Resetting habit defaults

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 full 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.

Could I extract 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. If Uber/Coke not available, then Ola/Pepsi (or vice versa).

Amazon Prime, on the other hand, is definitely habit forming. During my peak consumption years (2000-07), gratification in a *mere 2 days* was a powerful drug. But it’s a lot easier to resist at lower consumption volumes.

In closing, I’d say three factors will influence my future choice of technology products/services: underdog status, purity of purpose, and commitment to privacy.

The Yin and Yank Race

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 ūüôā
  • 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 ūüôā

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

Anatomy of a pilgrimage (Sringeri edition)

[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.

—————————————————————————————————————

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 ‚Äď 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 Рthe 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 РVisishta 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 Рwe 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 ‚Äď 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 Рas 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‚Äôt get hot water ‚Äď no amount of begging or bribing worked. Finally I closed my eyes and jumped with a cry ‚ÄúJai mookambica!‚ÄĚ I took bath. Till today I pour the first mug of water with jai mookambica‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď 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,

 

A vegetarian cracks an egg

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‚Äôt send me racing to my friends‚Äô houses for sneaky servings of egg dishes but the memory was definitely ‚Äúhmm‚ÄĚ.

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 ‚Äď 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‚Äôt have a strong recollection of it being something I ‚Äúcouldn‚Äôt live without‚ÄĚ.

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 ‚Äúdo not eat‚ÄĚ list. It was more like ‚Äúdon‚Äôt ask don‚Äôt tell‚ÄĚ. 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.

The Salmon Experiments

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?

 

Swami Vivekananda on India’s Caste Problem

[Editor’s Note: I don’t recall from which of his books I found this extract. It’s been sitting in my Drafts folder for 4.5 years and is eminently worth a read.]

Casteist_Quates_of_Vivekanand-3A man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India and the two castes become equal. The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta.

In spite of all the ravings of the priests, caste is simply a crystallized social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench, and it can only be removed by giving back to people their lost social individuality. Caste is simply the outgrowth of the political institutions of India; it is a hereditary trade guild. Trade competition with Europe has broken caste more than any teaching.

There is no country in the world without caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan.

Take a man in his different pursuits, for example : when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudra-hood; when he is busy transacting some some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmana. Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another. Otherwise, how did Viswamitra become a Brahmana and Parashurama a Kshatriya?

If you teach Vedanta to the fisherman, he will say, “I am as good a man as you, I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher, but I have the same God in me, as you have in you.” And that is what we want, no privilege for anyone, equal chances for all; let everyone be taught that the Divine is within, and everyone will work out his own salvation. The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone for ever from the soil of India.

The Brahmana-hood is the ideal of humanity in India as wonderfully put forward by Shankaracharya at the beginning of his commentary on the Gita, where he speaks about the reason for Krishna’s coming as a preacher for the preservation of Brahmana- hood, of Brahmana-ness. That was the great end. This Brahmana, the man of God, he who has known Brahman, the ideal man, the perfect man, must remain, he must not go. And with all the defects of the caste now, we know that we must all be ready to give to the Brahmanas this credit, that from them have come more men with real Brahmana-ness in them than from all the other castes. We must be bold enough, must be brave enough to speak their defects, but at the same time we must give credit that is due to them.

The duty of every aristocracy is to dig its own grave, and the sooner it does so, the better. The more he delays, the more it will fester and the worse death it will die. It is the duty of the Brahmana, therefore, to work for the salvation of the rest of mankind, in India. If he does that and so long as he does that, he is a Brahmana.

It seems that most of the Brahmanas are only nursing a false pride of birth; and any schemer, native or foreign, who can pander to this vanity and inherent laziness, by fulsome sophistry, appears to satisfy more.¬†Beware Brahmanas, this is the sign of death! Arise and show your manhood, your Brahmana-hood, by raising the non-Brahmanas around you – not in the spirit of a master – not with the rotten canker of egoism crawling with superstitions and charlatanry of East and West – but in the spirit of a servant. ¬†As Manu says, all these privileges and honors are given to the Brahmana because, “with him is the treasury of virtue”. He must open that treasury and distribute to the world.

