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.

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

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.

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.

*********

 

KTM 2013 race report

Somewhere between 21 and 42.

Somewhere between 21 and 42.

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

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

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

Scratch. That. Entire. Metaphor. Thingy.

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

*********

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

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

By evening my intestines formally registered their protest.

Great. Just great.

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

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

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

Race morning

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

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

Going for it

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

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

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

The Half Monty

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

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

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

The eighth thorn

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

Getting chicked

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

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

 ***********************

Looking ahead to KTM 2014

To be continued…

When a sacred bull got a beating

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

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

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

I was reminded of two conversations in this regard.

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

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

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

RR: “Nice! Keep at it.”

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

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

Me (bubble clearly pricked): “Oh!”

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “Oh!”

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

******

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

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

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

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

Clarity of mind

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

The first loop

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

Craving for shoes

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

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

Redemption

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

That Superman scene

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

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

***********

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

 

When life gives you a ripped toe you make lemonade

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

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

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

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

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

Bam!

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

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

image

image

image

 

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

image

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

The best was yet to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When life gives you a lemon you make lemonade

When life gives you a ripped toe you stop wearing shoes

When life gives you a ripped toe you make lemonade

 

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.

 

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.

 

The quest for natural running form

Years ago when I used to play squash regularly at Decathlon Club (Santa Clara), I was struggling to vault myself from a high C to a low B. One of the bad habits of C level players is that they DON’T prolong the rallies, opting instead to finish things off quickly, usually via ill-conceived drop shots.

How do you change bad habits?

A deep philosophical question, eh? Perhaps one with myriad answers.

My regular playing partner (Joel) had a simple fix. The idea was to not mess with the inherent competitive instinct that drives players — the instinct to WIN every point/game/match. He proposed, after we completed our usual quota of ‘best of 3’ regular games to play a fourth game — a game with just one altered rule — any return that  landed in front of the service line would be a foul. In short, drop shots and boast shots were outlawed and one could only play rails and cross-court shots. The competitive instinct to ‘win’ every point was still in place so it ended up becoming a fun drill that wasn’t ‘boring’.

Old habits die really slow. It was several weeks before I curtailed the urge to use drop shots in my ‘regular’ games. As I recall, Joel adjusted much better than me.

*****

What was the bad habit I was trying to shake off here? Many ‘poor form’ habits actually but the biggest was that I had become a heel striker. It took several rounds of surreptitious observation (think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) to come to this conclusion.

In amateur long-distance running, you are rarely chasing a competitor. The competitor is oneself – a perpetual quest for Personal Bests — race after race, season after season. My first barefoot run was a mere one week after the end of the previous running season and, with a runway of 7 months before next season’s first race, there were zero competitive distractions.

So I noodled over a few loosely defined goals.

  1. Change my running form so I’d become a reliable front foot/mid-foot striker.
  2. Run at least one full marathon barefoot.
  3. I knew my pace would suffer initially so instead of any PB aspirations, I wanted to be no slower than last year by the time the season’s last race rolled around.
  4. Give myself a complete running season before taking any ‘long-term’ decisions on barefoot vs. shoes.
At Kaveri Trail Marathon Sep 15 2013

At Kaveri Trail Marathon Sep 15 2013

Goal #1 was the big one. But where did I pluck it from? I had read my share of Chris McDougal articles (refer this and this) but this anecdote from Alberto Salazar resonated deeply. Reproducing from Pete Larson’s blog:

There has to be one best way of running. It’s got to be like a law of physics. And if you deviate too much from that–the way I did in my career–it can be a big handicap. Dathan can’t be a heel striker and expect to run as good as the best forefoot runners. (my emphasis) You can be efficient for a while with bad form–maybe with a low shuffle stride – but eventually that’s not good for your body. It’s going to produce tightness and muscular imbalances and structural problems. Then you get injuries, and if you’re not careful – if you don’t take care of the muscular and structural issues – the injuries can put you into a downward spiral. 

Possibly the best thing I did in Feb 2012 was go the “whole hog” – i.e. no minimalist footwear, just fully barefoot. The second best thing I did was to stick to it for a good five months before saying hello to huaraches. Much later, I would realize that my year-long strategy was (apparently) my personal quest for a natural running form.

Natural running… natural running… hmm, what the heck is natural running? Is it the same as barefoot running? Runblogger explains..

Natural running is not some ideal, archetypal running form, it’s what happens when you let your own body figure out what works best for you when you minimize interference between the foot and the ground. It’s what happens when you let your own muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones do all or most of the work. It will vary depending on the type of ground under your feet, how fast you’re running, and so forth. It could hurt you – just because it’s “natural” does not necessarily mean that it’s always good. It could also help you – some people have overcome chronic injury by going “natural.” It’s a form employed by you, not necessarily a form employed by all. And your natural running form can change with time and practice. It might reach a comfortable steady state, or it might continue to change in small ways.

