Gates of Hell – Day 5 – THE ULTRA RUN

I COULDN’T SEE ANYTHING INSIDE HER EYE. Her other eye showed signs of severe Non Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy which meant she needed prophylactic green laser in the said right eye.

The left eye wherein no view was possible presumably had vitreous hemorrhage which meant the abnormal vessels from her retina had already bled out, which in turn meant it would be impossible to administer laser at present. We would need to wait for the blood to clear, or try injections to absorb the bleeding vessels.

Either way, she had only a 50 % chance of good vision. I explained her the prognosis and she was devastated. “If only someone had told this to me so clearly previously”, she groaned as she left.



The alarm rang with resounding finality signifying the last day of the 5 day challenge. The “Gates of Hell Ultra Triathlon” definitely had brought out the best in all of us.

Over the past few days, I had swam 15km and cycled 940km. Today would be the last and final day.

I checked my knee which I had banged on the platform – there was some tenderness on the medial aspect over a 3mm diameter area. I yawned and checked the time – it was 345am. The support crew would arrive in fifteen minutes. I rushed and got ready.

I emptied the paper bags with ten bananas and oranges into the car, then packed the ice bag with pre refrigerated ice packs before placing fruit juice cartons and energy drinks inside it.

The crew had arrived and by the time everything was ready it was 425am. I wished Balaji, Ajay and Jeeva a very good morning and they took a video marking the start of the last event of the challenge.

Ajay and Balaji, both accomplished 10km runners finishing in sub 40 minutes timing, would accompany me for twenty km, taking turns to be with me until I had completed the full distance.

The injured knee meant I could not do 120km as planned. Hence I decided to try 100km instead and reduce further if necessary. The forecast was rain on and off and I estimated around an hour of the same. I decided to cover 7km each hour and planned a suitable cut off for the same. If 100km was the target distance, cut off would be around 14 hours.

I limped for a while then decided to try jogging on and off. With Ajay by my side, encouraging me, we set off at 8 pace per km. We had tea and distributed eye awareness pamphlets at the 7th km.

Focusing on running, I managed to localise the pain in a pinpoint area so that it did not flare – up. It however returned with vengeance whenever I sat down to rest and got up from a seated position. The core of the matter was, as long as I was running, I was 95% pain free – and that’s just who I am.

Before we knew it we had covered 23km and reached Kallanai.

We had another cup of great tea here and proceeded forward. My knee was much better now and we were keeping a steady pace of 6:30 per km or less.

We took breaks every 4km to sip water and have fruits. Balaji took over from Ajay and he accompanied me till our breakfast point here.

We soon reached Thiruvaiyaru in 3 hours and had lunch (which wasn’t actually lunch but halwa and coffee, under Ajay’s recommendation). The rain had started by then and it was a great combination – being wet, enjoying the aroma of sweet and coffee, while looking out into the busy street at regular traffic going about their busy Monday jobs.

En route to Kabisthalam, we came across a friendly dog which gave us company rather than chasing us.

Running in the rain was an awesome experience by itself. The pain was forgotten with the cool feel of water drops on our faces which came complimentary with a gentle breeze.

We were getting closer and closer to Kumbakonam, which was 30km ahead of Gangaikonda Chozhapuram (our initial destination)

Kabisthalam welcomed us with coffee at Balaji’s sister’s and a great stretching a.k.a chiropractic session courtesy of Balaji. The coffee was a great boost, which was served with egg puffs though I tried telling her we may be too comfortable to run with puffs inside our raging tummies.

Back to my calculations again, I estimated we had 12km to Kumbakonam. My knee was aching again and we decided to complete the run at 90km near Kumbakonam bus stand. Since we had updated the distance, the cut off time would also have to be dropped from 14 to 13 hours – which did not give us much time since it was already 415pm and we had to finish by 530pm to finish at 13 hours as planned.

Normally this would have been a cinch, but with knee pain and four days of triathlon added to the mix, maintaining even 7.5kmph was a challenge. We set off, and I tried my best to keep the pace at 5:30 or below, taking breaks every 3km.

Ajay emptied the energy drink and sprinted his last km to complete full marathon distance and got into the car. Balaji and I passed him and continued to run at 5:40 pace. It was getting difficult to breathe and I had forgotten my knee pain now. I looked at my mobile – 4km to go. Ajay gave me the other can of energy drink. Taking a swig, I set out behind Balaji as the pro continued to run at 5:20 pace.

My knee had gone numb and all I was thinking of was keeping pace with the champ. Balaji has been trying to get into the Territorial Army – and in the process had honed his skills to finish a 5km at 3:40 pace or below. Running at 5:20 seemed like a breeze for him and it was all I could do to keep up.

