Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bliss and Blisters.

KTM came, KTM went, blog posted. Come Wednesday, the BlackBerry buzzed early in the morning. There it was - the email confirming my participation at Brazil 135. There was no turning back now. Training, and real, proper, hardcore training for BR-135 had to be kick-started; those meticulously planned runs (which incidentally were never run) had to be actually run. There was no scope anymore to postpone runs on frivolous excuses like 'there are no horses for me to pace with' or 'only 55 crew as against the planned 56' or 'no ambulance in case of an emergency' or '27 cars are too little to carry all the supplies needed for the run' or whatever else I could think of to put the run off to another day. What was left was a practical, doable, training run of 150k which had to be done. The route was unplanned. Unknown. I broached the topic with Aparna Choudhari post KTM and she readily agreed. The run was on. For the next weekend. The only thing known was that the run would be in/around Pune. And we left. Aparna for Pune; I for Ahmedabad.

A couple of emails exchanged and one phone call on Wednesday to check on the whole plan - route, water, car, nutrition, food, medication, and other knickknacks like weighing scale, sterilized safety pins for puncturing the blisters, etc. etc.- and we were ready to go. I planned to reach Pune on Friday evening / Saturday morning. The run was planned from Saturday evening onwards.

But in between KTM and the Pune run, a few developments took place which call for a little digression.

After a few people told me that they found my blog 'inspirational', I started to hallucinate that they probably found me to be inspirational as well and so decided to live a life that would be becoming of a person who was an inspiration to others. In about ten minutes, I realized that there had been a massive error of judgment; before twelve minutes were up, I recalled what I had heard in college, at that time as a joke. "I prayed to God and asked for a bike. But I realized that God doesn't work that way, so I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness." And I was back to living life the way I do. Make my mistakes, confess, ask for forgiveness and get on to the 150k run.

1. Kavitha Kanaparthi: When I asked her if she would crew for me at BR-135, she readily agreed. And in course of our discussions, gave me a lot of tips on the do's and don'ts of running an ultra. Anyone who knows me well enough, knows me to be a cynical *&%@#$&.  Kavitha did not know me at all, so she kept telling me to cross-train, to meditate, to do yoga etc. which was logical, but which I wasn't doing simply because I did not want to. She also gave me some outlandish suggestions like 'practice getting bored'. What??!! Practice getting bored??!! Thankfully, the communication was over email and phone so Kavitha did not see my smirk. Nor could she read my mind which was screaming, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah!!! I'm new here and you're a veteran, so go on, take my case!" The only reason I followed whatever she told me was because she had prior experience of crewing and was probably speaking from experience. I had no doubt that she was taking my case, but she had experience and...

2. Piyush Shah: He kept telling me how I should incorporate walking into my runs. How running and walking were two different ball games and how I needed to be proficient in both if I was looking to complete BR-135 within my time targets. Piyush kept insisting that running 35-40-50-60k was one thing; any distance beyond that would necessarily need a walk-run strategy. Okay, Piyush had successfully done 100k at Sundown Singapore and he probably knew what he was talking about. I might have agreed with what he was saying but fact is, he did not give me a choice. Since he is my running buddy everyday except when I/we are running at events, walking was automatically incorporated into the runs.

3. My Lies: A few of my friends read a lot about running and are thus extremely sound in terms of theoretical knowledge about the sport. (I too read a lot but my mindset is to read and question. Friends of mine read and imbibe, so their theoretical knowledge is far greater than mine.) They were asking me quite a few pertinent questions with regard to my preparations for the 150k. Two questions were being repeatedly asked of me. "What was the last long distance that you ran (in order to prepare for the 150k)? And when (how many weeks back) was this?" The truthful answer to this - that I had not gone upwards of a 45k in the last three and odd months and that my longest run had been a 65k - would not have cut any ice. It would have, on the contrary, invited comments which would have demotivated me. So I chose to lie my way through the questions. To the question of the longest distance I had done, the answer varied from person to person and rose with each passing day, starting at 85k and peaking at 125k. I have a feeling that had I answered these questions with something like, "Craziness and a little determination carries one along way and I have an abundance of both so..." it wouldn't have gone down too well.

That I covered the distance, and did it in pretty good time is an appropriate answer to all those excuses of 'I haven't done this kind of a distance before' or 'my marathon timing really sucks right now and...' or 'I'm planning to increase my running in small increments' or whatever else one can think up. For all of this, I would ideally like to write what is on my mind, but that would make this unprintable.

One just needs to remember that a little bit of craziness and a little bit of determination will always help one cover great distances.

Sermonizing over, now let's cut to the 150k run.

