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.

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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 lakhs37.2% 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 – a 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 🙂

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.

When in Rome be a barefoot runner

When in Rome be a Roman.


If you are a runner there’s possibly no better city than Bangalore for year-round running. There’s at most one hot month and even then the mornings are nothing remotely like Chennai. There’s hardly a run where I don’t thank my stars I’m in Bangalore!

While it’s widely known that Bangalore roads are terrible for motorists, it’s probably the worst city for barefoot runners.

If the roads weren’t this bad I might have never switched to 4mm huaraches.

Inflection points in my barefoot journey:

The rhythm seemed to return but it would get punctured every time a blasted pebble got stuck in my sandals. This probably happened a 100 times and I only exaggerate slightly. THIS was the elephant in the room “rhythm crusher” that I had missed! After running KTM for the third consecutive time barefoot (barely 2 months ago) and extracting 25+ thorns, I resolved to NOT run barefoot at that course again. Now extrapolating this Aha moment to Ultra with its pebble-laden obstacle gotchas and non-trivial stretches of gravel-masquerading-as-road would require a level of intelligence that I clearly did not possess. Or maybe it was bravado?

The above extract is from the Bangalore Ultra 2014 race report. I wouldn’t blame you if you concluded that I relapsed from a barefoot to a shod runner.

However, that hasn’t happened yet.

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Barefoot running is religion. Barring the Tarahumara, Zola Budd, and a smattering of insanely talented (but pecuniary) elite runners who only knew barefoot running, the rest are mostly the born again religious variety.

Given how the resurgence (or the start?) of modern barefoot running was inspired by Born to Run, the anti-shod religious moorings should not surprise us too much.

As a practitioner, observer of other Bangalore barefoot runners, and chronicler of barefoot running in India, I know very few barefoot purists – the ones who run *all* their runs barefoot. If you excluded the slower runners, you have maybe 2-3 such runners (in India). The most famous in that exclusive list is Thomas Bobby Philip. Someday a tome will be written about this mutant runner with a VO2Max of 65 and an enviable Benjamin Button core.

The rest of the barefoot runners who have persisted for longer than 3 years (and I include myself in this category) have dabbled with various forms of minimalist footwear (sandals, Vibram 5-fingers or zero-drop 4mm shoes) before finding their ‘new normal’.

For many, the new normal was Vibrams all the time or sandals all the time. For me, it’s been an annual reset of the previous normal.

What’s my current normal? Barefoot for my speed/hill runs and sandals for the long runs on Bangalore roads though I’ll shed my sandals for more of my long runs to re-acclimarize myself for SCMM 2017.

Give me a smooth urban terrain and I’ll run barefoot anyday.

When in Rome, or any city with smooth asphalt or concrete, I’ll run barefoot anyday. For any distance.

I’m racing, not running!

Progress is linearly proportional to one’s efforts but results often come in cycles. – several wise men

Coming off a 22-month streak, the 2013-14 season was looking rather normal. KTM in Sep followed by 75k Ultra in Nov and finish off with SCMM in Jan.

I had come within flirting distance of sub-4 times in a few training FMs and finally did a 3:55 (or thereabouts) in Apr so was flush with confidence, optimismghg and expectation.

KTM 2013

ktm_2013_barefoot_flyingCame really close to a DNS (Did Not Start) thanks to a judgement lapse on the preceding Friday – carbo-loading at a non-regular eating joint (Rajasthani Rajdhani at that) was not a smart thing after all. Curd with jeera powder until Sat evening brought parity to proceedings. It was a trail run and I had prepared myself mentally and logistically to dart into the bushes. Fortunately, a final pre-race checkin to the loo brought glad tidings and I was mentally & physiologically re-centered.

In 5 years at KTM (and 2nd time barefoot), a first half of 1:55 was easily my most aggressive start. My ‘two Cocojals per FM’ strategy seemed to be working – for a change, cramps wouldn’t be the culprit this time around. The payback for my unsustainable first half pace was an undramatic and inexorable slowing down. I finished in 4 hrs 9 min. A highly respectable time for KTM but I was gunning for a lot faster. I’d be back (I promised myself).

Ultra 2013

The urge to run my second 75k ultra started immediately after I finished the 2012 edition. I was mentally a lot stronger. Physically too, with a lot of consistently high mileage weeks, weekends and months. Thanks to Sir Gaunker‘s tried and tested nutrition strategy for ultras, ragi was going to be my primary fuel. What’s more, Rajaram’s wife very kindly agreed to prepare the ragi pudding for my race. Meanwhile Rajaram was registered for the 100k and in the deepest vein of purple form that season.

ultra_2013_dawnThe Bangalore Ultra’s starts are always magical. 5am with darting flashlights and a jumbled formation of runners tentatively making their way forward. The conditions ensure that no one takes off at 10k pace.

The usual banter with Nari and Vasu (who deserve a post on what makes them uniquely crazy) continued till the 6.5k hydration point. As I exited, something clicked in my head. An inner voice said “I’m racing, not running!” and I instantly knew what to do. If this scene needed to be picturized (and I was the director), I’d show the protagonist’s eyes narrowing, focusing in a William Tell manner seeing *just* the apple on his son’s head and set off in a copybook stance of an elite Kenyan runner.

Nari and Vasu dissolved into the gray and off I went. To run my race. It was the first time I had turned on my ‘game face’. A face, a mode, an attitude that stayed with me for the remainder of the race.

I completed the first (25k) loop in 2.5 hours. I knew it was too fast so (after briefly feeling good about it) I consciously slowed down a tad bit. I finished the 2nd loop in 2 hrs 45 min. My Bhukmp compatriots noted my in-the-zone running with a range of comments. Nari said “Man! You are going fast” (with a tone tinged with concern). I passed Chandra at the 18k mark. I had not seen him because he was on a bio break. He yelled out to me “Hey, you want to break Sunil Menon’s course record?” There was no danger of that of course. Sunil’s (last year’s winner) time was 7.5 hours. Chandra (who finished 2nd behind Sunil in 8 hrs 15min) was probably afraid I might better his Bhukmp record 🙂 Until the start of the 3rd loop I actually thought I had a shot at it.

Hari observed “Did you realize you just had your best FM time?” He was right! I had crossed the 42k mark in 4hrs 5min.

ultra2013_on_podiumThe 3rd loop pulled back proceedings thanks to my tactical error in the first loop. I had forgotten that my Cocojal stache was only at the starting point aid station (and not at the midpoint) so my first Cocojal dose came at the 32k mark (thanks to Rajaram’s generosity). At the start of the 3rd  loop, I traded my 4mm huaraches with 10mm Puma slippers. The footwear change was by design but things started going awry soon thereafter. With the spectre of cramps looming in my mind, it was only a matter of time before my calves obliged. I had my best stroke of luck that day – this happened 100m from the medical/physio van. Chandra, who had amazingly caught up despite a painful bout of plantar, helped me to the physio. A 5min massage by Physio Peter changed the game again. I felt good as new so off I went again. A bit more circumspect this time. On my final turnaround (with a mere 6k to go), I got a 2nd massage from Peter (for proactive good measure) and finished in 8 hrs 38 min. In 2nd place. Winner that year was Mumbai’s talented ultra runner Abbas Sheikh (in 7.5 hrs).