“Sir, just one km more sir” the 25 year old encouraged me. I nodded and kept looking ahead. I could sense all the people of the town of Kumbakonam looking at the pair of us, as Balaji’s bare feet struck the ground softly and quickly moved to the next stride.

I don’t know how he managed to run on the road riddled with potholes with his bare feet but he did, and he seemed to be running faster with every kilometer. I looked at my phone. Strava showed the distance as 89km – just 1km left!

Balaji must have realised the same, because his speed increased – he was now steadily taking me to 4:40 pace. I ignored the people staring, the regular traffic everywhere. My vision was now a tunnel – focusing on the guy in front and keeping pace with him.

And before I knew it, we had reached 90km! I slowly jogged to a halt and shook hands with Balaji, then with Ajay and Jeeva who closely followed in the support car. We took a few pictures, an awareness video, took pictures at Kumbakonam railway station, then visited a popular coffee shop.

We then left for Trichy – Balaji in a very tired state having run his highest mileage of 30km in one day. Both of them slept soundly in the back while I kept talking to Jeeva as he was driving back home. We had dinner at SRM Hotel as soon as we got back.

We arrived home at 11pm and I thanked the crew profusely – I’m pretty sure I would have managed only 70 to 80km alone.

With that we now come to an end of the 5 day Diabetic Retinopathy Triathlon a.k.a #gatesofhell . I hope the public learns about the seriousness of this condition and takes proper measures to safeguard their eyesight.

This is Vinod, signing off once again till our next adventure.


Gates of Hell Ultra Triathlon

Diabetic retinopathy – sounds boring doesn’t it? But when not intervened early this can lead to permanent visual loss. There are two types:

1. non proliferative, which requires basic blood sugar control and

2. proliferative, which requires green laser, intravitreal injections and surgeries to stabilize vision – none of which bring back lost vision.

Hence the need for something drastic to make people notice the need to keep their blood sugar under very strict control from the start! After all, why would you spend 100,000 on a disease you can prevent?

Which brings us to this huge scale event.

Day ONE:

5 AM

The pool at Ponni Delta was pitch dark. The only sounds to be heard were the water sloshing and the occasional sound of crickets. The moon was the solitary source of of light in an otherwise shrouded night sky.

I undressed, got into my swim trunks, got my refreshments ready inside the changing room to feed myself in-between what I assumed would be a 10 or 12 hour swim.

15km seemed like a daunting task. I had never swam more than 10km recently and that’s just what I love – a new challenge. The last time I swam 15km was at CTC Swimathon and that had taken 8 hours 35 minutes two years ago. (Read old post in my blog) I set off across the length of the beautiful thirty meter long pool with my Amazfit smartwatch logging my activity.

By 630am I was pleased to see I had already covered 3.5km. I had brought along cake and some fruits – I fuelled a bit, and continued. By 730am, 5km had gone by and I was happy that things were going well, when the nausea set in. Instead of panicking, I lowered my heart rate, slowed down and let my body take care of itself.

Soon the nausea had vanished and I decided to take a bathroom break at 8am. 7km in 3 hours – this was going better than I had expected. Back in the water, I focused on making my strokes smooth, breathing out inside the water steadily and taking short breaths of air before going in again. Bhuvanesh came by at 9am and stayed for an hour, taking photos to post on the fitness group on WhatsApp.

By 10am, 12 km had gone by.

My movements were becoming choppy at this point since my body wasn’t used to swimming such mileage. I forced myself to relax and concentrate on smooth strokes and breathing, eventually managing to get back my rhythm. I proceeded to count the number of strokes per length of the pool and it stayed at 28 to 32.

Toward the last km I started swimming more of breast stroke and less of freestyle to preserve energy for the next phase. At noon, I managed to complete 15km and collapsed by the side of the pool.

I ate the rest of the food, hydrated well and took a nap. Aravind and Bhuvanesh were supposed to report at 1pm to start the cycling phase to Dindigul, which was 109km away.

I got the banner from the car and met Hari Raman who had graciously offered permission to use the pool for the day.

After taking a few photos with him, we put up the banner for display. I went back in and took another nap.

Swathi soon called when she arrived with the photographer for publishing the article on Times of India. The photographer took a few pictures of me swimming, cycling and running inside Ponni Delta by which time Bhuvanesh also joined.

Aravind was running late and we managed to start the ride only at 230pm.

Phase 1a: cycling to Hotel Chenduran Park, Dindigul
Aravind – already an accomplished 1000km BRM rider, took turns with me switching up lead position to help Bhuvanesh keep up with the slightly heavier hybrid bike compared to our road bikes. We were doing pretty well at 23 to 25kmph. The elevation was steadily climbing but the energetic car support from Ramesh was more than enough to sustain us.

This is a rough elevation profile of our ride to Dindigul, from Trichy.