When Aparna and I met on Saturday Morning in Pune, we knew that support in terms of non-running crew who would accompany us was not working out. We tried to get others, but to no avail. Fortunately, Bhupendrasing Rajput was going to be joining us somewhere soon after we started and the three of us instead of two was a relief. It was weighing on Aparna's mind that the details of the run had been put up on the internet, making it more difficult for us to abort and quietly slink away if things did not work out. This was precisely the idea behind publicizing the run, but it also did build up the pressure to perform. Both, Aparna and I were so full of nervous energy and nervous tension that we wanted to start the run right there and then.

After discussing the strategy for the run over a cup of coffee, we did some shopping that was left and proceeded home for rest. Meeting at 6:30 p.m., we picked up bananas, oranges and water and off we were to Balewadi Stadium, the start point.

After weighing ourselves, and deciding that a weight loss of over 3 kgs every 8 hours would be a cause of concern as would be weight gain, we set off. As we started, Aparna really had to reign me in tight to stop me from going too fast. The 15 minutes of running at a pace of 7:30 per km and walking for 5 minutes was what we were doing. However, we were regularly going above the stipulated pace as it seemed too slow. at about the 21k mark, Bhupendrasing joined us as we were descending down to Pirangut after Chandni Chowk.

With fresh legs, Bhupendrasing was surging forward and Aparna was keeping the pace as close to 7:30 per km as possible. At the 42k mark, we had exceeded the set pace and had reached with more than thirty minutes to spare. We continued ahead and at about the 48k mark, we were at the base of Temghar Dam. From there on it was a relentless climb of 8k. A climb so steep, if we stopped, we risked falling backwards.

Cursing ourselves for not having chartered out an easier route, cursing the hill for being so steep, so high and so long, cursing the night for not showing us everything but one hairpin bend at a time, cursing everything we could think of, we continued to plod upwards. The only thing that had any semblance to speed or pace were the swear words exiting our mouths. our run wasn't a run anymore. It wasn't a walk. A slow crawl would describe it best. As we reached Lavasa and saw the lights below, we did not see anything.

All we could feel was a massively cold wind blowing which threatened to chill us down to our bones. We ran to the car, rolled up the windows and decided that a 15 minute power nap would do us a lot of good. It did. As we started going down from Lavasa to Temghar Dam at 2:30 am, the chill seemed to have intensified. We decided to run down. By now, we were lagging behind our planned time of 90k in 12 hours, which would have meant that 60% of the route had been covered in the first 12 hours. Running down would give us two advantages; (i) we would start to feel less cold as our bodies heated up and (ii) we would make up for lost time, however little that contribution might add up to in the final analysis. In 45 minutes, we were down at Temghar Dam, having covered the entire 8k. There we checked our weight. All normal, we could continue without the slightest problem.

from there on till the start of Mutha Ghat, was a walk-run with the 15 minute run getting more and more difficult for me. There is a twist here; a discovery about myself which I am not putting down here. The technical details would make this boring; instead those details are best left for my team to discuss and build a strategy around.

My shoes were giving me blisters; I changed them and the new pair posed newer problems. However, I continued to push ahead till the start of Mutha Ghat from where we walked uphill. We ran downhill again and walked up all the way to Chandni Chowk. About two kilometers before Chandni Chowk, Aparna declared that she was stopping at Chandni Chowk, the 92k mark. She was too bored to continue, she said. Also, we were more than two hours and thirty minutes behind schedule.

As Bhupendrasing and I bid adieu to Aparna at Chandni Chowk, we tried to run. The sensation was very funny. As the foot hit the ground, it caused the top layer of the skin to vibrate sending a burning sensation throughout the body. I stopped running. So did Bhupendrasing. Unknown to each other, we were both trying to come to terms with the loss of a team mate, trying to reason out Aparna's quitting at Chandni Chowk.

Our walk was really slow. A crawl would be faster. A motorman, who probably did not like the idea of us walking along the highway, his personal fiefdom, chose to cut me off. Taken by surprise, I darted to the left, twisting my ankle on the shoulder of the road. As I got into the car to apply some spray, I noticed two blisters had burst and there was blood in the shoe. I did what I thought was the best thing to do in the given situation. I forgot I had even noticed anything that I mentioned, wore the shoe again and got out of the car, to begin walking. the slow pace continued, till both Bupendrasing and I, totally bored started to pick up pace. Both of us were very bored, there was nothing to converse about but I was at peace with myself. Kavitha's advice of 'learning to get bored' was paying off handsomely here. We continued the brisk walk after Warje onto Malvadi and Khadakvasla and from there on till the base of Sinhgad. In that fuzzy, muddled and confused state of mind, I assumed that was the last leg of the run. As I thought I finished, the distance said 134k. That was another 16k to go!!

