Sunday, October 30, 2011

Joining the 100-Mile Club

No sooner had I reached home on Monday than I rechecked the certificate, admired the medal once again, saw the pictures posted by Kavitha and had a chat with Gaurav... Now I know for sure it wasn't hallucinations and I officially am a Finisher ay GR Bhati Lakes and a member of the 100 mile club.

Before I embark on the narrative that led to this, I shall quote two separate incidents which would add a different dimension to the story.

I had read my friend, Amit Sheth's account of how, when leaving for what would be their first successful run at Comrades in 2010, his wife Neepa encountered the sole of her shoe falling off. 'Oh yeah!!' the cynic in me had smirked, 'Spice it up. Romanticize it. It'll add up to the magic of the ending. And if the ending is on an unpleasant note, this'll be the reason.'

The second incident took place a little after I got invited for Brazil 135 in June, 2011. I told a few of my ultramarathoner friends whose advice I had been taking to graduate from Marathons to Ultras, that I planned to do a couple of 100 milers before BR-135. "Be careful," one and all advised. "You'll need to prepare." 'Oh really?! I had thought I would step out do do a short and easy 5k but impulsively decide that the weather looked perfect for a 100-miler so I would end up runing 100 miles instead of a short and easy 5k.' "But you misunderstand," they had all said, "Preparing to run is the easy part. Being prepared to deal with other people is  what is really, really difficult." And no doubt, this did not make any sense whatsoever, so I went about preparing to run. Other preparations, I did not understand, so I did not deem them necessary.

As I began packing to leave for Delhi on Thursday, 20th October, I packed my shoes, the pair I used regularly. But then, one would find it difficult to run 100 miles in just one pair of shoes, so the other, semi-retired pair of shoes needed to be packed as well. As I got that pair out, the sole looked a little different than  what I remembered it to be. I seemed to be definitely crooked. Holding and twisting it a little would get it straight, I thought. As I grabbed the sole and applied a little pressure to it, the sole came off. (Neepa, now I am wiser.) As my jaw dropped to the floor, the sole too slipped from my hand and joined my jaw. I now had just one pair of shoes for a 100 mile run. Not acceptable. The second pair was unusable by any yardstick.

A few franctic calls to my runner friends resulted in their laughing their heads off. The situation might have been humourous, but at that time I did not see anything even remotely funny about it.

Finally Kavitha came to my rescue and suggested that I buy the same brand, same model and same size of shoes that I was currently using so as to make the breaking in easier. That the same model, same size shoes of Nike fit me differently speaks volumes of their quality as they claim it to be. (But that is another matter - let me not digress.)

Shoes bought, I wore them almost continuously for two days so as to break them in for whatever it was worth. And there I was, ready for the run, by Friday evening. Friday in Delhi was spent in doing nothing in particular and in the evening, after collecting the runner's kit, Piyush and I were in the room when it was suggested that a beer to soothe our nerves might be a good idea. I'd like you all to know that for me, beer is never the answer to anything. Beer is the question and yes is the answer!

A beer and huge helpings of butter chicken later, Piyush and I were in bed at about 8:15pm. It remained unsaid but only Piyush crewing me for the entire time was making me jittery. Pushing all negative thoughts away, I drifted off to sleep. I was woken up at 12:30am. Piyush tends to get very nervous before a race and since he couldn't sleep, he woke me up as well. I protested and tried going back to sleep but it was an exercise in futility. Finally at 1:00am, I started to get ready. That done, we left for Surajkund at 3:00am, picking up Bhupendrasing Rajput along the way.

As I reached the start line at Kant Enclave, I was pleasantly surprised to see a proper paved road. I instantly knew that Gaurav had taken all of us for a ride by posting pictures of a dusty, rocky, muddy trail that seemed, for want of a better word, horrendous. Running 100 miles on a paved road was going to be a smooth (pun intended) affair.

