I woke up feeling stiff and disoriented when the bus jerked to a stop. For a few seconds, I had no idea where we were as I stared out onto what looked like an Arctic ice-sheet shimmering under a full moon. Then I remembered: after a bumpy eight-hour drive from the Gujarat capital, Ahmedabad, we had finally reached the Great Rann of Kutch, 7,500 sq km of grey-white salty marshes, that extend over Kutch district in Gujarat and Sindh Province in Pakistan. Here, in the largest salt desert of the world, the government of Gujarat and an international team of sporting enthusiasts had organised a major sporting event: three ultra trail races across one of the harshest landscapes in the world: a half marathon (21 km) and full marathon (42 km) and an ultra endurance trail (101 km).
According to Anil Nair, race coordinator for the event now known as ‘Run the Rann’, the idea to organise a major running event in Kutch first came from Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi himself. After he saw a magazine article on the most famous ultra trail race in the world, the 240-km Marathon des Sables (Sand marathon) in the Sahara desert, he apparently decided that the deserts of Gujarat would provide the perfect backdrop for a similar international sporting event.
If Mr Modi’s intention was to put Gujarat and Kutch on the radar screens of top-level world athletes, he certainly succeeded. Runners from the UK, US, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan and of course India, ran the Rann. Together we discovered a relatively unknown area of extraordinary natural beauty, that most of us had never even heard of before enrolling for the race. More over, the hardship, obstacles, and unconstrained physical contact with whatever the terrain threw up at us forged an intimacy with the landscape that few other travel experiences can offer.
“Carry a whistle at all times, be self-sufficient in water and be sure to have a first aid kit on you in case of injury. These small things can make the difference between life and death out there,” Gael Couturier, the French race director, explained to the 104 runners gathered for the evening dinner under the stars the night before the race. “And one other thing,” he added, “you must carry ID with you at all times. We are close to the border with Pakistan and if you get lost, you may end up on the other side…” Someone next to me laughed and joked that we would be shot long before we crossed the line.
Pumped up with adrenaline, and feeling the magnetic pull of the moon, few of us slept soundly that night, in spite of the fact that we were housed in luxury tents with real beds and private bathrooms, courtesy of Gujarat Tourism. Our pop-up desert village was on the edge of the village of Dholavira, where one can explore the ruins of a 5,000-year-old city. I had visited them late that afternoon, and was stunned to learn that 5,000 years ago the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation had engineered building and water management systems that rivalled anything the Egyptians and Romans had built millennia later. An eerie silence hung over the smooth reddish brown ruins as the sun set over the desert, and it seemed hard to believe that these ordinary-looking bricks and stone abandoned in the middle of nowhere told the story of so much human history.
The next morning, shivering in the pre-dawn chill, we walked to the starting line on an empty white salt beach by the Arabian Sea. I did not hear the whistle, but all of a sudden everyone began to move, then to run. Hundreds of feet echoed the crispy crunch of the crusty earth, and the race began.
After the first hour, the sun had already mutated from a benign orange ball into a merciless white disc of naked heat. By then we had already left the uncertain terrain by the inland sea, where solid ground would suddenly give way to ankle-deep sandy mud. On higher land, the soil crumbled as we pounded it, and sometimes we would send small rocks flying. Luckily we had markers to show us the way: red ribbons tied to prickly shrubs that sprouted miraculously in cracks between the barren rocks. Here and there cacti and thorns would scrape our calves or catch our clothes. I realised now the wisdom of the first aid kit I had so reluctantly squeezed into my runner’s belt.
Towards the end of the race, after we had gone back to the beach and up into the hills again, the rocks gave way to a sandy path and in the distance we spotted the ruins of Dholavira. I remembered the previous day, when I had climbed up smooth steps, which 5,000 years of wind and sand had not managed to erode into oblivion. In the face of so many millenia of endurance, I found the humility and courage to carry on even though my body was screaming for me to stop.
Finally, just as the heat and dust seemed to stretch into infinity, the sandy path turned into a road and then a village, and I heard the drums of the finishing line. With one large rush of adrenaline, my fellow runners and I broke into a sprint and all of a sudden it was all over.
Shortly after, the first full marathon runners arrived, exhausted and burnt from the heat of the midday sun. The greatest excitement of all, how-ever, came later that evening, less than 12 hours after the race had started, when the winner of the 101-km race, Csaba Nemeth from Hungary, sprinted down towards the finishing line. From sunrise till well after dusk, he had run non-stop across salt pans, rocky hills, climbed up and down gulleys, seen the sun streak the Arabian Sea pink at dawn, and scorch the bleached desert as it set. He had sprinted across the salt-crusted earth under the midday heat, and found his way back to the camp under the blue moonlight. He and the 15 other athletes who participated in the 101-km run had seen and felt the Great Rann of Kutch more than any of us.
But I suspect that for him (as it was for me and many others I spoke to), the greatest journey of all had been inside himself, where one finds the strength to go further than ever before just as the next step seems impossible. Sometimes you have to travel so far to get so close.
Run the Rann (runtherann.com) was held from February 14-16, 2014