There was no sense of disappointment, there was no anger, there was no fear there was absolutely nothing. All that was there was the mind saying that the 16k had to be completed. And the brisk walk turned into a slow jog, moving ahead into a slightly fast jog and onto a slow run. I have no idea where the energy for it came from. But this continued, run some, walk a little, run again. at about 6:45 pm, about 23:30 hours from the start, there I was, 150k under my belt.

But there was still some left. Bhupendrasing asked the driver to drive another 1km, and marked out the spot where I had finished. He continued to run, going up to the car, coming back to the spot that he had marked. He did another 6km. At 135k, he was satisfied and we decided to call it a day.

My Details:
Distance covered: 150k
Time taken: 23:30 hours (approximate)
Weight lost: 5.5kgs

Ultimately, 150k is just a number. With a little bit of craziness and a little bit of determination, it can be conquered. Let it not appear daunting. And dare it does, remember this blog.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Conquering a devil called 32.2k

At the Kaveri Trail Marathon on 18.09.2011, all I wanted to do was finish. The timing was inconsequential. Regardless of the time it took, I was determined to finish. With a sub-5:00:00 finish, all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But more on this later; first a quick run up to KTM.
I have come to realize that tapering/not running interferes with my general disposition and messes things up. To avoid that, I ran on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. My usual quota. I would have to miss the run on Saturday morning since I would be at Bangalore headed for Mysore. Reaching Bangalore at 3:30am, I got to know I would be able to travel by Mysore Express at 6:00am. Two and a half hours and nothing to do got me thinking. How about a run? At that hour, the cloak room was closed. So was the waiting room. I found a general waiting room open. I could leave my bag unattended there and go. There were three possibilities. One, the bag would remain untouched. Solution: Do nothing. Two, the bag would get stolen. Solution: No valuables (running gear, mobile and wallet) to be kept in the bag. Carry wallet and mobile on the run. Three, the unattended bag would attract the attention of the police. Solution: Tell the police, hindi film style, that I was born under an astrological sign which turns me into a werewolf if I don't run everyday. Or give logical reasons (which I had none) for leaving my bag behind. In any case, there were more than 24 hours to go for KTM; and if things went horribly wrong, I would have an excuse very few runners, if any, would have - I couldn't participate in KTM because I was in police custody. "Worth the risk," I said to myself, "Let's go." An hour and a half later, I was back at Banglore Railway Station everything in place including my Saturday morning run. A quick shower in the waiting room and I was off to Mysore. The only thing left was hydrating myself. I was all set.
At the start line of KTM, the temperature was in the low 20s, humidity was low, the trail didn't seem difficult and everything seemed ideal for running - for everyone else except I. I was bearing the huge load of a DNF three weeks ago at Hyderabad. And while I insisted that the DNF was behind me, it didn't matter, that I had moved on et al, it all came back to haunt me at the start line, making me realize that my earlier statements were mere bravado.
As the run started, I overheard conversations among runners and each one of them began with, "You know, I was struck with massive cramps at 32.2k at the Hyderabad Marathon..." I don't know if this was actually being said or if I was imagining things, but my mind played it over and over again a million times till about the 10k mark. At 10k, I realized the course was not as easy as I had first thought. As I concentrated on running, the voices began to ebb. At about the 28k mark, I checked the time that had elapsed and a quick calculation told me I was set for a 4:30-ish finish. Quite happy, I continued ahead till another mile marker came into full view and slapped me hard across the face. The marker said 32.2k.
All those memories of Hyderabad Marathon came flooding back and the devil was back on my shoulders, the monkey back on my back and the demons back in my head. Even though I am not the least bit superstitious, I was convinced this was a clear sign that a DNF at KTM as well was inevitable. I was sure the next step I took would give me excruciating cramps and I would fall. It felt like I had no energy left at all and I struggled to walk, knowing the next step was going to be my last one at KTM this year. From 32.2k till 38.2k, I walked. As I kept getting further and further away from 32.2, I began to feel more and more confident about finishing.
At about 39k, I checked the time. I had 17 minutes for a sub 5:00 finish. Maybe, just maybe, if I made a dash for it...? And I did!
With a sub 5:00:00 finish, the devil called 32.2k has been conquered. The monkey is off my back. And the demons in my head have fallen off somewhere along the trail.
Now, I shall get back to biting my nails in anticipation. Tomorrow is a big day. But that in the next post.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Body won't Mind

'Oh yeah?! So? Ok, you tanked at Hyderabad and couldn't finish and therefore you've decided you are going to listen to your body and not behave like an overgrown baby or an absolute nutcase like you used to when it comes to running? C'mon Vishwas, don't be such a sissy. Get your butt out there on the roads and don't return till you've done your usual 30-35k. Don't let your body dictate terms to your mind and screw it up any more than it already is.'

