Of quadrants and boring race reports

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It’s written that while progress could be happening linearly, results come only in cycles.

The Bhagawat Geeta says one should act without thinking of results. Of course I buy this aphorism but internalizing it is only the first step. In the weeks leading to the race (as more and more things fell into place), my mind kept flashing boring race report.. boring race report..

What is a boring race report? Err.. something like this.

I kept chiding myself but the infernal thought just wouldn’t go away.

There was no escaping thoughts of quadrants either. The world’s best finish their races in the 8th quadrant. Breaking into the 7th quadrant has captured the public imagination in a manner reminiscent of Bannister’s & Landy’s pursuit of the sub-4 minute mile.

India’s better amateur marathoners are clustered in the 12th quadrant training feverishly to break into the exalted 11th (sub-3hour) quadrant.

What about late bloomers who took up marathon running in their 40’s? The 15th (sub-4hour) quadrant is their exalted target. I got there 4 years ago, following which I wrote this very boring race report.

My target was to break into quadrant #14.

2013-14 was my season of results. It was a season where my pre-race form was running a marathon-every-month and completing most under 4:15. I ran the Kaveri Trail Marathon in 4:09 (bettering my PB by a whopping 17 minutes. Two months later, I ran 75k Bangalore Ultra in 8:38, a good 70min faster than the previous year. Two months later I was rubbing shoulders with the amateur elite at the starting line of SCMM and psyching myself with “I’m going for it.. I’m going for it.” Throwing caution to the wind, I sped away. The course got its revenge but not before I had eked out a 3:48 (a further 21min improvement).

The law of averages had to catch up. And it did. Tumultuous few years at the startup grind meant my running had reduced to “maintenance mode”, just sufficient to run either the KTM or the Bangalore Ultra. The 2016-17 season, while it provided a purgatory of sorts to my startup sacrifices, was all about an old friend (asthma) moving in and refusing to leave.

Things started to change from May 2017 when I began a Ayurveda-Siddha treatment for asthma. I signed up for the Malnad 80k, trained mightily and had an eminently satisfying race.

It was the first time I had managed to sustain a structured 5-day running plan. I wondered if it was the start of another cycle.

3.5 months to go for Mumbai Marathon. Hal Higdon’s advanced 5-day running plan was picked without any hesitation. It meant I’d miss out on our group’s Saturday long run and replace with (mostly) solitary Sunday long runs. But it felt like I wanted to do it.

In my enthusiasm to minimize plan deviations, I followed up Malnad 80k with two 30k ‘recovery’ runs next two weekends. My glutes, who’d been beating a low-intensity grumbling protest during my Malnad training, broke into a full-on mutiny.

A friend and running coach was consulted. After reproaching me, his advice was to avoid fast runs and runs-longer-than-one-hour until my glute strain fully went away or I could do 20-30 squats without discomfort. He probably meant and instead of or but hey.. sometimes you have to customize expert advice.

The glute strain never went away. Icing daily, sometimes 2-3 times daily but I’d be darned if I was going to diverge from the plan too much.

Playing a cat-and-mouse (run-ice-recover) game on a 5 runs per week regimen was a delicate affair but I pulled it off. Weekly mileage divergence was minimal (See left), Saturday pace runs were on target, some Sunday long runs were done faster than expected.

Two weeks to go and I did something I’ve never done before a race. Got a deep tissue lower body massage. An intense 45-minute session rhythmically punctuated by (ow-ow-ow.. ow-ow-ow..) left me feeling that all the knots and aches had been ironed away by the physio’s work (and my suffering).

That feeling lasted all of 2 hours. In any case, there’s no reason to believe the massage did me any harm.

My hydration strategy was unchanged from previous years: one Cocojal bottle before race start, second between 21 and 24k and water rest of the time.

Nutrition strategy? After years I decided to go with gels again. Unived (not Gu) gels. But I deliberated at length on the number and frequency of gel intake (I was this thorough during my first FM in 2002).

Three days before race day and my glute strain miraculously went away. I was thrilled of course. Yet another sign (I told myself) that the race would go my way.

There was a brief grim foreboding that this glutes business was a red herring and I might run into a completely different challenge. But I brushed it away. It was a time for positivity. And mental reinforcement.

It was also a time for visualization. Something I did with full earnest. Me with my game face. Ticking off the km’s, quaffing off gels at 2,8,14,20,26,32,38. I pictured myself decelerating on the inclines and accelerating on the downhills. I even visualized myself talking to my ‘inner tough’ on Peddar Road.

And yeah – I was using a borrowed Garmin for this race.

The Race (finally)

The plan was to start with the 5:10 target pace and make adjustments as needed. I meant to set the Garmin display to Average Pace but got mistakenly set to Current Pace. Fortunately the 1km lap pace popup bailed me out. In the first 5-6km, I was averaging close to 5:15 and it felt right.

Crossed the HM mark in 1:50 still feeling good. The glutes were behaving, the Unived liquid nutrition at planned intervals (alternating between Mandarin Orange & Expresso) was working great, hydration on track. The everything-going-per-plan feeling lasted all the way till the early 30’s.

The timing site reminds me that my average pace (until 29k) was  5:16 – well within my target range. By the time I finished, the average dropped to 5:28. In the final 13.2k, my pace had slumped to 5:54.

As is widely known, what separates the boys from the men is how the final 10k are negotiated.

To tell you how I disintegrated in the last 10km, I must first tell you about cramps in the final 10k, my jaani dushman [Hindi for arch enemy].