For the next hour and a half or so, the seven of us 100 miler participants, Aparna, Raj, Milind, Aditya, Gaurav, Bhupendrasing and I cracked jokes which were devoid of both, intelligence and humor. Nervousness manifests itself in many forms and this was one of them.

Sometime during this, Tanvir, my teammate who was going to be  crewing for a very short while since he had prior plans to go out of town, told me that he wanted to pace me right at the start.

As we started, Aparna, Aditya, Bhupendrasing and Gaurav took off. I followed, with Tanvir pacing me and Milind and Raj just behind us. Tanvir and I were doing an easy pace, chatting as we went along. Tanvir was telling me how it might be a good strategy to walk the ups and run the downs when we suddenly heard Milind scream, 'Kya hai yeh?' ('What the F$@# is this?') The paved road had ended. Loose metal was lying on what was supposed to be a road. Forget running, even walking on it was fraught with dangers. Fortunately this patch was for just about a hundred meters or so. Unfortunately, it got worse thereafter. The trail began. The rocky, muddy, trail snaked up and snaked down upto about 6k.It was somewhere here that we saw a fabulous sunrise. Tanvir, Milind, Raj and I got ourselves photographed against this. The photograph, 'captured in Tanvir's and Raj's mobile phone, remains captive. Once it is released, maybe I would post it. Then it got worse. Did it say "Then it got worse" earlier? That was not the place for it. Then it got worse, here onwards. The thorny bushes had benefitted from the abundant rainfall and had overgrown the trail. We delicately moved the bushes aside and moved forward taking care to ensure that the thorns did not hurt us. Only to face another thorny bush, only to repeat the same action. After doing this a third time, we decided it would be better to run through the thorns and take whatever happens in our stride. And that is what we did for the next about a kilometer and a half. Then it got worse. No, really. This is the point where the "Then it got worse." belongs. The trail from here on turned in to a sand track with rocks, a few shallow gorges and even denser thorny bushes. This trail continued till the 10k mark, albeit with lesser sand. As the thorns cut through our skin, we continued running. Finally crossing a shallow gorge and passing between two boulders, we reached the 10k mark. Water, some energy drink and a lemonade later, off we were again. And then it got worse. No, really. I really, really mean it. The statement belongs here. It really got worse from here onwards. 10k was the turnaround point and we needed to traverse all that terrain back to the start line. About 2 - 2.5k from the turnaround point, some 7-8 of us including 30 milers and 50 milers, briefly got lost. Every trail looked the same and every path seemed like we had come from there. Fortunately the correct way was found and we were off again. For the record, the mistake was on our part, we had not seen the sign properly.

At this point, I told Tanvir that I wanted to go faster than what he was pacing me me for. Amit, my friend from Ahmedabad who was running his first ultra, had joined us by then. His pace was more in line with what I was looking for. Both of us, keeping a steady pace, ran from there till the start line.

At the start line, a quick change of shoes (since I had a new pair, the breaking them in was happening over smaller distances), something to munch and off we were towards the 10k mark. Amit was doing a much higher pace than what I had planned. Even though this was not in the original scheme of things, I decided to keep pace with Amit as it would help me cover more miles while still fresh.

Reaching the 10k mark and turning around, we continued running. A couple of kilometers later, I felt a burning sensation under my t-shirt. I lifted my tee to check and sure enough, the tape which worked as a nipple guard had fallen off. The one on the right was intact. Even though it looked quite vulgar, I tried running with my tee pinched away from my chest, but the thorny bushes, sand track, rocks, etc. would have none of it. Amit and I shifted over to walking/running. We had a hearty laugh about how kinky it would sound to a non-runner if he was told that I covered my nipples with medicated tape without having an injury, that the tape had to specifically be round, made of cloth and had to fit to size.