This was a conversation on Saturday evening when I announced that I wasn't going to run on Sunday as well. It's like this. Whenever it rains, I have to get wet. And there are other temptations I cannot resist. Paani-puris, ragda, tava non-veg, keema samosas, bhel, you name it. Everywhere I go, temptations line the streets. And once in a while, I do the best I can - give in to temptation. Having done that last Monday and on Tuesday, I lost my digestion in such a way that I thought I would never find it again. And the getting wet gave me the chills. So the run on Wednesday was marked by runs to the public loo and then a run home before disaster struck. But this time, I listened to my body. On Thursday, body said, 'Don't run.' So I didn't. Ditto for Friday. Ditto for Saturday. Saturday evening itself, my body again said, 'Don't run tomorrow.'And I agreed. And the long monologue above followed my announcement.

I was transported to a day in January, 2009. My mother probably did not believe I really ran marathons. As she claimed, driving over 42.2kms is different from running. Running that distance makes it longer. She came to the start line of SCMM to see me running off with the others and waited some 4 hours and 45 minutes till I returned. As I returned, among the first things she said to me were, 'How I would love to do this next year!' And I wholeheartedly agreed. As an added incentive, I told her that next year she would be in the Super Veteran category so the volunteers would pay a lot more attention to her (making it sound as if that would make it easier for her to run the Marathon, or it would be a shorter distance for her or whatever), I would train her and all that blah. Then she said that given her age, she should listen to her body and probably attempt the Dream Run. And my reaction was, 'Oh yeah?! So? Ok, you'll be 60 next year and so you've decided you are going to listen to your body and behave like an overgrown baby or an absolute nutcase  like other old people and not run? C'mon Mom, don't be such a sissy. Get your butt out there on the roads and make up your mind not to return till you've done your run. Don't let your body dictate terms to your mind and screw it up any more than it already is.' I arrogantly told her to not even ask me for tips if she wanted to do the Dream Run because I was not going to train anyone whose target was a measly Dream Run. I believed I was entitled to my arrogance; after all, I had run a Full Marathon. You, know, a FULL MARATHON! All 42.2kms of it. It was below my dignity to train someone to start running. And she agreed to attempt a Half Marathon at SCMM, 2010.

I agreed; a Half Marathon was respectable. And given that she had never ever run, even while in school, prefering books to anything remotely physical, a Half Marathon was actually quite a challenge to undertake. When she started in February, 2009, she was, quite frankly, an embarassment. I, in my arrogance, did not see the respect that a 60 year old lady attempting her first Half Marathon  should have commanded. I just looked at her slow pace, I heard people telling me how her 'run' was an 'exagerrated walk', I saw her getting tired after even a 8k run and thought she was incapable, I saw her refusal to wear shorts and a tee for a run and instead stick to the more traditional 'salwar-kurta' as just another tantrum. I didn't see the efforts she took to overcome the challenge she had taken up. Yes, I am ashamed of it now and... but that is another story, best left for another post. I guess it would suffice to say that today when I say, 'Buddhi daud rahi hai' (The old woman runs), I say it with a lot of pride.

January, 2010, Mom finished the Half Marathon. She took more than the time allowed, but that would be tackled next year at SCMM 2011. March, 2010, while she asked me to set the pace for her, her knee gave way. So badly, she almost needed to be carried home. One visit to the doctor and the verdict was out. 'No more running. You wanted to do one Half Marathon, you've done it. Now enough is enough.' 2 months she was in crippling pain. Then she went to my sister's place in Pune and made a few trips here and there. The knee continued to pain and running was out of question. Come July-August, she chose to register yet again for the Half Marathon at SCMM, 2011. Come October, she still wasn't running. She again asked the doctor to get her up and running (literally) so that she could resume practice for the Half Marathon. It was a firm 'NO' from the doctor again. So she stopped visiting the doctor. She started taking painkillers. And she started running. She said her mind told her to run and so she was, even though the body did not agree with her mind. She ran with kneecaps, painkillers, rubbing in iodex in the morning, volini in the afternoon and relaxyl in the evening. But run she did. Even as late as at the Expo, I told her she shouldn't run if her body was not up to it. There was no shame in pulling out of a race due to injury and all of that. She very politely asked me to shut the **** up, do my thing and not interfere with her business. And on a heavy dose of painkillers she completed SCMM, 2011. With the same timing as last year, but complete she did.

