Let the ass kicking begin…

squash_player_quoteSanta Cruz squash club (circa 1999)
It was my second year of playing squash seriously. ‘Seriously‘ doesn’t mean I was any good yet. I was at that rookie stage of a squasher’s evolution when I was constantly looking for easy winners (read “low percentage drop shots or optimistic boasts”). I had signed up for a squash tourney at the Santa Cruz squash club.

I have little recollection of the two games I played – quick embarrassing losses I’m sure.

On the bright side, I got to watch several great games. The standout memory (and the trigger for this post) was the matchup between the club pro (Alex) and a sturdily built bloke (let’s call him Blake since I don’t know him).

There was no danger of Blake being picked from a which one of these is a squash player lineup. This is not to say that he was unfit.

As the players warmed up with rails and crosses (and the occasional boast), it was evident that Blake had talent. There was an elegance and efficiency to his on-court movements that belied one’s cursory examination of his physical profile. But my money was still on the athletic squash pro Alex.

Game 1 score: 9-5

The game was close for the first 2-3 minutes. Blake had gotten Alex’s measure by then and started putting him through his paces. An array of accurately deep rails laced with a perfect blend of drop and boast winners. This was a pattern he oft repeated. And as though to remind Alex that this wasn’t his full armoury, he’d throw in a clinically precise edge smash winner… seemingly at will.

I watched Blake as he nonchalantly took his break, changed to a new tee and entered the court before Alex.

“Let the ass kicking begin”

This was the message on the back of his game#2 tee!!

The programmer in me wondered whether he had different tee shirts ready based on whether he won the first game.

I concluded that this was the perfectly appropriate”mind games” message to an opponent in both scenarios.

If it was a close first game that he had lost, the taunt could have inserted a doubt in his opponent’s mind. 

In this case, however, Blake was openly taunting Alex.. just getting warmed up buddy. I’ll now wipe the floor with you.

Blake then proceeded to do just that. Game 2 score was either 9-2 or 9-3.

Beyond the cheekiness and mind game evoked by Blake’s tee that day, the message stayed in my consciousness. 

Strangely my runner persona can relate to that message.

Like many amateur runners who will never be podium finishes (in the open category), my ‘opponent’ is me. The current me is constantly competing with the previous me. 

If I ran an FM in 3:48, great. Let the ass kicking begin.. to get to the 3:30 to 3:45 quadrant.

If I’ve run 75k multiple times, great. Let the ass kicking begin for a hilly 80k or a 24 hour ultra.

If Dr. George Sheehan can get his PB at 60 years, surely I can try my darnedest in my late 40’s.

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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Softly, as in a spiritual sunrise

ultra_spiritual_sunrise_picTwo years ago, I ran in 3 races. Last year it came down to two. This year I ran the Kaveri Trail Marathon and it’s my first (and last) race for the year.

My running goal for 2015 was rather basic – “just keep running”. Under normal circumstances, this would have meant following the Triple Jump running plan. But work has been all-consuming and my lungs haven’t been too happy since last November.

After three consecutive years of running the 75km Bangalore Ultra, I missed this year’s edition. It was inevitable of course.

There was no wistfulness at having missed the race (jeez! I was plenty busy) but there was something else – a subliminal brew that surfaced last weekend.

 *******

On Sat morning, I modified my regular Dandi run with a detour that took me to Gandhi Bazaar and a breakfast with an old friend (visiting from California). Can’t complain much with a 2.25 hour long run. The next morning got me to the NGV park. While the boys played basketball, I ran in the NGV park. A rather unique 400+ meter rectangular track which features 6 turns (instead of 4). The basketball coaching session went longer than usual and, before I knew it, my Sunday run had become a 2.5 hour run. A barefoot friendly ‘paving blocks’ track with very few walkers (and just 2 other runners who showed up in the last hour) combined for a rather tranquil and circumspect run.

The thought of an unsupported solo ultra run had entered my head earlier this year. It seemed like a good compromise – no race pressure yet experience the pleasure of an ultra. The ‘unsupported’ element seemed to add to the challenge.

As I ran circles around a park with 6 edges, ultra thoughts wafted in.

How about.. running from home, run beyond the airport to a suitable lunch venue?

What was a suitable distance? 50km?

Nah! Didn’t like that answer. I had done 50k 4 years ago. Sure this wasn’t my strongest year but still..

More running.. and a new idea emerged. A 50 miler that would end at the Nandi Hills summit.

Much to like about this idea.. Tactical thoughts took over at this stage.. a cab to drop me off at a suitable point on the highway.. refueling options along the way, etc.

And, for the strangest of reasons, I recalled a mythological story. The one where Ganesha and Kartik (sons of Shiva and Parvathi) decided to race ‘around the world’ to settle some sibling rivalry.

The spirits of NGV Park had been talking to me of course..