SCMM 2014

After landing in Mumbai airport, I recall Nari asking me about my target time and my reply was “I don’t know but I was definitely going for it”. What was *it*? I would find out on race day. I took the “racing, not running” mantra to my final race too. At Azad Maidan (about 10 min before the gun), broke away from my group after exchanging some pleasantries and made my way to the starting line. Time to picturize again people… that same purposeful narrowing of the eyes. No William Tell but a killer this time. A killer moving through the crowd with each step taking him inexorably towards his victim. I was slotted in the B corral but I didn’t stop when I reached the front rows of B. The absence of any policing merely confirmed what was already in my head. I kept walking until I reached the first few rows of the starting line. I was probably rubbing shoulders with runners who would finish in the Top 10 but I didn’t care. I was running *my* race and I was expressing intent (to myself) in the most aggressive way possible.

To end proceedings, here’s a brief race report I shared with my gang after returning to Bangalore.

Dear friends,
Had a fantastic race. Ravi made the mistake of asking for my story at the airport last evening and he got the VERY detailed account. Here’s the short version:
Two words: very satisfied.

I didn’t want to squeak in for a sub-4 finish but blow past it – goal largely achieved. First race where I didn’t cramp – 2 cocojals did the trick. I had visualized them as my two six-shooters. Emptied the empty one at the 7k mark, second one was downed soon after the halfway mark. Strategy to go close to 5:00 pace for *as long as possible* paid off.

Decision to run barefoot (as opposed to huaraches) was vindicated and the only time I gazed balefully at the asphalt was on the final few kms of Marine Drive. Great BF-friendly course barring 3 stretches where asphalt was very coarse – the last Marine Drive stretch (where Jugy/Sunil cheered us) and the only time I wished I had the huaraches. Did “catch-back” with Pankaj and Bahuja at 3 different points – I surged ahead each time – Pankaj ko motivation diya hoga since he surged past me in the last 700m 🙂

Played cat-and-mouse game with Vaishali between 21k and 39k. She was super-focused but I couldn’t resist a very brief conversation. I was not sure how to tackle the Peddar hill (apparently I had forgotten Nandi Hills) so I asked her. Pat came the reply – “Don’t walk, increase arm swing, drop stride”. I followed the good lady’s advice and remained untroubled.

First race as “Veteran”, first FM race with the analog Titan Edge (glanced at it maybe 4-5 times). 5:11 in the 1st quarter, 5:12 in the 2nd, 5:21 in the 3rd and 6:00 in the 4th.

Overall rank: 159, category rank: 23. Can’t really complain. Thank you – oh running gods! It finally all fell into place. The sub-4 monkey off my back.

Closing note: This post entered my Drafts folder on Nov 4, 2014 so a gestational stay of 23 months 🙂

Breaking a streak can be SO liberating

We are all prisoners of our own device. – Eagles

Streaks are wonderful things.

For the sports aficionado, it’s such things as consecutive games in which an NBA star has drilled at least one 3-pointer, consecutive years in which a tennis superstar has won at least one Grand Slam tournament, seven consecutive wins at the Western States 100. Pick any sport and you’ll be hard pressed not to find a phenomenal streak or two.

streak_imageThe amateur sportsman (and I’m talking mostly about my breed of long distance runners) has developed a proclivity towards participation streaks. A few examples below.

This is the 7th consecutive year I’m running in the Mumbai Marathon.
This is the 5th consecutive year I am running at the KTM.
This is the 200th consecutive day I ran at least 10km.
This is the 10th consecutive year I qualified for Boston.

Barring the last example (which is also a performance streak), the rest are great ‘feel good’ milestones.

Runners that pride themselves on similar milestones are probably bristling at my downplaying.

My point is that the difference between running a 10k for 200 consecutive days vs one who missed maybe 2 days (due to sickness or travel) is marginal. The consistency principle is established in both cases. Only difference is that if the latter runner wants to ‘claim’ the streak on social media, it comes with an inconvenient rider.

But we all worship streaks. And symmetries. And threshold breaking numbers like sub-4 and sub-3 marathon timings.

Just for the record, I do too.

A few years into my Bangalore running initiation, I learnt about a serious runner I’m our group (Bhasker Sharma). He had set himself a goal of 12 marathons in 12 months. At that time, I coudnt relate to it (I was too much of a newbie). Bhasker’s feat (chronicled here) inspired several runners to do the same. A Bangalore running group I know took up the challenge and completed with a great deal of gusto.

In mid-2011, as I transitioned to barefoot running, I was ready with my personal twist to the challenge.

My mental tag line was “Don’t be a mad runner, be a MAM (Marathon A Month) runner!” And why stop at 12 months?

The plan was simple enough: if a calendar month didn’t have a registered race, I would convert one of the weekend long runs to full marathon distance.

The madness began on Jul 31, 2011 in the Osmania University campus and would eventually end 22 months later.

Two KTMs, two 75K ultras, and one Mumbai Marathon were the races that spanned this duration but my best memories were from the non-race marathons.

  • 4th FM: at the 5k mark my huarache laces snapped so I had to continue barefoot on an unforgiving stretch of Bangalore roads. A highly animated political discussion with a runner friend in the middle hours distracted me sufficiently.
  • A 55k training run with an ultra runner friend. I was using Dr. Scholl’s callus patch for the preceding 48 hours and it was rather satisfying when a few layers of skin peeled away painlessly at the 45k mark.
  • Jan 2012: Thanks to a slipped disc relapse, I was in real danger of breaking my streak at the 6 month mark. Since I couldn’t run for a few more weeks, I swung into Plan B execution: walking. The weekend my buddies were lacing up for the Mumbai Marathon I laced up my old Brooks Adrenaline (yeah – the only run in my streak where I wore shoes) and *walked* our regulation Saturday long run route. Fortunately I had fellow entrepreneur (Tom Ansell) for company on this walking FM.
  • A 4:05 finish that included stops at several traffic signals. A month later missing a sub-4 finish by 30 seconds thanks to an impulsive jump onto the median at Sony World junction.. an act that triggered a bout of calves agitation and cost me valuable seconds.
  • A dream Sarjapur Road to Kanakapura Road run that ended in the scenic rolling hills of Pipeline Road in the company of Shilpi – a first sub-4 finish.
  • #20 (or #21) A tough grinding run in the company of Rinaz that ended in Domlur. All I remember, besides an excruciating lower back, was yummy idlis at Vishnu Thatte Idli.

Those were all the pleasant memories.

The last few FMs were noticeably different in that I’d postpone them to the very last Saturday of the month (unlike the first year when I couldn’t wait to convert a regulation weekend run into an FM). Nobody was forcing me to run these marathons so who could I blame but myself? It wasn’t just the lower back pain (which had become a factor) but something deeply pleasurable had turned into a self-imposed rhythmic monthly chore.

I recall attempt#23 (May 2013) vividly: I finished the usual 30k weekly distance in the company of my running gang. For the final 12k stretch from Cubbon Park to Koramangala, I fortunately had a friend for company – Speedy Sid. My back continued to bother me, I was sulking and even Sid’s funny banter wouldn’t cheer me up. I finally snapped at the 34k mark. I stopped running, turned to Sid and said “I’m taking a DNF”. It was one of the most liberating things I did in recent times.