It is true that he was the earliest preacher to the Indian races, he was the first to renounce everything in order to attain to the higher realization of life, before others could reach to the idea. It was not his fault that he marched ahead of the other castes. Why did not the other castes so understand and do as they did? Why did they sit down and be lazy, and let the Brahmanas win the race?

To the non-Brahmana castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmana, because as I have shown; you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent? Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go than you? Instead of wasting your energies in vain discussions and quarrels in the newspapers, instead of fighting and quarreling in your own homes – which is sinful – use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmana has, and the thing is done. Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars? Why do you not spend millions to bring Sanskrit education to all the castes of India? That is the question. The moment you do these things, you are equal to the Brahmana! That is the secret power in India.

The only safety, I tell you men who belong to the lower castes, the only way to raise your condition is to study Sanskrit, and this fighting and writing and frothing against the higher castes is in vain, it does no good, and it creates fight and quarrel, and this race, unfortunately already divided, is going to be divided more and more. The only way to bring about the leveling of castes is to appropriate the culture, the education which is the strength of the higher castes.

 

The Real Indistructibles

Editor’s Note: There were middle class values in the 60’s/70’s/80’s and there are middle class values now. Big big difference. The old adage used to be “if it’s not broken, why fix it”. And if something does break, well.. repair (don’t replace) it. My parents have taken these¬†adages to heart.. for 50 something years. I present to you an important subset of the Real Indistructibles from my parents’ home. If you are wondering about the blog title, it’s sorta related to this one.]

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Center table (circa 1971-72). It earned a fresh lamination top sometime in the late 90’s


 

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1968 vintage. Black spot at 4’o clock? A candle left unextinguished when the family went for a post-prandial walk.

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1964 vintage. Upholstery probably changed once and multiple seat cover changes but the timber stands proud. I recall one coat of varnishing that we kids fought over.

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Usha sewing machine purchased for Rs. 300 in 1971. Mom wanted the foot operated model (which would release later) but that didn’t stop her from churning out masterpieces over the ages. Delightful designs for infants & toddlers her specialty. Still going strong.

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Purchased¬†in 1964. This stool’s twin (click omission) required some props.

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Godrej almirah (1975). Did anyone from that era NOT own this?

A proposal in Lincoln Park, Chicago

I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty.¬†– Algernon: The importance of being earnest

My friend Vikrant shared this on Facebook and it triggered a 20 year old memory.

First of all, I don’t entirely agree with Algernon. I’m in vehement agreement with his last sentence for sure. Nothing romantic about proposing? Now that’s a bit unfair.

American men have a fine tradition of proposing to (and often surprising the living daylights outta) their better halves. I happen to know two such proposals.

My ex-colleague and friend Laurie was ambushed at the finish line of her first marathon. Soon after her fianc√© hugged and congratulated her, he quietly muttered “Are you ready?” to his buddy and, upon getting confirmation, went down on his knees and proposed. Laurie, already flush with post-race endorphins, would have one more memory attached to an already momentous day. And there was no need for a payment to Marathon Photos.

Our friends Jason and Julie had a long relationship before they tied the knot. Along the way, Jason did a 6-month teaching-English-in-China gig. Along the way, they did TWO around-the-world backpacking vacations. During their second soir√©e (chronicled beautifully here), against a picturesque backdrop in some exotic island, Jason proposed to Julie. There were no selfie sticks back then and no friend in tow but I’m sure that moment is forever etched in their memories.

My story is a bit different.

How I recall Lincoln Park ‘hood

Met this gorgeous girl on Jun 15 at a networking event in an art gallery in Chicago. I was deeply smitten. By the end of the evening I had made enough of an impression for her to acquiesce when I casually closed with “Hey, ¬†I enjoyed talking to you. Could you share your email address so we can catch up sometime?”