Guess what my next thought was.. Hey, I could run my own personal Ultra right here.. in NGV Park. Running circles for as long as I wanted to (or was capable of).

So what’s the plan?

A 12-hour run starting 5am on Sunday, Nov 22. Considering that the maximum distance I’ve run is 75km and, more importantly, the maximum time I’ve been on my running feet was 9 hours 45 min, it should get interesting.

(Gulp!)

There I said it and also thumbed a finger at an old superstition to not announce my runs *before hand*.

Minimalist in a maximal world

[Editor’s Note: I’ve been meaning to write this post for sometime. This needs mention because this post has the rare distinction of having only a 2 week gestation period (the median post is more like 3-6 months). On a flight back from Delhi, I started writing. The battery went kaput after two paragraphs. Undeterred, I pulled out my trusty ‘paper’ notebook and continued. An hour later I was done with 95%. The remaining 5% I finished this evening.]

Pic courtesy talentedreader.blogspot.com

Pic courtesy talentedreader.blogspot.com

I once had a farm in Africa.

Remember that Meryl Streep movie where she talked about farms and donderstorms? Her nostalgic recollections of a bygone era were always prefaced with I once had a farm in Africa.

For the past six years, I’ve been having my own I once had a farm moment.  Every time I’d near a bookstore, I’d wistfully mutter to a companion: I was pathologically incapable of passing one of these without buying at least one book.

I have finally made peace with the fact that my best reading years are behind me.

As a kid with a voracious appetite for reading, I dreamed of being in a house full of books or someday having the “largest collection of books”. After acquiring a formidable collection of books across genres in my 16 years in US, I unexpectedly reached a point where I stopped buying books. When we sold our house in California, we sold (or gave away to Salvation Army) practically everything except four suitcases and an Apple Mac G4.

There were also sixteen boxes of books that remained with us! These sixteen boxes contained our “Noah’s Ark of books”. I surprised myself by selling at least 40-50 pulp fiction titles (Ludlum, Cussler, Jeffrey Archer, etc.). Selling ANY book would have been anathema in a former life but here I was doing it with ease.

What about them sixteen boxes? Half of them were stowed away in my sister’s garage and the other half in my cousin’s attic. Over the years, my friends and family have kindly shipped a subset (maybe 30%) of those books as they made trips to Bangalore.

And here was my next surprising learning… I had not missed my books all those years!

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In our first year in Bangalore, we made it to the annual Book Fair at Palace Grounds.  Returned with a dozen books.  The damage could have been more if our younger son didn’t need to go to the bathroom. Twice.

Turns out that book fair binge (a mere dozen!) is the high water mark of my Bangalore years.

Wow. How things changed in the past 8 years. Not buying books anymore. Selling books. Stowing away my precious books in people’s attics for a seemingly eternal duration. And NOT MISSING THEM!

When I bought my first set of books from Amazon.com, they sent a purple-blue fridge magnet with this quote from Cicero – A room without books is like a body without a soul.

Had I become soulless?

Sometime last year, as I sauntered into a friend’s study, I was struck by the eerie resemblance to one of my childhood dreams – two (or was it three?) walls adorned with book cases from floor to ceiling and stacked cheek-to-jowls with books. You’d need a ladder to access half the books (even if you were Hakeem Olajuwon).

My instinctive reaction was ‘Wow!’ but as I walked back to my apartment, I thought to myself, that’s SO not me anymore!

I was a packrat no more. I was a hoarder no more. I was a book collector no more.

I still remember that chap (during my Arlington Heights, Chicago years) who borrowed Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and never returned it but that’s a whole different story.

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Squash was the love of my sporting life… until I moved to Bangalore and (through a strange combination of circumstances) switched to running.

I played two games of squash in 2009 and spent the next 5 years harboring illusions of ‘returning to squash’. I finally exorcised that illusion last year when a squash marker (from a local club) came over to pick up my complete squash gear – 1 Black Knight titanium racquet, 1 Dunlop graphite racquet, a dozen Dunlop balls, a tournament bag, a pair of well-maintained Prince non-marking sole shoes. The only thing I retained as a keepsake was a pair of protective eyewear (outdated prescription if I may add!)

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Last month I attended a runner couple’s wedding reception at the Koramangala Club. Mahindra had recently released this e2o testimonial video (featuring me) and my friends very well and truly tickled. One of my friends was particularly curious. Here’s how that conversation went:

(Fr)iend: So how did that video come about? How did they ‘find’ you?

Me: Well, I’ve been active on Twitter for a while. Every now and then I’d tweet something delightful about the Reva-i (owned it for 3 years) and eventually about the e2o (we sold our petrol car also in the process). As you know, I’ve also been blogging and tweeting about barefoot running and minimalism. So I popped up on Mahindra’s social media agency’s radar. They contacted me… one thing led to another and before I knew it the e2o marketing team was in my office interviewing me about all things e2o, minimalism and sundry. It eventually led to a photoshoot (at their factory in Bommanahalli) and later to the video shoot that became this video.