A few years ago, after numerous experiments, I figured that my fool-proof formula for staving off cramps was 2 Cocojals and Endurolyte capsules every 7-10km (range accounts for humidity).

For some strange reason (which I’ll unpack shortly), I had 4 Endurolyte capsules with me but didn’t start ingesting them until it was too late.

In my pre-race planning, I had convinced myself that my body chemistry had ‘evolved’ to the point where I didn’t require Cocojals and Endurolyte tablets. Cocojals were the recent addition so I had to keep those. Endurolyte capsules were deemed no longer essential and thus didn’t figure in my elaborate visualization ritual.

I’ve thought long and hard as to why I muted such an easy-to-execute insurance policy. I think I got complacent because of the 5-day running plan (something I had never been able to stick to previously). In my head (and based on crowd-sourced wisdom), high mileage along with  >3 runs per week equated to an effective cramps-avoidance strategy.

But I did carry 4 of those capsules in my pocket just in case.

Somewhere between 30 and 32k, my AEWC sensor threw up an early alert. I popped one capsule.. and since my stupidity quickly dawned on me, I popped a second a few km’s later.

The Peddar Road stretch was negotiated gingerly with a predicable drop in pace but no mishap occurred.

The first calves cramp hit me at 37k. Aggressive stretching for a minute fixed matters but I resumed in a race preservation mode. I consumed the remaining 2 salt tablets acutely aware that it was too late. At the 39k mark, I got a second bout of calf cramps and this time my foot also cramped. It took longer to stretch out of these cramps but I resumed after 2 minutes.

Quadrant #14 was safely out of reach but I wanted to get as close to my PB as possible. No more cramping but I couldn’t increase my pace in the final 3k and finished 2 minutes slower than 2014.

Aquashoes: a Rs 499 shoe meant for snorkelers but we Indians have found another use

Two SCMM races with shoes. The next two barefoot. This year I trained and ran with the Aquashoes (snug fit and makes for a softer landing than the huaraches).

However, last 10k my toes got really cramped and uncomfortable — a situation I anticipated and planned to just take off the Aquashoes and run barefoot. Sadly, my soles weren’t feeling particularly loved and up to the challenge (4mm’s are just that – 4 mm’s) so I decided against introducing a new problem.

Glad I did the experiment but I doubt I’ll return to TMM 2019 with Aquashoes.

 

 

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The Bengali outlier

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Bengali hilsa fish curry

What if I told you that I know a Bengali who doesn’t eat fish. In fact he doesn’t eat meat of *any* kind. Furthermore, he convinced his parents that they too should give up fish and meat. And they did. Maybe him being an only child was a factor but still..

Reflect on this: a 3-person Bengali family in the prime of their youth had abjured fish and meat. And the son catalyzed this when he was in seventh grade!

I’m not making this up. He, a colleague of ours from Tata Steel days (~ early ’90’s), calmly related this on one of those hostel nights when maach was on the menu. I’m sure he told us what epiphany triggered this madness but alas! I don’t recall. [Tata Steel/Jampot friends, do we know where he is?]

Are there other such Bengali outliers or is he truly one in two hundred and fifty million? Please write a comment if you know someone.

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Why you should turn your husband into a runner

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Doing repetitive monotonous things are meant for machines, robots or ‘servants’ (if you are part of the Indian middle class).

I find some of these activities highly therapeutic and enjoyable.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with running. Who wants to keep a rhythmic motion minute after minute for hours together? Especially when the alternatives are an electric duet of squash or a languid stroll masquerading as a sport (yes – it’s golf I allude to).

After years of persisting with this particular monotonous activity, I have the answer to Why oh Why.

Every runner likes a fast time (PB in our lingo) every now and then but a particular class of runner is not single-minded about PB’s to the exclusion of everything else.

Why does this class of runner keep running when there’s no race in sight or when he’s not necessarily training for one?

Running, for this obsessive runner, is akin to meditation. In fact it is meditation. He runs to still his mind because he can’t (or won’t) meditate by physically sitting still.

If you are one of those types who just can’t sit still for protracted periods and have always wanted to meditate, well… running is just what the guru ordered for you.

No need to signup for that mindfulness workshop with gushing reviews from the resident startup czar or Arianna Huffington. Find yourself a nearby trail or a safe road (heck, even a treadmill will do)and you are sorted.

What about group meditation, you ask? We call it the weekend long run with a local running group. Finding a group is so so easy. And there’s no such thing as an obnoxious ‘group’. Sure.. there are self-absorbed, self-centered runners in every group but they are few and far in between and, as is running’s wont, the activity inexorably works its smoothening magic on them too.

There are other monotonous activities I find soothing as well.

Night driving on American interstate and county highways. Dark cabin with a lit dashboard. Twin lights spraying the black asphalt ribbon. Cruise control on. Classic rock station on. Only steering with a modicum of alertness required. Awake passenger(s) optional.

Doing dishes. Soaping the disparate dishes in a structured way. Set the faucet to just the optimal flow before rinsing. Arranging the dishes in just the optimal way to maximize draining and drying. The right music can be an experience enhancer for this activity.

Putting clothes out to dry.

Folding washed clothes.

Droning on the didgeridoo.

In one of Murakami’s novels, the protagonist would start ironing anytime his mind was disturbed. I can see ironing’s potential as a wonderfully soothing activity but it happens to be one of the few household chores we’ve outsourced – alas!

Closing note: Original title of this post was All the monotonous things. New title is supposed to maximize link bait. Did it work?

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Every new beginning starts with a grand farewell

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I’ve been around the block, as they say. Across continents and geographies. 