Natural runners are using the form that is working for them in their current situation, with zero assistance from footwear or other technology.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a single barefoot running form.

I get the sense that most people equate the phrase natural running with barefoot running, or at least running with a form similar to that which you would adopt when barefoot (shorter stride, increased cadence, more plantarflexed foot at contact, generally a reduced impact transient if not heel striking, etc.). I largely agree with this definition. However, I think there’s a bit more to it than this.

Though barefoot running form has certain general elements that characterize it, it’s not something that can be defined concretely. There is no single barefoot running form, and thus there is no single natural running form that applies in all circumstances for all people.

This seems shockingly at odds with Salazar’s assessment earlier. Larson continues…

The reality is that running form is highly variable, and is largely dependent on an individual runner’s body and the conditions in which they are running (things like speed, surface, incline/decline, etc.). This applies even to foot strike. For barefoot runners, things will change depending on speed, surface, etc. There are habitual barefoot runners that forefoot strike, there are habitually barefoot people who heel strike when they run on softer surfaces. There are barefoot runners who heel strike on asphalt (and I have seen some very experienced barefoot runners making initial contact on the heel while running on asphalt). Most shod runners probably forefoot strike running uphill, and heel strike on the flats and downs. In fact, when it comes to foot strike, Prof. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard emphasized variation when I interviewed him for my book. He said:

“I think everybody does everything. This idea that you’re just a forefoot striker, or just a midfoot striker, just a heel striker is bizarre. Variation is what biology is all about – everybody does everything! I think barefoot runners heel strike sometimes, of course they do. I don’t think they do it all the time. It’s speed dependent, terrain dependent, warm up dependent, etc.”

Strange as it may sound, it anecdotally rings true (at least partially). Having seen race day pictures of a few other barefoot runners and myself, there are times when we seem to be heel striking. It must be rare enough because we haven’t developed any heel related injuries. Which brings me to an important closing point. It’s nearly impossible to have  persistent incorrect form when you are running ‘whole hog’ barefoot.

Read the rest of Larson’s article here – Natural running: what the heck does it mean?

 

Why I’m running Kaveri Trail Marathon for the 5th consecutive time

There are races you run for your PBs. Boring sissy flat courses like the Dubai Marathon or vibrant city courses like Chicago, New York or Mumbai where the crowds energize and propel you every step of the way. Then there are tough ultras with steep climbs and treacherous terrains that will demand every ounce of grit from you – completing them is ample reward. KTM is neither of those type of races.

You run KTM because it tests you. You run KTM because it asks questions of you. Weeks after the race, you’ll still be searching for answers to “what exactly went wrong?” I mean, the course is rather innocuous, right? A rustic flat trail next to one of the Kaveri canals with just one (100 meter) incline. Some say the heat makes it potent. Others swear it’s the humidity due to the proximity to the canal. The course discoverer (Jugy) pithily says “It’s just the bloody course.” My theory is that the sheer desolation of the second loop strips you bare and your inner demons lie exposed — how you deal with them defines your race outcome. If you want to build character, run KTM.

Bib41008 If I ever had to audition for a Don’t mess with me role, I’d think of this moment (KTM 2012) — somewhere at the 4 1/2 hour mark when the ground had become so hot that I had to sprint 100 meter distances in a bizarre game of wheres-my-next-shade-oasis. It was not enjoyable. But it didn’t kill me. And that’s what matters.

KTM 2012 was my first barefoot trail marathon.  Compared to last season, I have a lot more barefoot mileage under my soles and a few less demons in my head. That, combined with the fact that this could be my last race at this venue, is making my heart beat faster as race day approaches.

 

My Second Nandi Hills Climb

Nandi arch: the runner's halfway breasting tape

Nandi arch: the runner’s halfway breasting tape

This is my fourth year of regular long distance running in Bangalore. Every year, sometime between August and October, my running buddies go for an annual jaunt of the Nandi Hills. Sixty kilometers away, it’s the closest ‘hill running course’ – a 7.15 km climb with a steadily increasing gradient in the first five km and a quad-bursting slant in the final two km.

Every year, the roll call would be taken and I would be missing. I always had a good excuse.

“Too soon. I’m barely a flat lands runner.”

