The Malnad Ultra is one of India’s oldest and most popular trail races, with the first edition being held in 2016. Situated in Chikkamagaluru, Karnataka, the race requires runners to traverse a series of lush green coffee estates with rolling hills from start to finish. The 2023 edition had three categories: 30 km, 50 km and 100 km (50 km was a single loop of the course and 100 km was two loops). The course is largely runnable, with only a few sections steep enough to require hiking, and the terrain mostly being muddy ground and connecting roads, which joined the various coffee estates we were running through. While a few sections did involve loose rocks and pebbles, the route is by no means too technical. For those looking to dip their feet into trail running, I would say this is one of the best races to start with. You get the full experience of running in a forest, and the joy of uneven and hilly terrain, without it being an intimidating experience or having to worry about more complex factors like altitude.
Race date: 25th November 2023
Start time: 7 AM
Race category: 50 km
Finishing time: 6:35:55
Training for Malnad Ultra
Trail running is a fairly new world to me (started with the Trail-a-thon 28K, Buddha Trails 30K and Solang Sky Ultra 30K, all in 2022) and ultra-running is even newer, with Malnad being my third ultra (my first was Red Stone Ultra 50K, run in February 2023 and my second the Buddha Trails 55K in April 2023). As such, I embarked upon the longest and most rigorous training block of my life in preparation for this race. The block started way back in May 2023, after I had finished recovering from Buddha Trails. I ran no races in between and kept Malnad as my sole focus for the next few months. My training was split into four phases: a base building phase (with some standard workouts and strides to keep up the leg speed), a speed phase (with shorter long runs and a mixture of top end speed and VO2 Max type work), a strength phase (with more tempo type work and focus on building mileage together with quality workouts), and finally, the race specific phase, where the goal was to keep up quality workouts (mostly those geared towards a marathon) and also consistently increase mileage to a high amount. In the two peak weeks of training before the taper, I ran 90-95 km, with two 35 km long runs, each of which had me spending about 3.5 hours on feet. This was followed by a three-week taper before the race. In order to train specifically for the trails, I did my four biggest long runs (two 32 km and two 35 km) in Sanjay Van, which was the most race specific and elevation gain-friendly route in Delhi I could access, and incorporated repeats of Sanjay Van’s Dargah Hill as often as I could to get some vert (thanks to Nakul and Kshitish for accompanying and guiding me on these). In order to practice running on tired legs, these four major long runs on Sunday were preceded by a 16 km / 20 km run on Saturday, with 12 / 16 km being run at a steady effort (slightly slower than marathon pace).
I had opted for the travel and accommodation package offered by Active Holiday Co., who had partnered with the race organisers. This was a very useful option for outstation runners like us, as the race was in a remote area without public transport options, and most runners were using their own private vehicles. The added benefit was getting to meet other runners on the bus and chat about the race and our respective running journeys, which is one of the best things about trail running. We left from Bangalore by bus at 6:30 AM, with a breakfast stop enroute. After fueling well with idli, vada and filter coffee, we resumed our journey to Chikkamagaluru, reaching around 1 PM. We stayed at Good Earth Homestay, which offered very comfortable rooms and great food. Rooms were on a sharing basis, and as Nakul and I had booked the twin sharing package together, we were allotted a double room (this is an important tip for those planning to race Malnad and wanting to share with a runner they know). After a hearty lunch, we walked down to the Estate Café, which was the bib collection point, and met up with other runners, in addition to getting a short briefing from the race director, Anand.
This is a good place to mention the excellent information and coordination shown by the team at Malnad Ultra at all points before the race. An online race briefing was held as early as 8th October, along with a Q&A session, which covered crucial information about the route, cutoff times, travel and accommodation, and all other relevant details. Knowing these details more than a month before the race helped tremendously with preparation, race visualization and goal setting, and was an excellent idea. All communication thereafter was also made in a timely manner, and I cannot recall a single instance of miscommunication. All this in addition to a very detailed website where the food available at each aid station was also listed in detail.
After bib collection, we headed back to our homestay for a hearty dinner (I gave in and had some of the delicious pulao and chicken despite my vow to eat ‘light’ the night before the race). Post dinner, the only thing remaining was to get race ready: the key objective here being to leave as little for the morning as possible. With my outfit laid out (the brilliant Athlos Zero Vest and Distance Shorts), hydration bladder filled, gels and salt capsules packed, post race drop bag prepared, and race number and pins kept handy, it was time to get a good night’s sleep (as far as possible) before D-day. The last thing I did before sleeping was to go over the elevation breakdown I had prepared a week before, and by now almost committed to memory. This is a practice I will definitely be carrying forward into all my races (at least the ones involving elevation changes), as it really helped with my mental game during the race.
Suraj, our point of contact from Active Holidays (who was incredibly helpful and just fantastic at every stage), was kind enough to personally give each room a 4 AM wake up call, and thus our early start began. The main pending item from the race preparation list was to mix some Leap Storm into a 500 ml soft flask, which I did at the early basic breakfast that was thoughtfully arranged for us at the homestay. As the road leading to the start point tends to get congested, our bus left for the venue at 5 AM, and we reached the start point by 5:30 AM after a short walk from where the bus dropped us off. The arrangements at the start venue were immaculate, with a full breakfast being served, and even a rest area with mattresses for runners to relax till the race start. After seeing Nakul off for the 100K (which started at 6:30 AM), I did a short warmup routine followed by 5 minutes of easy running and strides to loosen the body up for the race.
