Sunday, January 29, 2012

Is it worth all the pain?

        A friend asked me this question when he saw me limping ostentatiously having just finished my first ultra marathon distance of 50k the previous day- “Is it worth all this pain?” “Why that question? Why not just congratulate me and get on with making a living writing code”, I thought. The answer is straightforward. We Indians are obsessed with value in any transaction or activity, be it mileage of our cars or the best value-for-money restaurant nearby. When running marathons, you spend good money and return home walking looking like a Hyderabad auto just ran over your foot; clearly poor return on investment.

        “Absolutely worth every moment of it”, I replied instinctively and without much reasoning. Stupid question I thought. Would you ever ask a woman who just spent loads of money getting the latest pedicure whether it was worth it? Of course not, though I suspect mainly for personal well being sake. I probably came off sounding as a masochist who loved suffering and pain with that answer but that is not true, at least not completely. Seeing that nothing more was forthcoming he offered me the usual platitudes like “You’re an Inspiration”, “Great performance” etc. and we both moved on. But for some reason the question, like some bad memory, rankled me for quite some time.

        A couple of weeks later, the good folks in the HR department of my company organized a talk by Mark Inglis – mountaineer, researcher, wine-maker and motivational speaker. As a rule I steer clear away from motivational speakers who never achieve much in their own lives and remain in business mainly due to their superior oratorical skills. But Inglis is a doer, so I was eager to attend his talk. He had an interesting tale for us, the story of his life.

        Mark Inglis started his life as a mountaineer and ended up having to amputate both his legs due to frost bite after being stuck in a small cave on top of Mount Cook in New Zealand due to an intense blizzard. With his chosen career path no longer a livelihood option, he returned to University to earn a degree in Biochemistry, become a wine-maker and also cycled his way to Silver medal in the Sydney 2000 Paralympics. Twenty years later, he took up mountaineering again, conquered Mount Cook and later become the first double amputee to conquer Mount Everest. Inglis had us mesmerized for more than an hour with his gritty and poignant tale.

        So when he threw the floor open for questions, there was only one question that came to my mind – “Is it worth all the pain?” “Absolutely”, he replied, “When you chase adventure, suffering is an occupational hazard”. The look of pride in his eyes said it all. I might have as well asked Alexander the Great it conquering all those lands served any purpose. I realized that some questions cannot be answered with words alone.

        Now I am going to risk sounding as didactic as one those hollow motivational speakers that I love to hate and tell you what I really think is the reason why people ask that question. Most Indians are so busy surviving and making a living they look forward to very little in life, let alone adventure or sport. So when somebody else chases that dream, it is sometimes regarded as a vain pursuit. This must  and hopefully will change once we reach a certain standard of living. And once we get there we might even learn to enjoy suffering, much like what Rafael Nadal said after losing an epic five setter to Djokovic in the Australian Open 2012 finals - "When you are fit and have passion for the game, when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering".

Thursday, January 19, 2012

SCMM 2012 - A taste of Mumbai - Part 2

    I finished among the top 50 in India's premier marathon (48th actually but a top 50 finish nevertheless!).  The story of my running life is a bit of a fairy tale – an average runner who put in the miles, got good at running, managed to have loads of fun along the way and finally reaped the benefits of those long hours spent on the road. But unlike fairy tales my story does not have an ending, just good days and a few not-so-good ones. The 42.2k run at the Standard Chartered Mumbai marathon-2012 was one of those very good days.

    My entire strategy revolved around sticking with Kothandapani, a 54 year old veteran runner from Bangalore, for the entire course of the run and completing the race in 3 hrs and 30 mins. Pani Sir is ex-air force and the sort of person you would see and say “Boy, I wish I were half as fit as he is when I hit 50”. I arrived a bit late at the start point and ended up at the start point with very little warm-up. At the 500m mark, I caught up with Pani Sir who was running with his usual running partner, Bobby Thomas from Bangalore. The three of us maintained a steady pace with Bobby and Pani Sir keeping an eye one their GPS Watches to ensure that we are on track for a 3:30 finish.

    It was my first run in Mumbai and I was pleasantly surprised at the support of local people who were handing out home prepared lime juices and biscuits to marathoners – not something you see in other cities in India. My strategy for the run was to use Gu Gels and water for hydration. I carried five gel packs with me and planned to use one every 45 mins. At the 10k mark, we were running comfortably and I used my first gel pack. At the 15k mark, we started running across the beautiful sea link bridge. At the 16k mark, Bobby told us that the pace was too much for him and slowed down. Truthfully the pace was a bit too much for me as well, but I held on with Pani Sir and took to counting my strides – a useless exercise but it helped focus and cut down external factors.

