Rugged Sahyadri Race, Kolhapur

When Meera Velankar first posted in our group page on facebook about the Rugged Sahyadri ride, it sounded like a cool thing. Kolhapur was near enough, and it sounded like a real different experience. However I was not really into off roading but was hoping to just come there with an open mind. Meanwhile, she roped in Dipankar as well and we were confirmed as a team. I tried to back out in the middle, as I was not really into racing, but since Meera had not found other partners, decided to take the plunge. Drove 230km to Kolhapur,my car got to go out of the garage after nearly 45 days. I had left a flat alone for 30 days and had to change tires and fix the flat on Friday, the day I left for Kolhapur. The tire had gone, so replaced with a new set of 2nd hand tires as a backup.(This was the tire that I had put on my car at Hiriyur, during the recce of the 400k in early Jan). At the last moment, Lifecycles in Pune, which had promised me a cycle on rent before I left Bangalore, backed out. They did this without giving me a notice, and I was stuck. Now I did not have an MTB to ride in Kolhapur. Meera talked to Akash of KASA ( Kolhapur Adventure Sports Association) who gave me the contact of a company Cynour that rented cycles out in Pune. They had a GT racer (never heard the brand earlier) but it as an MTB so went for it, not too many options. I did not get my MTB wfrom Banglore since I did not want to have the hassle of taking a cycle all over the place in a bus. I managed to go to their office in karve nagar at around 6, got the cycle and left at around 6:30. Managed to reach the hotel where Dipankar (D) and Meera (M) were staying( they had come in earlier from Bangalore).
There were a few speeches from local biggies , and this was apparently a 1st major event around town that was advertised outside. Quite a few teams came from Pune , including regular Enduro jaunters. The event was flagged out after 9 am by the time many of us had cooled down from our adrenalin rush early morning. The time was started from some place outside Kolhapur. All participants were waved off in 5 min intervals. The 1st stretch was a long climb over a hill to a place called Jyotiba. And as we were making our way downhill , a race marshal pointed us to an offroad track. This was a staircase that we had to take down. When it ended abruptly we had to find a way to the road , and I had my 1st fall. The backpack got stuck on the cycle and i could not balance when i fell – my right knee hit a rock. A swelling but nothing serious.
We were back on tarmac and soon we had an uphill ride to Panhala fort, the last leg was very very steep. I had to dismount once to avoid a collision, but once I dismounted, I  found it impossible to restart cycling without serious exertion. Pushed the bike to the top, and the sun was hurting a bit now. Thankfully ( maybe not), this was the last that we would be seeing the sun for 2 days. We started shortly from this place, and I believe the adventure started in right earnest. We started from here on an offroad path that looked nice and easy at 1st. Then it progressed to a serious downhill of rocks. And finally ended with rocks and slush. I think by the time we finished this section it was late afternoon. And then we went off, in another direction. We started from Masai resort and made our way through a few uphills, all offroad. Finally we reached what looked like the top of a table-top mountain.
Nothing that I’ve seen prepared me for what I would see now. The Masai ‘pathaar’ as it is known in Marathi, is one amazing out-of-the-world place , especially at this time of the year. I could easily make out that I was on top of a mountain, but there was no single peak. Instead, there was a huge tabletop and a flatland as far as the eye could see. It had rained in the recent past.

