February 10, and February 11, 2018 – Auroville
10th February, 2018: We (our dynamic running trio: my husband, Hywel and good friend, Mehleka) made our way through coastal meandering roads, small villages and in the midst of fanatical honking drivers to Pondicherry. We were doing a weekend getaway (well, weekend run getaway) to Pondicherry for the wonderfully acclaimed, much talked about Auroville Marathon. Bags packed to the brim with running gear we were enthused and super excited to be doing the 10k for the Auroville Marathon – it was our first out of town run, and we were super kicked.
We arrived at Pondicherry at 4.00 p.m., after an arduous bus journey from Chennai (having started our day at 6.00 a.m.) hungry and tired. Barely dropping our bags at the wonderfully quaint Richmond hotel, off we trudged through the streets of Pondicherry in search for a quick bite, and back again we had to make our way to Auroville. Lunch hour having long past in the sleepy town of Pondicherry, we settled for snacks, and proceeded to argue with our rickshaw driver on the fare to Auroville (about 8 kms away), to pick up our bibs. It was almost 4.30 and we didn’t have too much time to collect our bibs – the bib collection closing at 6.00 p.m. Our driver made his way at neck breaking speed to the famous Auroville.
Arriving at Auroville, we felt we had been transported to another destination. Auroville was closing for the day with throngs of tourists exiting the area coupled with an equal number of enthused runners walking through the leafy green canopies. The air was buzz with excitement and anticipation for the next day with runners of all ages, sizes and shapes. We made our way through the main reception area, and followed the crowd to the holding area for bib distribution. The entire ambience was so beautiful that evening; we could not even begin to imagine how wonderful it would be the early morning the next day. Bib collection was well organized with separate counters for the 10K, 21K and 42K runners. Colorful t-shirts were on display for sale and posters around displayed the bus timings and pick-up points for the route from Pondicherry to Auroville the next morning. A large poster also displayed carb loading dinner before the run starting at 7.30 p.m.
We collected our bibs, and made our way back to Pondicherry. After a not so early dinner, and a circuitous walk around French quarters, to identify the pick-up point for our bus the next day, we collapsed into our wonderful suite at the Richmond.
11th February, 2018: Up at the crack of 4.30 a.m. with alarms positioned all around our suite, we took turns at our morning ablutions, and then proceeded to walk to the pick-up point for our 5.30 a.m. bus. Pondicherry was slowly waking up, and glimmers of light could be seen through windows as the residents of the French quarter were slowing waking up to the day. The route from Pondicherry to Auroville was simply majestic – the cool air was a natural air conditioner as the bus made its way through meandering village roads, and leafy greens.
Auroville was abuzz with activity with runners limbering up and stretching. An immaculately speaking radio jockey attempted to jostle the crowd into frenzied excitement. The 42K marathon and the 21K half marathon had kicked off at 5.00 and 6.00 a.m. respectively, and the 10K run was the last to kick off.
Finally, after a super long wait since we arrived so early, the 10K runners were off. It was a good 1 km before the crowds finally eased out and there was room to move. The route however was breath taking. Trees and shrubs lined the first few kms of the dirt path interspersed with volunteers and the smell of the fresh air, intermingled with the crackling excitement of the runners in the air. The first few kms of the route was a circuitous undulating route through shrubs and trees. Water stations marked the routes with chikki, water and energy drinks intermingling with aid stations. Gradually, the winding paths gave way to concretized portions in certain areas populated by small settlements of the Auroville community.
The 42K and 21K runners passed us by, possibly on their second loop. Route markers signalled the route for each set of runners, and often we would see a lone 21K or 42K runner venture off further into the forest, with no one in sight. The sounds of nature surrounded us – the chirping of the birds, the soothing lull of the branches, and the crush of leaves underfoot. Once again, the concretized road gave way to the most exhilarating 2.5 kms of the 10K run. We ran onto a narrow path through a completely wooded area with the smells of cardamom, cinnamon, leaves, and nature engulfing your senses. I wanted to just stop midway through the run, open my picnic basket, and bask contently in the smells of nature. I wanted this 2.5 km to never end. I will never forget how wonderfully meditative and fulfilling it was to run this 2.5 km (and it was the best part of the Auroville marathon).
Peppered throughout the route, there were small gates with grated grills offering runners a compulsory rest stop (lest injury should occur). What was remarkably different about the run was families running together and the sense of community. I passed by 2 runners (a mother and a son) possibly Auroville residents where the mother was talking to another resident about how she couldn’t keep up with her young son, and the young son was beaming. It seemed like all the Auroville residents had turned up in full force, either as volunteers (with their supportive cheers) or as runners, cheering each other onward to the finishing line, or waiting enroute for the slower runners.
We also passed Auroville residents on their 2 wheeler motor bikes and their cycles, possibly returning back to their hostels after the morning chores. Towards the end of our 10km run, the sun broke through, and then came the slog portions. As we neared the finish line, there were 3 separate finish lines for each of the runs with a brightly colored banner highlighting each. The commentator was superb – he would actually shout out to and encourage the runners as we were finishing and announce the finishers like a finishing line in a car race.
Beyond the finish line, tents with huge blocks of ice, energy drinks, bananas and oranges, and medical tents awaited us. We moved on to cheer the other runners after cooling down, in the spirit of the sport. Runners then thronged their way to the breakfast area, where a delightful breakfast of poha, upma, and idli, with hot tea was laid out.
The Japanese have the concept of “forest bathing” (walking through forests) which is touted as wonderfully relaxing. Running the Auroville 10K run for me was akin to forest bathing. It was enlightening, invigorating and exhilarating all at the same time. Nature carved out a route, and took me to another state through smell, touch and feel. One of the most beautiful experiences, and happiest experiences of my life. The past 6 months of the earlier year were particularly trying for me, and the Auroville Marathon just gave me a completely different perspective on things.
Of course, credit must also be given to my husband, Hywel, and my good friend, Mehleka, for being wonderful company.