He mind continued to tell her to run. She did, weaning herself off painkillers. She runs today, does not need painkillers, does not wear kneecaps and is now looking at having about a 2:40 finish at SCMM 2012. She's discovered that in a worst case scenario, one could take a local anesthesia and run - the results can be handled later. (At her age, she says the 'handling the consequences later' is a safe bet.) All because her mind tells her and she tells her body to shut up when it protests. And she's proved her point. I have no further arguments.

One house, two runners with two different mindsets. Two different perspectives. One has age on her side. I have running experience on mine. And the twain doesn't seem like it'll meet anytime soon.

Why am I writing this? Because after the stinging monologue on Saturday evening, I got out of bed at 4:00am and hit the road in about an hour. My mind was raring to get me running. My body was indifferent. With about 75% relative humidity, I broke a sweat at about 3.5k and was completely soaked by the time I hit the 8k mark. Maybe, just maybe, I would not only be able to make it but enjoy it as well. 3 and a half hours later, I had done about 37k. Maybe, after all, Mom does know best. But I am very happy, and all set for Kaveri Trail Marathon next Sunday with the long run done. Of course, I am going to listen to by body and run on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before I leave for Mysore. I am also writing because I am now confused as to what I should do when my mind and body are locked in a battle with each other - should I listen to my body, which tells me to do something or should I listen to my mind which protests wildly, or vice-versa?

Till yesterday, I was sure, I would listen only to my body bcause it knew best. Today, I know that my mind knows its mind too - and I have discovered that it is not wrong. Maybe for the future, I will do something very logical and scientific. I will toss a coin.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Running :Ego issues, a stick to beat me with and a pushover for a running buddy.

Two points before I begin. One, I had promised to write about my long runs. Long runs are relative; when I started, I used to do 2 rounds of the 400mtr race track on usual days; for a long run, it was 3 rounds - all of 1200mtrs. Slowly, a 5k was a long run, then a 10k, that increased to 15k, then 21k. Now, a 32k is less than 2/3 of my usual weekly long run, so why am I blogging about it? Primarily because there has been some significant realization but also because (even though I have always maintained that distance running is a mental sport and all of us are insane) 32k is a long run for most of us nuts whose nuttiness is within the normal parameters of insanity. 

Two, a small backdrop so that this post can be read in perspective. Distance running for me has been a lonely sport. When I began running, I had a lot of runner friends who did the usual distance of 800mts with me. The number dwindled drastically and exponentially when I increased the distance to 5k, then a 10k and so on till I met someone who was more interested in the glamour that marathoning brought with it, rather than the running part of the marathons. Here, the focus was on PBs, and PBs were no good unless you knew of four others whose PBs were less than yours, thus establishing your superiority in the pecking order of marathoners. As I graduated to ultras, this 'friendship' too fizzled out, and I was back to running alone. Then I met Piyush. Coincidentally. While running. Piyush is someone who runs because he loves running. For him, a 42.2 has no great significance except that that is the distance of all marathons. Every few weeks, Piyush is given to calling me up and fixing up a 70-80k overnight run. His targets are clear. He completes a marathon in sub-5:00. He's happy at the pace; PBs don't matter to him and he keeps insisting that one should run to enjoy themselves, not for scoring PBs, unless one is aiming for a sub-2:00 marathon. After a few weeks of running with Piyush, I asked him if he would push me to go faster; then I asked him if he would push me to do greater distances, keeping in mind BR-135. After a few weeks of running, when I felt confident enough, I asked him if he would crew for me at BR-135. Piyush agreed, and therein began the saga of him pushing me to go further, faster, longer. Piyush knew of my DNF status much before I blogged about it. He also knows when I want to give up during a long run and he manages to ensure that I complete, whether running, walking or crawling. 

Now for the post.

After Hyderabad, I was back in Ahmedabad and the 'take 2 days off to recoup, recover and rejuvenate' extended to 3 days and just as I was planning to extend it to a week, Piyush called on Wednesday. I tried telling him that we would restart next week. His response was, "We need to train for BR-135 and a week's vacation will be a bit too much." I managed to successfully negotiate for a Thursday and Friday off and we decided to start off on Saturday. On Friday evening, I received an email from Piyush which gave me an option of easing into training by only walking on Saturday. 

What??? Me, and walk?? On what is supposed to be training run? I mean, I who had done so many marathons, I, who run so regularly, I, who is planning to participate in BR-135 in January, I, who hope to finish BR-135 in less than 48:00 and qualify for Badwater, I who...

