Monday, February 20, 2012

The Epilogue - Auroville Marathon 2012

    More than 50 runners set out from Hyderabad to complete our annual pilgrimage or our end of season run, the Auroville marathon 2012. Our group in the train had passionate runners from all walks of life - doctors, pilots, teachers, businessmen, entrepreneurs and engineers. Like any diverse group, there were few things that all of us seemed to agree upon. We settled on discussing well-known-universally-accepted stereotypes like 'like why egoistic Delhites are headed straight to hell' and backed it up with the usual set of not-so-empirical statistics. Delhi-bashing after all is a great ice-breaker with anybody who's ever visited our national capital. Just make sure there's nobody from Delhi around as they tend to get a bit touchy about such things.

    We reached Chennai early in the morning, the best time for the hot pongal with vada. Once you eat pongal in Tamil Nadu, you really don't feel like calling the gooey broth served in other south Indian States 'pongal'. If you live north of the Vindhyas, you'll find few capable of appreciating or cooking such a fine dish. And please don't get me started on filter coffee...

Some lighter moments in the train
     We reached the Neem Tree Hotel near Auroville and a few of us immediately headed to the beach. The sea was rough, lulling us into confidence for a couple of minutes before lashing out. It was good fun nevertheless. Manoj and Ajay were shooting for a sub 4 hour finish in the Full Marathon category and so they left for the dorm at Auroville after the swim to get some rest. Since I was planning on an easy run post my heroic performance at Mumbai Marathon a month ago, I went to Pondicherry for lunch and sightseeing along with others folks from Hyderabad Runners.
     As a runner, there are times when you are rest on your past glories and get complacent with training and preparation. I now realize that this is exactly what happened to me at Auroville. A 3.38 FM finish at Mumbai marathon was the fruition of six months of planning, austerity and training. Saturdays and Sundays were reserved exclusively for long runs. Running dominated my life and before I knew it, I had crossed the line separating passion and obsession.  I had even stopped visiting my home in Mysore so as to not affect my preparation. My Mother ruefully remarked then that I had become detached and non-caring after moving to a new city. In Mumbai I came very close to achieving my target. It was a vindication of all the hard runs on the road and there's no better feeling.

At the Pondy Beach
     But I got carried away with my celebrations. They say you have to forget you last marathon to run the next one, but I still savored that victory, like a glutton licking a bone even after the last morsel of meat was long gone. There was no immediate motivation to train and frankly I refused to see the writing on the wall. Coincidentally the food caterer at my workplace changed and I got great fare at no cost. I gorged, convincing myself that I had somehow earned it and that the next long run would burn any unwanted calories. That never happened and not surprisingly I put on weight. For a runner, every extra kg comes with a penalty in terms of speed and endurance. So the Auroville Half Marathon was truly an epilogue, a movie that should have ended when the dreaded villain was bravely shot behind the back extending for hours with new twists and turns.

    In spite of all this, at the start point at the Auroville Half Marathon, I somehow still believed I could go out and run hard. Oh the folly! Deep down I knew I might fail, but was not ready for the depths that I descended. I started strongly, overtook loads of people, dropped my insane pace at the 4k mark, and then dropped my usual marathon pace at the 8k mark. After the 12k mark, running became a struggle and I was just holding on. I ended up spending more time at the aid stations than I needed to. Generally I hardly remember what is served at the aid stations, but in this run I could probably tell you the brand of biscuit they served at which aid station. And that is a good indicator of lack of focus.

Hyderabad Runners at the finish point
    When I run hard and am in the zone, the surrounding blur out and I am able to shut down external stimuli. Running becomes effortless, meditative at times. After the run when somebody asks me if I remember the names of the buildings and parks I crossed, they are in for a lecture on focus. I truly envy those who remember places and the route in excruciatingly painful detail; I pity them a bit as well... If you have no targets with regard to time and are running just for the joy of running great, no complaints. But if you are shooting for your sub 4 or sub 5 FM finish, then why not give it your best shot? There's more to running than being able to gulp down that extra strong beer without guilt later. I know I am not winning any friends by saying this but it's a good thing then that I am not into blogging to 'make friends and influence people'. If you end your marathon with a fast sprint, I'm sorry my friend, you have not tried hard enough.