I lined up with the other runners for the 50K at around 6:50, and the excitement in the air was infectious. The race flagged off at 7 AM sharp, and I was close to the front, which meant I didn’t have to overtake anyone and settled into a steady controlled pace. The first 6 km had gentle rolling hills, and only one short and steep climb followed by a sharp descent. From here till 19 km, the course was extremely runnable, not only in terms of terrain, but also being very well shaded as it was through coffee estate grounds. The first serious climb of the race came a little after 19 km, and involved climbing for about 1.5 km. This was steep and narrow, and I followed a line of runners who were all climbing at a decent pace. One runner near the front of the line was kind enough to yell “almost there!” at the top, which did a lot to boost morale! The next 3-4 kms involved a constant downhill, and I was trying hard to strike a balance between keeping a decent pace to make up for hiking on the climb and preserving the strength in my quads for the remaining climbs and descents on the course.
Once this was done, we had covered about 25 km, and it was a good mental feeling to be halfway through and still feeling strong. I hit the 26k mark at almost exactly 3 hours, and this was very close to my rough target of running at 9 km/hr for as long as I can. This would mean a sub-6 hour finish, which I knew from studying previous years’ race results would give me a good finishing position. From here till about 31 km, it was again rolling hills, and I kept a decent pace. At this point, I was in the top 5-6 runners, and as I later learned, the eventual winner passed me only at around 32k.
Unfortunately, things after this point were not so smooth. From around 32-35k, there was a brutal climb, which was the steepest and longest yet, and came at a point where my legs were already fatigued. From 35-41 km, the route was mostly downhill, but the terrain at various points was also quite tough on the legs, being full of loose rocks. By 40 km (which I hit almost exactly at 5 hours), both quads were cramping badly and my mental focus was also wavering. It’s always this point in the race where the negative thoughts tend to take over: “did I push too hard in the beginning? Isn’t this exactly what I said I wouldn’t do? I’ve been taking in water and salt capsules regularly, and having my gels at regular intervals, so why is this still happening? Should I have strength trained more? I knew my home workouts weren’t enough”. Whatever the reason, it was soon clear that my sub-6 hour target had slipped away.
With all this playing in my head to accompany the cramps, the rest of the race was a run/walk effort, and I did all I could not to fall too far behind. This was all the more annoying because from 41k till the finish, there were no major climbs, and in a better condition, I could have covered this portion much faster. A few people did pass me during this period, and I had to let it go, since my legs were just not cooperating. Nevertheless, despite the mental and physical hurdles (and this I can say proudly), my brain was still in race mode. Anyone who has done an ultra probably knows what I’m talking about: that stubborn little flame that just won’t go out despite the dampness of negative self-talk. The voice in your head saying – “so what if you’re hurting? This is the day you’ve trained all these months for. No matter what happens, you have to keep pushing!”. A nice morale boost was to run into Shyam, whom I had met during the Kaveri Trail Marathon in 2022 and was doing the 100k. His words of encouragement helped me push a little more than I otherwise would have. Once there was around 2 km to go, I gave it all I had and made sure I didn’t walk on any flat portions.
It's amazing how all the negative thoughts temporarily recede as you near the finish line. Maybe it’s your brain reminding you that you’ve put in an incredible effort over the last few hours and there are bound to be errors, or some primal satisfaction in finally getting the job done. At the end, I was able to run at a decent pace the last 500m and finally finished strong. In later conversations with Nakul and my coaches, I realized that my caloric intake was far too low for a race of this length. I was consuming maybe 100-150 calories per hour whereas I should have been aiming for 250-300. This was a helpful realization, as I had solely been blaming my lack of strength for this, when in fact I had been very consistent with my strength training for the entire block and even increased the resistance I was working with.
Anyhow, after receiving my medal and posing for the customary finish line picture (even ran back and ran through the finish again because my number wasn’t clear the first time), I hobbled my way to the food area for a well-deserved post-race lunch. The bisi bele bath, curd rice, and boiled eggs were an excellent post-race meal, and I topped it off with some strong, sweet filter coffee. I had finished early enough that I was able to take the bus to our homestay back with the 30K runners, who had also run great races. The rest of the day was spent cleaning up (both self and backpack) and waiting for updates on Nakul, who by all accounts had been killing it when he completed the first 50 km loop (he went on to finish 2nd in the 100k, and you can read his race report here). After a delicious post-race dinner at our homestay (no restrictions on diet now!), it was time to retire for the night. With that, the much-awaited Malnad Ultra came to a close and it was everything I expected and more.
Before doing this race, everyone I spoke to had highly recommended it. For someone who started his trail running journey with some very intimidating races (Buddha Trails and Solang Sky Ultra), the change in atmosphere in this race was very welcome. There was no pride or bravado about DNFs, and the organisers had even extended the 50K cutoff from 9 hours to 10 hours to allow more people to finish (initially by half an hour, based on an examination of previous years’ results, and the day before the race by another half an hour, because the weather was hotter than anticipated). In my opinion, running is ultimately about joy and fulfilment, and hyping up the difficulty of all that we do can sometimes take away from that joy. From this perspective, the Malnad Ultra really lived up to its reputation, and the team behind the race deserves to be applauded for creating an event that is well designed, challenging, fun, and a celebration of what trail running stands for.
Perhaps the only thing I wish the organisers would reconsider is to give the participants a GPX file. While the route marking was incredibly efficient and well thought out (ribbons to your right telling you where to go as well as tape on the ground telling you where NOT to go!), one of the skills all trail runners should cultivate, in my opinion, is the ability to navigate. Even within a race, you should know where you’re headed next. It is also important from a safety perspective as a backup in case the markings are removed by natural factors like wind, rain, wildlife etc.
In conclusion, I had a brilliant experience, came away with important lessons on fueling and hydration for my next race, and would highly recommend this race to all trail runners in India, especially if it’s your first one. Especially for the NCR folks, it is a perfect way to experience the middle path between our relatively flat Aravalli trails and the Himalayas!