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.

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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?

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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.

 

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.

 

Bangalore to Hubli: from agony to ecstasy

Shriram Revankar (the adventurer with his mom at the end of his journey)

Shriram Revankar (the adventurer with his mom at the end of his journey)

[Editor’s Note: My good friend and ex-colleague Shriram undertook an amazing trip last year. Shriram is a cyclist and a runner. He belittles his running but he’s blessed with natural abilities. With no training plan and just two long 30k runs under his belt, he knocked off a full marathon (Auroville 2011) in 3:55. But this post isn’t about his running abilities.. nor is it about his cycling abilities (of which he has plenty to boast about too). This is about his pain enduring abilities, sheer grit and stubbornness. His entire account is eminently worth a read – I’ve cherry picked the bits that serve as a “portrait of pain”.]

An 8 year old’s humble beginnings with a bicycle..

When I was an 8 year old child in Ankola, a quaint little coastal town in Karnataka, I had learnt bicycling the hard way. My father, in his late forties was my coach. The bicycle was about the same height as me, but probably weighed double my body-weight. My riding style was quite awkward. The left hand controlled the handle and the right hand tightly wrapped around the seat. My little painfully-thin and knotty frame bobbed up-and-down as I peddled in-and-out through the frame of the bicycle.  Manoeuvring the bicycle was not easy. I do remember suffering from persistent open wounds on my knees, shins, palms and elbows for a period of nearly a year or may be more. The poor bicycle did not fare much better either. It was a miracle that the bicycle survived my vigorous ‘half peddling’ through the monsoon hammered streets of Ankola.

Gentle beginnings with pain..

The primary issue was the pain at the buttocks. 

When the pain could no longer be ignored..

I kept on riding while my shoulders and butt kept on howling in pain. By around 12:15 PM more than seven hours after I left home, I crossed the midway point of that day’s ride… That stop was a big relief from persistent pain. Interestingly the most prominent pain, the butt pain, would cease as soon as I got off the bike. However shoulder pain would not go down by much.

The pain and the brain

It had been nearly 9 hours since I started my ride. Sun was hot and bright – but I did not notice either the sun or the heat. I had other things distracting me. How many ways can I talk about pain?! There are not enough ways. As my butt felt like it was in a blender, (sorry for being so graphic) I started supporting my weight on my legs and shoulders. Although my knees and thighs were up to the task, my shoulders were not holding up well.  Slowly the intensity of pain at the butt and the shoulders overwhelmed all my thoughts. The blunt pain just below the neck, underneath and around the shoulder blades was constant and excruciatingly gnawing.  It felt as if a heavy dumbbell got buried into my back and stayed-put and did not move even an iota no matter what I did. I pulled the shoulders in, pulled them down; pulled the chest in and hunched back. Nothing worked. It was a constant struggle.

I started frequent walks just to relieve me of the pain. The shoulders were getting increasingly worse because walking or resting made no difference to them.

After every break, getting going again became highly unpalatable. It took immense effort to climb back on the bicycle and continue the ride. I started noticing that the rest-breaks no longer helped me to get a break from pain. It felt like every riding episode started and ended with the same intensity of pain. It was as if I took no break. The breaks were of no help at all. My younger brother had already reached Hubli and was willing to come and rescue me if I asked for it. That put further dent in my resolve to bear the pain and continue. I was still quite far from my first day’s destination – Chitradurga. By that time I had completely forgotten my over enthusiastic early eagerness to go an additional sixty kilo-metres past Chitradurga, to Davanagere.

If you thought he was done talking about his pain on day #1, think again..

Other than a Google search of a few hotels in Chitradurga, I had not made any arrangements for the night’s stay. I wanted to reach there early while there was still sunlight. I thought that it would give me an opportunity to evaluate more than one hotels option. However the pain was unrelenting, brute-force speeding up was out of the question. I decided not to take breaks anymore – they were not helping. I started walking and bicycling. Every time I bicycled, I had to get down and walk again within a couple of kilometres. I really tried to extend my riding time to walking time ratio. The idea was to match the walking time with the up-hill stretches and the riding time with the flat or downhill stretches. The up-hills were not particularly harsh. It was just that on the up-hills I had to pedal relatively more compared to the downhill or the flat stretches. Not a deep revelation, but the “butt” equation was forcing me to minimize the number of ‘pedalling-s per kilo metre’. I could barely tolerate resting my butt on the seat; any further movement was sadistically cruel. I also rationalized that the ratio of walking speed to riding speed is the highest during an uphill anyway.

