Published on February 17, 2015
Run the Rann Race Report
Two buses, a coach, two planes, a taxi, a tuk tuk, a motorbike. Whilst the latter was really for a little trail course reconnaissance, that combo and the employment of 48hours was what it took to reach the start line of Run the Rann. But then sometimes it’s worth enormous effort to go hit a great event. Sometimes not…
2015 is the second year that Run the Rann has been staged amidst the largest salt pans in the world in this remote and wild corner of Gujarat, India, and this year they had added a mighty 161k ultra to their existing offering of 21k, 42k and 101k races. Having been here in 2014 and been largely impressed by what the organisers had achieved my expectations were high, but reality soon began to limbo in under them as early alarm bells began to sound.
Whilst accommodation and catering was impeccably delivered more fundamental lapses in organisation and communication began to surface the day before the race. Kit check for compulsory safety equipment consisted of being asked if we had everything we needed; not even a cursory glance at or in our bags suggested any sense of urgency or responsibility from event organisers. More worryingly, as this was a GPS self-navigation event, the Garmins remained unavailable until late into the evening and once they were handed out a number contained either inaccurate or no map data. My own unit contained no batteries and when I returned it to the office a display of staggeringly low technical ability ensued as they repeatedly fitted them upside down (how you can consistently keep turning batteries through a full 360degrees still eludes me.)
As a final blow to confidence and expectations I learned that all medical support for the race had been withdrawn due to some unspecified medical emergency elsewhere in the state. Note the word ‘learned’ – there was no official announcement, just a spreading of the word; some participants, it transpired, still didn’t know about it until they were standing on the sandy start line the next morning – a little late for a judgement call.
Dawn. Concerns were largely set aside or allowed to slowly ebb away with the final coolness of the night as I tried to concentrate on the task ahead. The start line buzzed with a rather surreal atmosphere more akin to a Koh Phangan full moon party with the bleeping of GoPros and taking of photos; a nervous energy that buzzed like telegraph wires.
I have no recollection now if the race was started with a gun, a horn, a cowbell, or simply someone shouting ‘run you fools!’ (possibly a combination of all four), but we were underway and running along soft sand as the sun and temperature started to rise. Participants on all four distances started together, initially following a red-ribbon marked course for the 21 and 42k races, before the ultra runners were to be directed off on the longer routes – so a large field of 130-ish runners spread out as we found our space and place.
I fell into a rhythm alongside two French runners – Walter and Francois-Xavier – both excellent company and both in line with my thinking that we were, by now, at a stage where we should no longer be following the 21/42k route. But no one had signalled differently, there had been no sign and those manning the next CP assured us we should keep going.
I checked my GPS. The arrow spun wildly, leaped around the screen like an ant on a hotplate and then the whole thing shut down. I restarted it. It shut down. I replaced the batteries – mentally patting myself on the back for being able to do so correctly – and compared notes with Walter and Francois. No one Garmin concurred with another and frankly we already had a doubting of their accuracy anyway.
Around 8k further it became apparent that we were, in fact, utterly wrong and the only feasible option was to bushwhack directly across country (following a single GPS waymark that we had to pray was correct) to reach the CP we needed. An hour later, having long tanked the last of my 2.5litre water supply and scrambled up and down ravines and rock faces the Check Point came gloriously into view. Our revelry was ridiculously short lived.
‘No water, no water.’
Whilst I had anticipated me yelling this to the CP staff, it hadn’t really occurred to me that they would be the ones yelling it. How could a CP have run out of water this (relatively) early in a race? And Walter, Francois and myself were not the only ones there – a dozen of us stood incredulously watching as the CP staff mimed the international signal for no water (it looked worryingly like the international signal for ‘you’ll die of thirst out here you morons.’) My sense of humour having somewhat diminished I tried to retire from the race at this point but there was clearly no making anyone understand. Assured by the others that between us we might have just enough water reserves, we resolved to yomp to the next CP two hours away.
