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!

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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

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 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.

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 ‚Äúrhythm crusher‚ÄĚ 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.

Three Act Play for the Fourth Time

“The human being, by and large, is a very bad companion for himself; where he has to face himself for any length of time, he acquires a deep disgust and a restless anxiety which makes him seek almost any escape.” – Victor F Nelson

[Editor’s Note: Started this post the Monday following Bangalore Ultra 2016 but I finished it on Nov 25, courtesy a 2 hour flight and WordPress for Android. By my usual gestational standards, this baby came out super fast.]

Yesterday marked a first of sorts – watching a play¬†with my teenage son. “Perfect Nonsense”, PG Wodehouse’s adaptation by The Goodale Brothers was thoroughly enjoyable. Judging by my son’s reactions, I believe he’ll give Plum a try soon. The play capped off an eventful and satisfying weekend.

A weekend that started on Saturday at 6am with a different three act play.

It was the 10th edition of the Bangalore Ultra and I was running the 75km distance. Each loop (out and back) = 25k so 3 loops in total.

Pre-race prep and target setting

My lungs were in better shape (albeit Symbicort aided) than last year but nothing close to the 2013-14 season.

Having run this race 3 of the last 4 years, the distance/terrain/heat weren’t daunting. I wanted to push myself though. Specifically, I wanted to improve on my previous best time of 8:38. Feeling strong after a 52k training run at 6:10 pace made me greedy. Was a time between 8 and 8:15 possible?¬†A question I would keep asking myself until race day.

When Bhasker posed the same an hour before start, my answer was “will run first loop in 2:40 and see” which is a cagey way of saying “8 hrs but…”

The silly organizers (in their infinite wisdom) had moved the start time from 5am to 6am. Why fix something that wasn’t broken? Grr…

My target time was allegedly adjusted for this extra hour in the sun.

Didn’t mess with my nutrition and hydration plans from previous two years (ragi pudding + coconut/PB sandwiches, Cocojal and water, and salt tablets).

Quite¬†satisfied with my mental preparation in the week leading to the race. I even visualized the race a few times – something I’ve never done before.

After my less than stellar performance in 2014, one thing I swore to change was my choice of footwear which turned out to be the Umara Z-Trail sandals (acquired in March). Since a ball-of-foot callus had returned to torment me for the nth time, I decided to add socks to the mix Рit would turn out to be a smart decision.

Act I

Nearing the end of act I

Nearing the end of act I

Considering how much I abhor arriving late to a race, was unable to avoid a mad scramble to get my stuff to baggage claim, etc. Mild rumblings from the nether regions with 10min to the gun so I needed to make my first decision.

I called my gut’s bluff. It was a trail after all and I had TP tucked away. Would turn out to be the right call.

I set off strong and (since I was wearing a watch, not Garmin) realized at Km 2 that it was too fast. A progressive slowing down in the next 7 km brought it down to an average pace of 6:00. The return 12.5k (with a few inclines) would get me back on target I figured.

I finished Act I four minutes faster than plan. You’d think 4 min over 25 km isn’t significant, right? I’m sure my running geek friends will tell me how significant it was. Discipline in “holding back” in ultras is key (especially since I had a target, an aggressive one at that) and i had failed the test. I would learn my lesson in acts II¬†and III.

Looking at a runner as a celestial object revolving around the sun, an aggressive push to a higher orbit carries the risk of careening downward to a lower orbit.

Act II

Eat and run.. in the middle of Act I

Eat and run.. in the middle of Act I

Normally I’d go half-monty in act III but the 6am start messed with that plan. At the 2 hour mark, I was already feeling straitjacketed with a soaking tee and a playful sun. So I decided it was going to be a 50k shirtless race. Game on.

One of the fringe benefits of going shirtless is that it’s a photograph repellent. While I have nothing against¬†photographers and viewing a rare runner-in-repose picture can lift the ego, seeing them in the middle of the trail¬†strikes me as unfair. It breaks the meditative spell, I get conscious, and I just can’t wait to cross the range of the lens. (having said all that, I’ve attached 3 pictures from the race)

Unsurprisingly, I slowed down in the second loop, completing it in about 3 hours. I kept comparing my performance with how I felt during and after my bolstering 52k training run. Why WAS I not feeling as strong as that run? Especially when I was running at least 20 min slower over that distance.

I had started my training run at 4am Рa whopping 2 hours before race start conditions. Bleddy aggressive optimist me was also el stupido!

As I approached the end of the second loop, here’s how I assessed my 3-act play:

  • (utterly) foolish¬†first act
  • steady as it goes¬†second act
  • gear up for survival act!

Act III

They managed to snag the half-monty

They managed to snag the half-monty

At the turnaround it was evident that a spectacular third act was the only way I could come close to my previous best. ‘Spectacular’ entailed not cramping AND maintaining the pace from my second loop.

A heightened state of proprioception would ensure I wouldn’t cramp. I was regimental in my intake of Cocojal and salt tablets. I was able to detect the mildest pre-cramp tremors and take evasive measures (salt or electrolytes). The fact that I finished my 10th (and last) salt tablet between 55k and 62k told a tale of treacherous heat. Fortunately all aid stations were abundantly stocked with salt.

About that second dimension of spectacular? Ha.

Survival it had to be.

Once you’ve run enough, you know that the sublime races are but a few. The non-sublime races are wonderful opportunities for self-learning and experimentation.

My personal favorite is the experimentation with mantras. Different mantras for different situations.

The racing, not running mantra worked great for my sublime 2013 season but it was a non-starter for this race.