*********

 

Driving with the brakes on

Del_Amitri_-_Twisted_Album_CoverThis was a song and band I hooked on to during my Chicago years (1994-98). Easily the era where my musical heart was at its spongiest best. Recently the lines driving with the brakes on and swimming with your boots on seemed evocative of my last five years of barefoot running. I’m usually not much for finding out what a song is about… am mostly about the sound and feel. But the lyrics made me dig deeper.. on the great fan web. Read the lyrics below (or better still, give it a listen) and leave a comment on what you think the song is about.

Driving through the long night
Trying to figure who’s right and who’s wrong
Now the kid has gone
I sit belted up tight
She sucks on a match light, glowing bronze
Steering on

And I might be more a man if I stopped this in its tracks
And said, come on, let’s go home
But she’s got the wheel,
And I’ve got nothing except what I have on

When you’re driving with the brakes on
When you’re swimming with your boots on
It’s hard to say you love someone
And it’s hard to say you don’t

Trying to keep the mood right
Trying to steer the conversation from
The thing we’ve done
She shuts up the ashtray, I say it’s a long way back now, hon
She just yawns

And we might get lost some place
So desolate that no one where we’re from would ever come
But she’s got the wheel and I’ve got to deal from now on

When you’re driving with the brakes on
When you’re swimming with your boots on
It’s hard to say you love someone
And it’s hard to say you don’t

But unless the moon falls tonight
Unless continents collide
Nothing’s gonna make me break from her side

‘Cos when you’re driving with the brakes on
When you’re swimming with your boots on
It’s hard to say you love someone
And it’s hard to say you don’t

It’s hard to say you love someone
And it’s hard to say you don’t

Psst… What do you think the song is about? Leave a comment, will ya!

For a few hyperloops more…

[Editor’s note: The prequel to this post is Softly, as in a spiritual sunrise (a low-key announcement of a personal ultra run on Nov 27, 2015. This post was written in 4 sessions: Part 1 (on Jan 2) written at the Landmark bookstore in Forum Mall on a 3 year old Samsung Galaxy S2 (yeah – WordPress for Android rocks!); Part 2 on Feb 7 at the Sapna Bookstore in Koramangala on a OnePlusX device; Part 3 on Feb 14 in Gopalan Mall Kengeri, again on the go. Part 4 on March 6 at home.]

A long preamble or a mid-post digression? Do you have a preference? Not that your preference will have any bearing on this post.

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you might have noticed my predilection to ellipsis. From blog titles to paragraph endings I use (overuse?) them at will. I like them for a few reasons. It conveys a certain suspense.. A certain incompleteness… A certain “there is so much more I would like to communicate on this topic but…”

For a running related post (like this one), the ellipsis assumes extra significance. Sure… a race gets over and there are always learnings to be internalized but runners are always looking forward to the start of the next run/training plan/race.

When I launched the WordPress app 10 min ago, I knew which post I wanted to write but I had no idea that I’d wax eloquent on ellipsis. Provided another data point for an old theory – we don’t choose a story/narrative – it chooses us. Just like books choose to be read by us and fruits choose to be picked by us.

*******

Nov 27, 2015
I had shared my plans with a handful of friends. I wasn’t expecting any pacing help but boy, was I glad Rinaz and Shilpi enthusiastically volunteered!

I reached the venue at 4:50 am and encountered my first surprise – parking difficulties! I intented to park the e2o (my aid station) very near the park entrance for obvious reasons but I was compelled to squeeze in between two Tempo Travelers. As challenges go, this was a tiny one.

There was not a soul at the park and I was so glad Rinaz would join me shortly. The front and back seats were suitably stocked with meals/hydration/dry tees and i packed a portable bag with a few bottles of water and some snacks.

We started at 5:20am. I was using my son’s digital watch because it had a stop watch (all I needed that day). If Rinaz hadn’t brought his Garmin, I’d have been one demoralized man after a few hours.

A few days earlier, I had asked another friend (Runner B in this story) to measure the NGV park circumference using his Garmin. He reported the distance as 300 meters which shocked me especially because “my estimates couldn’t have been sooo off”.

After the first few rounds, was relieved to learn that the loop length was in fact 450 meters. Clearly Bharath had measured something else.

Shod or not
I had three footwear options to consider:

  • Barefoot
  • 4mm basic huaraches
  • 4mm Amuri Cloud huaraches
  • Brooks Adrenaline GTS 11

GTS 11 had over 2000km running mileage (last race in Auroville – Feb 2011) and progressively-reducing occasional use as sneakers in the past 4.5 years. I did a 2 hour run at the NGV Park last weekend as part of my assessment. Shoes+socks felt ok considering the long gap though I had lingering concerns since they were the opppsite of ‘zero drop’ shoes.

Logically the huaraches should have been my first choice – ran multiple 50k+ races with the basics and last year’s 75k was powered by the Amuri Cloud. The slap-slap sound of the huaraches can be annoying in any setting but they seemed to be particularly incongruous in the tranquil ambience cast by the NGV Park.

Barefoot? After all I am the barefoot guy et al. The paving blocks terrain was about 90% barefoot friendly. There were a few trail stretches, one broken patch and the surface just stopped short of smooth. I was confident that i could run barefoot for 6-7 hours but the callus under my right foot was still around and the prospect of being distracted for half the duration was not appealing. In Rumsfeld’s existentialism, this was a ‘known unknown’ I was hoping to avoid.

After suitable deliberation, I settled on the GTS11 as my goto footwear. A flicker of premonition led me to pack a spare pair of socks. With a clear “let’s burn the bridges” intent, the hearaches were left at home.

Counting conundrum solved
Number of rounds X loop length = distance covered
My son’s digital watch has a lap counter but doesn’t display the lap count. I needed a low-tech solution. The decimal system came to my rescue. Using my thumbs as ‘lap bookmarks’, I intended to count laps 1 through 10 at lap start. Each set of 10 loops were a hyperloop. I would count hyperloops using pista shells. I had stuffed about 30 shells in my right pocket. At the start of the 10th loop, I would extract one of them, hold in my right palm and transfer to my left pocket at the end of the loop.

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

First three hours

Not surprisingly the first few hours went by soon enough. 8:30am and it was time for Rinaz to leave. The Garmin informed us that over 24k had been covered. That sobered me down in a jiffy – there was no way in hell I should/could hold that pace for another 9 hours.

Nearly run over by a dog

The weather needs a mention here. Bangalore’s weather is rarely beyond reproach but it presented its most runner-friendly self that day. Cloudy and cool all day. Threatened to rain all day but only two playful drizzles emerged and lasted maybe two minutes each time.

Every park in Bangalore has a unique dog personality and dog foliage (I’d like to propose the word doggage to Webster). As is widely know, the manginess of a stray dog is directly proportional to the roughness of the Indian neighborhood. The NGV community is fairly gentrified and it showed in the park’s doggage. The usual smattering of brown and white strays were present in droves but they largely moved around in predictable fashion. A black dog with a ‘pedigreed parent’s tryst with a roadside Romeo’ appearance stood out among the droves.

This black dog crossed our path a few times, once nearly cutting Rinaz off at the 2 hour mark. That would turn out to be a prelude to what I’d witness later.