Six weeks later we were on our first date. Later that month (after date #10 or so), I was announcing to my Evanston friend “she is the ONE and I would propose to her one of these days”.

My friend predictably responded with “What’s the hurry? Take some time before you pop the question.”

Of course I ignored him. Which is not to say I proposed to her on date #11.

Dinner at Copper Chimney. Nicholas Payton concert at the Jazz Showcase. Dinner at Shrees in Downers Grove. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan concert in Downtown. Dinner at the Indian Monsoon. Fareed Haq and Rudresh Mahattappa concerts at the Green Mill. Bike rides down Lake Shore Drive on the GS-700ES. Walk from Grant Park to Field Museum of Natural History to catch R. Carlos Nakai in action. Chicago city orchestra. Dave Brubeck with Bobby Militello. An all-night road trip to Wisconsin punctuated by a 4 am stop at Denny’s.

At some point the biweekly trysts turned into daily sojourns. We couldn’t spend enough time with each other apparently.

Having a 700cc Suzuki bike as the sole form of transportation added to my courtship cool quotient (I reckon). My Evanston friend’s Saturn and my Park Ridge friend’s Accord came in handy for some planned dates. Chicago’s public transit network bailed us out rest of the time.

But winter was approaching and I wanted 4 wheels.

Oct 11 dawned. I bought a Saturn SL2.

That was the evening I would propose to my girlfriend but even I didn’t know it until the precise moment.

It was a Friday evening and we were watching an 80’s era Hindi movie in my apartment.

I wish I remembered at which point in the movie it happened. All I recall was that there was some kind of whitespace (it was a VHS tape so couldn’t have been a commercial). A rare flash of deep certitude overcame me and I knew it was time.

I popped the question.

The beautiful face with perfect eyes and exquisite nose became suffused with incredulity and spoke.

“Oh my God! Are you sure?”

“Yes”

“Can you give me some time to think about it?”

“Of course. Take your time.”

(A few minutes later)

“Yes!”

Bingo Little had found his Rosie M Banks.

P.S. For the next few days, she’d keep asking me “Are you sure you meant it? Because if you aren’t.. or have any second thoughts, I won’t hold it against you.”

To which I’d keep replying “I couldn’t be surer.”

P.S (2). So there you have it Vikrant.

Ravi Varma in a Vijayawada home

{Editor‚Äôs Note: My mother is a late adopter of the Internet. In the pre-Internet era, she used to write the loveliest of long 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. She‚Äôs harvesting¬†from¬†the oldest tendrils of her memory which is making¬†the reading so so¬†enjoyable. In this email (Sep 29, 2016), she‚Äôs relating a chance encounter with an art connoisseur¬†rich lady during¬†her Vijayawada walking years. The email has gone through a minor editing lens without changing my mom‚Äôs tone and voice. I‚Äôve italicized the Telugu names – fewer references compared to the first story¬†– A marriage in the winter of 1962. My mom‚Äôs sub-text/commentary is ‚Äúitalicized within quotes.‚ÄĚ My comments are within ‚Äú[ ]‚ÄĚ}