Did you know that the brain is the biggest muscle in the human body?

My democratic body was on complete non-cooperation movement, but my dictatorial brain was taking none of it. It was not letting any of these revolting body parts to make their own decision. At this stage I was ready to take any and all moral victories with great relish. If I could get a few more rolls while not pedalling, that was a win. If there was a stretch of shade that I could get under, it was a win. If I avoided a bump on the road, that was a win. It was getting pathetic and what made the situation ridiculous was the headwind. My whole strategy of uphill-walk; down-hill-ride had to be thrown out. There was a stretch where I was going downhill and I had to pedal as if I was going uphill. Given the state of pain I was in, this made it a real torture. Wikipedia says “it is a practice or act of deliberately inflicting severe physical pain and possibly injury” I think that description of torture matched my situation very well. J It is during this stretch of ‘not-reaching-Chitradurga-yet’, it became clear to me that my brain was the biggest “muscle” that was driving the ride and the rest of the muscles were but secondary.

Pain, music and Ibuprofen

During early hours of riding, I used to sit on the bike-seat and ride for a stretch of five to ten minutes. By the time I crossed Davanagere, I could bear to sit on my seat and ride only for two three minutes at a stretch and then I had to switch position. This was putting a lot of stress on legs and thighs.  My legs had been rock solid till then. They were supporting without complaint and helped in alleviating my butt, shoulder and upper back pain. However as I rode past Harihar, legs started cramping. I longed for some shelter by the road side where I can just lie down for a few minutes in the shade. There was no such luck!

From then on I had to stop favouring my butt, shoulder and back. The piercing pain was getting increasingly unbearable, but I had no choice. Slowly the legs stopped cramping. The riding speed or effort no longer had any bearing on pain or tiredness. So I started riding quite hard and fast for a few kilo metres and then walked for a 100-200 metres.  It was much better now. Soon I found out that no matter how short or long a break I took, it hurt with the same intensity as soon as I started riding. So I made the breaks very short, just enough to remove the edge of the pain and then ride again. I had taken with me some Ibuprophen (pain killer, fever reducer) tablets, but taking two of them had no effect even an hour after taking them. So I did not take them for the rest of the trip.

Uphills, downhills and headwinds

I left the shelter and continued my bicycling by 2:00 PM and immediately the pain returned with all its glory. My dictatorial brain made a special note of the fact that the pain paid no respect for all that heavenly rest! So it ordered me to take no breaks for the rest of the way. I started walking for a few minutes and riding bike for a few minutes. Uphill or downhill rides did not matter anymore. It all felt like uphill all the time. I attributed the lack of speed to severe headwind. Just as I was about to dismiss the headwind theory as a concoction of my tired mind, huge plume of some kind of a husk started pummelling my face and body. There was headwind after all!  

Victory at last!

still had about 10 kilo metres to go. The next half hour of ride through the streets of Hubli was uneventful, although I over stretched myself trying to follow my brother and mother, who were on a scooter. I did not know that they were trying to go well ahead of me because my mother wanted to prepare some ritualistic welcome for me into the house. Over exuberant me reached there along with them and then waited at the gate for my mother to get ready for the welcome. That gave my younger brother some more time to snap a few final pictures of the trip.

Amazingly the butt pain went away without any vestigial effects after the first night’s sleep. I had hurt my left knee while chasing my brother’s scooter during the last stretch. The knee healed in a couple of days. However the upper back and shoulder pain lingered for a few more days. I rested in Hubli for two days before heading back to Bangalore ……….by train.

The victorious protagonist with his mother and brother

The victorious protagonist with his mother and brother

 

My first DNF and a Forrest Gump moment

Pic courtesy centives.net

Pic courtesy centives.net

Two days ago I had my first DNF in a full marathon. Considering the spate of races recently sprouting all across Bangalore it might surprise you to know that I *wasn’t* running in a race.

So where the heck was the FM course? It was on our group’s usual Saturday heartbeat long run course (we call it Dandi). On days like these, what I typically do is start 30 min before my buddies. By the time we finish the customary 30k, I’m left with just a deficit of 7k which I negotiate homeward-bound.

