The Yin and Yank Race

The great runner philosopher George Sheehan talks about a certain¬†staleness that can afflict the seasoned runner. In my 9 years of running, I’m relieved to admit that I’ve been spared. From peaks of 12 FM+ runs a year to lows of 2 races a year, the weekly enjoyment hasn’t changed much – thank God for that! However the excitement of a new racing experience has been missing for a while.

My heart seems to gravitate more towards trail races than city races so I was intrigued when I heard about the inaugural Malnad Ultra last year. Intrigue however didn’t convert to registration because

  • 24-hour stadium run (Aug 2016)
  • A cardiovascular assessment that a net elevation gain of 2km was beyond my comfort zone

Several friends ran the inaugural race (3 categories: 50k, 80k, and 110k) and returned with glowing reports. However, it was a tweet from a fellow vegan runner (Vijay Pandey) that provided the clinching endorsement. It went something like this What an amazing trail! Can’t wait for registrations to open for Malnad Ultra 2017!

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Preparation

Koehner plan redefined. Plan #s in miles, actuals in km, delta on right

About 10 weeks before race day (Oct 8), I decided that I wasn’t just going to ‘wing’ it. Considering the race venue, the beautiful trail, scary elevation, and only two race sign ups this year, I wanted to put my best feet/lungs/heart forward.

A few Google searches later, I had settled on Hal Koehner’s 50 mile training plan. Of course I was going to tweak it to suit my gettable reality.

  • 16 week plan and 10 weeks to race day so I hit the ground running with week #7 ūüôā
  • A 6-day running regimen was a non-starter so Friday run was going to be nixed. A 5-day plan was *way less scary* than a 6-day plan.
  • As you can see, the only 3 running Fridays were weeks where I had missed a run or was making up mileage.
  • If you’ve looked up the original plan PDF, the precise guidance of fartleks (blue), tempos (green), and hill repeats (yellow) was ignored. But thanks to my regular running partners (diligent as they are), I ended up doing tempo or hill repeat on one of my weekday runs.

Considering the above tweaks, I was quite pleased with two 100k+ weeks, one 90k+ week, two 70k+ weekends, and kept the [plan – actual] delta ‘within limits’. The longest run (a 48k) had to be aborted but it was not because of lack of effort. Running in a gentle drizzle for 3 hours is one thing (been there, done that) but running in soaking rain (without slickers) is quite another.

Kamal & the Colonel’s son

The dark art of choosing a goal pace continues to elude me. Ha ha. I just fooled you into thinking that I approach my races with a data-driven mindset, right?

Manoj, last year’s 110k co-winner and friend, wrote an informative post with the express purpose of helping folks like me set a goal pace. His model spit out 11 hrs 30 min based on my ‘comfortable’ FM time.

Enter BKUMP friend Sampath. 1st runner-up in the 50k inaugural Malnad edition, multiple FM times under 3:30, but graduating to the 80k posed a mental block to him. Having run 75k a few times and with a 24-hour stadium run under my belt, he asked if he could hitch his wagon to mine. I agreed. My first outing at Malnad meant I didn’t have a rigid time goal, and hey, it really helps when you have company in ultras. A bonus when it’s one of your running buddies. As it would turn out, Navin (our group’s ultra conquistador) made it a trio for the first 67k. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

East is east and west is west and never the Twain shall meet.

Till earth and sky stand presently at God’s great judgement seat.

If you’ve been schooled in the Indian ICSE board, you’d recognize the opening lines from Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West. If you’ve not clicked on the aforementioned link, here’s the synopsis: Kamal (a bandit gang leader) steals the Colonel’s horse and the Colonel’s son sets off hotly in pursuit with nary a thought to potentially fatal consequences. Matched in bravery, it’s really a race between two horses.

The poetic license I’ve taken is in likening the Colonel’s son’s horse to Sampath and Kamal’s horse (the one he stole) to me. Here’s how Kipling brings out the differences between the two horses:

The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.