Just one DNF and a reluctance to train and Piyush tells me to ease into training by walking? What nonsense!! Since it was late and I knew Piyush would not check his email, I did not reply to the email. However, my ego had not been dented, it had been punctured. And I was determined to teach Piyush a lesson. And what better way to do it than to show him my mettle on the road and while we trained?

As we met on Saturday morning, I signaled him to begin running. He did. A few kilometers later, I decided to pick up pace - it had to be made clear that I could run, run better than what I normally did, and run to show Piyush that the DNF was behind me. As I increased my pace, Piyush kept up. Sorry, I was the one whose ego had been deflated, I was not going to give in so easily; so I increased my pace a little more, to ensure that Piyush was unable to catch up with me. That would teach him a lesson to not underestimate me. Ever. But Piyush kept up. I increased my pace some more just a little below my terminal velocity. I could afford to do this at a pinch, the training run was after all only a 16k on Saturday. 

But no matter what I did, Piyush kept up. And as we finished the run huffing, puffing and exhaling our lungs out with each breath, all that Piyush said was, "With this kind of training, I am sure we will be able to achieve your target of a sub-48:00:00 finish at BR-135."

Which is when I realized, I had handed over a stick for Piyush to beat me with and he was making full use of it. Piyush knows how much BR-135 means to me. He knows I will do anything, repeat, anything to have a successful run there. Cut to the 32k run on Sunday. After warming up over an easy 3k, Piyush suddenly suggested that we start running, continuously increasing the pace and do not stop till we hit the 12k mark, about 9k away from where we were. At the 12k mark, we stopped for water. And immediately started running and stopped at the 16k mark where we were to turn back. 

On the way back, Piyush kept pushing me. He realizes how much he can blackmail me by just mentioning BR-135. Everytime I slowed down, he would mention something about BR-135. No direct blackmail; just something subtle like, 'At BR-135, we need to average a pace of just about 3.5k/hour, and we're doing about 11k/hour, so I guess we're okay.' and my speed automatically increased. The final push came when we were at about the 28k mark. There were two runners, some 500mts ahead and right after them, a railway overbridge. Piyush asked me to make a dash for it; to overtake the runners before they reached the top. And both of us scrambled off and sure enough, we overtook the runners before they reached the top of the overbridge. Pumped up by our 'achievement', we continued the pace right till the end.

As I reached home, I checked the time taken. We had done a 32k in sub-3:00:00. 

Am I complaining? Absolutely not. Even a couple of days back, I would have sworn on oath that ego issues, a pushover for a buddy and a stick to get beaten with was a surefire recipe for disaster. I don't know how in this case the same set of undesirables have created a virtuous cycle. And given that everything else is the same, the only thing that might have made a difference is running.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Completing A Marathon Achieves Closure – A DNF, In Contrast, Opens Up The Mind

At the inaugural Hyderabad Marathon on Sunday, 28th August, 2011, at about 9:30am, roughly 3 hours 10 minutes into the race, I tanked at 32.1k. Out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning, my right calf was caught in such a severe cramp that it made me lose my balance and I started to fall forwards on my face. As I stepped back on my left leg to control myself from not falling, my left hamstring cramped so suddenly and ever so severely that I fell backwards, flat on the road. Writhing in pain, I somehow managed to find a position which did not cause more cramps and I was just lying there helpless. After what seemed like ages, one runner came by and tried to help me up. More cramps. And now different parts of my body were cramping. I had not experienced anything like this before in any of the marathons that I have run, and I’ve run quite a few of them, even if I say so myself. I was in such pain that I do not remember even the face of the person who helped me. Seeing that nothing was happening that would improve the situation, I asked the runner to go along and just ask the aid station to arrange an ambulance for me. The ambulance came; a spray of volini and I tried to be off again. 25mts later, I was back in the ambulance, calves, hamstrings, lower back and shoulders being massaged to ease the cramps. I vaguely remember writhing in pain, sound of the siren of the ambulance, my calves, soles of my feet, shoulders, back cramping, being massaged, me shivering; all of this happening maybe many times over, or maybe it was just one unending sequence of events. Then I remember being helped out of the ambulance (or maybe it was a different vehicle for all I know) and led up some stairs into what seemed to be a makeshift hospital. I was shivering and after two blankets were put on me, it started to take effect. The warmth I think stopped the cramps from coming and after about 45 minutes, I decided to be brave and attempt walking out of the room and into the stadium. It was when I saw everyone in the stadium with a medal around their necks that realization struck me.

I had not completed the race. This was my first DNF.