As we were taking this conversation further - on the repurcussions that such a conversation with a non-runner would have on our social lives, we heard some runner running quite heavily behind us. I looked back and to my horror, it was a bull who seemed to have taken umbrage at our dirty little conversation and was charging for us. The way Amit and I took off at this point, I can assure you we could have taught Usain Bolt a thing or two about sprinting, we could have taught Patrick Makau a thing or two about running a sub-2:00:00 marathon. And I swear I'm being modest. Fortunately for us, the bull decided he'd had enough of scaring us and took a turn while we continued going straight. Amit did mention that till now it was dogs who did not like the competition posed by me and maybe it now time to expand the list and include bulls in it. Something gives me the feeling that this is not the last I have heard of this.

returning back to the Aid Station at the Start/Finish line, I ate some more in line with what Kavitha had recommended and set off again towards the 10k Aid Station. At the 4k mark, Amit turned around and headed back to the Finish line to complete his 30 miler. I continued ahead. As I picked up pace to complete as many miles as I could before it got dark, I suddenly felt queasy and there was this urge to throw up. Eating and running do not go together for me. (I had run 150k a couple of weeks ago on all of 3 bananas and litle else.) My body was now protesting being fed. The third loop was completed with a lot of walking, some attempts at running and hope that the nausea would subside. Thankfully, it did. At the end of the third loop, I was placed exactly in the middle. Bhupendrasing, Aparna and Raj, in that order were ahead of me. Gaurav, Milind and Aditya were trailing.

At this point, Piyush began pacing me. The loop was also shortened to 10k owing to safety concerns. Fresh legs and a fresh pacer helped immensely. At the end of the first loop, I was in second place and gaining on the lead with every loop. After a comfortable 10k lead had been established between the second and third places, I wanted to slow down a bit; let my body relax and rejuvenate.

It was here that the clash between the interests of the runner and the pacer's ambitions took place. And led to the repurcussions that something like this would have. And something that I, as the runner and the participant in the race would have to bear.

I was not paying attention to my intake since i was confident that my team was looking after that. When I began cramping massively between the 110 and 120k marks, I realized that I had not consumed ANY salt during the last 60k. Also, being pushed to move ahead at a much higher pace than what my body could take had led to a ligament pull in my right hip.

I still had 40k to go and the pain from the ligament pull was at best allowing me to drag my leg after me. Arun stepped in to pace me here. A new person, a different brain, a different mindset and different topics of discussion all led to lifting my spirits. What helped even more was Arun being ready to move at my pace without putting any pressure on me. During the earlier loops, knowing how close i had come to quitting on more than one occassion, not because I couldn't do it but because I couldn't take the pressure from my pacer, I cannot describe how liberating it was to not be on a tight leash. I cannot thank Arun enough for letting me be myself for a little while.

The remaining 30k went by with huge dollops of massage at the Aid Station, dragging my leg for 10k and another huge dollop of massage. The credit for my finish goes to Mr. Shukla of Artemis Hospital, who patiently massaged the pain away from the pulled ligament after every 10k. The 30k took about 9 hours, but at the end of it, 100 miles had been done. My target of 28-29 hours had gone for a toss; the reasons for this will be debated amongst the team and hopefully the next such run will see quantum changes in terms of strategy. I am sure a lot of improvements too will be in place.

For now, I am happy at being a finisher at GR Bhati Lakes 100. And having come in second does make things sweeter.

The only jarring noise comes from people who either haven't attempted running ultras at all or if they have, not any really long ultras for sure. But they are the ones who will give various logics to undermine what I have done. And these attacks are not direct. Usually, these attacks do not even refer to running, but would be directed more at a personal level.

Maybe, as my other ultra-runner friends had said, one needs to prepare when one runs a 100 miler or more. Prepare to deal with people thereafter.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Few Facts Unknown, Letting Go Of Some Things And An Account Squared.

Thankfully, this post did not get uploaded to the blog on time. If it did, a lot of the essence of this post would have been lost. One of those rare instances where the delay was advantageous.

Sunday before last, I missed meeting Piyush and and went on to do a 35k solo, taking a different route, but covering the points he visits on his runs. I later spoke to him and fixed a time for last Tuesday telling him that he should not begin running till I reached, even if I got late. As decided, I reached the designated spot at the designated time. Piyush was already there and we began our 25k run on a route which was different from the usual course.