Fr: So what is this minimalism thing all about?

Me: Basically consume less. In every possible way. The Reduce. Reuse. Recycle mantra applied to every facet of your life. Eat less food, preferably plant-based. Buy less clothes. Use them longer. Reduce gadget purchases and make them last longer.

Fr: Hmm…

Me: (just about warming up) You know Gandhi was a minimalist, right?

Fr: Yeah sure but that was for a purpose. To secure freedom for India. What is the point of minimalism for minimalism’s sake?

Me: But what is wrong with minimalism as an end in itself?

I reckon my friend either tuned out by this time or we got interrupted because I don’t recall what else I added. I know I invoked Dhruva (the world’s original and baddest minimalist stud) but that’s a separate blog post.

Here’s how I’d have continued…

We are living in a bad ass maximal world. You lift a rock, move a twig, open your Facebook page or scan your Twitter feed, and it’s hard to miss the Type A go-getters (are there any non-Type A’rs left in this world?) emoting some version of the following:

  • One life. Do MORE.
  • Just DO it!
  • Why run a marathon when you can run an ultra?
  • Why run a triathlon when you can run an Ironman?
  • Bucket lists and BUCKET LISTS!
  • I have traveled to 52 countries but I HAVE to check off 25 more dream destinations before I f@#$# die!
  • I HAVE to see every movie that gets released on the FIRST weekend (however crappy the reviews might be) otherwise my life wouldn’t be complete.
  • I HAVE to checkout that new restaurant that’s trending on Zomato.
  • I want EVERY dine-out to be the most magical and gourmet experience ever.
  • I HAVE to watch EVERY match of the FIFA World Cup AND the Cricket World Cup AND every Tennis Grand Slam match AND every golf tournament that McIllroy (or Tiger or whoever) is playing AND live-tweet/FB every f@#$#$ ‘notable’ moment.
  • I HAVE to take at least two annual vacations and post 62 pictures of glorious vistas and breathtakingly ecstatic family visages
  • I HAVE to be at the heart of an all-consuming startup AND be a model father AND spend quality time with my family

I have thought long and hard on why minimalism has captured my imagination. Picture the ultimate minimalist and the ultimate maximalist as two extremes on the multi-dimensional experience spectrum. The former needs nothing (not even breath) and there’s no greater personification than the sage Dhruva. The latter has experienced everything and either desires more or (maybe) sees the wisdom of the other extreme.

The path to maximalism is a cycle of consumption experiences that keep spawning never-ending Hydras of new consumption patterns that can only end when you die. My maximalist friends will present as Exhibit A a Facebook infographic on the lines of live life to the fullest and crash land into your coffin.

I rather fancy walking towards a point. Peeling and shedding along the way. Crazy for sure. Painful for sure. But in the theoretical realm of probability, no?

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Last Friday night, I was on MG Road. I had some time to kill so wandered into the iconic bookstore Book Worm. My last visit was around six years ago but it might as well have been yesterday. My nonchalant gaze caught a few new titles, classics like Bronte and Hardy, a few beat-up Biggles, a stack of Wodehouses. Normally the last would bring a smile to my face and I would invariably reach for ONE of them – it didn’t matter whether it was the Psmith title I had somehow not read or the Lord Elmsworth story I had read a dozen times. But this day was different. My scan went uninterrupted like the inexorable lighthouse beam. I finally picked up one book to set it right on the shelf (can you believe I forgot what it was already?)

I started walking out and glanced one last time at the row of books close to the exit. It was the Murakami section that made me stop. I knew Murakami “the runner” (via his What I talk about when I talk about running) but I had only heard about Murakami “the fiction writer”. I picked up a title. It was Sputnik Sweetheart. Opened to a page randomly and started reading. A few minutes later I thought “Hmm.. that’s an interesting twist right there in one page. Wonder where it leads to.”

I walked out of the store. Who’s got time for a Murakami fiction title? Not me. At least not in 2015. Maybe next year or maybe never.

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Related posts:

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.”

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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.

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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.

 

A terrifying thought

Pic courtesy

Pic courtesy happyorhungry.com

I thought 2013 was a tough year for running. If the first six months are any indication, 2014 has put 2013 to shame.

Barring a 3-month gap in early 2011 and a 3-week gap 18 months later (both slipped disc related), I’ve been a reasonably regular runner for the past 5+ years.

I’ve been a triple jump plan runner for most of these years. A notable exception was a 3-month period where I followed Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 1 Plan. A plan that required me to run 5 to 6 days a week was bound to be challenging but I had no idea how miserable it would end up being (despite or because I was missing one scheduled run per week).

In case you haven’t gathered, I’m NOT your “daily” runner.

