gel. It is so hard to find one in Mumbai’s sports or medical stores. (I have been hunting for carbo snack gels for many months now, hoping some store would finally stock up, but no luck there.) You can only hope to order online or if you are one of those wealthy elite marathoners, buy gels from your trips abroad.

View from the bank - Vilnius cityscape

View from the bank – Vilnius cityscape

It’s All About Money, Honey!

People think running is the cheapest sport one can pursue. What does one need after all, save for a decent pair of shoes? Let me debunk that myth for you. As you have more runs behind you, you realize the importance of shoes with special features – extra cushion at the soles and ankles, form and memory retention, pronation-control, and what not! These sort of shoes from big brands cost you upwards of INR 7000. And because you don’t want to wear only one pair out, you invest at least in two. Then there is the question of good running clothes – tees and shorts/track pants made of sweat wicking (ordinary cotton can absorb sweat and become heavy) and anti-chafing material (most fabrics will cause rashes when they continuously rub against your skin). Depending on the brands you hanker after, this should set you back by another few thousand rupees.

The expenses rise if you are a woman. You additionally have to invest in some excellent quality high-impact sports bras (the yoga-variety simply won’t give you enough support). And because we like to be fashionable, the colour and design element will make it impossible for those to cost anything less than 3 grands. Many pro runners wear fitness bands, waist belts and hydration packs and carry all their gatorade, water and carbo-gels on their person. Some special trail marathons also require you to have a Road ID which can only be imported from USA. (Looks like I’m digressing from my theme.)

While I was running through Vingis Park - the largest park in Vilnius

While I was running through Vingis Park – the largest park in Vilnius

Marathon Day

Few moments compare to those I experience when I am running. On 13th September, 2015, I woke early and prepared me a nice meal of oats with yogurt. Vilnius was unusually cold for its summery September that morning. It must have been 9 degrees Celsius outside. For someone who had only run in humid Mumbai with the temperature seldom dropping below 20, it was fricking cold! I was almost about to wear stockings, but I stopped short of such buffoonery and got on with some thick moisturizing. When I stepped out of the temperature controlled house, I was hit by the gust of icy winds. Maybe I am exaggerating, but how else do you feel in flimsy sweat-wicking clothes when you’d rather wear an overcoat.

On that lovely morning, all modes of transport had been closed around the marathon route. That meant, I would have to walk 3km to the starting tents. It was good in a way as that gave me a chance to warm up well and adjust to the cold. Even the local runners found it cold! When I reached Cathedral Square (where all the runs would begin), I was dazzled by the carnival-like atmosphere! That day, Vilnius truly was a “marathon town”! There were runners from so many countries! Hundreds of locals had come out to cheer for us. I met a Polish girl who was running a half marathon for the first time in her life, and was the only runner from her village. We had decided to run together.

The amphitheatre inside Vingis Park

The amphitheatre inside Vingis Park

The Route

Despite such a huge international crowd, the announcements proceeded in Lithuanian. We knew it was time to run only when the runners before us started running. 😛

By now, you must have had a view of some of the places that my half marathon route took me through. I was so mesmerized by the natural beauty and old-worldly charm of Vilnius that I just had to stop and take a few snaps. We ran over bridges with the River Neris looking up at us from below, through the Vingis Park – the largest and most imposing park in Vilnius, past a stadium, an amphitheatre and a church, up a hill, on a forest trail with trees lining our narrow path, and up and down the undulating cobblestoned roads of the Old City. The run did not feel boring for even a second. We were entertained by several international bands, drummers, percussionists and dancers along the way.

And...this is how I became the first Indian to run the Vilnius Half Marathon

And…this is how I became the first Indian to run the Vilnius Half Marathon

After the Run

The Vilnius Half Marathon was easily the toughest one I had run so far. Notwithstanding, I clocked my best ever time! 🙂 The credit goes not only to the new workout, but also to the clean air and the resounding support of the volunteers and spectators.

I did not have the energy after the run to wait for a free massage or stand for my turn in the shower-truck, so I stopped to buy a kibinai (a local delicacy) and after that filling snack, started for my long walk back to the flat. That morning, I had walked/run for more than 27km! When I reached my host’s place, she had a little surprise waiting for me! 🙂

My host made me comfort food for after my run! :-)

My host made me comfort food for after my run! 🙂

It was the sweetest and the most useful thing any host could do for a tired and hungry runner! She had made me cottage cheese and potato pancakes and left a couple of cute notes on how to eat them.

Vilnius saw me through my very first international marathon. I will hopefully go on to run many more runs abroad. But this one will always be the first. Always the most special – where it all started. I don’t have more pics from the run, but you can watch this video to see what it felt like:-

Have you ever run outside your home country? Or been on a “runcation”? I would love to hear your experiences! 🙂