    We hit the half marathon point (21.1k) in 1:42 mins. I have learnt that whatever my pace at the beginning, I always slowed down at the end of the race so saving a couple of minutes in the first half of the race seemed fine. At this rate we were all set to finish well within our target time of 3:30. But the marathon is an unpredictable beast – there are always decisions to make and things do go wrong.

    At around the 29k mark, both of us had slowed down by at least 10 seconds/km. At the 36k mark, we had to run up a steep 50m road and slowed by around a min. My thoughts running up that hilly road – “What have I gotten myself into”. At the 38k mark, we were running with the Half Marathoners, rather I was running in pain and most of them were walking, shouting and having fun. Weaving around the slower half-marathoners and avoiding outstretched arms of the volunteers was even more taxing. I gave up pretensions of running and began walking. Bad decision, a pain shot up from my heels to my knees and I returned to running. At the 40k mark it got tougher and I kept repeating to myself something my friend Steve told me during one of our runs together – “There will come a point in the race when you think you are down and out, that’s when you gotta commit”.

    I finished the marathon in 3 hours 38 minutes and 52 seconds, around half an hour faster than my previous best. At the end of the run I felt no “runners high”, only the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and a bit of joy at having completed the course. I felt gutted physically which means I gave the run my best effort. Felt even more gutted when we were made to wade through a 10 min long queue like cattle to reach the refreshment/medal counter and found no medical station in sight at Azad Maidan to ice my tired legs. Clearly pain comes first, the joy later.

At the end point with other runners from Hyderabad Running club.
    For amateur marathoners, the open-category marathon result is an interesting study- link. Guys like Anik/Pramod who did the first 15k in around 58 mins ended up in 13th and 15th rank respectively while Gary, Steven and Gerald who did 15k in around 1:03 ended up with better positions. Clearly folks who had the better strategy won out at the end of the day, not necessarily the fastest or the strongest.
    The elation of my good finish time is yet to sink in. One of those good days indeed. But lessons need to learnt even in a victory – I have realized that it was the lack of sufficient strength of core section that took its toll during the second phase of the run, so I am still a work in progress. At the beginning of the running season, my goal was to run a sub-4 hour full marathon and with that accomplished, new goals beckon. I generally do not use quotes in my blog, but this one by Vince Lombardi, I could not resist – 

"If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive, and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done."

P.S: you still here? Oh good. You have reached the end. Thank you for a patient read! Now that you have indicated that you have plenty of time to spare, you might as well read the first part of my story at SCMM 2012 which is mostly about pre-race day preparations and the city of Mumbai - here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

SCMM 2012 - A taste of Mumbai

    My preparation for the Mecca of Indian long distance running – The Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, started three months ago. Interval training, Hill Runs, tempo runs, long runs, slow runs – I had done them all. I secretly hoped to finish the marathon (for the uninitiated it’s 42 long kms) in 3:30(3 hours and 30 mins) and improve on my previous best of 4:07 by around 37 mins! Ambitious to say the least... So as to not pile more pressure on myself, I parroted 3:45 as my supposed target to everybody who asked.

     A week before the marathon, I ran my usual weekend run with folks from the Hyderabad Runners club at the Nagole Forest Trail. The guy with who I was running that morning, Steve Kaplan, said something that ultimately proved immensely helpful for me during the Mumbai Marathon – “There will come a point in the race when you think you are down and out, that’s when you should commit”. Then for emphasis sake he reiterated, “You gotta commit man”. Sound advice that. Though an obstinate muttonhead at times, I, without exception, respect and listen to guys who complete marathons well within 3 hours.

    I had been invited to a pasta lunch by GQIndia Magazine on account of being an over-enthusiastic follower of Ashok Nath’s marathon training program they publish – here (Recommended for anybody who wants to run a marathon). My train to Mumbai was more than an hour late and I turned up at Indigo Deli dressed like a trainwreck to a party whose sponsor generally publishes magazines on how to dress fashionably in high society.

     I chatted with Ashok about my training and he asked me why my training schedule had no cross training (cycling, swimming, Yoga etc.). “Principle of specificity”, I explained like a professor explaining a finer point to student. Meaning if you want to get good at something, do it more often. You cannot become a good runner by cycling every day. His reply to this is something I’ll remember for a very long time. He said, “What if I can promise you a 3 hour marathon finish at the cost of muscular imbalance that would result in you limping for the rest of your life? Professional runners might agree to this since it is a question of livelihood for them, but I think as an amateur runner you should focus on developing an overall physique”. Trust me he was pretty convincing. I’m now ready to switch sides and do a bit of cross training.