I had seen this ‘dog whisperer’ man a few times earlier at the park. His son goes to the same school as my kids but I’d never spoken to him. He would run a few rounds.. At times I noticed him carrying a thin reed in his hand while he ran. Two to three dogs would always be at his heel – a veritable dog convoy it seemed. An hour after Rinaz left, as I turned the south-west corner for the Nth time, I nearly froze at the ‘drag racing drama’ that was unfolding in front of me. The dog whisperer and two dogs (or was it three?) were sprinting towards me. The path isn’t very wide.. I was in the leftmost lane and the black dog was right in front. I was obviously running much slower than the dogalcade so I could have stopped but I was too much in shock to react. A split second before the collision, the dog deftly scampered to its left and I heaved a sigh of relief. 

Sadly I didn’t turn around to see who won that race. 

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

Despair at hour 5.. And redemption

Sometime after the 5 hour duration, I could no longer ignore my knee pain (in both the legs). Damn it!

After my struggles in 2009-11 (when ITB reared its annoying head), I’ve seldom had any knee pain. I became a minimalist runner in 2011 and even that occasional post-30k knee soreness disappeared for good.

Why today?

Because I was running with 6 year old non-zero-heel-drop shoes (Brooks Adrenaline GTS 11)?

Because I had not run more than 3 hours in shoes in nearly 5 years?

Because my form had gradually regressed to a heel strike on an old shoe that no longer provided heel cushioning?

Probably a combination of the above?

My mood turned sour for the first time.

I knew that ‘walking’ would be part of this ultra but since I didn’t have a training plan nor a mileage target I figured to just wing it and listen to my body.

My body was telling me that it was time to incorporate walking into the plan. As it fortuitously turned out I was running the 9th lap so I quickly settled on a 9+1 plan.

It still ‘felt’ like a setback so when pacer #2 (Shilpi) found me in the middle of my 1st walking loop, I was feeling grumpy.

But pacers lift your spirits. Always.

After examining the terrain in her first loop, Shilpi declared “Hey, this is barefoot friendly” and kicked off her shoes.

That was just the cue for me. I jettisoned my shoes and, for the first time, experienced the before-after joy on the same run. Redemption arrived sometime in the next 30 minutes – my knee pain in both legs had vamoosed!

Of pettiness and petty thieves

After redemption, the next 2 hours were negotiated rather uneventfully (good thing in ultras!) I vaguely recall we runversed on running injuries,  Chi Running(?), BBMP’s apathy and activism in Bangalore. Hours six through eight were probably the sunniest. Cloudy and seriously ultra-friendly for majority of the day with two bouts of drizzling. Paradoxically I needed a pit stop when it was sunny. Rinaz and Neil (R & S’s son) arrived and it was time for Shilpi’s lunch. Before her last lap pacing me, an officious sounding gentleman yelled out to us “you are not supposed to be running in the park! You don’t live here”. I ignored that initial admonishing while Shilpi placated him.

Rinaz had joined me for a bonus segment of pacing. The gentleman was still looking sternly at me every time we crossed so I finally stopped for a chat. Told him that “yes – we don’t live in NGV but our kids go to school in the same campus, they play basketball here every weekend, and we have a lot of friends here, and isn’t this a public park? After all, I do live in Koramangala”. He grumbled and mumbled and wasn’t convinced but since I had a conciliatory tone and I only had 4 more hours, he acquiesced. 

And we resumed running.

Trouble hunts in pairs apparently. 15 min later, my aid station bag disappeared. One loop it was there, the next it was gone –  all it took was an out-of-sight duration of 3-odd minutes. It was a bright purple bag.. Rinaz and I ran around trying to catch sight of the speeding thief. No luck.

One Gatorade, one Cocojal, a few bottles of water and a box of cookies. Not a major mishap since i had more supplies inside the car.

News was relayed to my final pacing crew to bring extra water.

I literally had to force Rinaz and Shilpi to leave else they’d have cheerfully continued for longer. I had them count the pista shells and recall the mileage being close to 57km.

A few hours of solitude

As I indicated earlier, I couldn’t have picked a better course for a good old-fashioned solitary reaper run. Din of the city not to be heard. Residents (mostly walkers) entering and leaving every 30min or so. A few residents occupying their favorite park bench,  gamboling kids and their families. And the dogs scurrying around. There was a gentle rhythm to it all.

And my thoughts? All I recall was how I felt. Really really good. Blessed (an overused word I normally avoid but seemed to capture the emotion).

The family arrives

I was expecting them an hour before finish so imagine my pleasant surprise when they strolled into view a good 2.5 hours still remaining. My anchor pacing trio had arrived. And took charge. Questions were asked. Requests were made. The e2o key was handed over and the squad swung into action. It started off with S running two consecutive loops with me and then A did his two loops and.. this cycle was repeated for close to an hour. Poonam stationed herself at the gazebo and the non-running boy would ask me (after *every* loop) – “Do you need anything?”

Before the family arrived, I had finished my last “big meal” (a sizable serving of lemon rice) so it was just snacks and hydration for the final stretch.

With 90 min remaining, the pacing rhythm changed to switching partners every loop. It coincided with Poonam moving her station to a park bench closer to the track. She came up with a most ingenious method to ratchet up the interestingness quotient for the already motivated pacing duo – a chocolate square after completion of each lap. It was a fascinating ritual to watch.

Bait and switch – aka “For a few hyperloops more”

One of the boys was given the task of counting the shells and, not satisfied after hearing the verdict, I demanded a recount. A quick round of calculations brought a factoid to the fore — if I continued at the current pace I was in real danger of not breaching 80km.

Considering that this ultra was about lasting 12 hours with no distance goal, that factoid should not have bothered me. But the mind is greedy. The inner tendril murmured “Well.. your worst 75km time was 9 hours 45 min so you’d have just 5 extra km in TWO hours?”

Eminently unfair characterization but the goading thought had delivered its bait and switch message.

I took stock of the situation.

Five hours of barefooting meant my fore feet were no longer feeling “happy”. I certainly had a lot of juice inside of me. No sign of cramping from the usual suspects (thank you Cocojal and thank you Bangalore weather!). So where was my excuse for NOT increasing my pace for the remaining time?

I just needed a physical change-of-pace trigger. The shoes needed to come on again – that was it! The second pair of socks I had packed seemed like a prescient move. I made another change for the final 90 minutes – the 9+1 rhythm got upgraded to 10+0. The boys played their part in this transition. Whereas, earlier they would mostly alongside me.. now they (especially S) stayed a few strides ahead of me.

With 30 min left to go, I knew I was in safe territory but there would be no letting up on pace. For the final two loops, both S and A joined me and we sprinted to the finish. Finish line was an unmarked spot about 100 meters after I completed 17.9 hyperloops. Taking into account the extra distance for my two pit stops and multiple trips to the squad car, I awarded myself a final distance of 82km.

No drama at the end. Not even a picture. Just pure joy and satisfaction. And hugs with the family. Followed by a drive to our favorite chat place where we celebrated with samosas and hot jilebis.

Below is the only picture that I took after we reached home.

That moment when I stopped!

That moment when I stopped!

Bangalore Ultra 2014 Race Report

It was the best of races. It was the worst of races.

Let’s examine that adopted idiom. What IS the “best” of races? The race where you shatter your PB by double-digit minutes? Or that tough trail where you find yourself pushed to the cliff (multiple times) and you claw back some respectability?

Nothing is ever *supposed* to turn out the way we want them to. Because if it did, the world would be chock-full of happy people. Because if it did, the world would be full of elite runners who would ALL finish at the EXACT same time at EVERY DAMN RACE! (If you are an Asterix buff, you’ll know which scene I’m referring to)

I think a test match is a great analogy to ultra-running.