This section is somewhat of a blur. It did involved feeling thirsty. It also involved lots of climbing up and down things and an incomprehensible amount of thorn bushes. Walter, Francois and myself pushed on slightly faster than the others and eventually had GPS readings that showed the CP was 500m, 400m, 300m… ahead. The arrow span again, the way mark came and went. No CP. We spread out and wandered aimlessly around the plateaux; Francois – dangerously dehydrated by this point and whiter than I had ever seen anyone – took some shade beneath a stubby tree.
Then I saw it. A scrap of lonely-looking cardboard with the legend ‘AB5’ (the name of the Check Point) scrawled on it. That was it.
Two hours previously I had thought that the least you could reasonably expect from a CP was that it would have water. I adjusted my expectations downwards to the least you could expect from a CP was that it actually existed…
We tried calling the emergency numbers – that’s what they’re there for right? No answer. We tried reaching the Race Director. No joy. We blew our emergency whistles (good job organisers checked we had those.) From further up the trail emerged an eternally optimistic British runner called Josh, although the situation was clearly stretching his generally free-wheeling nature too as it became clear that he was hoping that we had water. Eventually a number of other runners followed us up the trail and joined us hunched despondently beneath vicious shrubbery.
Amongst those new to our little camp was the peculiarly singular Major Josh – not to be confused with our own jocular Josh – a recruitment specialist for the Indian army with a penchant for the kind of short-shorts more usually the preserve of early-80’s middle distance runners or inappropriate PE teachers with unhealthy interests in changing rooms. A bewildering cross between Walter Mitty and the combined cast of characters from the Police Academy franchise, Mayor Josh made an ill-judged, impassioned, but mercifully short speech then made a quick (I think pretend) phone call and declared that helicopters had been dispatched. He disappeared off towards the next Check Point suggesting we follow; as tempting as it was to join him on his journey towards psychosis we decided to sit it out.
Eventually, via Francois, Facebook and Francois’ girlfriend, Juliette, back in Paris we learned that the Race Director, Gaël Couturier, was finally aware of our plight and was en route with much-needed water.
A still-thirsty-hour later Gael appeared and handed out 500ml of water each. Bliss. There was clearly no extraction point from the non-existent AB5 and so, with the sun setting rapidly, our only course of action was to head on to the next Check Point. It took a good couple of hours to reach and the going in the dark was arduous and frequently precipitous as we edged along the high cliff edges and 127-Hour-reminsicent cracks and crevices. Along the way we re-joined the other runners (including Major Josh) and eventually made it to the food- and water-laden CP6.
Whilst Gael, Hiten Shah (Founder of event organisers Uphill EMG) and others discussed options – one of which was to drive us to some further point along the course and allow us to continue – we ate and slowly rehydrated. Major Josh made another impassioned speech.
Hiten, too loudly and somewhat unadvisedly, described the lack of water at CP4 as ‘not an issue’ at which point – and I believe this is the technical term – I ‘lost my shit’, pointing out that they were lucky not to have runners hospitalised or worse as a result of such negligence. I was bundled away to sit in a car – all trust in the event had long since been spent and their reassurances that future CPs would both exist and be stocked meant little to me; I had rather assumed there was a tacit understanding from the start that this would be the case. I had quit the race, but couldn’t help feeling that the race had really quit me…
In a hurriedly arranged debrief with Gael, Hiten and other staff on our final day out in the Rann we picked over events. Amongst other things we learned that, at the last minute, some medical cover had been reinstated – of course that had never been communicated to anyone, a final blow when that lack of fundamental safety had been a factor in me dropping from the race. And the lack of Check Point AB5? There were a plethora of reasons posited, none particularly believable.
Is there a future for Run the Rann? I absolutely hope so because with a more diligent approach to organisation and infinitely better communication it still has the makings of a unique world-class race: tough, remote, beautiful. Hiten assured us all that our feedback is: ‘noted in stone and will be critical for us in plotting an even better race for the next year.’ But then again he described the many shortcomings and genuinely life-threatening missing CP and water fiascos as: ‘some inconveniences that you may have encountered during the race…’
The mighty Dan Lawson was the first man home in 24:06:01, followed by Damian Stoy (32:30:51) and Tarmo Vannas (35:24:36). Linda Doke was first woman with a 32:30:51, followed by Mimi Anderson with 39:55:28
Major Josh was ultimately disqualified – wish I could have heard that impassioned speech.