The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,

But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove.

Sandal worries

I scanned numerous pictures of last year’s trail, quizzed folks about their footwear choices. Would the 4mm Xeroshoes Z-Trek provide enough protection? Or would I need the 10mm Z-Trail? The former sticks to me like a glove while the latter has a tendency to make my foot slide off the front. I finally went with the Z-Trek but stowed away the Z-Trail (and a pair of socks) at the 50km baggage counter. A sound decision it would turn out to be.

The blood donation conundrum

Would you (and I’m addressing my runner friends here) sign up for a race if the anti-doping clause read like this “We reserve the right to randomly conduct blood tests during the race.. and potentially do it multiple times.”

Stops you in your tracks, no? What if the clause goes on to say “You won’t be required to stop at any medical tent along the way and waste precious minutes. We use smart miniature heat-seeking flying bots and you won’t even feel the slightest prick during extraction. Just don’t panic when you see traces of blood at the end of the test.”

Leeches. Bleddy leeches. We were in leech country and an extended monsoon meant it was prime conditions for leechiferous gluttony.

Did this knowledge change my preparatory calculus? Hell yeah. I agonized over how best to reduce the odds of being the chosen one.

Was I prepared to trade my open sandals for shoes and leech-proof socks? Nope.

Perhaps it was a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street fueled by a febrile imagination that inserted the notion that wearing tights underneath my shorts would be a credible shield against airborne leeches at an altitude of 1-2 feet.

In hindsight, it was the most ludicrous insurance I ever purchased. My inner minimalist still cringes at the stupidity but at least it didn’t cramp my running. And it wasn’t a warm day.

How much blood did I end up donating eventually? The quantity remains unknown but I had 5 leech bites on my right foot and 7 on my left. Of the 12, I only witnessed two of the parasites (somewhere close to 30k). My rite of passage to the Malnad Ultra was complete.

The race

Between the shuttle bus reaching the starting point a bit late and unexpected delays at the baggage drop counter, there was a bit of a mad scramble to wolf down some yummy hot breakfast and start off on gun time.

The first 5-6k was a continuous downhill road. For my kind of lungs (which take forever to warm up), it was wonderful to have gravity do its thing.

Hitting the trail raised the level of awesomeness by several notches. In describing the race later to my friends, I kept saying “it was magical!” There really is no way to elaborate in words but I’ll still try.

In the midst of a vast network of coffee plantations, peaks and valleys, heterogeneous terrain (tough but not brutal, lakes, streams, pleasant temperatures, I was getting a chance to soak in the ambiance and race/push/test myself. I had trained and now I was going to pay homage to the resident ultra deity by doing my best, while constantly evaluating whether or not I was overextending myself. What was there not to love? And yes, blessed I was.

Somewhere in the 1st 50k, feeling peachy

Yin and the Yank
The younger fleet-footed Sampath would set the pace on the downhills while I would control pace on the uphills and flat. So we took turns applying the yank. We both thoroughly enjoyed the downhills, albeit in different ways. Him with an effortlessly elegant technique and me like a spooked rhinoceros bearing noisily down the slopes.

As we approached the 40k mark, it seemed like our average pace was a little too fast but we needn’t have worried. The remaining 10k included the lovely gravity-aided stretch we had enjoyed 6-odd hours ago.

Intermission at 50k

We walked most of that final uphill 6k and I surprised myself by running the final kilometer. It had taken us 7 hours for the first 50k.

The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the doe like a new roused fawn.

50k was a special kind of pit stop for me: footwear change, tee-shirt change, lunch and some stretching. Brijesh’s (race volunteer and friend) suggested sequence was physio-guided stretch -> lunch -> change -> back on trail.

The physio took one look at my trail-muddied and leech-feasted feet and sent me off to cleanup. With the bathrooms nowhere nearby, I grabbed lunch instead.