Finishing within 15 min of your target time would be a “win”. A DNF with “no good reasons” (more on this later in the post) would be a “loss”. A “draw” is clawing respectability against unforeseen circumstances.

Salvaging a draw in a test match is, in many respects, more satisfying than a rampaging victory where all your batsmen, bowlers and fields click together like a dream. You see where this story is headed, don’t you?

****

Lead-up to the race

This was the 3rd successive year I was running the 75k distance. In year#1 I finished in 9 hrs 46 min with plenty of gas left in the tank. That and a feeling that 75k might just be ‘my’ distance made me count my days to Bangalore Ultra 2013. With a finish time of 8 hrs 38 min, it was a nearly perfect race (there was the little matter of a few Cocojal bottles which might have made it perfect!)

I awaited Ultra 2014 with a greater fervor than ever. There was one crucial difference though. The previous two Ultras were in the midst of a 22-month purple patch where I was running a marathon (or greater) a month. My weekly mileage was steady and high (by ‘my’ standards). Prior to the first ultra, I had one 55k training run under my belt and at least two other high mileage weekends. Last year, I was scheduled to run a 50k training run but stopped at 46k because I was ‘feeling good’ (yeah, sometimes my type uses this kind of excuse).

This year? One 47k training run at a pace reasonably close to target. It mentally assured me that I was “ready”. In fact, I registered for the race only after this run. The timing of this run (exactly two weeks before race day) was not ideal. Heck! There were very few ‘ideal’ things at this year’s leadup:

  • Bout of bronchitis in Oct (first after 20 years of childhood asthma). My reaction: Whew! Thank god it happened in Oct and not Nov. Never mind that I missed many long runs as a result.
  • Nagging lower back pain (started 14 months ago and periodically makes an appearance in despite my following a prescribed daily regimen of exercises). My reaction: at least my back didn’t act up during the 47k training run.
  • Cold and mild return of the bronchitis at T-6 days. My reaction: Whew! I’ve got a whole SIX days to recover from this thing.

The Goal and Race Tactics

Mentally I couldn’t have been more prepared. The target and race tactics had crystalized. When the 8 year-old popped the inevitable question “how long will you take this time”, I answered confidently “Well! I plan to do the first loop in 2.5 hours and stay as close to that pace as possible in the next two loops”. When he persisted, I said “8 hours would be awesome but I’ll take even 8:30”. Other tactics I had worked out in my head:

  • Footwear: first two loops in previous two years had been my trusty 4mm huaraches. In the third loop, I had upgraded to Brooks Adrenaline in year#1 and the softly reassuring Puma chappals in year#2. This year, I decided to go “all-in” with the newly acquired Amuri Cloud sandals.
  • T-shirt change: changing tees and sweatbands after every loop seems to work for me. Last year, I added a twist by doing a half-monty for the final loop. This year I ruled it out on grounds that it would upset my ‘rhythm’ (more on this rhythm business and how I missed an OBVIOUS rhythm crusher later in the post)
  • Hydration: The learning from last year was that Cocojal consumption needed to start early and be regular. I was prepared with 4 bottles at the 5km mark and 3 at the starting point.
  • Nutrition: Normally I get by with my trusty Navadarshanam Dry Fruit Delight complemented by sandwiches at the venue. After last year’s finish, one of our group’s resident ultra studs (aka Sir Gaunkar) shared his secret – a Goan ragi recipe that he grew up with. A few days before race day and a few calls later, his kind wife agreed to make the delicious ragi-with-jaggery cake.

First Loop

Damn! It took me 800+ words to get to the start of loop 1? Yeah – I’ve been known to indulge in banter.

Dawn broke near the 8km mark and I jettisoned the torch at the next aid station. A few minutes later I saw a green snake galloping away to the left. I SO badly wanted to announce “I saw a snake! I saw a snake!” Instead, I pointed in that direction to the runner immediately behind.

Who needs a Garmin in an ultra?

Garmin Forerunner 305 was in my past. In my present was a 20-year Timex analog timekeeper (gifted by my brother) in a plastic sleeve. At the 10k mark, I looked up the time and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was BANG on target (i.e. 6:00 pace). I noticed that I was still feeling winded. It normally takes my lungs 5-7km to get warmed up so I wasn’t worried yet. When my lung rhythm didn’t improve even after the 15k mark, I was miffed (rain rain go away.. come back…) Unfortunately one can’t wish these things away. This lack-of-lung-rhythm (aka “feeling winded”) would stay with me for the rest of the goddamn race. Oops! Is my second loop frustration spilling over already?

Curve ball #2

In my brief ultra-running ‘career’ I was surprised to encounter the second curve ball already. I was already feeling tired. I must need elaborate. I was feeling ‘second loop tired’ – I had enough muscle memory to realize that I should NOT be feeling this tired at this stage of the race. I was still in my ‘game face zone’ (i.e. staying focused with controlled thoughts and acknowledging runners shouts with a mild obligatory thumbs-up). My fortunes were soon to change. I’ve never had anyone pace me at ANY race and this time I would have THREE of them! A tall fella loomed into view and yelled out a “how are things man?” It was Saurabh Panjwani – unexpected and thus bonus pacer #1. Saurabh had mentioned a few days ago that he’d try to pace some of us BHUKMP’rs. He quickly changed directions and joined me as I headed towards the first loop turnaround. I soon unburdened my doubts and travails and he set about reassuring me and prompting me to talk about last year’s edition which triggered many positive thoughts. A few km shy of the 25k mark, Saurabh handed me off to the runner couple (and pacing couple today!) Rinaz and Shilpi. I might have confessed that I was having DNF thoughts for the first time in my brief running career. He squashed that talk by reminding me of ‘muscle memory’ from the 2 previous Ultras and added, for good measure, there are WAY more people behind you than in front.

Second Loop: Running with Rinaz and Shilpi

Rinaz ran with me for the last few km in loop#1, then let me execute the turnaround solo and rejoined me somewhere at the 2km mark. He would stay with me for the next 17-odd km. And boy, did he showoff his pacing skills? He kept a steady smattering of runversation going… the ideal kind of one-way chatter that does not require more than a grunt or a syllable in response. We were averaging 6:15 in the initial stretch (which I was perfectly happy with me). He kept egging me on with “it’s downhill, let’s gain some time”, “it’s shady, let’s pick up some pace”. Forget about YOUR legs, just follow me. If you ever wondered whether gentle martinet was an oxymoron or a real person, I’d steer you in the direction of Rinaz. At this point I was also reminded of Murakami’s “my mind needed to show the body who was boss!” My quads (protesting in the first loop – damn them!) had started behaving again. I started getting back some of my inner calm. The confidence was returning. In test match terms, my batting partner had steadily allowed me to rebuild my game. I was still winded but I had stopped fretting on the “why”. The rhythm seemed to return but it would get punctured every time a blasted pebble got stuck in my sandals. This probably happened a 100 times and I only exaggerate slightly. THIS was the elephant in the room “rhythm crusher” that I had missed! After running KTM for the third consecutive time barefoot (barely 2 months ago) and extracting 25+ thorns, I resolved to NOT run barefoot at that course again. Now extrapolating this Aha moment to Ultra with its pebble-laden obstacle gotchas and non-trivial stretches of gravel-masquerading-as-road would require a level of intelligence that I clearly did not possess. Or maybe it was bravado? (Attempting to salvage some pride here)

Having a buddy pace you is such a luxury. Rinaz first (and Shilpi later) would race ahead and retrieve the Cocojal bottle (and ragi cake) from the baggage area obviating the need to stop, bend, and rummage. To the non-runner, this might seem like a small thing but let me say that it was a HUGE deal to me.