I’m just a 3 runs a week guy – The hop (tempo) and the skip (interval) are but a rhythmic preparation for the pleasurable long jump. 

Lately the rhythm (previously taken for granted) is under fire. Perhaps a more accurate portrayal would be whittling away — minute by minute, day by day, week by week.

The one hour tempo run turned into 45 minutes. The 800 X intervals turned into 400 X which (don’t get me wrong) ARE intensely enjoyable too but I switched to them mainly because of paucity of time.

Then I started missing the Tue tempo runs, putting me in a strange quandary — run on Wed and Thu or cut losses and run only on Thu? Most of the time, I’d end up running only on Thu (the run itself would be a strange cocktail of tempo and easy). Then there would be weeks where I’d run the Sat long run without any weekday runs.

During my Wed run (my only weekday run), a  terrifying thought entered my head…

What if I turned into a non-runner.

This was followed by a scarier thought.

What if this degenerative transformation had nothing to do with debilitating injuries.

I don’t have a blerch problem.

I have a haul-ass-out-of-bed-three-times-a-week-no-matter-how-insane-work-is problem.

I was reminded of Murakami’s conversation with Toshihiko Seko and the panic started to ebb.

“Does a runner at your level feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied “Of course. All the time!”

 

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?

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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…

 

Right Hand Prima Donna Syndrome

Pic courtesy eil.com (hard working finding this pic as 99% of "prima donna" images could be mistaken for decolletage

Pic courtesy eil.com (one of the few Google Images matching “prima donna” that didn’t show a woman’s decolletage

About two years ago, during one of our Saturday morning long runs, my friend Prateek remarked “I seem to favor my right hand when carrying a running bottle”. I thought it was an interesting (though not very surprising) observation. After all, if you are right-handed, your right hand would definitely be stronger and more inclined to do “more work”.

A few long runs later, I recalled our chat and started paying attention.. how often I was switching hands and whether my right (or left) hand was holding the bottle for longer durations. My observations on the first day were surprising. Since I have a healthy respect for Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and, more recently, this pesky thing called “confirmation bias”, I paid attention for a few more runs.

The observations remained the same. Like Prateek, I too am right-handed. Unlike Prateek however, I was favoring my left hand. Let me dispense with the somewhat ambiguous “favoring” word and describe my experience. My right hand was noticeably getting tired quicker than my left.. By “tired”, I mean my brain was getting a message like “Oh! the bottle is so heavy. Please do something.”

If a right hander’s right hand could arm wrestle against his left, the right would handily be the victor. Every single time, right? So why was my right hand wussing out when it came to sharing the load of a water bottle?

There were three possibilities.

  1. My left hand was actually stronger than my right
  2. My right hand was a prima donna (“Bah! a menial task like holding a bottle?”)
  3. A higher-order proprioception at play

Bear with me as I work out (what might strike you) as a strange analysis path. #1 was easily ruled out. At the outset, I thought #2 might be the culprit but things didn’t add up.

What could be the motive?  Surely there was no beauty pageant of body parts or a show of oneupmanship between the right and left hands?

I had seen some runners with unbalanced swinging arms and wondered whether I was doing something similar – was my right arm working ‘harder’? To the best of my continued observations, it was not the case.

A fresh theory struck me. In partner dancing, the two dancers are never equal – one is the lead, the other the follow. The lead uses hand pressure and signals to initiate each move and ensure coordination between the two dancers.

Okay.. so running has none of dancing’s diverse and demanding moves. It is monotonous and has very few degrees of freedom. But the arms gotta swing, right? They gotta swing the ‘right’ way too – not too high to prevent straining the shoulders, and not too low either. Against this backdrop, perhaps the right hand (as lead) had more coordination work to do and hence, the addition of a bottle was too much of a distraction. In short, a higher order proprioception warranted it!

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

I was reminded of this (two years ago) episode after reading this very interesting article on proprioception – sensing your own body is more complicated than you realize. The article requires some careful reading and, as is my usual wont, and I’m sharing the most useful bits.

Proprioception is not the vestibular system — the master controller of our balance and spatial orientation.

And though the two terms are often used interchangeably, proprioception is not kinesthesia. Like proprioception, kinesthesia involves the senses of limb position and movement, but scientists typically view the focus of these two as being quite different. Comparatively, proprioception has more to do with body position, and focuses on the cognitive awareness of the body in space.

Within the tendons that attach muscles to bones are proprioceptors called Golgi tendon organs, which provide the brain with information about muscle tension. This is your sense of how much force you’re exerting. Relatedly, the sense of effort refers to how much effort is required to produce a given motion, and this sense can be thrown off by fatigue from, say, exercise. Tendon organs and muscle spindles also convey to the brain the sense of heaviness, which relates specifically to those occasions when you pick up and move objects.

 

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?