Run The Rann is a series of trail races taking part over a weekend in the Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India.  There are 21km, 42km, 101km and 161km events and the race could probably be more aptly described as ‘adventure racing’ rather than trails  – throughout the epic vastness of the setting you encounter multiple steep climbs, challenging underfoot conditions and forests of thorns – all while self-navigating using the provided GPS device.  I travelled to the ancient kingdom to attempt the 101km race, check out the region’s history and meet the crazy crew that attend and organize this remote and spectacular event.

By Thomas Watson

Run The Rann – Summary

Enter this run if…you’re interested in unique and off-the-map runs.  It’s an adventure race, focusing on the experience and challenges encountered along the way rather than the speed.  The terrain is challenging but this makes for a one-off experience.

salt flats, running, 100km

On The Salt Flats

Run The Rann – Key Points:

  • This is an adventure race with a huge number of “features” that make it more technical / interesting than a standard trail run: salt flats, clambering up and down rocky hills, a crazy amount of thorns, unstable/rocky terrain, local wildlife, the Pakistani Border Patrol (you’re only 20km from Pakistan at some points), quicksand, 30+°C heat…all completely self-navigated using the GPS device provided (almost no course markings).
  • Being a light trail runner I found that less than 50% of the course was actually runnable – the rest of the time the terrain necessitated walking, clambering or bushwhacking – so don’t go into this race expecting to set a new PB.
  • The locale is truly remote and visually stunning. Epic sunrises and sunsets, vast salt flats stretching out over the horizon, flamingoes and the ancient ruins of Dholavira city all add to the atmosphere.
  • There’s a generous amount of aid stations (12 or 13 on the 101km race, so roughly one every 8km) as a minimum they all had water, they usually had fruit and random snacks, and three had hot food – aloo parathas etc. The aid station at the 56km mark has a drop-bag facility.  They are manned by friendly and supportive locals, who may not be used to supporting ultra-marathons, but there were no issues here.
  • The camp area was, in general, very good. We stayed in very comfortable tents, which were roomy with 4 people in them, and each had a good en-suite and piping hot water 24hrs (small huts were available too).  Food was in the form of buffet meals which never disappointed either.
  • I had no issues with the GPS navigation and to my knowledge no-one else did either. The organisers gave a short GPS orientation the day before the event.
  • Once it gets dark (7pm), you’re very limited as to how fast you can move as the trail is so un-defined. Especially when pushing through thorn bushes, finding the least painful and most efficient route can take time even in daylight.
  • Thorns exist on every section of the course, some segments are worse than others. I found that wearing calf sleeves completely eliminated the chance of my legs getting cut up (except the exposed areas, which are still scratched) and wearing a big wide-brimmed hat meant I could put my head down and push through sections of thorns without too much worries.
  • Using GPS navigation for the first time, the meandering route and the natural beauty of the environment meant I was fully engaged for the full race – at no point did I feel bored, zone out or want to stick in my iPod.
stage breakdown, Run The Rann

Stage By Stage

Run The Rann – Stage-by-Stage Breakdown:

Pre-race & Campsite – Friday 19th February

I signed on for RTR after a I, along with a few Mumbai-based friends, got talking about wanting to try a 100km race, and found this one online.  In the end, six of us travelled to the race together and we ended up having the best weekend, both on and off the trail – so thanks to Hitesh, James, Joe, Lowell and Mike – and Maria for putting the race on my radar, who had to pull out in the days leading up to the event due to illness – next year, Maria!

Lowell, Mike, Joe, Me and James

Lowell, Mike, Joe, Me and James

I travelled up to Ahmedabad from Mumbai, spending a night on the outskirts of the city before our 0600hrs pick-up.  All runners congregated in a car park, before hopping on a bus for our 8hr journey to Dholavira.  The terrain got flatter and sparser as we made our way towards the salt flats, and the island of Khadir Bet where the race was held.

Campsite sunset

Run The Rann Campsite sunset

We arrived mid-afternoon on Friday (day before the race), got checked in and found our tents, before doing an equipment check and GPS briefing.  The tents were very comfortable and a great setting for relaxing before and after the event, and the buffet-style meals were everything you could hope for.  My initial impressions were that the arrival schedule could have been better publicised and structured – there was no real way of finding out who was in charge initially, and the scheduling of the GPS introduction and race briefing were pretty haphazard – it was just a case of rounding people up.  In future events a timetable for meals, briefings, check-ins as well as a list of key people would have been helpful upon arrival – but this caused no major issues.

Race briefing

Run The Rann – Race briefing

During the race briefing, we caught site of video footage of previous year’s races, showing some guys literally clambering up steep, rocky faces.  In my naivety, I hadn’t done much research and assumed a race in ‘the desert’ and on ‘salt flats’ was gonna be fairly flat and hard-packed.  It wasn’t until William, one of my tent mates, started to show us the altitude map that we realized there might be a few up and downs involved…then the race director mentioned something about 12,000ft of climbing over the course of the event…

After the race briefing and a hearty meal, we all hit the hay in anticipation of the following day.