The stretch from 37.5k to 43k was more circumspect. Rinaz seemed to realize (perhaps better than me) that he could not push me harder so the urging changed to cajoling. We crossed Nari (who was a few km behind but looking much stronger than I did at that point). Rinaz switched directions and started pacing Nari and his place was smoothly taken by his cool-as-a-cumumber wife Shilpi. Running with her for the next 8k, you couldn’t tell she was rebounding from a stress fracture and this was her first long run in months! She kept a steady chatter going about her travails with loony doctors and biased physiotherapists and how she decided to back her own instincts. We ran alongside for the most part and, thanks to her bright colors, we attracted more photographer interest than the previous leg. When I grumbled about my inability to push myself, Shilpi sagely responded with “Now is the not the time to push yourself. Just finish the second lap and you can push yourself on the last lap.”

A short DNF conversation

By now it was painfully obvious that I would not better my last year’s PB. I was not having fun either. A perpetual state of windedness, periodic bouts of self-doubt (Damn it! Why was I racing when I was apparently not ready? But I WAS mentally ready, wasn’t it? What good is ‘mentally’ ready when you haven’t given your body the adequate mileage? Maybe I hadn’t fully recovered from my bronchitis?), and not to mention periodic blowing of the nose (my tees or the course faced the brunt of it depending on the proximity of other runners). I couldn’t imagine where these thoughts might have taken me had I not had the company of Saurabh, Rinaz and Shilpi.

There’s a first for everything. 30+ marathons and four ultras later, this was the FIRST race where DNF thoughts crept in. The timing of these thoughts was not coincidental. Once you complete the second loop and you head back for the final one, finishing is guaranteed (run, walk, crawl you can finish unless you run into medical distress). So if there were any DNF thoughts from 40-50k, they needed to either be strengthened or vanquished.

In a strange way, the case for (and against) DNF could best be described as not pretty. It had turned into a tough grinding run (on many physical levels) and the joy was vaporizing by the hour. Here’s how the perverted logic for DNF went… Did I want to subject myself to another 3.5 hours of misery? Especially when the prospects for ‘victory’ had disappeared? Did I want to ‘merely finish’ SO badly? I mean, what’s the big deal with finishing in 9+ hours? What’s the big deal with a DNF? There’s no shame in it, right?

Fortunately that day, I didn’t need an inner voice to cut through the bullshit. I casually asked Shilpi “Is there anything redeeming about a DNF?”

Pat came the reply “No. Unless you are feeling dizzy or something.” By dizzy, she meant some manner of life-threatening symptoms which she knew I wasn’t exhibiting. Not for nothing is her moniker Lady Don (LD).

The matter was thus settled and we plodded along. LD was going to see me through to the 50k mark and run with me a further 1k to the start of the forest section.

Irritation at the 50k turnaround

There are many benefits to ‘visualizing’ on a course that you have previously run. I had visualized the 25k and 50k turnarounds as a slightly slower rendition of Clark Kent executing a Superman costume change inside a phone booth. What I did not bank on was the on-course baggage counter to be a lackadaisical inaccessible mess. I started frantically looking for my bag, irately yelling out its description to the folks manning the counter. Sunil and Jugy (wise men of BHUKMP and legendary sportspersons par excellence) pitched in and found my bag in no time. Gobbled a few of the ragi cake goodies and switched tees. As a gaggle of 75k runners came into sight, LD raised the level of urgency and off we went. I had pulled on my shades so folks wouldn’t see how crabby I really felt inside. I vaguely recall Sunil asking me how I was doing and my response was on the lines of “miserable grinding run.”

LD bid me goodbye at the 51k mark with “You’ll do fine. It will be boring but you’ll finish.” After yelling out my thanks, I headed back to the cave to complete the job. I had switched on my tunnel vision and it seemed to help a bit.

…….

…….

Binge drinking is known to cause memory lapses. I reckon long distance running induces similar lapses. I have a dim recollection of the final 24k barring the following:

  • Pulling out a few hundred pebbles stuck in my sandals (and swearing like a sailor)
  • Remembering Murakami’s recount of his first ultra where he swore he WOULD NOT WALK. This was my mantra in the final 12.5k. My pace had dropped quite a bit, I was looking forward to the aid station stops but I DID NOT WALK!
  • Santhosh (of Runner’s High) yelled out an encouraging “finish strong” at the 72k mark and I thought to myself “How can I? There’s that 1km goddamn moat!” By moat, I mean the pathetic excuse of gravel-masquerading-as-road that signals the start and end of the bloody ultra. Yes – I’m emoting.
  • At the 63k mark, I smiled at another 75k runner. He smiled back. My smile read “Yeah! He’s going to take me.” His smile read “Yeah! I’m going to take him.” He would surge past at 64k and finish in 2nd place overall. I finished 24 minutes behind in 3rd My time was 9 hrs 17 min.

Yeah – I had finished and drawn the test match. Unlike last year, my enthusiasm for next year’s race was a bit tempered. I did want to race this course again but on different terms.

 

KTM 2013 race report

Somewhere between 21 and 42.

Somewhere between 21 and 42.

There are two kinds of runner bloggers. The one who hits Publish within 48 hours after the race ends. The other who’s perpetually playing catch-up to God_alone_knows_what and may get around to hit Publish before next year’s race. Surely you know which kind I am.

KTM 2013 was the fifth consecutive year I was running the course. It was the second year in a row I was running barefoot.

My race report can be pithily described using a cricketing metaphor. Imagine Virendra Sehwag in the form of his life. He arrives at Multan (where he has previously hit a triple century) and proceeds to eat some street food two days before the test match and falls sick. He somehow regains fitness by match time (after Viru-ki-mummy sends him a pick-me-up formula via Pushpak Vimana), opens for India, gets out on a 74 and India go on to win the test.

Scratch. That. Entire. Metaphor. Thingy.

It’s not an accurate description at all. Sorry. That means I’ll have to subject you all to the longer version.

*********

Sep 13, 2013 (2 days before race day): I wake up to a mild headache.  I never let that mild start fool me.  I knew that mild would become moderate and then severe… and after giving me the severe treatment for several hours, it would eventually leave in the evening. I had stopped taking painkillers for several months so no respite could be expected from that quarter. Say goodbye to Vitamin I – that’s another post marinating in the Drafts folder for almost a year now — sorry you’ll have to wait some more.

I didn’t let the headache bother me. After all, KTM comes around only once a year. Lunch time approached and the headache was predictably vacillating between moderate and severe but no problem (been there, done that). My original plan was to gorge on the Krishna Kafe unlimited lunch thali but office and meeting locations meant I was stuck in Indiranagar. The Plan B decision (to attack the Rajdhani thali) was made rather rashly. In hindsight, it was rash because the food is rich to begin with, I don’t frequent it much and I don’t have a 100% satisfaction record. By the time I was done with the meal, the ghee-laden food had triggered a grim foreboding of things to come.

