Saturday 28th September 2013, seventh day since the start of the race, I crossed the finish line of Grand To Grand Ultra, an epic 273 km footrace in North America, stretching from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Grand Staircase. This made me the first Indian ever to finish this race. 7 days. 273 hard fought kilometres. Some of the most challenging and diverse geographical terrains on the planet. During this gut-churning week I moved through deserts, canyons, cracked river beds, forests, shrub, cacti, sinking-soft sandy tracks, gravel, slippery scree, broken rocks. This was a race which required runners to be ‘self-sufficient’ so I carried all my food and supplies for the duration of the race on my back in a backpack. I passed through extremes of temperatures (above 40 degree Celsius to under 0), sometimes within the course of a single day. I went repeatedly up punishing slopes and came down roaring descents. I pushed, pulled, puked, hurted, hallucinated, saw visions, heard voices, got lost, broke down, picked myself up again. I made some great new friendships along the way, met runners from over twenty countries, gleaned a lot advice and useful lessons, gained encouragement and became part of an incredible, inspiring ultra-running community. During that memorable week I saw the magnificent human caravan pass right in front of my eyes as I witnessed scenes of great strength and fortitude, of hope, of crushing despair, of help, of camaraderie and respect. Not all who started could finish, several dropped out along the way, but everyone became part of something unique, rare and special. Everyone had to dig deeper than they had ever dug before, discovered something new about themselves and were the richer for it. This event took place against the backdrop of some of the world's most breathtaking landscapes. Places of stunning, mythical beauty. It was an intense, purifying experience.
The training and preparation for this race was somewhat different from the usual. Since runners were expected to carry their provisions for the week (race organizers would provide only water) planning what goes inside the backpack – take nothing extra, leave out nothing essential – was crucial to success. Figuring out what to eat during the race was key, one had to find the right balance between nutrition, calorific value, weight and volume. Natural choices were calorie-dense foods (think peanut butter) which could provide maximal calories at minimal weight. However, one could not eat only peanut butter for a week and still stay sane, so I took with me freeze-dried meals (essentially, dehydrated food) to which hot water could be added to make it ready for consumption. It was important to get used to running with weight on one’s back so, apart from putting in the usual practice miles, I also trained with a 10 kg backpack. During the race I drank 4 - 5 litres of water every day to escape dehydration. Sweat and exertion deplete body salts and lead to cramps, so I would add electrolytes to the water to keep the salt level in my body at an optimal level. Completing this race got me into the Limca Book Of Records, which is an honour and a privilege. However, I do not consider myself to be a particularly gifted runner. I would describe myself at best as a recreational runner with a fondness for endurance events. I enjoy the outdoors, and multi-stage ultra-races that take place in beautiful, remote locales are a great way to experience that. Besides Nature’s beauty, they offer challenge of a scale not readily encountered in the everyday humdrum of our lives. The experience of waking up day after day to the joy and terror of facing that day’s stage (distances can range from 25km to 85km) is something that leaves you fundamentally altered. You come back to your regular life amazed at the potential of your own mind and body and with a new found appreciation of the comforts of your privileged life. It is an experience that never leaves you and keeps calling you back. Arpita Maitra is an employee of Coca-Cola India. She is the first Indian to complete the Grand To Grand Ultra which has made her the first associate from Coca-Cola in the history of the record book (26 years) to secure an entry in the 2015 edition of Limca Book of Records.