Masai Valley

Masai Valley , when not wet

The whole place was filled with short grass and the grass had flowered. The flowers were like large violet buttons and in the mist , the whole place looked like a violet carpet. One of those moments in life where you think ‘ God am I not lucky to see this?’ The organizers of the race had put many marshals at various places, and flags. In the dense mist and winds, the flags were invisible. The whistles helped then. The marshals would whistle and we would follow the direction where it came from. On the top of the plateau, we had no other way of figuring out the direction in which to go.  The experience on top of the plateau for me was something that made this entire trip worth it. And given that there is only one kachcha (rugged) road to reach the top, accessible only by bicycle, motorcycle or an all-wheel drive, the place looked quite pristine to me. People who are used to tourist spots in India being trashed will know what I mean.  The end of the trail also meant we had a section where we had to come down on really bad terrain carrying the bicycles. Once we came down from the plateau, we continued cycling on non existent roads on downhills till possibly the fag end of the day. One of the fundamental problems that I faced was that I never really had done any sort of serious off-road cycling, and was , in retrospect extremely defensive in many offroad downhill sections. As a ‘race’, I was pretty sure, we were nowhere in the picture. And one of the race marshalls informed us that we were 5th among 8 teams. Once we were done with the offroad, there was no respite in the final section. The final stretch was a strenuous climb that had a good road. And just as the climb started plateauing off, the roads disappeared as well. I figured this was the idea of the organizers – All the downhills would be on rocks and roads that had not been repaired for 20 years, and we would be going up steep slopes in all the smooth-tarmac sections. Finally we reached the village of Kotwadi.  From here we had to complete a walking loop that led to another table top hill behind the village.
We took the road suggested, missed located the walking trail that led to the top, continued but realized after a while that we were going down rather than up, so retraced our steps to go on top of the hill. As we went up the hill, we had to keep brushing against the shrubbery that was almost hugging the path to the top. Eventually we made it to the top. Then, of course another control. Once we made that control, then we had to go down another hill, and then yet up another hill, and then finally again down that hill. Finally we made our way around the back of the village,and came across what looked like the remnants of an old fort made of stacked up stones. Unfortunately I don’t have any photographs of that place, but you just have to head to Kotwadi village around 40km from Kolhapur to figure out what I am talking about. Of course, it was still raining, and as we came down to the bottom, there was more rain. Eventually we had to wade across some fields, and then some temporary slush streams. These streams meant wading through slippery rocks , flowing water and of course piled up clay, easier to step into than step out.
The ‘sweeping’ team caught up with us on the way down. We were apparently the last set of people to come down to the base. By the time we completed walking towards the village it was quite dark.The approach road to the village had a layer of slush about a feet thick, and I found it prudent to walk without my sandals. By the time we reached the village , it was quite dark. We had to wade through slush for the last 200 meters or so at the entrance of the village. We made our way past the village to the school at the other end.A surreal experience of a dimly lit school in the back ground of the Sahyadri and constant drizzle and muggy weather at night 🙂
I had a really bad upset stomach and decided to take it easy with food for the night. There was one toilet at the back of the school, about 30-40 meters from the classrooms. Only, no paved way to get there and we had to walk over huge slippery stones.
Too bad I don’t have any photographs, but with an upset stomach, we had to walk oer slippery stones to reach the toilet at the back of the school. I carefully searched every step of my pathway making sure i did not step on any snake. Finally I reached the toilet, gently opened the door , flashed my light on the entire floor (of the the Indian toilet), again to ensure there nothing was moving around. Now remember this was a cloudy night and it was pitch black, the light leaking out of the nearby school rooms was too weak. So having thoroughly investigated that there were no snakes on the toilet floor, I proceeded to begin the process of readying myself for the dump. Of course I had carried a bottle of water with me to aid in the cleaning later on.

In case you have never seen an Indian toilet,this explains well.

So I held the torch in my mouth and held the water bottle in my hand, I heard the sound of a small piece of plastic falling below. I scanned the floor again with my torch and noticed that a bottle cap had fallen below and it had made it to the drain of the Indian toilet. My immediate reaction was one of irritation. I was upset with myself for not screwing the lid of my bottle of water properly. I felt the open mouth of my bottle, but was surprised to see the lid still there. I had actually come to this toilet to take a leak while waiting for Dipankar and Meera to finish the cycling leg of Day 1. Dipankar of course was giving company to Meera, and motivating her to the final stretches. Then I remembered that when  I had come to the toilet at that time, there was a bottle cap on the small window sill towards the wall of the toilet facing the hillside. Now why did that fall down. I directed my flashlight that side and for a moment my heart skipped a beat. I saw what looked to me like a small Russell’s Viper making its way out through the small gap between the mildly corrugated ceiling and the wall. The snake was not a full grown one but not a baby either. I gather from the scales that it was a Russell’s viper, but didn’t really see the head. The head had disappeared before I managed to catch a glimpse. The rest of the body made its way through the gap. The tail was still about half a feet from my face when I as seeing this. And in an instance the enormity of what did not happen struck me. My face was within striking distance of a snake for at least 15-20 seconds. The snake probably decided that getting out was a better defence than giving me a bite on the face.
Obviously I did not dare complete my dump right there. I went out of the latrine, and made my way up the path that meandered into the hills and relieved myself on the roadside (of course, again checking for snakes). Once my stomach felt soothed a little I went back to the school classroom where Ashok Captain, the famous herpetologist and cyclist was relaxing. He mentioned that Russell’s Vipers do exist in the area , but the snake is unlikely to return having encountered a human being. Quite true, but doing it in the open felt safer way than squatting in the narrow confines with the knowledge that a snake might be lurking nearby. I had to relieve myself a couple of times before everybody crashed for the night.