By evening my intestines formally registered their protest.

Great. Just great.

Fortunately for me, I’m married to this awesome woman.

When I get alarmed, she doesn’t get alarmed (it also works the other way around but that’s a different story and might even be disputed).

She promptly put me on an Ayurvedic food-as-medicine diet and my intestines demonstrated dramatic improvements in the next 24 hours. By Saturday  evening, I had turned off the distress signal to my car pool running partners. On the other hand, playing multiple loops of crackers.. water… plain rice with turmeric  in small doses isn’t exactly the epitome of carboloading but hey first priority was to stave off DNS (Did Not Start).

Race morning

The drive to the venue was uneventful. I had a very mild headache but nothing alarming. I had prepared and brought along The runner’s elixir but was rather circumspect on what to do since my stomach wasn’t exactly in the pink. I figured consuming half the usual dose was the safer option. About 20 min before race start, I needed to go. To the you-know-what-where. It was the first nearly-fully-normal-you-know-what.

Whew! As I walked back from the loo to the starting line with my running buddies, I realized that the mild headache had also departed. It was a sign. A bloody sign that “all was good”. Sure my glycogen levels could have been higher but if somebody had told me on Friday night that I’d feel like this on Sunday morning, I’d have kissed that person.

Going for it

This was the first marathon I was running without a Garmin (except my very first when I just wore an analog watch). I just told myself to “go for it”. I NEVER go for it. The absence of the Garmin (I think) makes it easier to go for it. No pace to look at periodically so just go with the gut (I mean lung feel). Got off the blocks faster than I ever did. I would realize at the 10.5km mark that I was averaging a pace close to 5:30. I reached the HM mark in 1 hr 53 min. There was no way I could sustain this pace for the second half but I was nevertheless pleased with my aggressive push in the first half.

Somewhere close to the 9km mark (just before the incline), I ran into Juggy. He yelled out “Are your feet enjoying the course?” And I replied “What a course! What a course! unbelievable terrain this time! I’m LOVING it!”

It was absolutely true. I was LOVING it! You see.. The weather gods had finally smiled on KTM. Or, using an exam metaphor, KTM mata had set a very easy question paper this time. It had rained a few days ago.. considering the softness of the ground, it was perhaps many days of rainfall. A barefoot runner could not have asked for a better terrain than KTM 2013.

The Half Monty

I don’t remember when the half monty idea came to me. Was it months ago or weeks ago? It was definitely part of the plan and this is how I executed it: I overtook Dharmendra about 50 meters before the turnaround (only reason this happened was because he had run an ultra in the mountains the previous weekend!), took off my tee and sopping wet sweatband and dropped them both on the grass. Whipped out the spare headband and I was off for the home run.

It was the first time in my life I was running bare bodied. It was exhilarating. The gentle breeze constantly drying the sweat — it literally felt like air-conditioning had been turned on at a comfortable setting. My Half Monty stunt was not lost on my friends and fellow runners.

I had planned to use sunblock but it slipped through the pre-race anxiety cracks. I would suffer with painfully ticklish sunburns for two days but hey… it was all worth it! I did NOT suffer on race day!

The eighth thorn

If you’ve been running barefoot on trails long enough you know that a thorn or two doesn’t pose any problem. In fact, if you’ve been adept since childhood to prise out thorns using safety pins, the thorns are even less daunting. For some odd reason, I counted thorns that day. Maybe it was because I wasn’t wearing the Garmin so I needed to count ‘something’? Your feet proprioception gets reasonably developed to differentiate between that small sharp pebble pain (which goes away in a few seconds) and the thorn pain (that won’t). At the precise moment I extracted the eighth thorn from my foot and threw it away (it was close to the 33k mark), a half-marathoner was nearby and, watched the fluid movement, she visibly gasped. I wish I could have verbalized that it really doesn’t hurt that much. And not for long anyway. Our feet are quite tough. Really.

Getting chicked

I had steadily slowed down in the last 10k. No cramps but energy levels were low. I chided myself a few times for my idiotic decision to eat at Rajdhani’s but didn’t indulge in any self-pity. At the 36k mark, I could sense the onset of calf cramps so I slowed down and did the pain spray treatment a few times.. to stave off the nasty cramp. Somewhere between 40k and 41k mark, I distinctly heard the sound of huarache sandals. Without turning back, I yelled out “Is that you, Shilpi?” Sure it was.. she had caught up. Unlike me, she was having a stronger second half. She ensured that I stayed with her for another kilometer before I urged her to speed off for a very strong finish. There’s no shame in being chicked. Even less so when it’s one of your friends. And far less so when she’s the second fastest female finisher.

As for me? I finished in 4 hrs 9 min 16 sec. I had shaved off 15 min from my previous PB but, more importantly, my previous best showing at KTM was 4 hrs 32 min so much to be pleased about. Thank you KTM. I really enjoyed your hospitable terrain. See you next year.

 ***********************

Looking ahead to KTM 2014

To be continued…

When a sacred bull got a beating

sacred cow (idiom):  something considered (perhaps unreasonably) immune from question or criticism

I’ve been a regular long distance runner for almost 6 years. For exactly 2 1/2 of those years (or 42%), I have been a barefoot runner. During my barefoot years, I frequently get asked “is the switch permanent?” My answer almost always is on the lines of “it seems to be working for me.. so I don’t see why not.”

In these years, the following sacred cow had been raised onto my living room pedestal: thou shalt run all your runs barefoot for the rest of your life because it’s quite obviously been good for you so far.

I was reminded of two conversations in this regard.

Conversation #1 (between a Chicago colleague and me circa 1995)

RR: “How’s that meditation class coming along?”

Me: “Great. I’ve been meditating regularly for about 40 days now!”

RR: “Nice! Keep at it.”

Me: (feeling that I wasn’t getting sufficient plaudits for my FORTY CONSECUTIVE DAYS of meditating) “You know, I can’t remember the last time I picked up a good habit so easily.”

RR: “Hate to break your bubble but it’s not hard to break a good thing. Do you know that I learnt and played the bansuri for 9 years and one fine day I just stopped?”

Me (bubble clearly pricked): “Oh!”

Conversation #2 (with a Bangalore runner on barefoot running, recidivism rates and articles of faith):

Me: “Among all the barefoot runners I know and hear about, there are exactly TWO who have returned to ‘shoes ways’. Surely that says something?”

Him: “Well, there’s anecdotal and there’s data…”

Me: “Do you have any data on recidivism rates? Who are the high profile BF’rs who returned to shod running?”

Him: “Bikila? Every Indian national level runner I met growing up in the 70’s? Every Kenyan and Ethiopian?”

Me: “Oh!”

Him: ” BFery is at least as much an issue of faith and unsubstantiable personal belief as it is about practicality – no religion easily admits apostasy and I don’t see how BF is any different – it’s clearly more about faith and individual experience than incontrovertible evidence from which general principles can safely be made. So recidivism rates per se won’t tell you much, just as apostasy rates among Muslims tells you almost nothing about whether Muslims actually have issues with their belief system. It’s the wrong metric to seek when you bring faith into the picture.”