Whether it was last year’s nostalgia or just a brain fade, I don’t know but Sampath approached the lunch with a strange mix of languor and gormandizing. I think he went for ‘thirds’ while I executed the footwear + tee changes and waited. Just when I thought we were ready to resume, he remembered that blisters were bothering him so there went another 10 min with the physio.

Meanwhile the conquistador had set off exhorting us to catch up. We finally set off, having spent nearly 35 minutes at the pit stop.

The initial elevation profile of the final 30k was the opposite of the first 50k – first few km were uphill. Sampath’s overloaded stomach demanded digestive attention which inevitably led to side effects such as could we walk for a bit?

The next 7k could be described as the yank phase where I had to resort to ageless tactics like Let’s run till that yonder tree. And gradually extend the goal post, sometimes explicitly other times implicitly.

Eventually we caught sight of a colorful group of runners which provided a great filip to our progress. When we caught up near 57k, that group would turn out to include the conquistador, Monica and Ashok.

Monica and Ashok

Ashok, a superb UK-based ultra runner who had completed a multi-day 320+ miler just a few weeks ago, was pacing Monica, co-founder of the popular sports nutrition brand Unived. Sampath and I had been inadvertently playing a cat-and-mouse with them in the first 50k and built a ~10min lead. Clearly they had changed their tires faster than us.

For the next 10k, we ran with Monica and Ashok and it was a sound sound decision. S and I were struggling for rhythm and it was a relief to hitch our wagon to a purposeful pacing strategy being followed by the duo.

Soon after the 67k pit stop, a fork in the road sent the conquistador (and his fellow 110k crazies) to their final frontier while we just had the 13k home stretch. Meanwhile Monica and Ashok had motored along and would finish 8 minutes ahead of us.

Homeward bound

At 70k, a quick calculation informed us that a sub-12 hour finish was eminently doable. We passed an 80k runner feeling pretty strong. I would learn latter that the runner’s net time was better than ours as he had started 10 minutes after us ūüôā

Barring the navigation of a few very muddy stretches and a gentle drizzle in the final 30min (we pulled on slickers to play it safe), it was an uneventful final stretch. We breasted the tape in 11 hrs 49 minutes, holding hands victoriously.

My thoughts were eerily similar to my first Bangalore Ultra 75k: Ah! Feeling so strong. Definitely returning next year to gun for a faster finish!

A few weeks ago, the race director shared this update: We’re pleased to announce the 3rd edition of The Malnad Ultra on Oct 13 & 14, 2018. Registrations will open by mid-December. Plan your 2018 Run Calendar and training for #malnadultra2018

Can’t wait.

I now leave you with two photo slideshows.

Landscapes & runners

  • Naveen, Sampath & me tearing down the gravity assisted hairpin

Me & more of me

  • Somewhere between 20k and 40k

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.

 

The worst (and best) running surfaces for barefoot running

Pic courtesy theruniverse.com

Pic courtesy theruniverse.com

Steve Sashen of Invisibleshoe.com (now rebranded as XeroShoes.com) wrote an interesting blog post back in Dec 2009. I discovered it only a few days ago via an email subscription on his website. The gist of his article (which I agree with) is that soft surfaces are absolutely the worst surfaces for barefoot running and hard surfaces are the best.

Sounds crazy, right?

Well, the provocative¬†title of his (and this)¬†post leaves out an important qualifier — beginner barefoot runners. After you read the excerpts from Sashen’s article, you’ll soon understand why.

When I tell people that I run barefoot (or when they see me out running without any shoes), the first response I get is

“Oh, so you run on the grass?”

Or when I suggest to people that they might want to try running barefoot, the first thing they say is,

“With my feet/knees/ankles/eyelashes, I’d need to run on¬†the grass.”

I mean, it makes sense, right?

Grass is soft. Feet are soft. Therefore, feet should be on grass.

Barefoot = Grass is the common wisdom.

But wisdom is rarely common, and what’s common is rarely wise.

