An asthmatic’s ignominious (first) running story

I had originally posted this story in my Xaviers Bokaro alumni mailing list back in Sep 2006. If you’ve read the post Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010 and are wondering about the back story to my running fetish, this story might offer some clues. I made a few minor edits to the email, anonymized the identity of my two classmates (A and C below), and tweaked the ending based on a recent recollection. Loreto house (blue) and Carmel house (yellow) are two of the four sports houses of St. Xaviers Bokaro.

Haile Gebrselassie (a contemporary marathon legend who still needs to battle asthma)

For those of you that remember me, I was rarely (if ever) seen on the athletic field. I had a bad case of asthma during my formative years. Anyway, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. During the 8th or 9th Standard, my loyalty towards Loreto house reached epic proportions and  I decided to  participate  in the only sports event that  didn’t require selection or qualification – the venerable cross-country race. Never mind that I’d never run a distance longer than 5m before. Outfitted with a freshly-dusted pair of tennis shoes (keds, if we must be accurate), blue singlet, shorts and an ardent fervor in my heart, I stepped on to the field. If I had had seen Chariots of Fire, its music would have been resonating in my head. In reality, what I sorely needed was an albuterol inhaler to combat my asthma. I crouched at the race start with two equally loyal Loreto compatriots – A and C.

The gun went off and behold my dismay when I saw the entire crowd “take off” (or so it seemed). I was thinking to myself, this is a cross-country race (for crying out loud!) – why are they running so fast already? I calmed myself down and decided to stick to my plan of “pacing” the race (having a scant little clue how long the race was). Lucky for me, my dear buddy A was giving me company as we brought up the sparsely populated rear guard.

As a token of my gratitude, I entertained A with the rhythmic music that only tortured asthmatic lungs can produce. I think C must have raced ahead because I don’t recall seeing him after the starter gun went off. Anyway, after an eternity and thousand deaths, we completed the trail segment of the race and reached the entrance to the school field – the final 400meter beckoned to us. At that crucial stage, a couple of things happened..

  • A began to  break free  (his 2nd wind probably?) leaving me in sole possession of last place.
  • I heard Voice#1 from the sidelines “Quick! you are almost there! Just 400 meters more!”.
  • Then I heard Voice#2 from the sidelines “I think they award points only to runners who finish within [X] minutes!”

Ultimately the combination of voice#2 and A’s late burst was too much for my tender nerves to bear. I was probably fine completing the “victory lap” jointly with A but I could not withstand the ignominy of being in sole possession of last place. I had no Garmin (or even a regular watch) so I had no way of knowing how close to the cutoff I was. So I did the dastardly act of throwing in the towel thus leaving A in sole possession of last place. Dear A, I’m sorry for denying you the ‘official’ last-but-one spot! But at least you got Loreto house one extra point.

Unfortunately, there’s a final sad twist to the story. That was the year Loreto house tied for 3rd place in the overall standings with Carmel house! Had I completed the race and secured an additional point, Loreto would have been in sole possession of 3rd place. I recall C being very sore on this point and guilted me on several occasions “had you got that one point, Loreto would have…”

Shame is temporary. Quitting is permanent! (Not sure who said this)

A year in Bangalore – the unwritten blog posts

Pic: courtesy elbo.ws

We hit our ‘one year anniversary in India’ on India’s Independence Day – Aug 15, 2009. A few months ago, we toyed with the idea of throwing a party and invite all our friends (old and new). The unrelenting pressures of work and the weekly ‘rhythm of the kids’ school and after-school activities meant we would alter our plans. ’twas all for the good anyway. It was more appropriate to celebrate the anniversary as a quiet Thanksgiving-style dinner with family than a raucous party.