Jan 5, 2018 was my last day at Yatra. And my team gave me the grandest possible farewell I could ever imagine. Scratch that. I couldn’t possibly have imagined the kind of farewell they gave me.

A year and six months is not a long stint but that’s a misleading number. The mGaadi journey started in Jan 2013 so it was really a five-year journey. The team doubled and the fun quadrupled in the past 18 months. The new entrants were no different.. they just had to hear some of the old “war stories” all over again.

So how exactly did the team make me feel special?

First, they made me cut this amazingly designed cake (if you know the kind of runner I am, you’ll see the attention to detail this cake has captured!). Then they embarrassed me by gifting the largest and heaviest bouquet I’ve ever seen. And this was just the beginning apparently.

There were a series of unsigned “We’ll miss you…” notes being left on/near my desk, all of which were to be retained and would play a critical role in a game we’d play later in the evening. 

You’ve seen how basketball stars get introduced at the start of NBA games? Well, as I was leaving the office they formed a cordon-of-sorts and did something similar.

And a lovely evening at Harry’s Pub where the conversations, spirits, and emotions flowed and ebbed.

Thanks guys! I really REALLY loved it. And it’s been an absolute pleasure working with you all.

 

 

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What Kubera can teach us about the miser philanthropist

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Another Mahabharata story excavated from the tendrils of my Amar Chitra Katha memories. Specifically, from the period after the Pandavas had decimated 99% of the Kauravas clan.

The Pandava kingdom was in the grip of a famine and were desperately in need of food grains, having exhausted the royal granaries.

Yudhishthir the Wise (who always seemed to know what to do except when playing a game of dice) sent Bheema to Kubera for help.

The Hindu mythology dilettante would know Kubera as the God of Wealth, which means he held about 99% of the world’s gold bullion (by world, we mean the three worlds and let’s not get caught up in spatio/Cartesian coordinates).

A lesser known fact about Kubera is that he was also an amasser of commodities. It’s not clear whether he was a commodities trader or whether the grade of commodities he amassed were of the most premium (heavenly) kind which had an infinite shelf life. But I digress.

The Pandavas needed a few thousand cartloads of grain and Kubera had it (several times over).

Bheema’s mission was to seek the mother of all loans or the mother of all extraterrestrial aids.

Bheema was rather reluctant. He had heard very many stories of Kubera’s stinginess. The kind of miser who might well have inspired Walt Disney to create the Scrooge McDuck character a few millennia later.

But plod along he had to.. since elder brother Yudhishthir could not be refused.

When I say plod along, I mean metaphorically of course. Kubera lived in the Heavens and the Pandavas were (still) in Bharat on Earth. The nice picture book I read many moons ago had no account of how Bheema made it Kubera’s abode. I’m sure some super powers were involved.

Bheema found himself outside Kubera’s vast and majestic palace. He started to loiter.. he had not shaken off the grim foreboding that he had come on a fruitless quest. It’s hard enough to prepare oneself to “ask for money” when the potential benefactor is a certified lender. Believe me, I have some experience in this regard.

The loitering Bheema soon got transfixed by a sight. Inside a vast well-lit hall scores of Kubera’s men were assiduously at work.. doing some kind of ‘final sorting’ of food grains. Some small pebbles, sand and husk were being manually separated from the heavenly grains.

As Bheema watched, Kubera entered the hall. With the air of a seasoned Total Quality Inspector, he scanned the rows of workers and the piles of sifted grain and immediately spotted something that drew his ire.

One of the workers (in his zeal for speed) had accidentally tossed a small quantity of grain in the impurities pile. Not content with merely berating the worker’s shoddiness, Kubera sat down and personally did the re-sifting.

The episode, to Bheema, served as the final confirmation of Kubera’s miserly credentials and the cue to slink away, with the certitude that Yudhishtir would not admonish him.

To Bheema’s surprise and embarrassment, Kubera spotted him and rushed to welcome him.

After showering Bheema with heavenly hospitality, he quized him on the reason for his visit. Kubera immediately acquisced. As the dumbfounded Bheema looked on, Kubera started barking orders to his underlings to prepare for the mission of mercy.

Bheema would be surprised a few more times that day.

Kubera also offered to accompany Bheema with the convoy of grains.. presumably till the edge of heaven where a teleportation zone would safely and swiftly transport Bheema and his newly acquired divine bounty to earthly shores. (The problem with allegorical stories is that it’s hard NOT to take certain things literally)

So picture this. A convoy of 100+ carts drawn by bullocks laden with grain moving in heaven. On a single lane road. Heaven, in that era, did not have any Autobahns. Far from it. It seems India’s finest PWD engineers and BBMP’s most capable administrators were running heaven, at least in Kubera’s neighborhood.

It gets better.

The convoy starts to cross a bridge.. a bridge that was clearly not built with these kinds of loads in mind. As the fourth cart reached the middle, the timeless bridge collapsed. The driver and the animals escaped with minor injuries.

As Bheema morosely watched an assured victory turning into a wet defeat, Kubera sprung into action. He seemed to instinctively know exactly what to do. He started barking orders to his men and they responded quickly. The broken down portion of the bridge was being fixed using the grain from 2-3 carts.

Bheema watched dumbfounded. As the convoy resumed its mission of mercy, he asked Kubera “Back there at the palace, you were berating the worker for wasting a handful of grain yet here you scarcely hesitated in sacrificing a few cartloads of grain. Why?”