“Umm.. I have Sunday afternoon plans so the 12:30pm return time wouldn’t work…”

“I know it’s supposed to be scenic and all but…”

Truth be told I was scared of hills. In almost all my marathon races, I adopted the tried and tested approach of fast-walking the hills (even many of the bunny hills). A rare exception was Hyderabad Marathon 2011. After negotiating the initial rolling hills cautiously, I couldn’t resist attacking the latter ones. I would regret that decision at the 35km mark where I experienced excruciating calf cramps (not that there is such a thing as ‘non-excruciating’ calf cramps).

Starting 8 months ago, my fear progressively vaporized. In our regular Saturday morning long runs, I started noticing that I wasn’t huffing at the medium-grade inclines. At the steeper gradients, I was catching (and sometimes even overtaking) the fast suspects.

Vaishno Devi’s devout pilgrims insist that they go when the bulaava (“calling” in Hindi) comes. My bulaava from Nandi Hills finally came last month. I had a magical first run – partially described in a gift that keeps on giving. I was so moved that I also wrote up an impromptu Ode to Nandi Hills and shared it on our Facebook running group.

Yesterday, I did my second Nandi Hills run. It wasn’t as magical – no mist, clouds seemed more distant and noticeably warmer. Nonetheless I had a fantastic run.

In my July run, I ran barefoot for the first 18 km and switched to my Puma chappals for the final 10k. I completed the first loop in 87 min. The second loop was slower but I don’t know by how much (no Garmin). I finished my first Nandi run feeling quite strong so I told myself I’d return and push myself harder.

Much deliberation was given to the choice of footwear – a) Barefoot all the way, b) Huaraches all the way, c) Barefoot for the 1st loop and huaraches for the second. Option c) was quickly ruled off because I had “already done it” last time. I finally steered to Option b) primarily because I didn’t want to give myself any ‘excuses’ for not pushing myself. Note that this decision clearly establishes the fact that I’m not a hard-core purist barefooter. The craving for speed-for-speed’s-sake was definitely still there.

First loop

With my Garmin strapped on, I took off at a canter (seemed like that anyway). I averaged 5:50 pace for the first few km before dialing down to 6:05. I finished the climb in 46 1/2 min. Then I turned around and said hello.. to Dame Gravity. What seemed like a recovery ambling down turned out to be a 4:40 pace. Ho ho ho! This could be fun I thought. After the gradient became more sane, I checked the pace – it was 4:36. My stride had lengthened considerably. Arms swinging more than usual too. All the changes happened Everything seemed ‘oh so natural’. I would finish the 7.16 km downhill at an average pace of 4:34. The beauty of gravity on display. I have done intervals at a faster pace but they lasted  all of 800 meters. Whoever described running as controlled falling knew his stuff. I finished the first loop in 1 hrs 19 min – 8 minutes faster than my first loop last month.

Second loop

After a two minute hydration+refueling break I began the second loop. Right away, my quads started their protest. It was going to be an interesting second lap. The ability of our minds to create repositioning (moving the goals) bullshit is quite amazing. Some thoughts that came up for consideration..

“Maybe I don’t need to run the second loop ALL the way. After all, I DID run the first loop hard.”

“Do I even need to run the second loop? The rest of the guys would have to wait for me for breakfast.. and that’s kinda rude.”

“Maybe I’ll just drop the pace and see how far up the hill I make it before making any drastic decisions.”

In the midst of these indecisive thoughts (around the 15k mark), my friend Shilpi (S) joined me. Turned out to be a really good break for me. S is a really good runner and an exceptionally strong hill runner. She finished the first loop climb only 2-3 minutes slower than me but, significantly, without pushing herself much. Since she hasn’t made friends with Dame Gravity yet, I was able to gain some minutes on my downhill slalom.

As we reached the 18k mark, doubtful thoughts crept in again. At some point, I voiced them. S didn’t say anything. At a couple of steep inclines, I pragmatically walked a few hundred meters. Close to the 20k mark, S cheerfully declares “We are just a km away. Why don’t we finish it?” Sometimes when the decision is taken away from you, it’s immensely liberating. Off we went. S also finally got tired of me slowing her down and increased her pace just enough to finish the climb about 70 meters ahead of me. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I got “chicked” and believe me, there’s no shame getting beat by a stronger runner (male or female).

The second downhill was negotiated at a more sane pace (6:10’ish for the first 3km) and I finished the remaining 4 km at a 5:10 average pace. Two loops of Nandi Hills (28.76 km) in 2:57 min – inclusive of two refueling breaks (4 minutes in total).

Thank you Nandi Goddess. I shall be back again. Hopefully soon.

[Closing note: My calves were extremely sore (think “knife like shooting pain” every time I took a step) the next day. This morning, they were still sore but I managed to do an easy 8k run. I believe I’ve figured out why my calves took such a beating. Stay tuned for that sequel post – Lessons from my second Nandi Hills climb.]