I had read that running through the city acquaints one very closely with its various facets. The city, opens itself up to the runner and reveals unknown or lesser known facts that an ordinary resident or a tourist would never know. My early steps into the world of Marathon running were also my first steps into the world of road running. In earlier days, I used to run all over the city discovering things about my own city that I never knew. The more I ran, the more I discovered. I discovered a temple whose deity was called 'Highway Hanuman' because the highway at that time passed right in front of the temple. I discovered this daily wager who manned a crossroad in the morning and evening hours because the traffic got unruly and resulted in
frequent traffic jams. And he did this without getting paid for it. I discovered (and made friends) with this person who went to the Sabarmati Ashram every morning, spun the 'charkha' and cycled all over the city playing Gandhiji's bhajans. The city opened itself up to me and told me things about itself that I never knew and had I lived the life I did before I got into the world of marathoning. I would have known the layout of the city but for sure, I would not have known my city.

Also, running through the city gave me its share of laughter. Suppressed understanding, caused by lack of blood supply to the brain gave a completely different meaning to various things I read. Two that are unforgettable: The McDonalds advertisement hoarding which read 'Food, Finger, Fun' sounded quite different when I read it towards the end of a long run. The food part was fine, but 'finger' and 'fun' didn't quite go with the image that I had about McDonalds!!

The other incident happened when I was passing by a theatre screening a Gujarati film. The poster and the timing of the show were put very close together making it seem like one sentence. I read it and had to stop my run and sit on the footpath and laugh my guts out. The sentence translated into, "The daughter-in-law of the reputed family is quite a flirt - shows 3 times daily - 3:00pm, 6:00pm, 9:00pm" (Bade Ghar ki Bahu - Chaalu Hai - Roz ke 3 khel, 3:00pm, 6:00pm, 9:00pm)

As time went by, I also discovered that the city was full of dogs and not all dogs liked road runners. It probably seemed to them that I was running after cars - something they treated as their monopoly - and were in turn hostile towards me for attempting to step into what was till then their fiefdom.

Slowly, other mundane and more worldly important things took over: the pace, the timing, hill training, speed training, reverse splits, fartlek etc. etc. etc. Convenience and compromise took me back into the grind (albeit a different one) something I had gained freedom from when I started running. I was back to running for a better time, back to running to gain strength, so the hill training, back to running to be able to do this, to be able to do that. That I had begun and continued to run because I enjoyed it had been lost somewhere. That when I ran I discovered more about my surroundings no longer held true. That my run led to pure, unadulterated joy was no longer the case. All my runs were stripped down to the basics and analyzed shred by finer shred. The stride mattered more now, the cadence had its importance, the gait analysis showed I leaned to the left and put more weight in front than was necessary, pronation, suppination, shin splints.... %$#@*&!!!!!!!

Okay, I have digressed. Coming back, as I began to run with Piyush last Tuesday, we ran on a different route. I have said umpteen number of times that Ahmedabad is flat as a pan, but this course had mildly undulating contours which made the course tough. On the way back, I was surprised to see a handcart with an idol on it, bang in the middle of the road. Music was blaring from a loudspeaker on it, an 'arti' being performed in a makeshift temple. Finally I had discovered something new about my city. A makeshift temple where an arti is performed in the middle of the road and then the temple disappears, probably till the next session. This one was going onto my blog for sure.

It was during the run the next day that I actually paid a little more attention to the songs blaring from the loudspeaker and the things written on the handcart. What caught my attention first was the tricolour - the national flag. A temple and thereby its Hindu connotations should have ensured saffron and the tricolour seemed out of place. Then I read what was written below the idol. It said, "Bharat Mata ki Jai." It suddenly dawned on me that the bhajans were making sense even to me, an atheist. Because they were not bhajans. They were patriotic songs and this was a prayer to Mother India. A ritual performed every morning!! Which city in which country in the world could boast of something which would even come close? A prayer to the country every single morning. No tourist book would mention this, and I doubt how many residents of Ahmedabad would be able to tell you this, simply because, how many would know? This Definitely, DEFINITELY was coming onto my blog as soon as I returned from the Hyderabad Heritage Marathon.