******

The gang that ran (or walked) up and down Nandi Hills - Aug 10, 2014

The gang that ran (or walked) up and down Nandi Hills – Aug 10, 2014

Today was my third pilgrimage to Nandi Hills. My second Nandi Hills climb was almost a year ago. The first climb was negotiated with barefoot (first 18k) and Puma chappals (next 10k). The second climb was done entirely using my huaraches. As I chronicled earlier, tearing downhill and landing heavily resulted in severe calf pain. This time I wanted to do it entirely barefoot (so I could land lighter).

There was one catch though. I was nursing an injury in the inner ball of my right foot. For over a year, the 1 square-inch area had become toughened and the consensus diagnosis suggested a callus. It was harmless enough.. in the sense that it would only start hurting after 30k. There was another catch but I discovered it much later.

Clarity of mind

Clarity of mind is imperative. Not just for races, it comes in handy for your training runs as well. The only (sorta) goal I had was to run the first loop as hard as possible barefoot and negotiate the second loop with my Puma chappals. The chappals remained in MJ’s car –> I forgot to take his keys when I passed him -> and the rest was history.

The first loop

A wise soul (either Jugy or Sunil) had once said “don’t attack the hill from the base”. Remembering this, I ambled relatively slowly behind the pack. By the 3-4km mark, I was passing folks and I was definitely not wasted by the time I reached the top. I celebrated by hurtling downhill for 3km. No Garmin this time but I reckon I was going faster than last year’s 4:30. And yes, I was definitely getting superior traction and braking with the bare feet (compared to the 4mm huaraches). As the gradient became less steep, I slowed down and, with about 1k to the bottom, I only picked up my pace after a guy wearing a Messi tee passed me.

Craving for shoes

At the turnaround, I encountered the effervescently ebullient Nirupma who generously offered me all manners of snacks while regaling me with her exploits. She managed to reduce my gathering gloom but there was no way to wish away the Nandi terrain (THIS was the second catch – I had forgotten how terrible the terrain was). The first 4 km with its gnarly surface sprinkled liberally with gravel was particularly uninviting. I balefully looked at MJ’s car, cursed myself silently and headed back up. Not going for the second loop was obviously NOT an option. One doesn’t drive 60km on a weekend morning to run just ONE loop.

It’s confession time, people! In THIRTY months of barefoot running, this was the FIRST time I came down with a craving for shoes. It was not an evanescent craving. It first hit me as I negotiated the final few km of the downhill. The craving became stronger after I had enough of the damn road and starting walking (and running) on the parapet. As I passed Eka, I hopefully asked him if he had a spare set of sandals. Turns out he did but his car was 2km away and he wasn’t coming back for seconds. I must have cussed something godawful when Rinaz offered his shoes to me. I declined… but had he asked me one more time, I might have accepted. How bad was the craving? THIS bad! (replace the purple soda with shoes).

Redemption

MJ drove me to Nandi. He also turned out to be my guardian angel. After finishing his first loop, he decided to drive his car up the hill to pickup any stragglers who were inclined to skip the second downhill. As soon as he stopped his car alongside me, I mumbled something unintelligible, opened the door and grabbed my Puma chappals. The remaining 4km was a piece of cake

That Superman scene

Most runners today know that being a barefoot runner is not that hard. It’s usually the non-runners who perceive barefoot running as  some kind of masochism. On my third sojourn at Nandi Hills, I finally understood what they perceived. Why on earth was I running barefoot when it was so godawfully painful?

Thirty goddamn months and I hadn’t felt misery anywhere close to what I felt today. You recall that scene in Superman (or Superman II?) when he loses his superpowers, walks into a bar, tries to save a damsel in distress, cops it on the jaw and lips, and can’t believe that he’s actually bleeding!) I kinda felt that way. The barefoot superman had turned into a mortal.

***********

Have I recidivated to shod running? Or is the Nandi experience a prominent  notch on my bare feet signaling an inflection point to the next level of difficulty of The Great Running Game? Time will tell and this blog will chronicle. But first I will tell you about the disposable shoes theory, freshly minted in the windmills of the Nandi.

 

When life gives you a ripped toe you make lemonade

For the uninitiated it must seem like an act of god that we barefoot runners don’t get injured more often… especially with all those glass pieces and strewn on the road, right?

Turns out no superhuman powers are required. Barefoot runners have no choice but to be aware of the running surface – innate survival instinct kicks in. Glass pieces and sundry sharp objects are easily spotted and evasive maneuvers executed.

What about soreness on the running soles? That can persist for a few days to a few hours (depending on how many barefoot miles you’ve put in already) but it’s NOT an injury! It’s “breaking in” your soles!

Analysis of road accidents in US revealed that a high percentage of accidents occur within a few kilometers from people’s homes. Apparently motorists are in a “lowered state of alertness” as they get closer home.. presumably resulting in careless mistakes. Tennis buffs might term them “unforced errors”.

I committed a similar unforced error on the morning of Sep 20, 2013 at Kaikondrahalli Lake. I had finished an interval run when I ran into a few running buddies who were just getting started. We began a slow ambling run – they were warming up and I was cooling down.

Bam!

Visualize your big toe (10 o’clock area) gently hitting the top end of a protrusion at a nearly parallel angle. That’s all it took for my first “barefoot injury” — seventeen months after I commenced my barefoot running journey.

The next 3 pictures were taken in the nurse’s office as she dressed my toe.

image

image

image

 

The injury happened on a Thursday. I had to eschew shoes, wear chappals and get my dressing changed every other day. Within a week, my toe was looking like this (see below). With a regular bandaid on, I negotiated the Saturday long run without any mishap (I *did* use my 4mm huaraches).

image

Running downtime due to injury: 8 days (or 3 runs).

The best was yet to come.

Next week I continued to wear chappals as I allowed my toe to get its fresh coat of skin. At some point I realized that this ‘wearing chappals to work’ business wasn’t too bad.

I was experiencing open toed freedom while walking to/from/in the office five days a week. I was already doing this over the weekend and for my runs. But extending this to the majority of my waking walking hours was heady stuff.

Gee! Now why didn’t I think of this earlier?

Hmm.. perhaps because people who work in offices are *supposed* to wear shoes?

I remember the first time I saw a SoCal surfer hippie in Yahoo’s Santa Clara office walking around barefoot. My jaw dropped! Then I saw him nonchalantly saunter into the restroom (still *barefoot*). Ew! was my reaction. Native and immigrant role reversal.

Years later in the Bangalore offices of Adobe, one of my initial observations was a high number of male engineers wore sandals to work. To me, it seemed ‘casual’. As though coming to work was not ‘important enough’ to warrant donning shoes. Why weren’t people projecting a ‘buttoned up’ persona? After all, clothes make a man, no?

Inertia, as they say, is a powerful thing. Conditioning and on what’s “proper” and what’s not) is also a powerful thing.

So what had happened? How did I suddenly become comfortable with the notion of “anything but shoes”  in a professional environment?

The truth was that it wasn’t sudden at all. In the past two years I had become comfortable being an outlier/maverick barefoot runner. So extending this new found ‘freedom’ to walking was a logical next step.

Walking around the office either in my 5 year old Puma chappals… or huaraches… or barefoot became the norm. A meeting with the Police Commissioner… could I get away with it? Yes I could. Meetings with potential partners… could I get away with it? Yes I could. VC meetings? Yes.  Friends and relatives’ weddings? Yes.

There was no turning back now. The chasm had been crossed.

When life gives you a lemon you make lemonade

When life gives you a ripped toe you stop wearing shoes

When life gives you a ripped toe you make lemonade