Dear ones,
¬† ¬† Some time back I saw portraits of famous painters on TV. I thought about Ravi Varma’s paintings. By now you know that I take a long time to come to¬†the actual point. I¬†don’t do Pr√©cis writing.
¬† ¬† I¬†started walking as a mere excercise, probably in 1992. Slowly it became enjoyable, a habit, and part of my daily routine. I¬†needed no other entertainment or company. Walking along the Vizag beach from¬†from our Kirlampudi house, 6 am to 7 am,¬†was the best. ¬†It was continued in Vijayawada. In those days Nannagaru¬†[dad] was not tensed up, he started worrying after Lakshmi’s accident. [Years ago, my dad’s sister (Lakshmi attaya) died on her way to a neighborhood store when a rash auto rickshaw driver ran her over in Hyderabad.]
¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† Walking ¬†was like eating gulab jamuns (an Indian dessert). I¬†surveyed all¬†the places. Once I walked to Kanakadurga temple [a distance of 5km that undertaken as¬†a mokku (aka mannat in Hindi) – a sacred pledge]. Anandamayee and Siah garu moved¬†to Abhilash in 1999 [retired couple who became our parents’ neighbor]. Both Anandamayee and I started¬†walked together. She was not in favour of freelance walking [freelance as in, changing the route every day at will]. So Siddhartha college ground became our new walking venue. She was a good conversationist. They had lived¬†in many places like us – Calcutta, Bombay, Jamshedpur and and even Srilanka. We knew a lot of common people¬†– Seeta pinni,¬†Rama of Calcutta Kasturi garu (Anand’s attaya)¬†and KCP Reddy garu. Very strangely she knew my mavayya¬†[uncle] when he was in Samalakota [a town in East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh] many years ago. Moreover their Susarla [a Telugu surname] family was very big and she had enough material to share with me [my marathon friends will relate to material]. It went on smoothly for quite some time. One day we decided to wear salwar kameez¬†[North Indian dress that rivals the sari in popularity] as our new walking dress code. A latent desire previously expressed meant I¬†already had Prashanti’s [mom’s niece] dress. Anandamayee¬†had to buy.
Shakuntala in the forest - a famous Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala in the forest – a famous Ravi Varma painting

We stepped out in our new attire [you’ve got to imagine how big a deal this is for two South Indian women in their 50’s wearing a new outfit for the first time in their lives in public]. For the first¬†100 feet I concentrated on the road only. After crossing 2-3 buildings I could notice raised eye brows and slight smiles. We reached the ground. Some walked away without any expression [Indians can rival Jeeves’ stiff upper lip]. Lolla Sarma (my cousin) opened his mouth but immediately closed and¬†walked away. We finished our walk, re-entered our building with a sigh of relief – first day was over. Next time when we visited ¬†Lolla Sarma’s house he told his wife “Mythily Akkayya [i.e. the protagonist] and her friend vesham vesukuni¬†[translates to costume or disguise] walking ki osthunaru.” [translates to coming.]

    Somehow our relationship got spoiled and we stopped walking together. She started walked on the terrace and I walked in the colony [back to freelance walking]. I walked up and down the street parallel to ours. It was a chukki walk Рjust like a bull goes round and round a chukki (ganuga) to crush til into oil, so was I walking. Now the topic story starts.
¬† ¬† A¬†woman of my age stepped out from a palatial house. She was in walking shoes and all. She said she will join me in walking. [Note the use of “said she will join” as opposed to “may I join”] She introduced herself as Siris Rajugaru’s daughter, Annapurna. Siris Raju was one of the richest men of Vijayawada¬†– sucessful industrialist, owner of Siris pharma company, Raju of Bhimavaram (which is the most fertile land of West Godavari). So my new walking companion¬†was seriously¬†rich lady.
Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest - another Ravi Varma painting

Shakuntala and Dushyanta in the forest – another Ravi Varma painting

In¬†the first round of our walking, she told everything about herself and her family, then she narrated stories of the other bungalow owners. She suddenly stopped in front of a new apartment and said “I¬†will show you something.” It was a 3 bedroom apartment¬†on the¬†5th floor. When she opened the front door,¬†I can’t express the sight that beheld me. An apartment with very minimal furniture but otherwise it was an absolute feast to my eyes. Room after room was filled with paintings – some original Ravi Varmas paintings bought by her from different places and exhibitions, portraits of Rama, Krishna, Yashoda Krishna, Nala Damayanti, Shakuntala Dushyant bought in various auctions. There were some statues as well.¬†I was so happy, so happy, I¬†wanted to share with others — Anandamayee, Udaka [my mother’s sister], and Seenu [my older brother]. She said I¬†can bring anybody – to give them a similar tour.¬†She gave me her phone number. I¬†was so much thrilled. I¬†took 2-3 rounds. She showed me the difference between original and others (as if I¬†understood]. It was like drinking rasagulla juice [can you tell my mother has a sweet tooth?] It was an unplanned trip.. ¬†Nanna [my father] would be anxious as it was past my usual walking duration.. so I¬†returned home. I¬†thought to myself “will come again and do detailed survey” but opportunity comes only once.