In the middle miles of trail races, I’ve found this to be very effective in re-centering my mind and bringing my focus inwards. It also helps in regaining my breathing rhythm. Time stands still while the miles are eaten.

A new addition to my mantra arsenal was an Indian army war cry that one of my fauji friends had elucidated on our WhatsApp group sometime ago.

No external enemy to contend with, no hill to be taken but a lot of inner demons to be vanquished.

I employed this mantra twice, somewhere between 58k and 65k. It seemed to work, though it’s effect was short lived. Me thinks I haven’t really internalized the import of the fauji mantra.

I walked three times in act III. The longest walk duration was probably 3-4 minutes but I hated every second of it. I hated it because I wasn’t remotely in distress. My nutrition was working – no exhaustion or bonking. No cramping. Just plain old misery of having slowed down, being unable to speed up, the prospect of additional 15/14/13 to go, absence of a good reason to DNF. Yes you fool – km markers take longer to traverse at an ambling pace.

The best news from the third act was that I got my proverbial “second wind” several times. They’d only last a kilometer but gave me great hope. Without these bursts I would have had an utterly miserable finish.

If my mind was the rider and my body the horse, I needed a few more mantras in my arsenal.

At the 62.5 k mark, met Lawrence (who was running 100 k) and we got chatting. He was running at a blistering pace, but his lower body was killing him and he wondered if he could finish in under 10 hours. My lower body, on the other hand, was doing just fine. My lungs however felt as though somebody had compressed them down to 50‚ĄÖ. We bantered for half a kilometer before Lawrence found his groove again. He would finish in an amazing 9:50 to take 2nd place.

While Lawrence was computing his sub-10 hr pacing misery, I was calculating my sub-9 hr chances. Things weren’t looking good so I blanked those¬†thoughts and concentrated on just running the remaining 12.5 km. I had walked thrice in the preceding 6 k and I’d be damned if I did¬†that again.

Amazingly (and seemingly suddenly), the 69 k marker was sighted and a quick calculation told me that a sub-9 hour finish was in the realm of possibility *without requiring a superhuman effort*. If I was a whistler, I would have whistled till the end.

Finished in 8:58. 4th place overall. Apparently I was the only oldie running 75k so they gave me a trophy too.

 

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 Рcarbo-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 ūüôā 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 ūüôā

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 ūüôā

Importance of being intervaly

I will not last forever, but I am damn well going to know I have been there. – Dr. George Sheehan

Roger Bannister is etched in my memory since at least 1982. My correct answer in a quiz qualifier test would turn out to be decisive enough to beat out 3 senior grades to make it to the school team. A weekly diet of Sportstar magazines would have certainly come in handy.

“George,” he said, “you are avoiding the truth. Interval work is the only answer.”

sheehan_quote_sweatWords of wisdom¬†from¬†Sir Roger Bannister to Dr. Sheehan when the latter asked him about “racing a few more 5- and 10-milers or doing stadium steps, or perhaps some real long runs.”

Sir Bannister knows a thing or two about ‘interval work‘.

Sheehan writes about the need for (and the virtues of) interval training in his 1980 book This running life.

 I needed the long, slow distance to build up my endurance. But I also needed training of the anaerobic kind for speed and for stamina. This is energy produced in the absence of oxygen. It is the ability to go into oxygen debt and not develop too much lactic acid. The best way to teach my body that ability is to do interval 440s or 880s at the pace I set as my goal.

Practically every marathon training plan stresses the importance of interval (aka “speed”) work and there’s little doubt about its preeminent spot in the training plan. Most plans follow a steady progression in the number of intervals. Some mix things up between shorter and longer intervals.

But Sheehan’s approach is rather unique. And extreme. Maybe I find his description of it ‘extreme’ because I’ve never pushed myself to that extent. Here he is, comparing swimming intervals of 50 yards with 200 yards of track running.

The sensations are much the same. With each one there is a gradual buildup of pain. Discomfort first, then the leaden ache in the arms and legs, finally the whole body screaming. And each successive interval raises the base line of that pain a notch or two higher.

In Sheehan’s world, there are reasons beyond physiological that compel him to pursue the final two (or three) intervals.

As I see it, interval training is as much for the will as it is for the body. I am getting my will ready for the race. I am, in fact, running the race in advance. I am trying to reach that interval quarter that will feel exactly the same as the last lap of a race. And then be able to deal with it mentally as well as physically.

In interval quarters the will is paramount. The will makes me finish one interval. It calls up the energy to do another.

William James (one of Sheehan’s heroes) says “Effort is the one strictly underived and original contribution we make to this world. He alone is happy who has will. The rest are zeroes. He uses, they are used.”

I know of few better ways to reach this primitive level where will and effort combine than interval quarters. The answer to life’s question becomes simply, yes or no. There is no place for explanations, qualifications, excuses. Will I or will I not continue until I know that this is truly the last lap?

The day I start doing these kinds of intervals is when I can truly say “am doing my very best”. I’ve dubbed that state of mind as intervaly. I’d like to get intervaly. Sometime this year. Pretty please.

 

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.

*********

 

Musical dope for runners

There was a time I used to listen to music while running. This might come as a surprise to my runner friends in Bangalore but it’s true.

Chicago (circa 1995-96)

Getting the high on W93.1 in Chicago along Lake Shore Driver
Jettisoning it during my 1st FM training (I even remember the exact point on Fremont Ave when I looked with utter abhorrence at the Sony Dreammachine) – too much weight and too distracting.

Kouros’s mentioning listening to patriotic Greek songs.

Banshee Beats
Turbo Lover, Breaking the Law

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.

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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.¬†

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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 Рmy 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 Р 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!