Here’s what I can tell you, though. And it’s not just me, every¬†accomplished barefoot runner I know will say the same thing.¬†And all the other good coaches I know agree.

Here it is:

THE WORST SURFACE for learning to run barefoot is GRASS.THE WORST.

ABSOLUTELY.

Why?

Three big reasons:

BIG: Who knows what’s hiding in the grass. If you can’t see¬† it, you might step on it.

BIGGER: One of the principles of barefoot running is that¬†you don’t use cushioning in your shoes… well, when¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† you run on grass, you’ve basically taken the cushioning¬†out of your shoes and put it into the ground.

BIGGEST: Running on grass, or any smooth surface does not give you the feedback you need about your barefoot form to help you change and improve your form.

The best surface for barefoot running is NOT grass or sand or anything soft, but the smoothest and hardest surface you can find.

For me, here in Boulder, Colorado, we have miles and miles of bike path.

In New York City, the sidewalks are perfect!

Over here in Bangalore, the sidewalks are far from perfect, the bike paths non-existent and the asphalt anything but smooth. If you are lucky enough to live close to a lake or a stadium, you are in business. In my case, pitter pattering around the 1.9km perimeter of Kaikondrahalli Lake for the first 3 months provided just the surface. Not smooth but certainly trail hard.

Sashen then goes on to explain why a hard smooth surface is the best.

So, what makes a hard, smooth surface the best?

It’s the¬†biggest reason, from above:¬†FEEDBACK.

Grass and sand and soft surfaces are too forgiving of bad form.

Hard smooth surfaces tell you, with every step, whether you’reusing the right form.

If it hurts, you’re not.

If you end up with blisters, you didn’t.

Pay close attention and each step is giving you information about how to run lighter, easier, faster, longer.

Sashen ends with something that I can relate to.. especially in Bangalore where the contrast between regular asphalt and the painted white line is clear as night and day.

If you want to see a barefoot runner get a wistful look in¬†his or her eye, mention a newly painted white line on the¬†side of a road. Smooth, solid, cool… it’s the best! ūüėČ

Link to Steven Sashen’s original article – What’s the WORST surface for running barefoot?

 

 

 

My first barefoot trail marathon

On Sep 16, 2012, I ran my fourth consecutive Kaveri Trail Marathon (KTM) and my eleventh marathon overall. I finished in 4 hours 45 min — 30 minutes faster than my slowest KTM (2009) and 16 minutes slower than my fastest KTM (2011). It was still special because it was my first barefoot marathon. By ‘barefoot’, I don’t mean this, this or even this. I’m talking about Senor Left and Senor Right¬†– in their unencumbered buff.

The next morning conversation with friend Manoj after dropping kids to school.

M: So how was your weekend?

Me: Great. I ran a marathon yesterday.

M: Nice. Just a weekend training run or was it a race?

Me: It was the KTM at Srirangapatnam. And this time I ran it barefoot.

M: You mean BAREFOOT? But why?

Me: (Pausing and smiling) I suppose for the same reason why some mountaineers climb Everest without oxygen.

My answer to Manoj (while tongue-in-cheek) rang true the more I thought about it. Of course when I ran barefoot for the first time in Feb, there was a distinct possibility that I would run a marathon barefoot in the coming (this) season. But did my race venue HAVE to be a desolate trail marathon?

Left foot after a 23.2 km road run on Mar 31, 2012

I must confess that it wasn’t a cinch that my first barefoot marathon would be at Kaveri Trail Marathon — a race I had run the previous three years. Most barefoot runners soon switch to some type of minimalist footwear after they’ve stabilized their new running form – the most common reason being that it gives crucial 4-6mm cushioning which greatly aids in dampening the numerous ouch moments. For Indian runners, the reason goes beyond pragmatism — minimalist footwear is an imperative unless of course you have a streak of religiosity.. obduracy.. insanity.. or a combination thereof. After three months of plain-old barefoot running (including 30k milestone road runs with my regular bhukmp running group), I had reached the proverbial (and troubling) fork in the road. The longer road runs were no longer enjoyable…in fact they were getting downright painful beyond the 20km point. This picture of my left foot after a 23km run tells part of the story.