I kept pushing the boys to take no more than two minute breaks and it paid off when we reached Dindigul at 730pm. Finding the hotel was a different ball game and that took an extra half – hour, with Aravind and me overshooting the destination and making u turns to get back to the finishing spot on Google maps. Bhuvanesh found the hotel first and we decided to call it a day.

The hotel had a restaurant with nil maintenance and delayed room service but the room was neat and the food was good. Ramesh and I settled in early cos it was gonna be a very long day the next day. The boys went out (God knows where) and came back at 1130pm.

That marked the end of day 1- which actually became the easiest day among the five.

Chennai Olympic – Category Triathlon

I peered into the last patient’s eye observing his retina, noticing nothing remarkable through the 90 D lens at the slit lamp microscope. Having found no refractive error, muscle imbalances or internal pathology in the eye, I assured him he was fine, referred him to a physician for his headache and asked him to review for regular follow – up. It had been an eventful day with surgeries and 60 plus cases in the out – patient department. Patients done for the day!

Looked up the marathon calendar again – the triathlon sounded promising, but I needed a bike didn’t I? Thanks to my wife who found the Track & Trail cycle store on one of our casual car drives, we got our Montra Trance Pro hybrid. Javadhu Hills 50k run was coming up (read previous story) and I integrated cycling with my regular workouts and runs.

After Javadhu, I totally dedicated my training toward cycling and running, because I knew the ex – state – level – swimmer in me would not need much prodding. Usual mileage during training per week was around 4km of swimming, 150 to 200km of cycling (sometimes 50km or 100km more) and 50km to 70km of running. Visits to the gym, was twice a week, which I reduced as the event drew near.

Having registered for the Olympic (51.5km) triathlon, the least distance of the three options available (the other two being a 112 km event and a 226km event)I felt fairly sure of being in the top ten due to my confidence in swimming, which would give me a decent lead over the rest of the youngsters who craved running and cycling.

The next step was forming an endurance club in Trichy. We were just three – Ramu, Mr. Chidambaram and myself, but we went through the training schedules and diet I had carefully planned and both of them, who had never been in any such events before, soon managed to finish olympic distance within four to five hours during practice times.

14/12/’16 & 15/12/’16

The first day in Chennai was spent at my cousin’s place. But during the second day, Chennai didn’t exactly greet me with open arms. Hotel Centre Point which I had booked via Oyo suddenly declared they had no rooms, and it was after two hours of haggling that we managed to find a nearby lodge with an A/C room. We had arrived in Chennai two days before the event, which we used to locate the local Track and Trail store on OMR, rent a Montra Celtic 2.2 road bike and also practise swimming in open waters at the ottiyambakkam lake.


It took some patience locating the lake, because of bad GPS following the ‘Vardha’ cyclone leaving Chennai defenceless and barren without trees, electricity and internet. 

And so, after wandering through narrow streets and being chased by dogs, I finally located the lake. Was happy to see Varadha Raja, one of the volunteers of CTC (Chennai Trekking Club) there. 

He encouraged me to take a dip and sure enough there I was relaxing in the cool waters of the pond. Didnt really feel like putting my head into the water yet, but I knew the moment would come when I raced.

My parents arrived one day before the event and we moved into Hotel Holiday Inn Express which was much more comfortable.

Dusk arrived and at 645PM, we went to Agni College of Technology which was 1.5km from the swim venue to collect the bib for next day’s race. The place was packed with people and we managed to get the bibs after submitting the disclaimer form. Sundhari Thevar, Vanathi and a few others were doing an awesome job at distributing the bibs and t-shirts in the most efficient manner possible.

Following this, I went to the lodge, collected my rented cycle and brought it to Holiday Inn. After some difficulty, I also managed to persuade the hotel to keep my rented road bike inside, instead of the parking lot to prevent it from being stolen.

D – day: 17/12/’16

I took out my bike from near the kitchen galley and set out, waving a thanks to the watchman who had agreed to keep the bike inside. A careful and slow ride at 5 AM through the pot-holed roads leading to Ottiyambakkam via Navallur and Agni College of Technology took me to the lake by 545 AM.

The participants of the Full Iron Triathlon were getting ready to start. I proceeded to the bicycle area, inverted my ride and placed it on the ground making sure the handlebars and seat were flat against the ground, with wheels facing the sky (race cycles don’t have stands). I made a mental note of the location of baggage counters too. Soon the photo session was complete and the full and 3/4 iron triathletes stripped to their swim wear and proceeded to the pond.

I looked on in admiration at the huge task of 112km(3/4th iron) and 226 km(full iron) that these guys and girls were willing to face. (Note – to – self: will be in their shoes very soon.) The event started at 6AM and soon the triathletes were doing loops in the pond.
By 730AM, it was time for the Olympic category(51.5km) race. I removed my T-shirt, shorts, shoes and socks, stuffed them in the transition bag, handed it at the baggage counter, donned my swim cap, goggles and ear – plugs and left to the pond, barefoot.