Kubera answered, “One should never waste anything, be it a single grain or a single mohar (unit of money) but when required, one should not hesitate to spend. Getting this grain to your kingdom on time is the need of the hour. What will I/we gain in being miserly now?”

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Resetting habit defaults

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We know adding good habits is hard. Stopping bad habits is harder.. though Sam Thomas Davies will have you believe it’s not impossible.

Exercise every day? Good.

Smoking? Bad.

Eat vegetables? Good.

Daily drinking? Bad.

Sleep 7-8 hours daily? Good.

What about the vast spectrum of decisions in between? Uber or Ola? Flipkart or Amazon? iPhone or Android? Mac or Windows? Google. Gmail. Chrome Browser. I guess I’m largely talking about technology usage habits and the last three may not even have credible alternatives.

A recent incident at work was the trigger for this line of thinking. A colleague (Ash) had recently started cycling (and running) and innocuously mentioned Google Fit as his choice of app. He got an earful from me on why he should use Strava. “But Google Fit is a perfectly good app..”, he argued.

He didn’t need to say that it was *Google* Fit. Indeed, what could possibly go wrong with a Google product decision? Seemingly nothing yet I proceeded to convince him otherwise. There’s more to tracking your workouts than ‘tracking’, I hectored. There’s *community* also. Anybody who is even half serious is on Strava. I pointed to 2 other colleagues who were already on Strava. That eventually clinched the deal for Ash.

The whole truth is that I haven’t really wanted Google to conquer any more markets and collect any more data than they already have. Owning search, video and Android is plenty. I did not want Google Plus to succeed and I certainly don’t want their deep learning algorithms to tell me that if I change my diet/lifestyle to Plan Qwerty123, it will extend my healthy lifespan by 2.7 years.

Ok Google.

Sorry Google.

You are not getting my fitness data.

I’ve been using the Nike Run app (no social features – hallelujah!) this year and I hope to sunset that app too in the not so distant future.

My wife has observed this about me: I’ll start to do something new (and let me qualify that as ‘good’ new) and massively ratchet it up.

On that ratcheting note, I naturally moved to Could I extract and toss away any more Google tentacles?

Could I switch from Chrome to Firefox? Once a savior for millions of frustrated Internet Explorer users, Firefox struggles for relevance in a Chrome-dominated world. However, their most recent release got me excited. The universe seems to conspiratorially egg me on because in the past 2 months, I’ve had to restart Chrome way too often for my liking.

What about Google Search? Could I stop using it? Giving up Google Search would be harder than Chrome but it adds to the appeal. Years ago, I tried a similar experiment with Bing and it was a middling success. But I didn’t persist.

This time I’m heart’ing on the private search engine DuckDuckGo so I rate my chances higher.

Going beyond the world of Google, are there other habits one can change? Maybe the Uber vs Ola and Amazon vs Flipkart is more of a preference rather than a default, a temporary switch to the ‘other’ driven more by availability/supply side. 

In closing, I’d say three factors seem to be influencing my choice of technology products:

  • underdog status
  • purity of purpose
  • commitment to privacy

Sometimes the post is finished and, despite multiple edits, you are still scratching your head wondering “why on earth did I write this?” This is one such post.

 

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The Yin and Yank Race

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The great runner philosopher George Sheehan talks about a certain staleness that can afflict the seasoned runner. In my 9 years of running, I’m relieved to admit that I’ve been spared. From peaks of 12 FM+ runs a year to lows of 2 races a year, the weekly enjoyment hasn’t changed much – thank God for that! However the excitement of a new racing experience has been missing for a while.

My heart seems to gravitate more towards trail races than city races so I was intrigued when I heard about the inaugural Malnad Ultra last year. Intrigue however didn’t convert to registration because

  • 24-hour stadium run (Aug 2016)
  • A cardiovascular assessment that a net elevation gain of 2km was beyond my comfort zone

Several friends ran the inaugural race (3 categories: 50k, 80k, and 110k) and returned with glowing reports. However, it was a tweet from a fellow vegan runner (Vijay Pandey) that provided the clinching endorsement. It went something like this What an amazing trail! Can’t wait for registrations to open for Malnad Ultra 2017!

**************

Preparation

Koehner plan redefined. Plan #s in miles, actuals in km, delta on right

About 10 weeks before race day (Oct 8), I decided that I wasn’t just going to ‘wing’ it. Considering the race venue, the beautiful trail, scary elevation, and only two race sign ups this year, I wanted to put my best feet/lungs/heart forward.

A few Google searches later, I had settled on Hal Koehner’s 50 mile training plan. Of course I was going to tweak it to suit my gettable reality.

  • 16 week plan and 10 weeks to race day so I hit the ground running with week #7 🙂
  • A 6-day running regimen was a non-starter so Friday run was going to be nixed. A 5-day plan was *way less scary* than a 6-day plan.
  • As you can see, the only 3 running Fridays were weeks where I had missed a run or was making up mileage.
  • If you’ve looked up the original plan PDF, the precise guidance of fartleks (blue), tempos (green), and hill repeats (yellow) was ignored. But thanks to my regular running partners (diligent as they are), I ended up doing tempo or hill repeat on one of my weekday runs.

Considering the above tweaks, I was quite pleased with two 100k+ weeks, one 90k+ week, two 70k+ weekends, and kept the [plan – actual] delta ‘within limits’. The longest run (a 48k) had to be aborted but it was not because of lack of effort. Running in a gentle drizzle for 3 hours is one thing (been there, done that) but running in soaking rain (without slickers) is quite another.