¬† ¬† Next day she was waiting for me near her house. After one round of walking she invited to her house. She showed her well decorated and well kept house – turned out to be one more museum. However, I¬†was not that much impressed… it was ok with all crystal and marble things, the kind one sees¬†in airports and malls in USA. She had a separate studio where she paints and employs others to paint for her. After a cup of tea I¬†left.
    Next day onwards she was not to be seen. When I asked her maid servant, she said she was sleeping. Later, when I happened to meet her she refused to recognize me. Anyway my childhood desire to see original Ravi Varma paintings was fulfilled.
    Rasagulla freelance walking came down to walking in the school ground then to chakki walk and finally to corridor and drawng room walking. Eventually I stopped it completely after I started and became regular with the Art of Living routine. Thank you for reading my thoughts.
    Yours loving Amma
[Closing note: the apparent amnesia displayed by the lady reminded me of a Vikramaditya/Raja Bhoja story. If your childhood reading involved a healthy diet of Amar Chitra Katha, you probably recall that story too?]

Day of the gritty knock

If the race wasn’t worth writing about, you didn’t give it your all. – A donkey

[Editor’s Note: This is my Mumbai Marathon 2017 race report masquerading as a three-part cricket metaphor laced narrative. Any self-aggrandizement percolating through is purely accidental. Really.]

Part 1: The week after

Jan 17-19, 2017

I laced up my shoes and went for a 30 min run. By run, I mean a slow walk turning into a shuffle which eventually became an amble and, with 5 min remaining, I finally trotted.

The last time I wore my (now 7 year old) shoes was 14 months ago. The previous time I laced up was for the last 25k in my 1st 75k ultra.

It’s not like I wasn’t running in the interim. Barring these 2 shod episodes, I’ve been mostly running barefoot or with¬†minimalist sandals¬†since Feb 2012.

For the first time (after running scores of marathons and ultras), my quads were OK but my calves and glutes were not. The morning after I felt like I had been gored in my right buttock. And the knives buried in my calves were just not retreating.

The buttock thing had to be a glute strain, a self-diagnosis that I accepted with mixed feelings. I was forewarned. For the preceding two months, a low intensity strain had been coming up every few weeks but I adopted corrective measures that seemed to work.

No runner likes an injury but if it had to happen, this wasn’t¬†a bad time – next race was at least 6 months away.¬†For the mafiosi runner’s body, was it finally the butt’s turn?

Miraculously, the glute strain relented 36 hours later but the calves did not. They would require 3 sessions of aggressive stretching by a physiotherapist to restore normalcy. Certainly another first.

Somewhere on the course, my right heel got punctured by a sharp object. Not all sharp pokes on the soles are significant so it’s hard to recall where this might have happened.¬†For the record, Mumbai roads are WAY better than Bangalore roads (a fellow barefoot runner had this to say “Thanks to Karnataka Government for the terrible roads.. which makes Mumbai roads feel smooth as butter”).¬†The combination of punctured heel and knifed¬†calves made the¬†post-race¬†barely-a-kilometer walk to the hotel excruciatingly painful and impossibly long. [Link to the day#4 barefoot¬†pics]

There’s a reason why I’m dwelling so much on the post-race pain. Part 2 of the story will shed light¬†on the why.

Sandals or naked feet?

About half my races have been run with shoes. The rest are probably an even split between huaraches and barefoot. If you’ve been following my blog closely, you’d know that I’ve been vacillating on this footwear business. Maybe there was no “one right way” as the purists have been opining. Perhaps Dr. Rajat Chauhan is right in admonishing runners that jettisoning shoes doesn’t have to be a “losing my religion” decision.