SWIM PHASE (1.5KM): Warm – up session started and all of us assembled in our swim – wear.

Mom arrived by car just before the start. I waved her a hi and got in the pond, wetting myself to let my body get used to the temperature. We were to do 5 loops (10 laps = 1500 metres, aka 1.5km). 

The start was made and soon we were off. The foreigner by my side swam like a fish. Trying to keep up with her and leave the slower ones behind, I forgot to locate an external pointer to see where I was going. This was a drastic mistake and my huge lead went to waste as I had to redirect myself back to the centre. By the time I arrived I was among the first ten, and had to fight my way forward.

At the end of each loop I shouted my number (104!) so that the volunteers could note it down and keep track of how many loops I had done. By the time I finished I had used up quite a lot of energy dodging kicks and punches, veering in and out of slower participants and swallowing pond water twice and praying I wouldn’t fall ill.

Decided to use a spurt of energy and surged ahead finishing within the first three – immediately realised this was a mistake after finishing, when I couldn’t stand up. 

Mom helped me out, while I caught my breath and headed to the baggage counter. There was a major 5 minute delay in finding my bag, but once I had it, I had changed to cycling attire in 3 minutes and I was off.

CYCLING PHASE (40KM): The bike ride was difficult on bad roads that extended to a distance of 5km, because I didn’t know how to change the tyre tube in case of a puncture (God forbid). Fortunately, nothing happened because I was slow on these parts and picked up speed on the highway. During the eight minute transition to cycle, and my slow driving, around ten people had gotten ahead of me. A smile appeared on my face when I reached Navallur – time to show everyone how a guy who trained on a hybrid and is relatively well versed with a road bike has an immense advantage over those who trained only with road bikes. I was soon hitting average speeds of 30kmph and overtaking auto-rickshaws and mopeds. At around 3km to the U turn, saw the first four participants returning. Everything was going fine until after a refreshment point at Thiruporur and a U – turn later, when we faced headwinds. 

Fortunately my training on my hybrid helped me to easily keep my average speed at 24 kmph till Navallur. The bad roads came up again, and I attacked them with a little more vigour because the end was near. The finish point came up 500 m from Agni College and I raced in. Looks like I had finished bike stretch in what appeared to be less than 1h 42 mins. 

I didn’t have to change into running gear because I already had everything I needed, and I was off.

RUN PHASE (10KM): The run was terribly exhausting in spite of all the practice due to the hot sun and the humidity of Chennai which drained us of all electrolytes and water. 

Four people did get ahead of me in the first 5km including my friend Anirudh Pandya, who works at Pro Health Foundation, Tanjore. Notice me behind them trying to catch up with two of them in the picture below. I soon overtook them.

It was in the next loop that I felt like I was running with 2kg dumbbells attached to my legs. The sun was just too hot. I did manage to overtake one more foreigner who was more dehydrated than I was. Giving her a thumbs up sign, I kept surging forward. Was almost chased by some mean dogs at the 7th kilometer, but I think they realised I was no fun because I looked exhausted. This was soon followed by a refreshment point, where I helped myself to electrolytes, water and a piece of banana with salt.
I did try to keep the pace till the 9th km. Ran and walked the last km finishing the 10k in 62 minutes with a total time of 3 hours 36 minutes including transitions. 

Mom was waiting excited at the finish line and said it looked like I was third. I knew there were two more batches who were performing out there and I knew there would be someone better than me in them. I had given it my all and was definitely in the top ten, out of 500 participants – all glory to God! 

Finisher – medal – photos followed and after hydrating myself with 3 litres of water and ‘Tang’ , we placed my bike in the car, located my transition bag and left with joyous memories.

Proud of my mates who trained with me – that’s Mr. Chidambaram who finished in 4 hours

 and Ramu Angappan who finished in five hours. 

Both of them bore with my strict schedules before the race, and finished well within cut off time.
Special thanks to my mom who made it to the venue and my wife who were key factors in encouraging me and uplifting me during my training. 

Both these guys were lucky enough to get a click with my role model – Peter! He is the founder of CTC and a pioneer in health& fitness and environmental betterment. Thanks for being an inspiration to the youth, Peter and congrats on conducting India’s first Full Iron Triathlon!

Kudos to the full iron finishers, who completed their race (3.9 km swim, 180km cycling and 42km running) by 10pm, with special mention to my friends Ahmed Hanifa, Vipul Kumar, Thomas Habel, Nandini Sharma, Vinolee Ramalingam, Akriti Verma and others who I may have forgotten. You guys are my inspiration!

Here are the results for my 51.5k category. Think I’m in 6th place:
Next target – full iron? Or maybe just 3/4th iron? Depends on how well I progress in my training!