Kamal & the Colonel’s son

The dark art of choosing a goal pace continues to elude me. Ha ha. I just fooled you into thinking that I approach my races with a data-driven mindset, right?

Manoj, last year’s 110k co-winner and friend, wrote an informative post with the express purpose of helping folks like me set a goal pace. His model spit out 11 hrs 30 min based on my ‘comfortable’ FM time.

Enter BKUMP friend Sampath. 1st runner-up in the 50k inaugural Malnad edition, multiple FM times under 3:30, but graduating to the 80k posed a mental block to him. Having run 75k a few times and with a 24-hour stadium run under my belt, he asked if he could hitch his wagon to mine. I agreed. My first outing at Malnad meant I didn’t have a rigid time goal, and hey, it really helps when you have company in ultras. A bonus when it’s one of your running buddies. As it would turn out, Navin (our group’s ultra conquistador) made it a trio for the first 67k. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

East is east and west is west and never the Twain shall meet.

Till earth and sky stand presently at God’s great judgement seat.

If you’ve been schooled in the Indian ICSE board, you’d recognize the opening lines from Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West. If you’ve not clicked on the aforementioned link, here’s the synopsis: Kamal (a bandit gang leader) steals the Colonel’s horse and the Colonel’s son sets off hotly in pursuit with nary a thought to potentially fatal consequences. Matched in bravery, it’s really a race between two horses.

The poetic license I’ve taken is in likening the Colonel’s son’s horse to Sampath and Kamal’s horse (the one he stole) to me. Here’s how Kipling brings out the differences between the two horses:

The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.

The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,

But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove.

Sandal worries

I scanned numerous pictures of last year’s trail, quizzed folks about their footwear choices. Would the 4mm Xeroshoes Z-Trek provide enough protection? Or would I need the 10mm Z-Trail? The former sticks to me like a glove while the latter has a tendency to make my foot slide off the front. I finally went with the Z-Trek but stowed away the Z-Trail (and a pair of socks) at the 50km baggage counter. A sound decision it would turn out to be.

The blood donation conundrum

Would you (and I’m addressing my runner friends here) sign up for a race if the anti-doping clause read like this “We reserve the right to randomly conduct blood tests during the race.. and potentially do it multiple times.”

Stops you in your tracks, no? What if the clause goes on to say “You won’t be required to stop at any medical tent along the way and waste precious minutes. We use smart miniature heat-seeking flying bots and you won’t even feel the slightest prick during extraction. Just don’t panic when you see traces of blood at the end of the test.”

Leeches. Bleddy leeches. We were in leech country and an extended monsoon meant it was prime conditions for leechiferous gluttony.

Did this knowledge change my preparatory calculus? Hell yeah. I agonized over how best to reduce the odds of being the chosen one.

Was I prepared to trade my open sandals for shoes and leech-proof socks? Nope.

Perhaps it was a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street fueled by a febrile imagination that inserted the notion that wearing tights underneath my shorts would be a credible shield against airborne leeches at an altitude of 1-2 feet.

In hindsight, it was the most ludicrous insurance I ever purchased. My inner minimalist still cringes at the stupidity but at least it didn’t cramp my running. And it wasn’t a warm day.

How much blood did I end up donating eventually? The quantity remains unknown but I had 5 leech bites on my right foot and 7 on my left. Of the 12, I only witnessed two of the parasites (somewhere close to 30k). My rite of passage to the Malnad Ultra was complete.

The race

Between the shuttle bus reaching the starting point a bit late and unexpected delays at the baggage drop counter, there was a bit of a mad scramble to wolf down some yummy hot breakfast and start off on gun time.

The first 5-6k was a continuous downhill road. For my kind of lungs (which take forever to warm up), it was wonderful to have gravity do its thing.

Hitting the trail raised the level of awesomeness by several notches. In describing the race later to my friends, I kept saying “it was magical!” There really is no way to elaborate in words but I’ll still try.

In the midst of a vast network of coffee plantations, peaks and valleys, heterogeneous terrain (tough but not brutal, lakes, streams, pleasant temperatures, I was getting a chance to soak in the ambiance and race/push/test myself. I had trained and now I was going to pay homage to the resident ultra deity by doing my best, while constantly evaluating whether or not I was overextending myself. What was there not to love? And yes, blessed I was.

Somewhere in the 1st 50k, feeling peachy

Yin and the Yank
The younger fleet-footed Sampath would set the pace on the downhills while I would control pace on the uphills and flat. So we took turns applying the yank. We both thoroughly enjoyed the downhills, albeit in different ways. Him with an effortlessly elegant technique and me like a spooked rhinoceros bearing noisily down the slopes.

As we approached the 40k mark, it seemed like our average pace was a little too fast but we needn’t have worried. The remaining 10k included the lovely gravity-aided stretch we had enjoyed 6-odd hours ago.

Intermission at 50k

We walked most of that final uphill 6k and I surprised myself by running the final kilometer. It had taken us 7 hours for the first 50k.

The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the doe like a new roused fawn.

50k was a special kind of pit stop for me: footwear change, tee-shirt change, lunch and some stretching. Brijesh’s (race volunteer and friend) suggested sequence was physio-guided stretch -> lunch -> change -> back on trail.

The physio took one look at my trail-muddied and leech-feasted feet and sent me off to cleanup. With the bathrooms nowhere nearby, I grabbed lunch instead.

Whether it was last year’s nostalgia or just a brain fade, I don’t know but Sampath approached the lunch with a strange mix of languor and gormandizing. I think he went for ‘thirds’ while I executed the footwear + tee changes and waited. Just when I thought we were ready to resume, he remembered that blisters were bothering him so there went another 10 min with the physio.