I did tweet about it though (and gave ourselves a B+ grade) – and our global social graph responded enthusiastically. There’s much to write about our experience but here are a few top reasons why we are rating our ‘move to India’ a solid B+ (knock-on wood for each bullet point):

  • Fortunate enough that none of us (especially the kids) have fallen seriously ill
  • Children getting sensitized to the global issues of haves and have-nots
  • Adapted to the local environment and enjoying the spectrum of people and experiences
  • Kids are well-settled at their new school – NPS Koramangala
  • My job at Adobe has been every bit as exciting and rewarding as I had hoped a year ago
  • We met my parents thrice and my brother five times in the past year, not to mention the increased ‘calling-to-Vijayawada’ frequency thanks to the same timezone
  • Met and made friends with many wonderful folks at Raheja Residency
  • Asthma hasn’t reared its ugly head so far.. (Read Asthma, Bangalore and me for background)
  • Becoming a regular part of the Cubbon Park Irregulars (a rabid group of enthusiastic group of long distance runners) has meant that I ran my first half-marathon in Jan 2009 and very likely will run my second marathon next weekend at Kaveri Trail Marathon
  • Graduated from a chauffeur-driven car to self-driven car at the 7-month mark

The challenge a part-time blogger always faces is time – rather the lack thereof. The list of unwritten blogs continues to balloon every month. Partly to reduce my guilt at disappointing my small but loyal base of readers and partly to get feedback on which topics might be of more interest, here’s the complete list (in no particular order):

  • Bangalore Calling: This was meant to be the sequel to The Bombay Seduction and Gurgaon Growling but this post was threatening to eternally remain in the “Draft” folder. As a stop-gap, I pasted a relevant conversation with a New Jersey-based Indian-American contemplating a return
  • The Indian Woman’s Dilemna: Someday this post will be written by my wife. The thesis is that an Indian woman has a LOT more freedom in America than in her own native country. How then does she reconcile the pros and cons in her head in order to arrive at the decision to return to India?
  • Raheja ‘Monkey-Haven’ Residency: When I informed my Bangalore-native classmate & friend (who lives in the Bay Area) about our new coordinates in Koramangala, he remarked, in a disappointed tone I might add, “But that’s a fairly mainstream choice” (He’d have approved if we had taken residence at the Adarsh Palm Meadows.) Anyway, the demographic profile of Raheja, its vibrant community and its killer location made it an easy choice for us. One of the many fringe benefits of living in Raheja: hardly a week goes by without sighting a pack of monkeys scaling the walls of the buildings foraging for food.
  • Of high rises and balconies: You may not realize it but high rise apartment buildings and their numerous balconies are perilous to kids (and to parents with weak hearts). Our own apartment hunt had to rebooted after our 3 year old demonstrated that the 5th floor balcony is eminently climbable (we still shudder thinking back to that scene).
  • Vishnu’s Best Devotee: This has nothing to do with our move but I had an epiphany on work-life balance as I recollected one of Narada’s tales.
  • Crowd-sourcing the traffic light: I could possibly write 3-4 different posts on Indian road traffic but this is the one I really want to. The unmanned Indian traffic intersection is a fascinating and efficient system. Unmanned intersection and efficient? (you snort) In much the same way that the Mumbai dabbawalas have demonstrated their world-class efficiency, crowd-sourcing the traffic light (which is how I’ve dubbed the unmanned traffic intersection) is simply brilliant for Indian traffic conditions.
  • The Staring Gene: Why do Indians stare so much? I’m not talking about Indian kids nor am I talking about Indians gawking at foreign tourists or celebrities – these are somewhat understandable. I’m talking about Indians staring at Indians…
  • Midnight Marathon to Kaveri Trail Marathon: This is a tribute post to my Runners for Life and Cubbon Park Irregulars friends who’re transforming me from a hobbyist occasionally-goal-directed runner to a semi-pro obsessive runner.
  • Do not urinate here: Saw this painted on a wall in Warangal (or was it Hyderabad?) The location doesn’t really matter because there are very few walls that are sacred in India (even those that are close to temples). Why is that we are not seeing the number of Sulabh Shauchalays increase in India? Why are restrooms an afterthought in most commercial buildings? When they do exist, why are soaps noticeable by their absence? Is it a wonder that infectious diseases continue to have a field day in India?
  • Excellent products, Poor Services: The former are driven by market economy, the latter due to unchanged mindset? My wife and I slightly disagree on the latter. I hold the hope that the market can drive higher level of service and competitors would be forced to catch-up but my wife thinks the attitudes are too deep-seated.
  • Living in the Present: [essay from wife]
  • Well-rounded education: [essay from wife]
  • The Three Bubbles Revisited: An expansion on the original The Three Bubbles post – whether it’s my friend Pranshu (who goes offroading every weekend in Gurgaon) or the guy in Mumbai (who goes mountain-biking) or me reconnecting with my inner-running-self and looking-forward to resuming my squash routine, there are additional ways of enriching the ‘living bubble’.
  • What I miss about California
  • Close encounters of the bribing kind: Two encounters so far and I passed with flying colors.
  • What I don’t like about India: inspired by a recent Starbucks chat with a friend who mildly accused me of  writing only positive things about our move. Not true my friend. You should read my tweets more carefully 🙂
  • (No) Thank You Maids: [essay from wife] Cheap labor, poor performance, excellent excuse for the Indianization of the Indian-American male.
  • Desperate Lives: Whether it’s the maid or the driver or the handyman or the kackra-wala, they are all living incredibly difficult and desperate lives to make ends meet.
  • Educating Boys: [essay from wife] School + sports = incomplete; Home + school + sports = complete. Her thesis is that the top reason why more Indian women are not able to join the workforce is because the men are incapable of managing the household.
  • Global Identity: [essay from wife] 1992 -> Indian looks, American thinking, Indian feelings; 2009 -> Indian looks, American thinking, Indian-American feelings (hypersensitive vs. tempered)
  • Piracy in DVD rentals
  • Sequel to The Janus Man