At Pasta Party hosted by GQIndia at Colaba Deli
    Ashok also threw in a bit of wisdom for race day. He asked me to soak my legs in salted water for around half an hour and then apply Volini spray on my legs before I go to bed and then apply volini again the next morning before the race. Though skeptical, I tried this out and can confirm that it was definitely helpful. As an amateur marathoner, I am at a stage wherein I’d try anything to cut down a couple of minutes! But be aware that doing this numbs pain during the marathon. But once its effects wear off and if you have overreached yourself during the run, be rest assured that it will hurt. Pain is good at times because it gives you an indication of the limits of your body.

    I asked Ashok his thoughts on my plan to train for a triathlon after Mumbai Marathon. He asked me if I thought I had reached my goals in running and found out the level at which I plateau – i.e. the timing at which improving finish time becomes very difficult. I had not. Yet to decide whether I should continue focus only on running or begin training for a triathlon.

    I headed to the World Trade Center in Cuffe Link to pick up my bib and goodie bag which was mostly filled with medicine for lactating women and items whose expiry date can be counted in hours. I was disappointed to find that my assigned start point was staging Section – D, the last section allotted for Full Marathoners. Tried talking to the organizers to accommodate me in Section - A but I guess they had enough on their plates and asked me to live with it in a not-so-nice manner.

    At the WTC, I met Nitin Jain, my friend from Bangalore who had planned and booked rooms for our stay at Hotel Sealord near CST Railway Station. We took a taxi to our hotel and when our taxi driver pulled over; he gave us a scrutinizing smile and announced “Hmm. Hotel Dreamland” Our hotel seemed to be right beside “Hotel Dreamland” which by look on the face of the taxi driver I could clearly understand was a shady sort of place. “Hum toh yahan daudne aye hain”, I said answering his unasked question.  We are here to run. He drove off with a smile still unconvinced while we headed into our hotel- Sealord that is.

    We soon headed out to dinner at Leopold CafĂ© where we ran into its local celebrity – Shantaram, a convict from Australia who penned his experiences living in the slums of Mumbai, raked in millions thereafter and had no more reason to live in a Mumbai slum. Ok I admit there’s a bit more to the story than that.

    We came back to our hotel and I headed out to find a medical shop to buy Volini Spray. Someone suggested a shortcut and I ended up right in the midst of a Mumbai Slum. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. The filth, squalor and poverty of the place was in sharp contrast to what I had seen a few mins ago at Colaba. This is the way I end up remembering Mumbai – a city which is just as much about the struggles and aspirations of the have-nots as it is about the extravaganza of the well off.  Somehow I did not want to dwell on Mumbai's idiosyncrasies at that point in time; I had a marathon to run the next day.

...continued - here

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Last Battle

The young prince was dying. He had been sure that in battle he had no equal in the known world, just as he had been sure of victory 18 days ago when he led his vast army into the battleground. How the tide had turned... He was now lying alone in mortal agony beside a forlorn lake with crows and vultures already fighting over him while his brothers and friends had laid down their lives in his defense.

The prince could not move his legs, his thighs had caved in and he could feel no sensation below his navel but pain. Unable to life his mace, he swung his hands weakly at a vulture that got too close. It will need to wait a bit longer, he thought dryly. His thoughts went to his last battle. He was up against a powerful warrior, the one who had killed his brothers. Anger and retribution powered the prince's tired body and soul. The enemy had never fought fair during battle and its warrior saw no reason to change now. The warrior's code was thrown to the winds; the prince was tricked, defeated and left to rot. The warrior who had bested him placed a leg on the prince's head, proclaimed some vow as complete and celebrated in macabre fashion by kicking and dancing on the prince's face. The code of honour that countless warriors lived and died upholding before this war was no longer sacrosanct; "laws of a mythical age" they would soon become. 

Hours later, a few of the prince's warriors arrived at the scene. With just a glance they understood what had happened. The price was not yet ready to die. He knew the price of peace for a nation stricken with war was his own death. He was willing to pay it but he would not be denied vengeance for the humiliation meted out to him. He named one of his warriors as Supreme Commander of his now non-existent army and wished them luck one last time. 

The final wait for death was unbearable, full of pain, suffering and regret. The prince spent the rest of the night holding death at bay, waiting for his warriors. His men returned just before the first ray, claiming to have burnt down the enemy camp and killed all its soldiers. Battle at night was unheard-of, the game had indeed changed for a world that taught its children that battles should start at sunrise and end at sundown. The prince gave a small smile, his time had come. The crimson sun rose in the distant horizon as Duryodhana, the last of the Kauravas, left the mortal realm.