    At around the 15k mark, the infamous Chennai heat made its way to Auroville and an old niggle on my right shin started acting up. I came to the realization that a sub 2 in those conditions would be decent timing. And achieved just that with more than 5 minutes to spare. Then went back to run the last 200 meters with Manoj and Ajay. Both missed out on their sub-4 finish due to the extreme heat and humidity. For me, it was the first major event where I had not bettered my previous best. I learnt the hard way that one does not get rewarded for slacking. Guess it is part of growing up as a runner and understanding that there will be bad days... 

    Not a great way to end the running season but a great season overall for me nevertheless; one which saw me metamorphose from a 5.31 FM slow-coach into a 3.38 FM speedster. And it would not have happened if not for the encouragement and sound advice I received from friends and readers of my blog. I dedicate this season to all you good folks from Hyderabad runners and You guys absolutely rock.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Falling Star

    I was in my hometown - Mysore, a city steeped in history and culture and also a runners’ paradise with parks, lakes and hills. Kukkenahalli Kere(‘Kere’ means lake in Kannada) is amongst the most serene places to run. Early morning is the best time to put on running shoes and hit the road; a blanket of mist covers the trail along with an eerie silence that is broken by the cadence of one’s own footsteps and a few painted storks clacking gracefully to court the females of their species rather early in the day. That’s until the city wakes up and the trail becomes a maze where runners are forced to dodge walkers. A few resting on the cement benches warily scrutinize runners wearing fuel belts and other fancy gadgets and loudly pass glib remarks about whimsical people who willingly subject themselves to pain and laughter. Overall a charming place to live in and run daily. And that’s where I met speedy Gonzales, a 19 year old engineering student named Ponappa.

    As usual, my run started with a brief and frustrating struggle to get the satellite signal in my GPS watch. When I reached the park, I stopped for a few moments to find a hiding place for my Gatorade energy drink. I decided to consume fluids only in the third lap of the 4k loop around the lake and saw no need to carry it for 8k. As I emerged from the thorny bush that served as my hiding place, I saw two runners blazing through and decided to catch up and run with them. Their muscular physique and graceful movement led me to conclude that they were from a local sports school but they turned out to be engineering students. Ponappa and Vivek were in their elements running fast and I was breathing hard with my fists clenched but determined to keep up. I told myself that my body was still in recovery after Mumbai Marathon and that it would take time to return to usual running pace. The half-truth had the intended placebo effect and I kept up with the youngsters.

    After the first loop was over, Vivek dropped out having pulled a muscle. By now I was intrigued and casually brought up the topic of “best timing” like I was talking about the weather or the picturesque trail. When runners meet for the first time, this question serves as means to break the ice and determines who is higher up in the pecking order. “12k in 39 mins is my best and I am the current University record holder for that distance”, Ponappa proclaimed. The fact that I was running fast and breathing heavily with my mouth wide open, consuming at least a couple of flies every lap, renders redundant usage of the phrase “my jaws dropped”. But it did in a way. Ponappa’s race-time pace was truly beyond my running ability. I had been relegated to play second fiddle and slowed down for my own well-being. I was running with a superstar, somebody who in amateur running circles would have been the cynosure of all. The youngster was of course was oblivious to all that.

    Ponappa had never run more than 12k, no doubt due to PT coaches who would have warned him that he would lose his pace if he ran longer distances. When I told him I was planning to run 16k, he surprised me by gamely agreeing to give me company till the end. Like any runner, he hated running alone and seemed to thrive on company. He took on the role of my coach during our run, reminding me to loosen my arms and swing it proportionally and sometimes advising me to change running form once in a while to break the monotony. Overall he was running at a slower pace only for my benefit and seemed to be itching to run at his usual pace. At the last kilometer I gave him the thumbs up sign and he took off like a spring chicken. He was patiently waiting at the finish point and we completed our post run stretches beside the lake. He was curious about my GPS watch and how it calculated the average running pace and I gave him a brief demo of the system. We parted with me promising to catch up with him for a run the next time I visited Mysore. Something tells me I might never see him running again.

    If Ponappa had been born in China, he would have been identified by talent spotters the minute he showed potential and enrolled into a government run sports school, a veritable cauldron that produces world class athletes. If he had been in Kenya, he would have run day in and day out with a single minded intensity to become a world beater. From my brief chat with him, I think his future in India has all the makings of a well-known tragedy that athletes of our country have endured for decades. Once his next semester starts, attending lectures and labs exams would supersede running; a few years on, he would settle into one of the multitudes of body-shops in Bangalore, run the rat-race called life and probably take up running as a hobby late in life. He would be just another potential long distance runner that our nation lost to engineering a.k.a ‘making a living’.