Meanwhile the conquistador had set off exhorting us to catch up. We finally set off, having spent nearly 35 minutes at the pit stop.

The initial elevation profile of the final 30k was the opposite of the first 50k – first few km were uphill. Sampath’s overloaded stomach demanded digestive attention which inevitably led to side effects such as could we walk for a bit?

The next 7k could be described as the yank phase where I had to resort to ageless tactics like Let’s run till that yonder tree. And gradually extend the goal post, sometimes explicitly other times implicitly.

Eventually we caught sight of a colorful group of runners which provided a great filip to our progress. When we caught up near 57k, that group would turn out to include the conquistador, Monica and Ashok.

Monica and Ashok

Ashok, a superb UK-based ultra runner who had completed a multi-day 320+ miler just a few weeks ago, was pacing Monica, co-founder of the popular sports nutrition brand Unived. Sampath and I had been inadvertently playing a cat-and-mouse with them in the first 50k and built a ~10min lead. Clearly they had changed their tires faster than us.

For the next 10k, we ran with Monica and Ashok and it was a sound sound decision. S and I were struggling for rhythm and it was a relief to hitch our wagon to a purposeful pacing strategy being followed by the duo.

Soon after the 67k pit stop, a fork in the road sent the conquistador (and his fellow 110k crazies) to their final frontier while we just had the 13k home stretch. Meanwhile Monica and Ashok had motored along and would finish 8 minutes ahead of us.

Homeward bound

At 70k, a quick calculation informed us that a sub-12 hour finish was eminently doable. We passed an 80k runner feeling pretty strong. I would learn latter that the runner’s net time was better than ours as he had started 10 minutes after us 🙂

Barring the navigation of a few very muddy stretches and a gentle drizzle in the final 30min (we pulled on slickers to play it safe), it was an uneventful final stretch. We breasted the tape in 11 hrs 49 minutes, holding hands victoriously.

My thoughts were eerily similar to my first Bangalore Ultra 75k: Ah! Feeling so strong. Definitely returning next year to gun for a faster finish!

A few weeks ago, the race director shared this update: We’re pleased to announce the 3rd edition of The Malnad Ultra on Oct 13 & 14, 2018. Registrations will open by mid-December. Plan your 2018 Run Calendar and training for #malnadultra2018

Can’t wait.

I now leave you with two photo slideshows.

Landscapes & runners

  • Naveen, Sampath & me tearing down the gravity assisted hairpin

Me & more of me

  • Somewhere between 20k and 40k

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Anatomy of a pilgrimage (Sringeri edition)

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[Editor’s Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of letters to her children. The letters stopped after I returned to India. In the past year, after she got comfortable with connectivity and gmail, the letters resumed as emails to her children. This is email #3, the earlier ones were A marriage in the winter of 1962 and Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home.]

Foreword

A good friend and ex-colleague is a certified atheist with a problem. What is his problem, pray? When he travels to places involving religious excursions, he’s utterly fascinated by the devoutness of pilgrims. I suppose he’s not unique in his fascination (or curiosity) about what goes on in the mind and heart of a true believer on a pilgrimage. Since none of us are blessed with the powers of Asimov’s mentalists (circa Foundation Trilogy), all we have is a pilgrim’s body language and the look of piety and peace on her face. My mother’s letter below, where she writes in some detail about her pilgrimage to Sringeri and beyond, is the closest I’ve come to understanding that which I have not experienced. My comments/translations are within “[ ]” and her comments are within traditional “( )”. All Telugu/Sanskrit words are italicized.

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Dear ones,

This is about our Sringeri yatra. It was either in 2003 or 2006 [the year was confirmed to be 2003 because my parents only got a cell phone in 2004]. We originally planned to go to Srisailam and Mantralayam and return to Vijayawada in the month of September. On our way back we wanted to visit my cousin (Sarma bava) at Vinukonda.

Sringeri Temple

Temple in Sringeri

Srisailam is 5-6 hours bus journey from Vijayawada. Also known as dakshina Kashi (Kashi of the South), Srisailam is famous for the ancient temple of Siva (Bramarambha, Mallickarjuna) which is situated on a hill amidst Nallamalai forest. We started at 8 am and reached around 2 pm. We got decent accommodation. People are not permitted to travel in the night hours. All the vehicles are stopped at the foot of the hills for several reasons – the ghat road makes it unsafe, the dense Nallamalai forest is the abode of naxalites and wild animals.

We had a brief evening darshan the day we landed. Next morning we did abhishekam [a devotional activity/special worship usually performed by a priest] to the Lord and kumkum pooja [special worship] to the goddess.  In the evening we went around to see important places. Near devasthanam bus stand we visited Sakshi Ganapati who (as the legend goes) will take note of the devotees and report to his parents. We climbed up the tall sikharam (tower). The faithful believe that once you are there you will not have punarjanma [no more rebirths]. We climbed down the steep steps to see the patalaganga, the waterfall, and finally the Srisailam dam – the main water source to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Adi Sankaracharya did penance on this hill. They say even now saints perform tapas [penance] in the area. We of course didn’t come across any such saints.

Next morning we started for Mantralaya, home to the famous madhwa saint [saints from the sect started by Swami Madhwacharya who started one of three dominant Hindu belief systems – Visishta Advaita] Sri Raghavendra Swamy in the 15th-16th century. His samadhi [in Yoga, state of intense concentration achieved through meditation at which union with the divine is reached before/at death; tomb of Hindu saints] is on the bank of river Tungabhadra bordering Andhra and Karnataka. Annual birthday celebrations for the Swamy were underway and we stayed in Mantralaya that night. It is believed that one who stays there overnight will be blessed with good and positive vibrations.