100km, Run the Rann, sunset

Sunset at Campsite

Saturday 20th February – Run The Rann – Race begins

Breakfast opened at 0500hrs (I ate tonnes of omelette), before we all piled on buses at 0615hrs for a short trip to the start line, on a salty beach on the west coast of the island.  I was fairly apprehensive about there being no course markings and having to rely on the supplied GPS device, and managed to push a button on mines that mucked it up about two minutes before the starting gun went.  Luckily I found another runner who was less panicky than me and managed to reset the device just in time.  Then we were off!

start line, 101km, run the rann

The Start Line for all races, Run The Rann

Stage 1- 6.5km – flat, beaches and bush

All races – 21km, 42km, 101km and 161km – started together, and followed the same first few km.

The race set off at first light along the crunchy, salty beach area for the first few kilometres. I found myself near the front of the pack early on and tried to hold a steady pace of 10km/hr throughout – this was in line with my initial idea of running a sub-12hr race, back when I thought the terrain was going to be flat and easy.  A few hundred yards from the route, on the water’s edge, was a huge flamingo colony.  After a few km’s on the beach, our GPS route took us past some muddy sections then in-land and I found myself running with a pack of Indian army officers through mixed vegetation and thorns.  Trying to follow the GPS route accurately, I strayed from the group of runners and managed to run into a herd of Blue Bulls, or Nilgai – massive animals that are somewhere between a horse and a buffalo.  I rejoined the group of runners and continued onwards.

Run The Rann

A glimpse of me through the crazy thorn forest. Photo Credit: Run The Rann

Stage 2 – 7km – dirt roads, slight hills, coast line, rocky scramble

The first checkpoint was outside a border patrol outpost, then we had a couple of km on dirt roads to the northern coast.  From there the route took us much more off-road, crossing a few expanses and then the first real rocky scramble of the day.  I was confused when I saw a bunch of runners veer off to the left after summiting the scramble, then I realized they’d looked ahead on their GPS and saw that it was much easier to take a slightly different route to the one mapped out – so I learned early on that using the zoom function on the GPS can help you plot a better route that sidelines the toughest obstacles.  This had been emphasized during the course briefing – although it’s important not to take massive shortcuts, the race directors understood that sections of the route were challenging and if we saw a less-arduous path, we could take it.

Stage 2 scenery

Run The Rann Stage 2 scenery

Stage 3 – 8.5km – Big Hill

Stage three is where the 21km and 42km runners peel off and all that’s left are the 101km and 161km runners.  The GPS lead us to climb slowly up a steep, rocky face, before running along the top of a hill overlooking the north shore of the island, then down the equally steep and rocky other side.  This was the first real big climb of the day, and was much more technical than I’d prepared for.  Though the course wasn’t marked, the organisers had put red tape on the steep ascents and descents to show you the suggested route – which was much appreciated.

100km, run the rann, cliff top

View from the top of a cliff, before the route took us mountaineering down the side

Stage 4 – 9.5km – Another crazy hill, buffalo farm, the beach

Stage four consisted of another crazy up-one-side, down-the-other hill much like stage 3.  The descent on stage 4 was probably the most technical part of the whole trail, often you were going downhill and negotiating thorny bushes at the same time.  At the foot of the hill I ran through a herd of buffalo and their farmers, then pushed through several more thorn bushes to reach the flat, salty beach.

farmer's kitchen

farmer’s kitchen

Stage 5 – 9.5km – Coastline and thorns

Checkpoint 4 is logistically the most remote section of the race – if you get into trouble here, the nearest access for vehicles is around 10km away – so I was fairly happy to reach this point without getting badly lost.   A lot of this section was on the flats, following the coast, before heading in-land towards checkpoint 5.  By this point, the field of runners was well spread out and I had no idea who was behind or ahead of me, until I caught up with Surinder.  He’s a Gujarati policeman who is a marathon champ – we ran together for a good 20 minutes and shared some snacks before reaching checkpoint 5 together.  There was a rocky scree scramble leading into the checkpoint.  Somewhere on stage 5 my bib number got ripped off while charging through thorns, and I completely didn’t notice – fortunately the organisers didn’t see this as an issue, and someone even handed it in so I got it back the following day.

Rocky scramble before CP5

Rocky scramble before CP5

Stage 6 – 9km – uphill scramble then rocky ridge

Straight out of checkpoint 5 the GPS takes you crawling up a rocky face to the top of the cliffs overlooking the north shore.  The rest of the stage was much flatter, mainly following the cliff top.  Unfortunately it was really loose stones underfoot so the potential for running at all was severely limited.  I left Surinder at checkpoint 5 (38km), where I discovered we were in 1st and 2nd place – and that was the last I saw of any runner for the rest of the race!   Along the clifftop the route passes a few corrugated iron huts that the Border Patrol officers use to watch for people crossing over from Pakistan!