The entire area was pitch black. Since it was 100% cloudy there was no night light either (except from the school building itself). I had not got a change of clothes, expecting to sleep in the same clothes I was carrying.I had accounted for a little bit of rain and expected my body heat to take care of the drying. But given the constant rain that we encountered, and the humid weather, there was no way I could dry myself. It was getting cold as well, but thankfully it was too cold for any musquitoes to breed.

On top of it, we were the last to come back to the school after our final walk. They had laid down beds on the floor of the school room with a blanket. I got to take the one nearest to the door. So to make myself warm at night, I took off my T-shirt and slept barebodied, without my jersey which I had hung out to dry.  However I had to leave my wet cycling shorts on my person. At night I must cramped all over my body about 10-15 times. By morning I got used to the cramps. When I got up I was still cold, and even in the morning I had to go take a dump and it was still very watery.So I skipped breakfast completely.

Day two started a little late , apparently due to bad visibility. Given that the organizers had promised a tougher day. It was one hell of a task getting warmed up for the ride. My body told me to go back to sleep but I knew that things get to normal after a few 100meters, so put on my *wet* jersey back on and stretch (or shiver) I  decided to fast and stick to diluted Gatorade to sustain myself till I felt 100% okay. I wasn’t feeling too well either, and my body was shivering. And on top of it, my jersey was still wet, it had not dried up overnight in the muggy weather. I had hung it on a door latch hoping that it would at least partially dry off. . Thankfully by the time we pedalled up the gentle uphill my body got used to it. We were told that today was mostly off-road , I was just hoping that there were not too many steep downhills on complete non-roads, that had slowed me down a lot yesterday. We started off with a long flat to downhill stretch.I still wasn’t a reall off-roadie. Eventually we saw a lot of the participants having to deal with a lot of punctures. There was some donwhills and I was extra careful on the downhills. At one point I was left behind. We went past a village where the slush was really deep and the mud really lose. My cycle brakes got completely jammed. There was a slippery uphill section where the soil was really lose. With every roll of the wheel, my tires would gather enough clay to jam the wheel. I would clear it manually and again push.A few times I slipped back (This was slightly uphill) Given that my cycle was jammed and I was really weak(my mind had gone into a go slow mode with my tiredness) my brain also stopped working I guess. I kept clearing the muck off my tyres and break and progressing about 1 metre at a time. It took me more than 1.5 hours, (probably 2+) to traverse a distance of about 100 meters. Dipankar came back looking for me and asked me to disconnect the brakes. I couldn’t believe that such a solution did not strike me earlier.(shows what happens when you can’t think straight) He had lost his way and had gone off to a different direction. As we were We went ahead and after a km I found a stream. I decided to try and wash my cycle. Dipankar warned me that it could result in more mud being jammed into the wheels but I was quite frustated and wanted to clear the muck completely, so I washed my cycle anyways. Thankfully after crossing this stream the ground became a little firmer and my cycle did not get filled with muck again.

