Through Maharashtra: Mumbai, a marathon & some mountains

Gone are the cool winds that accompanied each of the European marathons I ran last year, replaced by a dense and unmoving invisible wall, thick with fumes of early morning traffic, lingering heat that the night was unable to wish away, and the impenetrable humidity of central Bombay. Its 5.30am, I'm staring down a crowd already thousands strong, already drenched in sweat, and (somewhat) ready to take a running tour of downtown Mumbai. 

Marathon #8

Aaaaaand breathe

Aaaaaand breathe

Well, let’s be frank. This race was horrendous. But there was some good to come out of the experience.

In my previous posts I have largely avoided talking about any negative aspects of this trip. To be honest, they have been few and far between, and almost always outweighed by hugely positive experiences. But while I will be waxing lyrical about some mountains in just a few short paragraphs time, I have to confess that the Mumbai marathon was, on the whole, miserable. (Content warning for the next paragraph...)

I woke at 3 am on race day with some immediate issues. Colloquially known as “Montezuma's revenge”, or more aptly “Delhi belly”, or just simply “the shits” - my early morning visitor was most unwelcome.

I managed to force feed myself a banana around 4 am before taking a nervous Uber ride through what I anticipated being a calm and quiet city. As it turns out Mumbai at 4 am is utterly booming. Not the 'streets of Leeds at 4 am' kind of booming, but still as chaotic. Less fist fights and discarded McDonald's wrappers and more market traders setting up stalls, and lorries unloading tonnes of fresh fruit and veg. Seeing a mile of road lined with bundles of coriander was eye-opening, even more so than a mile of road lined with taxis awaiting post-maccy-Ds late night revelers (I do miss Leeds!).

I mentioned in my post about Delhi a 'huge machine' that seemingly grinds away in the background, making everything work behind the scenes, with hundreds of cogs slotting together to make things happen relatively on time, such as stocking up hundreds of street food stalls. Mumbai in the early hours was a good sign of this - and my initial displeasure at the early start was eased by bearing witness to this small link in the supply chain.

Clearly, not everything is this efficient, and as I walked through the marathon’s starting area I passed a large sign reading “Tata Mumbai Marathon” that was still being nailed to the ground and painted at 5.00am, just half an hour before the race start. I wondered whether it was a methaphor for my own pre-race preparations that I hadn't quite 'nailed down'. I thought this again as I spent the final 10 minutes before the start staring at the inside of a portaloo.

Last minute adjustment

Last minute adjustment

We started running at 5.30am, and some 5 or 6 hours later I crossed the line with the above expression of utter relief and exhaustion (see the first photo). It had been a bit of a blur, punctuated by numerous breaks for water, the odd wet sponging, several applications of ice packs to thighs, occasional conversations with similarly paced runners and lots of grimacing. Sadly the much-advertised in-race 'showers' were only able to breathe a light mist into the air above - tantalising, but ever so unsatisfactory.

Amidst the blur, my standout memory was a brief 6km respite from relentless mugginess as we passed over the Worli sea link bridge (below). I felt the cool breeze for a delightful half-hour and dreamt of simply jumping off the bridge for a swim in the cold, still water below. That would have to wait, I still had half a marathon of misery to stumble through.

I would eventually find an ocean in which to jump, but it would have to wait a couple more weeks. From Mumbai I worked my way inland again for a few hundred miles before pointing my bike towards the coast and the state of Goa - 'the paradise state' as one Mumbai local described it to me. That's for my next post.

Worli sea link bridge

Worli sea link bridge

And that second half would also have to wait a little while, much to the annoyance of that slim part of me that still wanted to get a good time! Because, sadly, taking a mid-race toilet break for 25 minutes is a sure fire way to lose out on your target time, also your dignity and a fair amount of spatial awareness. I exited the streetside portaloo to a large crowd of supporters and for a minute thought they had all been waiting for me to emerge. I really hope they understood my suffering at that point.