Any of the above topics sound interesting to you? If yes, please vote for your favorite(s) in the comments.

Thanks!

Asthma, Bangalore and me…

Pic: courtesy myhealthguardian.com

Asthma and I go back a long way. One cold winter in Bokaro, when I was either 6 or 7, asthma came uninvited into my life. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it changed my life. Besides taking a lot of medicines and being bedridden more than the average kid, the big lifestyle impact was that I didn’t play much of any sport during my school or college years. In the 70’s and 80’s, asthma was not well understood – I mean besides the medicines prescribed by allopathic & homeopathic doctors to suppress asthma. Sports Star used to be part of my staple reading during my high school years. I was deeply puzzled when I read that Morten Frost Hansen (Dutch All England badminton champ) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (heptathlon Olympic uber champion) suffered from asthma in their childhood. I was to learn later that the best way to combat asthma is to exercise “more” (not “less”).

My first job (in India) was with Tata Steel at Jamshedpur. Perhaps it was finally the release of academic pressure or maybe it was finally time to beat my nemesis. Whatever the reason, Jamshedpur was where I won my first battle against asthma. Thanks to my dear friends & colleagues Vochak (squash champion from BITS Palani) and JD (squash champion & amateur coach from IT-BHU), I was introduced to the wonderful sport of squash. I scratched and struggled around on the squash court of Beldih Club for nigh on two years. My squash game didn’t threaten but a worthy side effect was that it kept my asthma at bay and I gradually built my cardiovascular fitness. When I moved to USA, I experienced asthma-free bliss for 16 years (barring a few minor episodes of exercise-induced asthma in Chicago).

As I wrote in Why are we moving back to India now, we came very close to moving to India in 2005. A casual one week stay in Bangalore suddenly turned into a very real possibility. I had an offer to take up a key role in the Yahoo! Bangalore organization and Poonam also had a great opportunity at a biotech startup. At the eleventh hour, we pulled the plug. The asthma factor was not a major reason but it did figure in the calculations. In all my trips to Bangalore (including this one), the wheezing would start by the second or third day.