I must tell you that this wasn’t the first time I was running a non-race FM. For quite some time now, I’ve been running a FM every month. Since there are only 3 FM/FM+ races I run every year, the bulk of my recent FM running has been in non-race settings. There have been a few FM’s which I’ve run completely solo (this was one of them) but for the vast majority, I had the company of 1-3 of my friends for at least 30k. One of the cognitively difficult FM’s was Kaikondrahalli Lake (a few months ago) where I had to run 22 loops. Since I had jettisoned my Garmin last year, keeping track of the # of loops was a big challenge (I used 5 postits to represent sets of 5 loops).

So why was (am) I running a FM every month? That is answered in a different post ‘Don’t be a MAD runner, be a MAM runner’. For now, suffice to say that I’ve been doing it for a while now.

Now let me take you back to that scene in Forrest Gump.. That scene where Gump has been running for days (maybe months) and has hundreds of other runners following him. All of a sudden he stops running. Everybody behind also stop. Bewilderment on everyone’s faces.

Gump walks away… Presumably to resume whatever he was doing several months ago. Gump (or someone in the crowd) yells out to the followers “Go home! Just.. Go back!” Amidst murmurs and grumblings, the crowd breaks up and dissipates.

My first DNF was reminiscent of this Gump moment.

Instead of Gump’s following hordes, I had voices in my head. All these months the voices were largely in resonance.. Utterances on the lines of “Go go go” “Oh yeah.. This is fun” “First time doing xyz variant of an FM – that tickles me”.

The first inkling that something was amiss came close to the 33k mark. Sampath (our group’s Speedy Gonzales) was giving me company and, as we sipped deliciously sweet coconut water, asked how much more I had to go. I gave an approximate number (7km – the number I needed to run after reaching Cubbon Park).

Hmm.. 7km more after Cubbon?? It was strangely unsettling. I was surprised because I had been here before… like more than a dozen times. It wasn’t that I was running particularly fast. Sure – Young Sid and I did a pacey stretch from 6 to 16 but I wasn’t feeling particularly exhausted. No aches and pains from the usual suspects. The soles were a bit sore but they always were at this point (thanks to that pathetic excuse of asphalt near IISc and later near Sankey Tank).

It had to be the mind of course.

The usual “clarity of mind” was missing in action.

Ostensibly there were two contributing factors:

  • I was supposed to meet a friend (visiting from Mumbai) for breakfast at 9am. If I had to finish my FM, I’d have to postpone by 30 min. I was reluctant to because..
  • I had also promised my wife that I’d return home before 11am since we had some apartment hunting to do.

We are all prisoners of our own desires.

But only if we choose to.

If we choose differently, we can just up and walk out of the prison.

Which is what I did after I reached Cubbon Park. I called my pal, changed the rendezvous to a barefoot-friendly establishment and proceeded to walk the final 2km. DNF at 37km.

(Closing note: This post was 90% written using WordPress for Android)

Call of the Asphalt

Election time in India. Everybody loves it. The poor love it because it’s “freebies time” and they get to vote out the politicians that didn’t come through for them (usually this meant anti-incumbancy but lately it’s gotten interesting). The non-voting middle class love it because it appears that the local MP candidate wants to listen to their gyan. The pundit and the media love it for obvious reasons.

What asphalt should look like - Atlanta

What asphalt should look like – Atlanta

I love it because of the asphalt.

I love it because freshly laid asphalt to barefoot runners is like a featherbed to Virendra Sehwag.

Who cares if it’s a one cm coating and only lasts till the first monsoon rains? I’m going to enjoy it tomorrow, the next Saturday, the one after.. and so on until one day it would have returned to the miserable god-forsaken gnarled and potholed monstrosity that is the rest of Bangalore roads.

Just in case you were wondering.. I’m looking forward to exactly a one km stretch on 80 feet road that has received some BBMP love. Actually, many more miles of Bangalore roads have received this facelift but the rest are not on our Saturday Dandi route.

The rest of this post is about how I got here.. By here, I mean waxing eloquent on a stretch of Grade C asphalt relaying on a Friday night?

******

My two year barefoot running phase has had an interesting journey. In the first four months, it was all bare BF. After cutting my teeth (or should I say toes) on the Kaikondrahalli Lake trail, I graduated to road running. By ‘road’, I mean the that is the Bangalore road. When the joy started getting squeezed out from my Sat long runs, I upgraded to huaraches. Thus began a 16 month phase where 75% of my running miles were on huaraches, the rest barefoot. From a triple jump running plan perspective, this meant I was running my tempo and interval runs barefoot (at the Kaikondrahalli Lake) and using huaraches for the Saturday long run and the races. Notable exceptions were the two Kaveri Trail marathons and one other road marathon (not race) barefoot.