I drank my weight in water, partly to stave off the effects of the steadily increasing heat, and the additional dehydrating effects of the aforementioned 'issues'. There was no appetite to be found before, during or immediately after the race, and I ran the entire race off the back of one banana and some reserves I must have built up through consuming copious amounts of rice and naan bread in the preceding weeks. It is quite remarkable what you can put your body through, while it takes a bit of extra mental energy to make the physical side of things keep going.

Afterwards, the usual post-race high and the preceding adrenaline rush of the final sprint were curiously absent. I fell asleep in the taxi back to my hostel, slept for several hours, and in a daze eventually found myself sat in an Italian restaurant shovelling spaghetti into a very grateful body, my appetite suddenly ravenous, and my 'issues' resolved.

The passage of time seems to erode negative memories, and now looking back a month on from the run it is the uplifting interactions with ridiculously positive fellow runners that I can recall most. I said in the days following the race that it was the most supportive and enthusiastic atmosphere I’d experienced in a marathon. The streets were lined for almost the entire route, and between official food and drink stations were hundreds of people, unofficially supplying snacks, salts and even samosas. It was a microcosm of the India I have experienced for the last 3 months - humble locals, proud of their country or state or city, welcoming an outsider with open arms and doing all they can to make his experience a memorable one.

Thanks go to the people of Mumbai!

Thoughts on Mumbai

I spent a week in the city before the marathon, usually walking for hours during the day, getting lost in the little corner of old Bombay in which I was staying. I visited 'joggers park', a coastal park with a 400m running track in which I ran a couple of short training sessions, and soaked up the cosmopolitan feel of the cafe-lined streets. It was a 15km train ride from where I was staying in West Bandra to Marine Drive, the sweeping seafront at the end of the peninsula that is Mumbai. This train ride alone is enough to give you a strong impression of the rest of this megacity.

At Bandra train station hundreds of rickshaws ticked in and out of parking spots like links of a chain briefly connecting with its cog. I paid the 10p train fare for a one-way ticket to Marine Drive and by pure luck, and no investigative powers whatsoever, found myself on the correct platform. Pulling out of Bandra was jarring - to my right the usual array of buildings, water tanks and overhanging wires making up any Indian suburb, to my left a great mosaic of multicoloured tarpaulin, corrugated metal and twisted iron - the edge of Bandra slum.

In that 30 seconds it took to pull out of the station I had seen much of Mumbai. The searing contrast between those have and those who have not, between the lucky ones living on one side of the tracks and the unfortunate ones banished to the other. The riches of the well-off in Mumbai are startling when displayed against the poverty of the slums, and while thousands who live under the ramshackle metal rooves are able to work and earn a living, many are not.

In 2017 local authorities razed 8 acres of the Bandra slum, displacing several hundred families who had made it their home, albeit illegally. In 2018 a large fire gutted multiple stories of one area of the site. In 2019 it remains standing and endures, separated from the trendy, cosmopolitan West Bandra by the railway tracks upon which many more families set up their stalls.  On one side, thousands stream across the platforms with places to be. On the other side, hundreds watch with nowhere to go.

Arguably the most interesting and impactful place I've been in India, Mumbai was not what I expected. I didn't feel comfortable walking through glitzy shopping malls downtown though it should have been a welcome retreat from the dust and sand on the road.

By far the most affecting moment was during the marathon, when the course turned through a run-down part of the city, where 'tent-cities' had been erected under huge concrete overpasses. Hundreds of the inhabitants were watching. Not like those oppositie Bandra railway station, but like the rest of the people lining the streets in the 'nicer' parts of town. Even here, where the locals obviously had little money, inadequate shelter, and possibly little warning of a marathon coming through their street, the turnout was huge. And they were smiling and cheering just as loudly as everyone else.

It was a weird moment. I wondered if I was being disingenuous to expect anything other than for these people to support the runners. Reflecting on it, I believe it was a perfect example of the capacity for sport to bring people together, even in a city as divided as Mumbai.

Mountains for the mind

I had gotten a brief taste of what to expect from the state of Maharashtra during my ride into Mumbai. In the preceding few days the roads became gently more undulating and were flanked by bigger and bigger masses of rock. As I approached the city the haze from the heat and humidity dissolved, replaced by a yellow-grey smog hanging above the city, obscuring any further sightings of jagged peaks on the horizon.