Thankfully, I came back and the pending work prevented me from posting my blog and my two runs thereafter got me more information on this. Apparently, the idol of Mother India on the cart leaves 'home' at 5:30 every morning and goes around the locality through every lane and bylane; all the time with patriotic songs being played. At about 6:30, the handcart is brought to the main road and this arti is performed as it has been performed all these years in the presence of a small group of 15-20 people.

Which brings me to the Hyderabad Heritage Marathon. Nothing much to write about the run, but so much to talk about the event. For me, the fun began a little before Piyush and I reached the place for collecting my running number bib and goodies. Yogesh and Kiran were there from the Shivaji Park Marathon Club along with another 5-6 members. Bhupendrasing was going to be reaching in about an hour. We went, collected our running numbers, the goodie bags, asked a few questions about the busses to the start line and all of that. Thereafter time was spent catching up with others I had met at various events, the Hyderabad Marathon in August, KTM etc... and it was time for lunch and I left.

Piyush and I couldn't sleep that night. Piyush had been tense. He was attempting his 100 consecutive Half Marathons and was worried sick that if he tanked for any reason, he would have to hang his head in shame for the rest of his life and there would be no redemption. No amount of my telling him made any sense and ultimately both of us stayed up the whole night dying a death that had not yet come. And a death we were unsure of to begin with. At midnight, we decided there was no point in trying to sleep. We got up, got ready, left our room and reached Chowmahalla Palace at 2:00 am, some 3 hours before the scheduled start of the race.

After generally roaming around the area like vagabonds (though I am sure we looked more like ragpickers) we entered Chowmahalla Palace. The place was all lit up and given the dress I and other runners were in, it did seem like home. After all, no one wears shorts and a tee if one were to go to a formal place like a palace. As we were lounging around, I suddenly heard my name being called. As I looked in the direction of the voice, I heard, "F#@&!!! You here?? I hadn't expected you to be here." It was Anand,a  runner, a friend and more importantly, my crew member for BR-135. He was running the Marathon. We chatted while Bhupendrasing joined us as did the group from Shivaji Park Marathon Club. Then Milind Soman walked past and Anand called out to him. One topic after another in quick successing and soon we were discussing the 100 miler coming up at Bhati Lakes. Bhupendrasing, Milind and I - 3 of the (till then) 6 participants were there at Hyderabad. There was some confusion about the start and we started late. As we started to run, I realized Milind was next to me and we were going at the same pace. We began chatting once again. I mentioned Brazil 135 to him and out of the blue, he asked me if he could crew for me at the race. Glamour apart, Milind is a fantabulous runner, a sub 3:50 marathoner, ultra-runner and he would definitely be an asset to have. As luck would have it, I was still one person short in my crew. I agreed. He's asked me to email him the dates which I have; lets see what ultimately happens.

We continued running, and chatting along the way. Bala from Chennai joined us. He was looking to achieve his first sub-5:00 marathon and thought our bus would take him through. The three of us continued running, chatting as we ran. At Hussain Sagar Lake, there were idols of Durga waiting in line to be immersed and the three of us danced to the beats of the drums and dhakis as we ran. The run otherwise was quite uneventful. We ran through traffic, fighting a mental game (and sometimes, almost a physical battle) with the Hyderabadis on vehicles who wanted to reclaim their road, usurped by this uncouth breed called runners who did not know that roads belonged to vehicles.