It proved to be very true in our case. The long cherished desire to visit Sringeri was fulfilled by HIS grace – we were almost pushed to our dream place. It happened this way. We were waiting at the bus stand to return to Vijayawada as per our original plan. Nanna [my dad] was walking up and down and he learned that there was a direct bus to Sringeri at the same time. We were so happy. We checked for 2 M’s (money and medicines). They were sufficient so we called Srinivas [my older brother] and informed him about our changed programme.  We got into the bus to Sringeri. It was a 16 hour journey but we never thought about the strain.

As usual I occupied the window seat. The landscape was not interesting – dry land with no greenery.  I remember a few places that we passed through – Bellary, Chikmagaluru, and Shimoga. I was still wondering about our present trip – why this much urge and desire to visit this place?

Nanna wanted to go there since 1993 when Srinivas was in Bangalore. Since his health didn’t permit, we just went to Nandi hills and Mysore. His bent of mind is different. Frankly speaking I didn’t know anything about Sringeri till 1998. Some of my Chinmaya Mission friends had been there for 10 days sadhana camp [penance/devotional camp]. When I heard their experiences I was very much impressed and developed a strong desire.

Let me tell you some things about Sringeri which I know. Adi Sankaracharya established 4 spiritual peetams [spiritual seats] for the spiritual welfare of mankind. Four peetams in four directions: Badrinath in the north, Puri  in the east, Dwaraka in the west, and Sringeri in the south. Adi Shankara chose suitable gurus to head each peetam. The guru parampara [tradition] is continuing without any break till now.

Sri Bharati Tirtha maha swamiji is the present guru and head of the peetam which covers four south Indian states.

We reached Sringeri early in the morning. After much difficulty we could get  accommodation. After taking bath etc, we went to the temple (Sharada devi is the goddess). After that we went to see the Swamiji. His ashram is on the other side of Tungabhadra river and we crossed by a small bridge. The place was simply beautiful; we passed through an arbor of paan [betel leaf] creepers and finally we met guruji. Nanna introduced himself as Narasimha Yogi garu’s disciple [Narasimha Yogi was my father’s spiritual guru for over 30 years] and also mentioned his maternal uncle’s name. Since it was ekadasi, Swamiji was observing mounavratam [maintaining silence]. [Ekadasi is the 11th day after the full moon and is widely believed by Hindus to be cosmically favorable for spiritual rejuvenation. Fasting on that day is supposed to help spiritual seekers. Advanced souls like the swamiji apparently raise the penance a few notches higher.]

The temple area was reverberating with lalita sahsranamam [considered as one of the more powerful hymns to the feminine principle]. Homams [rituals involving offering to fire] were being performed by Vedic pundits on one side and suwasini poojas [special prayers] were being done on the other side. We both were feeling very good.

We came out of the temple to have lunch. Surprisingly all the hotels were closed – as it was ekadasi most of them were keeping fast. One couple in a house agreed to cook for us. They served simple delicious food on a banana leaf. After lunch we proceeded towards Udupi. It is an unique experience to travel in the Western Ghats. We had darshan [seeing God and.. God seeing you] of cute Udipi Krishna through a window.  I very much wanted to taste udipi food… unfortunately it was an odd time. We saw the big Geeta Bhavan where all the 700 slokas [verses] of Bhagawat Geeta were engraved with pictures. Our next halt was Kollur Mookambika. We passed through Manipal (little did we know that our grandson would be studying in that prestigious institute a decade later).

We stayed in Kollur (the town borders Kerala) that night. The water was cold! Sooo cold! It was ok for nanna though. I couldn’t get hot water – no amount of begging or bribing worked. Finally I closed my eyes and jumped with a cry “Jai mookambica!” I took bath. Till today I pour the first mug of water with jai mookambica’s name.

Dharmastala is the Siva temple. It was very peaceful and quiet. We were travelling towards Hornad (our last place in the list). It was the best! The landscape was so beautiful. Each one of you should visit. If you are not interested in temples you can devote less time to temples and more time to sightseeing. Nature also is God.

We passed through coffee plantations and paan [betel nut] creepers. I could see bunch of coffee seeds hanging. I enjoyed to the brim. We had comfortable and happy time in the temples. We could get decent accommodation for just 100 rupees per day with attached bath room, two beds and a fan. Actually they serve free food to all the pilgrims; there were big dining halls with marble floors and all well maintained. We didn’t take food because the timings were not suitable to us. We never used to have breakfast before temple darshan so by the time we were done we were too hungry to wait for temple food. Wherever we halted for the night we tied a rope to 2 windows and dried our clothes. There was no pushing in the temples. On the whole Karnataka people were soft, friendly and polite.

Let me conclude by relating the best and last experience – Annapoorna temple of Hornadu. The temple housed a beautiful four feet tall idol and we spent 6 hours from 4 pm to 10 pm. I wanted to eat dinner in the temple at any cost. Nanna waited outside. The food was simple yet it was such a thrilling experience I almost cried. I felt as if I was directly being fed by goddess Annapoorna. The concluding item for the day  was lighting the lamps followed by arati [Hindu worship in which light from wicks soaked in ghee or camphor is offered to deities]. The entire premises were full of lights. We were also allowed to light lamps. The whole town was present – shopkeepers, drivers and others. A lifetime memory.