My interval training workouts were all run barefoot but the longest barefoot run in the preceding weeks was a measly 16k. Physically, I was a far cry from my peak form in 2013-14. Lungs have required daily inhaler assistance for past two years. The nagging pain in the sacro-ileo zone (first manifested 5 years ago) has bothered me on more long runs than usual. And there was Senor Maximus reminding me that my right flank was doing more work than the left. Against this backdrop, sandals would have been the prudent defensive choice.

So why did I decide to run barefoot?

It was an expression of intent. An aggressive front-foot meet-the-ball-early intent.

As always, my team and the opposing team would be¬†simultaneously occupying the crease. By ‘crease’, of course I mean my body and my mind. The¬†various parts of my¬†body represent ‘my team’, the conditions were the opposition and how the shared resource (the mind) performed would determine the victor.

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

Part 2: The target before the target

I’m part of a running cult where devout members make their flights reservations for SCMM six months before race start. They *assume* (rightly in most cases) that their registrations will be accepted and complete the formalities within 24 hours of registration opening and obsessively follow-up until the Procam folks are like “Ok ok! you are in! Sorry we kept you waiting!”

But I was going to give SCMM 2017 a miss. I had run two ultras recently and not in the best form to challenge my personal best from 2014 so why bother?

Then I got this¬†message from my friend Charulekha in mid-Oct:¬†“Hey V, are you running Mumbai Marathon? Because if you are.. we’d love for you & your runner friends to fundraise for AADI”.

One thing led to another. I registered in late Oct, the acceptance came in soon enough but it would take me till Nov-end to put up this fundraising page.

As I would write in my fundraising emails to friends, this is the first time I registered for a race at the suggestion of a friend. In hind sight, the target (25 Lakhs) was several shades beyond unrealistic. Raising $10,000 in my first fundraising run (circa 2002 in Bay Area)¬†was a “beginner’s luck ” data point that I probably should have¬†tempered.

In any case, I wholeheartedly embraced¬†the pre-race target. In my emails, I would invoke BHAG, suffix it with “Gulp!” and¬†allowed my unbridled optimism to suffuse through. AADI’s mission became my mission and I emoted this in every single email/Whatsapp/Facebook Message. 188¬†messages to be precise. My¬†‘constituency’ included folks who had contributed in 2002 (all in US), Charu’s (and my) classmates from school, my college mates, ex-colleagues at Yahoo and Adobe, and runner friends in Bangalore.

The end result? 66 unique contributors helped raise a total of 3.5 lakhs. 37.2% is a pretty darn good conversion rate!!! Thanks again dear contributors (you WILL hear from me soon with a link to this blog post).

I considered gamifying the fundraising pitch. Would donors double their contribution if I ran the race faster thany previous best? A friend rightly assessed that non-runners would not be moved by this. What if I made a spectacle of myself during the entire race? A few promising ideas emerged on this theme but were eventually laid to rest.

Years ago, a friend had honestly asked “Why should I contribute just because you are running?” Back then, I was running my first ever marathon (a special moment in itself). This time I was in a certain life zone where running and racing marathons was immensely pleasurable (even considering that all races involved pain to some degree).

I haven’t quite researched the history of fundraising on the back of endurance events ¬†but I’m guessing it’s an attenuated version of Christ and suffering. I care for this cause *so much* that I’m willing to cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles.. or hike/run the Appalachian Trail or run from Srinagar to Kanyakumari. And, learning from the Pheidippides saga, not die in the process.

So I was running a mere marathon (without adding any levels of difficulty or attach performance goals) and expecting people to buy into my cause in a BHAG way?

I wasn’t suffering enough, I told myself. I indulged in some programmatic scenarios. If I don’t shave off 3 min from my personal best, I would run another marathon the next weekend. Heck, I’d make it a 50k if my race performance sucked.