From about the 27k mark, the three of us adopted a walk run strategy, which basically meant that Milind and I ran leaving Bala far, far behind. Then the two of us used to walk till Bala caught up with us, usually out of breath. We let Bala catch his breath and then Milind and I used to run off again till Bala was out of sight and then, begin to walk. This went on till about the 34k mark. Then Milind and I decided to walk. Timing be damned; we would finish. Period. Here in a true hare and the tortiose race, Bala caught up, overtook us and continued ahead, and finished the race. Milind and I were still walking, far, far behind. We admired the Golconda Fort then Taramati Biradari, then Golconda Fort again, laughed at the absolutely loony jokes that we were cracking, cursed the course, cursed the elevation, cursed the twists and turns, cursed the volunteers  who kept saying 600 meters to the finish regardless of where we asked them. Finally as we walked to the gate of the park housing the Qutb Shahi Tombs, Kiran of the Shivaji Park Marathon Club was limping. Blisters on his feet caused him to change his gait while walking and that let to cramps. But no way was he giving up! Another 600 meters (as we were told), and we walked past the finish line. No, sorry, we jogged the last 25 meters!!

Back in Ahmedabad, I tried getting back with Piyush's running 100 Half Marathons on consecutive days. My evolution as a runner, an ongoing process with all of us, seemed to have accelerated in the past year or so. I had begun to understand, and more importantly, accept that I am a back of the pack runner, someone who runs slow, but can run far. Ultras was what really clicked with me. And more importantly, what I was beginning to get back was the joy of running, the freedom that running afforded me and the realization that the important part of the run was the pleasure that it gave me. Piyush on the other hand, back in Ahmedabad with a second rank in the veteran's category, wanted to run faster. And to do that, he was willing to start running earlier, at 4:00am if not 3:30am, so that there would be no people on the roads, the cool air would facilitate running and would help him return a better timing. So while both of us were running in the same direction, our goals were different. As we were running down the Shreyas overbridge last morning, I slowed down to enjoy the rays of the rising sun reflecting off the scattered clouds. Piyush asked me to speed up. I told him to enjoy the beauty of the sunrise. He said we were running as a part of a workout, not to enjoy ourselves. And it suddenly dawned on me. That is what I have been doing these past few years and that is what has been my undoing. I have been running to achieve targets and have been enjoying those targets. When I should have been running to enjoy myself and if I achieved something along the way, that would be a bonus.

And I told Piyush that it would be better if we, keeping our separate goals in mind, ran separately. He agreed, and has assured me that he'll be back to running with me the day after his goal of 100 Half Marathons in 100 consecutive days is over. I've heard it being said that it takes a lot to persevere but no, it takes a lot more to let go, to be yourself. And that is what I am going to be. Medals? Awards? Events? The at least one sub-4:00 marathon that I know I have in me? Que sera sera.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

First post-150k run

After a hiatus of a week taken to rejuvenate and recover, I decided to restart running this morning. I had a nice, long, 25k+ run planned. As I began to run, the ground did not shake. There was no flash of lightning. No thunder. No nothing. At the other end of the spectrum, my legs did not feel heavy. Nor was there any pain from the blisters. The ankle too wasn't sore; it too seemed to have healed.

I was expecting something, anything, whatever, to happen on this run. I had, after all, done a 150k just last Sunday and I am sure that expecting some effect(s) of that endeavor to show on the first run was not expecting too much. Nothing, but nothing had changed. It was the 11th day Piyush's self imposed challenge of a 100 half marathons in as many days. I had to meet Piyush, but I got delayed by a few minutes and by the time I reached the designated spot, Piyush had left. I noticed the roads were the same, the weather was exactly how the Ahmedabad weather is at this time of the year and I was running the way I would run a 20-25k training run. Since I was running after one full week and enjoying it so very much I decided to prolong my joy and I increased the distance a little more. I ended having completed some 34-35k. Nothing had changed. Nothing at all.

If there has been any change in perception, this post should take care of that as well.

That would bring me to the end of this post.

But it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I shall leave you with a few pictures I have downloaded about Brazil-135. The challenge, apart from the ascents, the descents, the mud, the rains, the temperature variations and every other what-have-you, is to overcome the temptation to stop and admire the beauty of the place and continue moving.

But before you get to see the beauty of the place, some technical details:

This is the elevation profile of the route. If it scares you, you must be really, really brave, because frankly, I'm terrified.