Friday afternoon onwards, I had pestered Rajesh Vetcha into arranging for me to travel along the entire length of the course so that I could have in place, my pacing plans. Early Saturday morning saw me doing that. After checking out the course I had my strategy planned. I had to do a fast first half and a little more so that the hills could be tackled and then let the flow and inertia somehow let me roll slowly to the finish line. The course visit had shown me what it was going to be like. Definitely tough, but nothing that would have caused what happened. Fact remains, I did not finish.

I was doing about 3 to 4 half marathons a week, I was doing a marathon at the minimum every Sunday. Against this backdrop, this was bad. What was worse, I pacing the 4:30 bus; my first attempt at pacing and I not only failed to make it to the finish line on time, I simply failed to reach the finish line!! If this was not humiliating enough, my regular running buddy, Piyush trotted to the finish in 4:30, in the process claiming the Second Prize in the Veterans Category. And I DID NOT EVEN FINISH!!!

I spent Sunday in pain, and a lot of Monday as well. I was in pain when I boarded the train from Hyderabad to come back to Ahmedabad. I have always made it a point to travel back by train after a long run. For one, I tend to suffer from post-event trauma and sitting (or lying down) on the train with my legs stretched and nothing else to do helps me deal with that. Secondly, the forced confinement during the course of the journey provides rest which, knowing myself, I would not do in the normal course of things. Thirdly, this time helps clear my brain helps me analyze what went wrong, where and what needs to be done so as to ensure that the problems faced do not reappear and more importantly, other problems do not take their place. All of this leads to dealing effectively with post-event trauma.

Given all of the above, I should have had a lot of baggage with me when I boarded the train at Secunderabad Railway Station.

(i) The weight of a DNF.

(ii) The heaviness of having a DNF as a pacer of the 4:30 bus.

(iii) The sadness of having had to drop off just 10k away from the finish line, when more than ¾ of the run was over and done with.

(iv) The heaviness in my heart.

(v) The dullness in the brain.

(vi) Last but not the least the actual pain in my legs, and other parts of my body.

Somehow, except for the last point, the other points were surprisingly missing. Lying on the road, I vaguely remember telling a runner that my 4:30 bus was now an impossibility. And that was about it. The weight of a DNF did not weigh on me at all. The heaviness of having a DNF as a pacer of the 4:30 bus was not there on my shoulders. The sadness of having had to drop off just 10k away from the finish line, when more than ¾ of the run was over and done with was also not there; it did not matter. The heaviness in my heart, if it was there, weighed lightly. The dullness in the brain that is there after every marathon, and which I expected to be exponentially magnified, was missing.

What I was looking for as I boarded the train was to settle down, look out of the window for some time and then contemplate. Knowing the miles I have been putting in as part of my regular practice, I knew there had to be a series of factors which would have had to come together for something like this to play out; it was not possible for one single factor to cause a DNF. I was thus curious to get to all the reasons that contributed to the DNF.

As I sat down to ferret out the happenings over the past few days a few things emerged.

Ever since I decided to accept the invitation to participate in Brazil 135, I have been studiously avoiding everything I reveled in during my pre-running days. So there have been no parties, no drinking binges, no late nights, no nothing. I have become used to living a hermit’s life. But when I came to Hyderabad, I stayed with friends who have known me since birth. I was meeting them after more than a decade. In that excitement, I kind of let go, and my schedule went for a toss. Chatting away late into the night, then dinner at 10:30-11:00, (the usual schedule is dinner at 7:30pm, and lights go out at 9:30pm) then some more catching up before finally going to bed at midnight, messed up my cycle.

At the Expo on Saturday, as I continued to meet up with other running buddies, and also getting introduced to and making new friends, the event which was scheduled for the next day took a back seat. I had originally planed to enter the expo, collect my running number bib and goodie bag and leave. That did not happen. Instead, as I kept meeting one friend after another, I spent about 6-7 hours in totality at the expo and with friends. And all of those 6-7 hours was without any hydration. I have seen another friend of mine, Roshni Rai, who refuses to let go of the water bottle on the day prior to the event and who is also very particular about eating – call it carbo-loading if you may – as per the time table that she has fixed for herself. And this is non negotiable. Regardless of how much she gets teased about it. I really admire this trait in her and have sworn to myself to follow this regimen; yet on Saturday, I goofed up on this big time.

Ditto for food. I went without food/nutrition/carbo-loading for 6-7 hours on Saturday for the reasons explained in the earlier point.

Piyush sought me out at the Expo and told me that he had run about 12-15k on Friday and Saturday. He also said that his reading of the course was ‘Tough. Needs getting used to.’ I ignored all three of these warnings. One, that Piyush had run, and I hadn’t. Two, that he had run 12-15k. Three, that he felt the course needed getting used to. And I paid the price for it. And how!!