Fast forward three years. I was planning my 2-week scouting trip to India and wondering Where in India we would be moving to. By our original reckoning, Bangalore should have been on top of our list of prospective cities. However, it had fallen out of favor and was at #3 (behind Delhi and Bombay). This was partly because we were steadily reading stories about Bangalore’s worsening traffic situation, Delhi/Gurgaon’s rise as a techno hub, and of Bombay’s seduction. The elephant in the living room was actually my old nemesis.

Poonam (our Chief Research Officer) read many articles about how asthma was getting worse in Bangalore.

50% Bangalore kids hit by asthma screamed this Times of India headline in 2007. Dust mites in the humid atmosphere of Bangalore trigger around 60% of asthma, while vehicular emissions like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, aldehydes, sulphur dioxide also act as trigger agents.

‘‘Continuous exposure to allergens like Parthenium could prove fatal for asthma patients as it can lead to a permanent damage of the lungs affecting the respiratory functions’’, said Dr. Rao in this blog post Bangalore still carries ‘asthma city’ tag. Then came a study from WHO and UNICEF that declared that over 30 per cent of Bangalore’s children suffer from asthma. Whoa!!

Then out of the blue, Twitter provided a glimmer of hope. I saw the following tweet (or maybe it was a Facebook status message) from one of my Bangalore friends: “down with asthma. Bummer.” You might find the following email exchange interesting.

— start of email thread —

Hi [friend],
Sorry to hear you are down with asthma. I was reading a few blog posts recently about how the air quality in Bangalore keeps getting worse – pollution + pollen. Why you might wonder? So I suffered from asthma for years – it only stopped after I moved to US (14 years ago). Actively in the throes of moving back to India (looking at Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore as Pune) as prospective cities. The biggest ding against Bangalore (for me personally) is how severely my asthma would return – my last 2 trips to Bangalore were memorable (not!). Would like to know your thoughts..
Thanks.
– Vishy

Hi Vishy,

I can relate a lot to what you say. I was in the US for about 6 months – and was perfectly fine through the period. I am fine elsewhere in India too, In general : Asthma for me is local to Bangalore. I have been here about 10 years, and have learnt to fight it. I am generally fine as long as I am exercising in some form or the other – even a 10 minute walk would do it, as long as its regular. Through various stages, I have practised pranayama, played badminton, gone running, etc regularly. The moment, I get a little lazy – stop exercising for a few days, and asthma reminds me that I cant afford to be lazy in Bangalore. I believe, as long as you are religiously regular with exercise – you can keep asthma away. I myself have considered moving to other cities, but for internet products focussed on the global market – this is the place.
There is enough India focussed internet work happening in Bombay & Delhi, but not as many global companies/startups as in Bangalore.

Let me know if you have anything specific you are looking at in India – might be able to connect.

All the best with the move,
[friend]

[friend],

Thanks for your detailed note on asthma. That certainly re-emboldens my heart towards Bangalore. So I just booked my trip to India – flying in to Bombay on Jun 3 & returning on Jun 18. Plan to cover Bangalore & Delhi as well. Would love to hook up when I’m there.

— end of email thread —

In my blog post chronology so far, a few posts are still incomplete (and hence unpublished). One of them is the “Bangalore Calling” post where I make the case for Bangalore. (Still intend to finish that post but might take a few more weeks). Anyway, I spent 6 days in Bangalore during my 2-week trip and I didn’t feel a single asthma symptom. This was baffling and miraculous. In all my previous three trips to Bangalore, I had asthma trouble so what was different this time? I tried to contain my excitement. Maybe it was the allergy medication which I was taking regularly that acted as a shield. Did it? I have no idea.

What this asthma-free Bangalore trip did to me (& Poonam) was that it removed the we-cannot-move-to-Bangalore straightjacket. We still had a healthy apprehension about how this factor would affect the kids and me. The net score in Bangalore’s favor definitely tipped things over for us. I’m completing this post on day#13 and, so far, (touch wood!) I have not felt any symptoms. The traffic is as bad as it was touted to be but ‘maybe’ the pollen counts have come down. Only time will tell.