The best (precious few) stretches of Bangalore roads are those that are characterized as not having potholes. The quality of asphalt on these stretches also is far from smooth Рfor the barefoot runner I mean.

The forks in the road were presenting two options — go minimalist or back to shod life. Going back to old ways has not really been a design pattern of my life. So minimalist it had to be… a path that eventually led me to the Tarahumara inspired¬†huaraches.¬†In Born to Run, Chris McDougall describes huaraches, the running sandals of the Tarahumara Indians: a strip of rubber from an old tire and some string or lace to hold it on.¬†Invisible Shoes are a hi-tech update of huaraches – lightweight, comfortable and flexible. More in this post – Say hello to huaraches.

On Jun 24, I did my first training run with the huarache sandals with scarcely any transition woes – 16k comfortably done and the laces didn’t bite into the skin at all (as I expected!) For the next few months, I was doing all my long runs (and some short runs) with the huaraches. It seemed almost inevitable that I’d run KTM in my huaraches.

An innocent statement from a fellow runner (Augustus Franklin) changed all that…

***************** to be continued ******************

 

Kaikondrahalli – a runner’s lake in Bangalore

Considering that I’ve run over 500km around the 1.9km loop of the Kaikondrahalli Lake (in the past 15 months), it’s about time I made a proper introduction. An introduction in pictures – from this Flickr set.

Disclaimer: the pictures are from May 8, 2012 and the terrain of the trail has significantly improved. All other views are reasonably the same.

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Experiences with Interval Training

Definitely NOT what my stride looks like ūüôā Pic courtesy healthandphysicaleducationteacher.com

I incorporated interval running to my training regimen last season. I was following Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1 program which prescribes 800 meter runs with 400 meter walk/jog recovery. I was able to sustain a pace of 4:00/km even as the plan ramped up to 6, 7 and 8 repetitions. You are probably thinking “Wow”.

Time to make a sheepish confession – it was all on a treadmill ūüôā

It does make a difference. It’s significantly easier to keep to your target pace on a treadmill. The treadmill does kinda propel you forward and you just need to ensure that you don’t fall off. Of course the post run fatigue is similar but that’s post-run.

This season, I resumed interval running in earnest a few months ago and soon realized how much harder it gets when you are on a trail. Sure I changed shoes this season and the Kaikondrahalli Lake trail is also a constant work-in-progress but still… those are just excuses. I started with running the 800 meters at 5:00/km pace — turned out to be reasonably comfortable (which is a bad thing for interval runs). Soon I switched to 4:45/km pace and I was still ok at 5 repeats. I eventually got to 4:30/km but it was a lot harder to sustain for the final two repeats — getting to 4:35 often. It was still not insanely difficult so I knew there was room for improvement.

A few weeks ago, Manoj Bhat (a much faster Bangalore runner who blogs here) suggested I do things differently. He said the 400 meter rest/walk was too much recovery time and advocated a one minute rest (rest = no jogging or even walking). I tried it this morning and boy did it make a difference!

My plan was to keep doing 5 repeat intervals until I achieve the 4:30/km pace reliably. Looks like I have my work cut out for the next few weeks. Today’s repeats were 4:30 | 4:35 | 4:37 | 4:40 | 4:45. I almost didn’t run the last repeat – the mind prevailed in the first 400m and the body got its revenge in the final 400m.

Normally I run a warm-up loop (1.9k) but don’t have time for a cooldown. This morning, I did a 1km cooldown run and was pleasantly surprised to find out that my pace was 6:00 – it felt more like a 7:00 ūüôā I guess this also means that I didn’t push myself hard enough.Heck – as I’m writing this post at 11am, the exhaustion is already gone and I’m not craving my second cup of coffee. Can’t wait for next Thursday.