What roads and pavements look like in Bangalore

What roads and pavements look like in Bangalore

It may not be evident but huarache laces wear off (ask me later what I mean by “wear off”) every 3-4 months. The last time it happened before a Sat run in late 2013, I procrastinated the relacing and decided to go barefoot. I enjoyed it so much that I did it again for the next few Saturdays. I was finding the hills (both up and down) a lot easier to tackle. I was landing lighter and certainly not missing the slap-slap sound of the sandals. I did the Nandi Hills pilgrimage twice and learnt some interesting differences between barefoot and 4mm huaraches, especially when one comes tearing down the hill.

After successfully negotiating the Bangalore Ultra 75km (50km in huaraches and 25km in 1cm Puma chappals), I had not made up my mind about Mumbai Marathon. I was strongly leaning towards barefoot but it wasn’t an easy decision. A low-intensity but nagging lower back pain (which I suspected to be a relapse of my slipped disc) took me to Dr. Gladson’s clinic. He correctly diagnosed that it wasn’t a disc relapse but that wasn’t the most interesting finding. He looked at the toughened section of my inner ball of foot and posited that it was caused by the difference in foot strike between the huarache and barefoot. He told me to choose “one” of them and stick to it.

I didn’t buy his theory entirely but it served as a forcing function. I chose barefoot for Mumbai. It seemed to be working far better for me in 2013 (compared to 2012), I was landing lighter and by corollary (or was it correlation?) I was cramping less.

Since mid-Dec 2013, I switched back to barefoot. My compliance has been 95% in this period – the last two weekends being the exceptions. The score currently reads 1379km (BF) vs. 2222 (4mmH) but the former is steadily gaining ground.

 

The Cult of BHUKMP

[Editor’s Note: It’s been almost four years since I started running with (and became part of) the BHUKMP cult. I never got around to writing about BHUKMP, aptly described as a “cult” rather than a group. The name itself is an acronym for the six races that every member should strive to run in a single season. BHUKMP = B_angalore Midnight, H_yderabad, Bangalore U_ltra, K_averi Trail, M_umbai, P_ondicherry/Auroville. In this post, the cult attempts to outline its core ideologies in the form of “Thou shalt…”].Multiple references to Dandi should clue you on to the fact that it’s a dominant part of the cult’s psychic rhythm. The Dandi Way shall be the next post in this series.]

Thou shalt get out of bed before sunrise at least ONCE a week.

Thou shalt save the Friday beers for Saturday.

Thou shalt run at least a 24k Dandi every Sat morning

Thou shalt run the 30k Dandi run every Sat morning.

Thou shalt run Dandi even if all other BHUKMP’rs have gone out of town for a BHUKMP run and you couldn’t.

Thou shalt be considered a member if you join the group on a Dandi run at least once and share your life story.

Thou shalt be very pissed off if, after having made the effort to run Dandi, one misses being in the group photo at Cubbon on account of being too slow!

Thou shalt recruit anyone running alone on Dandi route.

Thou shalt brood over the Dandi group photo after missing the Saturday run.

Thou shalt feel an extraordinary sense of pride at running more than a half marathon distance every Saturday and treating it like a simple morning run!

Thou shalt always runverse with fellow BHUKMP’rs except perhaps at the races.

Thou shalt DNF only under extenuating circumstances..

Thou shalt DNF and earn the right to judge the DNS (Did Not Start).

Thou shalt run the Comrades at least once before you die or you CANNOT die.

Thou shalt run a full marathon every month.

Thou shalt cherish the after run breakfast, talk about it in runversation and, if needed, fight to get your choice of restaurant agreed.

Thou shalt not feel shame in demanding new members to treat the group in expensive places.

Thou shalt focus only on having a good time but will end up having a good timing at times.

Thou shalt not judge the slow runner… or the elite runner.

Thou shalt not discriminate based on religion, caste, creed or choice of footwear (or lack thereof).

Though shalt always obey The Village Elder bechara elder group se bahar ho gaya hai.

Thou shalt not be judgemental about *crazy*. Crazy is a continuum, not a point.

Thou shalt use a Garmin. Or not.

Thou shalt overcome and hope to RUN (not run/ walk/ stroll) 10 kms.

Thou shalt WALK all the races if you are incapable of joining the Sat Dandi run.