First glimpse of Maharashtra

First glimpse of Maharashtra

Perfect framing

Perfect framing

Downhill again

Downhill again

I cheated a little after my time in Mumbai, taking a taxi to the city of Pune. Having ridden into Mumbai the previous week I almost immediately decided I would not be riding out again, such was the relentless chain of traffic crawling in and out of the city for over 20 miles.

I did not want to spend two days inching past cars, with handlebar twitching and pedals beating out a stop-start refrain in time with the motions of the great snake of motorbikes I usually found myself in. Enough time has been spent cycling through heavy traffic, hoping against hope no one opens their door as I steam by, leaving me destined for a YouTube ‘fail’ compilation video.

No, I wanted to get the hell out of this behemoth of a city and cure my tired legs by climbing some mountains!

It turns out I wasn’t after therapy for a tired body, but for a weary mind. I found myself in an almost meditative state as I climbed out of Pune, content at the thought of the descent that awaited me after the peak, and happily ignoring the leg aches down below. It helps that on most of the winding mountain roads were huge HGVs screaming at the incline, their drivers nursing burning clutches. I was able to overtake these on my bike, my legs similarly screaming at the incline, my hands nursing my burning skin with liberal applications of sun cream.

Crossing into Maharashtra

Crossing into Maharashtra

It is always worth the effort of getting up into the hills or mountains. Whether spinning up them on a bike, plodding away on foot, or taking less challenging means like vehicles, cable cars or horses, mules and donkeys.

For me, the effort of getting up there is eased by the thought of tearing down again, especially when cycling. During hikes and walks it is the steadily changing perspective on the ground below that intrigues, or being able to see a horizon ever so slightly further away than before.

Since I set out on this series of adventures in May last year I've been fourtunate to take in the three highest peaks in Britain, to ride through dramatic mountain ranges in Norway, to be stunned by hills draped in autumn colours in Slovakia and to delight in seeing any change in elevation in India at all after a month of iron-flat desert roads.

All of these experiences evoked a similar reaction. Every time I reached a peak, or a crest of a hill I would stop to look back on where I had come from and smile at my success, inwardly muttering “worth it”. (The only exception to this possibly being the top of Ben Nevis upon which we could see absolutely nothing at all - still worth it!).

I find a childish glee in getting up high above the ground. It is why I am most looking forward to the mountainous 100km section of my run across Sri Lanka, despite the likelihood of my legs turning to mush.

I have a similarly wonderous and excited reaction every time I find myself on a beach with an ocean ahead of me. I hadn’t swum in the sea since a chilly dip in Lofoten, Norway almost 6 months ago. That is what I was working towards while cycling through Maharastra, it was all for a swim. All those mountains just to see the sea!

Ocean bound

From Pune I travelled south through Satara, Karad and Kolhapur before a final day of hill climbing up to a small ‘resort’ called Amboli. Each town provided respite from the increasing temperatures as I cycled further south, as well as opportunities to scope out the next section of road. I stuck to the national highway, with its promise of regularly available bottled water, and reliably smooth tarmac.

I had managed to lose a bolt from my saddle a week earlier and cycled for a few weeks essentially sitting on my saddle post, as the leather sagged under the lack of tension. Smooth roads were a must!

Amboli was my final stop in Maharastra, and I got out early to make sure I could reach Goa before sunset. I was exceedingly chuffed with the views that morning. The 15km descent from Amboli that took me down to sea-level should have taken 30 minutes or less, but I found myself stopping every few hundred metres as the road teased outwards towards the valley below, peering over the edge at the sea of green.

I found time to try out the new addition to my kit - an extendable arm/tripod for my GoPro (it is NOT a selfie stick I promise). This is a purchase to aid my documenting of forthcoming running adventures.

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When I eventually descended through the hairpin bends and passed heart-stopping cliff edges I found myself, finally, beside the sea again. I'd made it to Goa, and I was finally going for a bloody swim!

TBC...

More photos from Maharashtra

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