Till we reached this point, I was so slow that the sweeping crew kept catching up with me. They told us that we were probably too late if they kept catching up with us. If they beat us to the next control ,then we would have to call off. At one point I tried to speed up but lost balance, and given my condition took a little longer to get going. I don’t quite recall whether the volunteers called me ‘Uncle’ or ‘Sir’, but their demenaour definitely suggested ‘Grandpa’. I think i was given some friendly advice that it was not so important to finish the race at risk to my person. My mind actually interpreted it as ‘Dude, don’t faint or break a few bones, or worse , collapse and die of strain, your age related frailties are obvious to us’. Though I tried not to show it, it felt like a not so gentle GPL. I did not want to let it known that i had fasted for nearly a day now, so pushed hard and finally managed to reach the next control. Meera was waiting for us here for about 2 hours +. That was nice of her, as she could have gone ahead on her own and completed the ride (She would have got a personal completion certificate).
We were told we had to make it by 5pm to the final stretch , which involved cycling on a real road. Meera had some melted cheese slices and day old bread, she was good enough to give all that to me. I wolfed it down, since i no longer felt weak with the infection but very hungry. And since Meera had waited for us here, it made sense to try and complete. I told her I would be fast hereon. I wasn’t lying. I had conquered my offroad demons, and my stomach infection had cleared by now, and I did feel a little energetic. Dipankar was ambivalent , he has the knack of enjoying any circumstance.

After this we managed to speed up, and thankfully i was much more confident by this time on the stones and the downhills and didn’t slow down to a crawl on encountering slippery surfaces, i also managed to confidently cycle through mild slush despite slipping on occassions. This part was still fun, riding through a wet forest with criss-crossing streams, wading through villages, and more offroad downhills. There were a couple of stretches where we had to climb on rocks whcih had become temporary cascades in the rain. The next control that we reached, the folks were surprised that we were still around because the last group had passed more than 2 and a half hours ago and they were about to wind up , not expecting anybody else.

A Stretch on Day Two

A Stretch on Day 2

We managed to go through the remaining sections quite fast and reached the final road section well before 5. This last section had everything. One foot+ deep slush through which we had to wade, uneven downhills through which we had to descend and meadows , beautiful ones, though not as out of the world as the ones on Day 1. Eventually on reaching Mhasavade, we hit a tar road, and rode there for about 2-6km before reaching the next control. When we reached the control, the folks manning were surprised to see us, as they were not expecting any team now to make it.However we were told that the group ahead of us were not more than an hour ahead. That meant that we had gained significant time. We were stamped on our cards alright and then proceeded to the final stretch which was a rolling but mostly uphill stretch. But the guys from the destination had begun winding up. 3 teams had already finished in both categories, and there were just few teams left. They just picked up riders on the way back. We loaded our cycles on trucks and boarded the bus to Kolhapur. However, we were not the only teams not to make it to the final destination, there were a couple of others too.
Once we were inside the bus, I started feeling a bit cold. But to me the second day’s experience was memorable. I managed to ride a good distance on all sorts of terrain with significant climbs on an empty stomach, and managed to cycle offroad with a little degree of confidence. An elderly gentleman, who happenned to be the oldest of the group was gorged on all over by leeches. I checked my hands and legs, found a leech bite on my left forearm. Amazing how they manage to find their way through clothing. Once we reached Kolhapur, we took our bikes and went back to the hotel.
One curious feature of the hotel was that all the helpers were recent migrants from West Bengal. None of them knew a word of Marathi.It was amusing to see Dipankar talk to them but Meera unable to make conversation. In the middle of the night I woke up with pain under my soles, I found a small wound that was festering. I put on some Krack cream on it and the pain subsided, enabling me to grab some sleep
I drove back from Kolhapur to Pune in the morning. On reaching Pune I found that my soles were still hurting. In the daylight hours it was apparent that there was a very small open wound and something had gone in. I cleaned the wound, and used a safety pin to extract mostly dirt from the wound, bought some Coconut Oil and turmeric powder, made a paste and put it on the wound.  Thankfully it healed by the end of the day.

You can checkout the 2nd edition of the race here

Its sure to get your heart beats up, and dang, in this year’s monsoon, you are bound to enjoy it. Do carry a change of clothes for Day two though. You can check out the official photographs of last year’s edition

I strongly recommend checking out this years race if you have the time on the weekend of Aug 31- Sep 1st. And my apologies for this late and curtailed blog-post. I had written up most of this last year, but my motivation to post it ebbed. But with the next edition around the corner, I thought it was a good enough time for a refresher.