For quite some time now friends have been giving me grief about how I overtrain. How I never taper. How running 12-15k at the bare minimum even during the week of the event ensures all my efforts get wasted. How every running great has talked of getting into an event on fresh legs, how theoretically it is this, how from experience, it is that and so on and so forth. In all of this, two things were specifically drummed into me. One, that I overtrain and I need to loosen up quite a bit. Second, that I need to taper, maybe even do something as drastic as not running at least 3 days prior to the event.

As an example, I was always reminded of my running history for last year. For those who don’t know, last year was a major screw-up year. Every event was a showcase of how things should not be. I was constantly doing a 5:15+ for every marathon I did – practice and at events, when my average time was a sub-4:45. Most long runs above 45k were disasters, to say the least. Even a 65k that I did at Pedong (on the Siliguri-Darjeeling route) took me about 9 hours. I was also subtly reminded of how I wasn’t able to go for Comrades and Sundown. And even though this was in no way related to anything to do with running, it was definitely insinuated that had I not overtrained, had I tapered and basically, had I listened to every theory in existence, I might have been able to make the trips and returned successful.

At the Hyderabad Marathon, I decided to do what was recommended – not run for a week prior to the event. (I couldn’t do that and managed to sneak out for a 21k run on Tuesday, but nothing beyond that.) In the weeks prior to that, I had reduced my running a wee bit, so that I could also claim to not have overtrained. I also hoped this could be passed off as having tapered. Well, my run at Hyderabad shows what all of it amounted to.

As I sat in the train stretching my legs and analyzing, I realized I was doing exactly what I should not have done. I did not listen to my body; I listened to what others might want to do with their bodies. In the process, I was playing with my mind as well.

My body is mine. It knows what to do and when it needs to slow down, or stop altogether, it lets me know in no uncertain terms. I like to run. And run all the time, say about 5 days a week. Any change in that and my body doesn’t really approve. My body doesn’t understand taper, nor does it feel the need for it. If I don’t run, I am irritable, grumpy and kind of depressed and this reflects on race day. Yes, I need to cross-train, I need to meditate, but those are different from running. We’re talking just running here.

If we were to look at the theories concerning distance running, we’re again talking of someone else deciding for us, what is right for us. And this is without that person having even an idea of our existence, forget knowing, understanding and then designing a program for us! From the bouquets of programs that are available, we try different ones, and choose a program which is closest to what agrees with us. And then we try and mould our bodies to get as much in line with the program as possible. And we will continue to go out and at the first given opportunity, lecture whoever cares to listen about how we must always listen to our bodies. And that is what we have not done.

At this point, I’ll request everyone to recall your first marathon or the first ultra that you attempted at an event. In the practice sessions leading to the event, all of us have chosen some program or the other. And we’ve never been able to follow it right through. On some days, possibly due to health issues, we’ve missed the program by a small margin, on other days, maybe because of the effects on the brain caused by phases of the moon or whatever else, we’ve deviated from the program by a wide margin. Ask my friend, Amit Sheth of whether he adhered, or was able to adhere, to the training program he had chosen for his first marathon. Then ask another friend of mine (and my crew member for Brazil 135), of how woefully short he was on distance, practice and every other parameter before he went for Comrades in 2010. Yet he completed. Now think of all the training programs that have been religiously followed by you and/or your buddies and check the results. In most cases, listening to your body (as it happens more often than not with novices) gets you much better results than a training program does.

All of us, inspite of not having been ideal students, want to inflict our views on others and we’re quick to dismiss anyone who does not conform to our ideas of a ideal training program as someone who is most unlikely to succeed. Even as we continue to wax eloquent on the benefits of listening to our bodies, we do exactly what we have been told might be theoretically good for our bodies. And we propagate these views as well. And therein, I believe, our performances begin to suffer.

My funda, now onwards is going to be to follow myself. Take advice from friends only if I need it and only if I ask for it. Unsolicited advice is not needed and not welcome as well.

As I train for Brazil-135 and beyond, I am going to follow one simple rule. ‘If it hurts, stop doing it. If it doesn’t inspire you, forget about it and do something else. And if it itches, scratch. Wherever it itches, and wherever you are.’

I think Asha Arora got it absolutely right when she asked me, “Vishwas, how many of these friends have run ultra marathons of the distance that you are contemplating? How many of them are themselves aiming for participating in BR-135 or Badwater, for that matter? Why then are you listening to them instead of yourself? Don’t you think if at all, the flow of information should be the other way around? That you should be advising them on how to run, how to prepare, et al?” Yes, what was missing, was the confidence in myself. That I could understand my body’s needs, that I know best.

And ironically, it was a DNF at the Hyderabad Marathon that taught me this.