Thou shalt write stupid posts in the group even if you are not able to run with them every Saturday in the hope that you don’t get thrown out of the group.

Thou shalt know the difference between the tank and the TANK.

Thou shalt either measure time or distance, but never both together.

Thou shalt strive to run/walk faster or further.

Thou shalt strive to stay (or catch up) with the peloton.

Thou shalt NOT, even for once, think about stealing fellow runner’s huaraches.

Thou shalt win a podium position and treat the group to breakfast!

Thou previous evening shalt the run even if drunk Thou got.

Thou shalt get more & more people addicted to the madness called running…

Thou shalt promptly post to your blog, the contents of the crowd-sourced FB post that you started 🙂

Thou shalt never forget “what happens in BHUKMP/Dandi stays in BHUKMP/Dandi” or else…

 

Chappal mein pachattar – my first 75k ultra

[Editor’s note: Translation for my non-Hindi readers: pachattar is the Hindi word for the number 75, chappals are the Indian rendition of flip-flops, a colloquial reference to my 4mm huarache sandals. This post is a very belated race report of my first 75k ultra marathon in Nov 2012.]

Somewhere between 12.5 and 25k.

Somewhere between 12.5 and 25k.

Just a year ago, I ran my first ultra – a 50k distance at the Bangalore Ultra (Nov 2011). It was a particularly brutal rite of passage into ‘ultra’ territory. Brutal because a large chunk of the race terrain was through ploughed fields. Barring a few mountain goats and gazelles who pulsed their way to fast finishes with nary a missed step, the vast majority were falling like nine pins.

As ultra races go, 50k is the equivalent of a ‘bunny’ slope. If you’ve been running marathons regularly for more than three years, sooner or later you’ll think about the 50k. After all, it’s only 8k more than the regulation marathon distance. But what lunacy pushed me to upgrade my ultra distance from 50k to 75k in ONE year?

Two reasons. I had been running barefoot for about six months by the time this decision came around. As I wrote in quest for natural running form, getting faster wasn’t a 2012 goal. Not getting slower was implicit however. What I was increasingly noticing (after each long run and race) was that I was getting less fatigued. The strain on the knees that I’d invariably feel (either starting at the 22k mark or  closer to 30k) was gone. This was somewhat expected because the forefoot strike gets more work done by the calves and demands less of the knees. Changes in my post-run recovery were more dramatic. Previously I’d walk in the door trying not to look like see-what-the-cat-dragged-in and hoping the family hadn’t planned a pre-lunch outing (a two hour siesta was paramount to take the edge off my muscle soreness and fatigue).

In my post-barefootia metamorphosis, I would return from my long runs and be greeted by “Oh! Did you do a short run today?” Or I’d ask “Which place for weekend grocery shopping?” The afternoon naps were no longer necessary. When it became apparent that this post-run recovery magic was not a fluke (and in fact directly related to my new running form), I started thinking that 75k might be a distinct possibility.

But what about the nightmarish ploughed-up Ultra course? Then word started filtering in that the Ultra organizers were changing the venue. The new venue was an eminently friendlier course in the Hennur forest preserve. My friend Jugy who has an amazing knack of finding awesome trails (KTM course was his first high-profile find) also found this beauty of a course in Hennur. A 12.5k up-and-back trail through a forest preserve which made for a nice 25k loop. There was a fair bit of tree cover (maybe 60%?) and a smallish rocky section close to the turnaround.

Three rounds of golf

I had it all worked out in my head. It was not a 75k ultra I was running. I was just going to play 3 rounds of golf on a 25k course. There was the little matter of playing all three rounds in one day, that’s all.

How did I intend to get my body into the golfing mood? It had to start with the clothes selection of course. White tee for the first round, blue for the second and red for the third. Since I sweat like a pig, a change of sweatband was also part of the plan. The script really worked out. It’s amazing what a difference a change of tee and sweatband makes. Replacing a soaking drifit tee and sweatband was almost like taking a quick shower.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

The neat thing about long distance running is that one can have long conversations with fellow runners even during races. This is especially true for the ultra distances because you are running at a slower pace than most of your training runs, thus allowing for conversations without getting tired. A 5am start at Bangalore Ultra (and a 6am’ish daybreak) ensures that even the fast runners hold back in the first hour. We had reached the Ultra venue very close to start time so it was a bit of mad scramble.