But the only use of these suffering scenarios were if I put them into my fundraising emails to f&f. Occurring as the idea did at the 11th hour and considering that I signed up for a major work deadline on the eve of the race, this fundraising premise was never tested.

The universe was however listening to my chatter.

A certain chump who was running a mere marathon wanted suffering. The word went around.

Oh yes sir, word spread nicely indeed. I suffered during the race (par for the course) but the week long post-run suffering is a personal landmark of sorts. As they say, be careful what you ask for. Even in the private recesses of your mind.

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Part 3: The race

Finally I get to write about the race!

There aren’t many things one can control 10 days prior to the race but adequate sleep and nutrition are certainly two of them. I did reasonably well in that department. But that was about it.

Developed body ache and mild fever over the penultimate weekend. ¬†Ditched the taper run and compensated with extra sleep and stay-at-home-vegging-out. An important 3-day business trip to Delhi was unavoidable. The crisp cold Gurgaon air fortunately didn’t do any damage. Well, not much anyway.

The evening¬†before the race, felt early symptoms of body ache and a mild fever. Without panicking, I started imposing my famed positive thinking will on the problem. “It’s just psychosomatic jitters,” I told myself, “about a race I wasn’t 100% ready for and a target pace that I hadn’t mentally set.”¬†Tea with a friend followed by sumptuous dinner with my BHUKMP gang didn’t alleviate the physical symptoms.

Desperate times called for drastic measures Рa 400 mg Ibubrofen tablet was downed before bedtime. After a few hours of fitful sleep, I sweated away the <whatever>. Woke up fresh with positive thoughts.

I’ve never woken up on race day feeling “I’ll take it easy today.. won’t push myself.. just finish the distance yaar.” This time was no different.

I had to shave 3 min so I needed to be close to the 3:45 bus. The sketchy plan was to start the race with Shilpi (who had done a 3:42 a few months earlier) and Krishna (also targeting a 3:45).

The 3 of us were together for probably the first two minutes of the race ūüôā

Shilpi took off like a rabbit and (while I wasn’t sporting a Garmin) I knew it was faster than 3:45. Kept checking my watch for the first few km’s and ensured I was on target pace. Krishna had fallen back by then and we were running our own races. As it almost always is.

Sighted Pankaj Rai about 50m ahead of me. We would be in this holding pattern for a few km’s until I passed him on the first up hill. That was also when Nirupma and Rajesh passed me. They would eventually finish in 3:41 and 3:51.

At some point between 8 and 10km, I sighted and caught the 3:45 bus. There were 10-12 runners. My initial urge was to not linger but stay just a little ahead. After a few km, the bus caught up and my mind-body sent a clear signal that I should stay with the bus.

This staying with the bus I had never done before but stay I did. Like a bloody leech. The bus surged, I surged. The bus fell back, I fell back (though I don’t really recall this part!)

At dinner, Krishna had told me that the 3:45 pacer’s personal best was 4:10 but that “he was confident” of bringing the bus home on time. These are some of the consistently bone-headed decisions that SCMM seems to be making year after year on the choice of pacers. Simple thumb rule: if you are driving the 3:45 bus, you should have run 3:30 a few times at least.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The pacer did a pretty decent job, at least until 26k. He indulged in some mild chatter with a few runners.. kept calling out in advance of hydration stops.. there was good camaraderie in the bus around sharing drinks.

Reaching the halfway mark felt like a major accomplishment. At 1:51, it was technically a minute faster. I wasn’t complaining then but even an aggressive minute can hurt you in the second half.

Caught up with Satish (another Bangalore runner friend) at the halfway mark. He pulled ahead soon thereafter and I would not see him until the end.

Where eagles dare

After the euphoria of cresting 21.1k settled down, I hit a soft wall. I didn’t think I had slowed down but the bus was suddenly 30 meters ahead. To my horror, it became 40m, then 50m.

