India’s rich geographical diversity means there’s always a hill station relatively close to any big city. Not only are they ideal spots for a short trip away from the everyday hustle, these picturesque high-altitude towns can be the perfect training ground, whether you’re a newbie attempting your first 10-kilometre race, an ultra-marathoner going for a 100-mile race, or anything in between.
Apart from being conveniently close to both Mumbai and Pune—two cities where running communities are quite big—Lonavla and Kamshet are also relatively free from the pollution and traffic that is a regular feature of the cities. The Western Ghats are cool but not as much as the hill stations of the north, so early-morning or late-evening runs are ideal.
The comparatively cooler climes of the Western Ghats attract running enthusiasts from the city. In fact, in Lonavla, you might bump into model-turned-fitness evangelist Milind Soman. Veer away from the main roads and turn to trails around Rajmachi Fort or Shirota Lake to avoid tourists who throng the place on weekends.
If Lonavla seems too crowded for your liking, drive about half an hour east (towards Pune) to Kamshet and Pawna Lake. The tar road up the hill and through the villages or the muddy paths around the lake where paragliders learn to fly from October to April makes it a picturesque setting for runs.
Watch out for Tourist cars and cabs on main roads.
Iten, in western Kenya, is considered prime training ground by many distance champions. Back home, however, most of the country’s elite runners head to Coonoor. At about 6,000 feet, the sleepy town’s rolling hills and gentle slopes are just right for runners of all abilities.
Running in Connoor comes with stunning views of lush tea gardens while evergreen trees line several stretches of the road providing shade from the mild afternoon sun—temperatures rarely go above 25°C during summer afternoons here. The green cover shelters an array of local fauna and it is common to spot deer, boar, rabbits or even bison.
Apart from the well-known Sims Park and Bedford Circle, one rarely enounters crowd or traffic in Coonoor—it remains far enough (about 35 kilometres) from the humdrum of Ooty. For a moderate to long run, take the road from Orange Pekoe resort in Kotagiri to Sims Park. The 21-kilometre route passes through a football field and cricket ground, and a few local villages marked by a cluster of homes that seem to disappear behind the towering trees when you turn to look back at them, before snaking past the Highfields Tea Factory. For those who fancy a longer run, the route continues beyond Sims Park and past Coonoor Club. It cuts through a scenic golf course before leading to the cantonment area of Wellington. One of the most beautiful sections of the track is a three-kilometre uphill stretch flanked by towering eucalyptus trees along a reserve forest from the gated community of Drummela to the Bandisholai bus stop.
For a break from training, pack a picnic and head to Emerald Lake, Lamb’s Rock or Dolphin Nose, or drop by the Open Kitchen for their scrumptious pizzas.
Watch out for Bison, as they tend to wander into fields and roads early in the morning to look for food. Avoid running in the dark.
What a difference few hundred feet of elevation makes. The Yelagiri and Javadhu (or Javadi) hills—about three hours by road from both Chennai and Bangalore—provide much-needed relief from the year-round heat and humidity of the plains.
About 60 kilometres apart from each other, the ghats of Yelagiri and Javadhu have rich forests with hiking and trekking trails, waterfalls and camping spots spread out over the hills for miles. Not only does that make it ideal for runners of different capacities, there is little vehicular traffic, and the elevation also means that except peak afternoon, the weather is cool. Running through these hills are red mud trails that often cut between villages and paddy fields.
Though not marked, it is not difficult to find these routes. At Javadhu, narrow trails branch out from either side of Jamunamarathur Main Road towards Vaniyambadi from Athipet village. The trails on the right take you to the village of Erukambatu, about 25 kilometres away, with everyday rural scenes, and smiling locals greeting you at intervals.
Starting from the YMCA or the town centre at Yelagiri will lead you to courses that crisscross through fields of green paddy, and past big and small lakes including the Yelagiri Lake.
Yelagiri and Javadhu are fast becoming favourites with runners who look for alternatives to tar roads—the scenery of forests and pastoral life makes for a good vacation spot as well.
Watch out for Monkeys along some trails. Do not feed or get too close.
When you are done with Delhi and the city’s traumatic traffic snarls, head straight to the hills and don’t stop until you get to Mashobra. Though close to Shimla, it is still far enough to stay away from the chaos that is now a permanent feature of Himachal Pradesh’s capital and largest city.
These Himalayan slopes are not as kind as the western and southern mountains, and some climbs can knock the wind out of even the best runners. Trails of black clay soil are peppered with black and slate rocks, and the beauty of the landscape lies in the stark nature of menacing cliffs with dark rock faces.
If you are not familiar with running on such trails, take it easy at first—the steep climbs and thin air need some getting used to. PuraniKoti is a good starting point for some of these inner routes, and the area is perfect for an introduction to the terrain before you proceed to uphill trails at nearby KachhaPani for some tough-love training. From PuraniKoti, a 25-kilometre stretch passes via Ghorna and leads to Baldian, while an 18-kilometre route runs via Zero Point to Baikali. The flat expanse of Baikali is great for speed training before heading back to PuraniKoti. The rigorous nature of the training is what really helps when running here.
Delhi-based entrepreneur, ex-army man, and one the top-ranked amateur triathletes in the 45-50 age category in India, Arun Malik comes to Mashobra very often. He usually stays at the Khanabadosh homestay, which caters specifically to running enthusiasts and athletes coming to Mashobra to train.
“I have been training here for Ironman. The altitude as well as the weather conditions are perfect. There are enough trails for adequate hill training as well as flat stretches, which you will not get in mountain regions anywhere else,” Malik says. When the top dog puts it like that, why argue?
Don’t forget to sample the piping hot parathas at almost any roadside joint.
Watch out for Loose soil or rocks.
Also close to Shimla (about three hours by road), and set amidst apple orchards, emerald slopes and deep woods, is the town of Narkanda.
In the winter months, a layer of snow blankets it all but the mild summer has ideal running temperature. The burst of red proliferating the green, thanks to blooming rhododendrons, only adds to Narkanda’s charm.
Only an occasional truck or car zooms past on the highway and main roads here, so running along these routes—exercising caution of course—is a plausible option and can make for a moderately taxing course. To up the difficulty level, take the smaller unmarked village roads—dull lines of ochre slicing through swathes of green—many of which lead to gurgling streams after passing along sharp drops and climbs of the Kotgarh Valley.
On your day off, visit the lake at TanniJubbar or trek up Hatu Peak to see the popular Hatu Mata temple. You could also just simply sip a cup of chai or slurp on some soupy Maggi at one of the stalls while looking out at the sunset.
Watch out for Some vehicular traffic on the main roads. Despite being fairly remote, there are some trucks and cars that drive through Narkanda. Run in the day and be alert.
A slight detour from the popular eastern Himalayan vacation town of Darjeeling will take you to Mirik. Compared to the northern Himalayan slopes, the ones here are more gentle and blanketed in tea estates. The lakes and brooks punctuating the topography is Mirik’s special offering.
The easiest and most convenient running route in the quaint hill station is the one around Mirik Lake, while the more adventurous trails go down to Marma Valley from Mirik. One of these passes through an orange orchard and the village of Gopaldhara before running through a tea garden to finally end in the valley. If you wish, you could also go to Kurseong, about an hour’s drive away, and explore the trails there.
Mirik Lake is a good spot to visit when you’re not training as well and the nearby market has stalls selling plates of delicious momos and thukpa.
Watch out for Tourist vehicles in certain stretches.
Shrenik Avlani is a newsroom veteran on a break from full-time work since 2012. He uses his newfound freedom to travel, get fit and undertakes odd jobs, including writing, to pay his credit card bills on time.