Clifftop view, looking out over the scrub and salt flats to Pakistan

Clifftop view, looking out over the scrub and salt flats to Pakistan

Stage 7 – 6km – rocky trails then salt flats

This was a fairly short, mainly flat section that took you to checkpoint 7 at the 56km mark – this is the aid station where our drop bags were kept.  I had packed loads of spare clothes and food in here, but in the end all I took was a pipe of Pringles (extra cheesey – bad choice) and a can of Coke.  I gave the rest of the food to the guys at the checkpoint and forged on, keen to cement my lead.  (on this note:  my usual approach is non-competitive, but I think if you find yourself in a podium position then it’s your job to defend it 🙂 )

Another Cliff Top View

Another Cliff Top View

Stage 8 – 8km – fields, thorns and village

From checkpoint 7 onwards you are finished with the coastal routes and the remainder of the course is a big V shape across the centre of the island heading back towards the start point, through rural scenes.  I forged on, munching on my Pringles and running whenever the trail was flat and consistent enough to allow for it.  It was somewhere here that my GPS watch died – turns out I’d had the GPS sample rate set too high, so it only lasted 7-8hrs instead of 15hrs+.  That sucks as I no longer knew my instantaneous pace or average overall pace, so probably slowed down a bit.

Stage 9 – 7.5km – more off-roading, more thorns

Things started to get a bit samey from here on in, with large sections of the course being totally off-road, heading through big areas of thorny bushes and trying not to get lost.  A few times I found myself almost walking in circles – it’s easy to get dis-orientated when you’re following a meandering track through fields of thorn bushes and starting to feel fatigued.

Temple at sunset

Temple at sunset

Stage 10 – 8.5km – More off-roading, more thorns – darkness

I’ll have to apologise here because a few of these stages started to blend into one another, crossing the rural and scant landscape, populated only by hills, thorns and the odd hut.  It was around about this stage that local dogs started to appear – as the day’s heat sapped, the dogs became a lot more active. Fortunately they weren’t dangerous at all – just territorial and annoying, like most mutts in Asia.  They’d always back down after a few shouts from me.

Sun Set

Sun Set, final stages of Run The Rann

This was the stage where darkness set in.  I hadn’t really appreciated just how much the darkness would slow me down – now operating by torchlight, you can only really see the terrain 10ft in front of you.  This is not bad if you’re on a straight trail, but the GPS route meandered through all kinds of bushes and fields that made it impossible to build any real speed.  In hindsight I would’ve pushed harder in the hours leading up to darkness to get more of a head-start on the night.

Stage 11 – 5km – sandy trail, thorns

By now it was pitch black – fortunately much of this stage was on sandy tractors trails, so I was able to speed up a little.

Stage 12 – 5km – more sandy trails, off-roading, thorns

Another short stage, slightly more open than the last one.  What was really cool was that the moon was now out in force – probably one day away from being totally ‘full’ – and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I was able to turn off my torch for long sections and just stroll through the cool, rural desert.  By this point I was fairly relaxed and knew I was going to be finishing comfortably, so slowed down and enjoyed the peace and quiet.

Stage 13 – 4km – trails, roads, settlement

This final short stretch was along trails and roads, leading into a settlement then on to the finish line.  There were a good amount of dogs in the settlement which I did a good job of stirring up, but none were what I’d call aggressive.

I crossed the finish line just after 10pm, and was knocked out by the amount of people there – a huge crowd of the 21km and 42km runners were staying up to see the first 101km runners come in, which was super cool and really supportive – cheers guys!

Obligatory Podium Photo, Surinder the marathon champ, little me, and James Tinker (Mr Outdoors USA)

Obligatory Run The Rann Podium Photo, Surinder the marathon champ, little me, and James Tinker (Mr Outdoors USA)

Post Race

After catching up and thanking the race organisers for putting on a great event, I got some food and decided I’d hang around the finish line for a while – however they didn’t seem to have any information on when the next runner was expected, and eventually I slunk off to my tent for some rest.  As it turns out, my mate James came in 2nd place just after I’d nodded off, and the rest of my group came in throughout the night.  Joe had put in an amazing shift after falling ill early in the race, and managed to push through it despite being half-dead to complete his first 100km – killer effort!  Needless to say he spent the rest of Sunday in his bed recovering.

Dholavira

The remains of the ancient city of Dholavira

The day after the race was all about relaxing around the campsite, going to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Dholavira (10 minute stroll down the road), and following the progress of the 161km race.

Breeze Sharma came in first of the 161km runners, crossing the finish line comfortably after 33hrs on the trail.

Campsite from Above

Run The Rann Campsite from Above

A special mention to Arpita Maitra, who ran the 161km race this year after getting badly lost on the 101km route last year and eventually being picked up by border patrol – she came in after around 47hrs 25mins with a couple of other runners – completely crushing the long race.

For the remainder of the event we ate, chatted and enjoyed the atmosphere.  We left Dholavira on 11am Monday morning, on another 8hr bus back to Ahmedabad.

Date: 20th February 2016

Overall Time: 15hrs, 3mins, 56seconds (101km)

Position: 1st overall (101km race)

Run The Rann: Event Website

Photo Credits: all photos are my own

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