An epochal scene from Alistair McLean’s war thriller (Burton hanging perilously atop an enemy house while stretching out his hand to a slipping comrade) is the best way to describe what was happening.

The bus was extending a hand but I had to stretch and clasp it.

It was a pivotal point in my race and I knew it. I dug the spurs into my side, sped up and pulled myself into the gravitational field of the bus.

Safe. Little did I know that the safety net would unravel 4km later.

There are two Barnabas Sacketts in my running group and one of them (Bhasker) passed me at 26k and uttered the magical words “Great effortless form, V. Keep it going.”

I managed to mumble “Really? But I’m beginning to struggle.”

Soon after I noticed a few young bucks pulling ahead of the bus.. I passed the pacer and he seemed to be noticeably flagging. I caught up with one of the bucks who confirmed that the bus was officially behind schedule.

I spared a thought for the pacer. It was not his fault they picked him for the wrong bus. I was thankful. He had brought us/me to this point and now it was up to me, myself and Irene. Scratch that, no Irene either.

A ¬†recent research study found that runners who were told that their running form was good (or great).. their form actually improved. I’m not making this up. This should not surprise anyone who swears by Homeopathy or has been following the experiments of education innovator Sugato Dutta (or Roy?)

Bhasker’s magical words worked like a magic potion and I was able to retain my rhythm and momentum. I could tell that I was steadily losing pace but I was in that “damned if I’m going to walk even for 10 seconds” zone.

Of plant talkers, horse whisperers and yoga instructors

Do you know any ladies with a green thumb who insist that their plants and flowers bloom better because of their daily monologue? Or yoga instructors that soothingly murmur “now breathe through your lower body all the way to your toes and relax every muscle along the way..”

If you crack up incredulously at these flower children, I’ll give you something new to laugh at.

Somewhere near 15k, my right glute pressed the panic button. It was not a full blown strain but the throbbing was steady and ominous. I took a deep breath and in my most reasonable yet firm yoga-instructor-meets-drill-sergeant voice told my butt “I know you are hurting but we have a job to do here. Please PLEASE deactivate those pain sensors until we finish this race and I promise to take good care of you after we are done.”

It worked! It bleddy WORKED! A few minutes later, the pain receptors had called off their panic alert.

This sequence happened a second time between 30 and 35k. My new exhortation addendum was “we are almost home!”

Those pious Pedder road people

There’s a special place in marathon heaven reserved for the folk who cheer or offer salted oranges on the Pedder Road hill.

Vaishali’s egging on at this stage really cheered me up and I was ready for the final assault.

I think when you are pissed, your vision gets affected. In the final 5-8k, when one frantically needs to compute finish time scenarios to goad oneself, I just could not spot those godforsaken km markers. It soured my mood even more.

With 4km to go, a runner passed me with a high decibel hoo-hoo-ha-ha breathing rhythm. What a great idea, I thought. With my own rendition of the same, I attempted to stay with him. It worked for 500m.

With 2-3km remaining, Santhosh (of Runners High fame) very helpfully goaded me with “Still on track V.. finish strong.”

I knew I was not on track but I latched on to the latter sentiment. Strong, at this stage of the race, is a relative term anyway.

Upto this point, for Bangalore barefoot runners, the SCMM terrain was like a first world city’s road just beginning to slip into disrepute. The final left turn towards Azad Maidan greeted us with an abrupt and rude “Fooled you suckers! You were probably missing Bangalore roads – ha ha!”

Finished in 3 hrs 57 min.

Missed my target by 12 minutes but I was plenty satisfied with my overall performance. Like those batsmen who frequently rate their match saving knocks higher than their personal best (or match winning) scores, I will treasure this more than my 2014 effort.

It doesn’t mean I don’t want to hit a purple patch and effortlessly coast to a new personal best.

I will be back.

With a better preparation – for both the fundraising and the race.

 Mathew Hayden once said

Mathew Hayden once said “If you really want to see aggression, look into Rahul Dravid’s eyes.” Channeling my inner Dravid.