We got into the Bangalore bus and were back to Vijayawada. Our Sringeri trip was memorable. That’s it.

Your loving amma,

 

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A vegetarian cracks an egg

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Eggs from free range chickens fed on a vegetarian diet, anyone?

Eggs from free range chickens fed on a vegetarian diet, anyone?

I was raised a vegetarian. Avoiding meat was the most natural thing for as long as I can remember in my childhood. During our teen years, eggs made a brief entrance into our lives. In the form of cakes. They would be baked in a special-purpose oven (egg handling done by a domestic help) away from the kosher confines of our kitchen.

I liked cakes though even the slightest overt taste of eggs would reduce my enjoyment. There was no danger of cakes making it to my Top 5 favorite desserts list. That list, I must mention, was dominated by milk-based desserts.

When I was in 8th grade, an uncle from Canada (who had turned omnivore a few decades earlier) presented a gastronomic proposal to my mother with a gleam in his eye. If she was willing to sacrifice a nonstick pan and give him free rein in the kitchen, he would make scrambled eggs for his nephews and niece. In a moment of weakness, she agreed. [See Addendum below].

An hour later, I was tasting my first egg dish. It didn’t send me racing to my friends’ houses for sneaky servings of egg dishes but the memory was definitely “hmm”.

Meanwhile, my older brother had discovered eggs at his college hostel mess. When he came home during holidays, he showed off his bread omelet making prowess (yes – that very same sacrificial nonstick pan was used!) I have a distinct memory that this tasted better than scrambled eggs.

Four years would pass before I got my next egg-eating opportunity. I was in college and omelets were a staple part of breakfast. I must have became an occasional to regular eater of omelets but I don’t have a strong recollection of it being something I “couldn’t live without”.

I graduated from college and my first job brought me to Jamshedpur. Those Tata Steel people! They really know how to take care of their employees, especially new trainees. The hostel mess was a serious upgrade from college. I think this is where I really developed a taste for omelets. I finally understood what the fuss was about.

The move to US elevated eggs to the look-forward-to segment of my weekly diet. My friend and housemate in Houston (who was instrumental in me becoming a basic-101-Indian-cook) taught me a cheese-intensive recipe which he dubbed as “Italian eggs”. The details are sketchy but my rendition was appreciated by my housemates as “almost as good as Shiv’s”.

From a parental standpoint, eggs were never on the “do not eat” list. It was more like “don’t ask don’t tell”. A lack of discernment between fertilized and unfertilized eggs and ignorance of the industrialization of poultry meant no moral dilemma.

Have you always been a vegetarian? Have you never tasted meat?

These were two frequent questions asked by Americans. My answers were Yes and No.

The latter answer requires elaboration. Stay tuned for the post “A vegetarian tries meat“.

Addendum: My mother just read this post and shared two related stories:

  • Later in the day (after our egg tasting escapade), my sister’s earring went missing and my mother was convinced that it was divine retribution for having broken a cardinal rule. Fortunately the retribution turned out to be just a slap on the wrist – the earring was eventually found next to a flowerbed in our garden (whew!)
  • Clamors for a home baked cake (from her children) had reached a crescendo so my mother finally gave in. She requested a family friend to come home and bake a cake. The friend deputed her son to lead the proceedings. Eggs were beaten, utensils were rendered impure, a mess was created but at the end of it, there was a cake to show for it. I don’t recall how it tasted but the episode had a scalding impact on my mother’s psyche. She went to bed tortured with guilt and had the worst nightmare.. a scene with scores of chickens squawking loudly in her face. For someone who’s not seen Hitchcock’s Birds, she could have been describing one of the climax scenes. The nightmare cured her of her newly found affinity towards cakes.

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The Salmon Experiments

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How do they DO this?

How do they DO this?

Among marine life, salmon probably lead the most interesting lives. Born in freshwater rivers, they migrate to the ocean where they live most of their adult lives and, when it’s time to spawn, they start the reverse migration process swimming upstream all the way to their natal river, often to the exact riverbed area where they were born. They use chemical cues and magnetoreception to pull off this incredible feat.

The tragedy is that the reverse migration takes so much out of them that they die soon after spawning.

Or maybe it’s a tragedy to us human folk who look at their life cycle and say “Oh! What a crying shame!”

They could be fulfilling their life’s purpose exactly per plan: the salmon run and the spawning ritual capping a life well lived.

But why couldn’t the salmon live an easier life? Why does every salmon, when confronted with the R Frost choice, choose the direction less traveled?

Something to do with free will I bet.. what that they don’t possess but we humans do.

For strange and largely inexplicable reasons, I’ve been making salmon like decisions in the past decade. Rather deliberately of course.

I’m calling these decisions as my own personal salmon experiments. Some have lasted a few years, others have become pseudo-permanent, and still others are a bit like a sustained quit smoking campaign.

Here’s the list so far:

  • Why take a hot bath when one can take a cold water bath?
  • Why take an Ibuprofen when you can just wing it and ride the pain waves?
  • Why eat more when you can eat less?
  • Why remain vegetarian when you can be vegan?
  • Why eat cooked food when one can eat raw? (Treading this path gingerly as marital and progeny threats are being brandished)
  • Why drink coffee?
  • Why take the elevator when one can take the stairs? (I’m blessed to have a son who shows the way whenever I weaken)

The good biwi has come up with the expression ‘joyless life’ to describe my gastronomic idiosyncrasies.

In my defense, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. Really.

Every experiment is a new challenge that brings with it the satisfaction of continuous summiting. Who said there’s only one type of mountain?

 

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