In the process, we forgot to pickup the torchlights. My compatriots (Praveen – who was running 100k and Nari – who was also running 75k) ran back to pick theirs but I demurred, presumably because why add an extra 100-200m to an already long 75km? I quickly rationalized my decision with the light is not going to help with depth perception anyway so.. From a practical standpoint, I had to stick close to a runner with a torch. Stayed with Praveen and Nari for a bit but they seemed to be in a hurry so I hung back… and found a light meandering at a suitable pace. This particular light was from Bill Nash’s headlamp and Bill was more than happy to share his light. And thus began our conversation.

Maybe it was his Cal Berkeley t-shirt, his friendly demeanor, my natural impulse to engage in conversation, or the fact that we both were running a 75k ultra for the first time (possibly all of the aforementioned), the conversation flowed like we were sitting at a Dublin bar and downing Guinness from the tap. Bill (a Jet Airways pilot stationed in Kochi) talked about his life — his career, his college-going kids, his daughter who spent a year with him in Bombay during his first year in India, the camaraderie he shared with the Indian pilots and crew in Kochi, and a whole range of sundry topics.

Not to be outdone, I talked about my years in Houston, Chicago and Bay Area, of Bangalore and social enterprises and blogging. Before we knew it, we had crossed the 10km marker, daybreak had arrived and the turnaround point wasn’t far away. After consulting Bill’s Garmin, I realized I needed to slow down further. We said our byes and he surged ahead. Sometime after two loops, I realized that I had overtaken him – presumably when he was at a water stop.

Closeup of the huaraches

Closeup of the huaraches

Walk the path? or finish strong?

The second hour was probably the most spiritual segment of my ultra journey. We had descended into a dark forest at 5am and it was beautiful to see the forest reveal itself bit by bit and tread by tread as dawn broke. The sights and the smells. The undulating trail and the uneven ground. Beautiful vistas all around. Somewhere between 15k and 17k, crossing the friendly hordes of 50k runners (they had a 6am start) was fun, especially seeing some of the speed demons from our running group. The title of this post, Chappal mein pachattar, was coined when my friend Rishi yelled it encouragingly when we crossed each other at the 20k mark. The first loop was completed rather uneventfully in 2:45. The white tee was swapped for the blue and off I went for the second loop.

My footwear plan for the ultra was to negotiate the first two loops in the huaraches and decide (at 50km) whether I needed to upgrade to shoes.  In the first half of the second loop, Santhosh Padmanabhan (Bangalore’s well-known ultramarathoner, running coach and zenman) egged me on with an approvingly rhetorical “Walking the path?” He didn’t realize it but I’d be pondering on those words between the 40km and 45km markers.

Mentally and physically I was feeling strong. No complaints from the usual suspects (quads, calves, knees). The soles of my feet were a slightly different story. They were sore of course. Not painfully unbearably sore but I had to extrapolate how they would be after a further 25k.

Did I want to be a barefoot purist and complete the entire 75k in my huaraches? Or did I want to take the pragmatic approach of upgrading to ‘Business Class’ (shoes) and finish strong? What, in fact, was my top goal for this race? These were the questions I was considering.

One less-known fact is that barefoot walking is harder than barefoot running, especially on barefoot unfriendly terrain. My recollection of this fact turned out to be the clincher in my decision. Since I was power walking all the up-slopes, I’d have a fair bit of walking to do… a not-so-appealing a prospect with the 4mm sandals.

I would go on to finish the second loop in a decent 3:15.

Home stretch with Nari
As I neared the end of my second loop I crossed my friend Nari (who was about 1/2 km ahead. He asked whether I intended to tackle the third loop in my sandals. I replied in the negative and he nodded approvingly.

At the 60km water stop I passed Nari without realizing it. As I reached the 62.5k turnaround water stop, I wondered what the heck happened to him..

As I hydrated and picked up some oranges, Nari caught up. Physically we were in a similar place but his body language conveyed a dispirited mental state. And we BHUKMP’rs simply hate that state of mind.

It was no time for solitary brooding and plodding. It was time for a good old-fashioned runversation.. BHUKMP style. We did the math and reckoned that a sub-10 hour finish was clearly in the realm of possibility. With a target set, we set about crunching the km’s – walking the up-slopes, running the flats/down-slopes, and tossing drivel at each other all the way. We finished together in 9:45 min and it was a mighty fine and satisfying feeling.

Next year?

My first 75km ultra done and dusted but you know the weirdest thing? I felt there was still plenty of juice inside. Can’t wait for next year, I thought to myself.