In the Long Run, we are re-born

How long is a long run? The International Amateur Athletic Federation classifies distance above 5000m as long distance running events. The recognised events in Olympics and other events are the 5000m, 10,000m and the Marathon (42.195 Km) but the most popular, in terms of public participation, is the Half-Marathon (21.1 Km). Events above the marathon distance are called ultra-marathon events and most participants in these events (outside of major events) are largely recreational runners.

The two most challenging distances for recreational runners are the distance between their bed and shoe-rack, and their first 5 Km run. Anyone who can accomplish these two targets can set their sights on running longer and there is no limit for the maximum distance one can run. While short and medium distances are often the test of one’s physical endurance, long distance running is more a test of mental resilience over strength.

Training oneself to run long distances is often a journey that is a reward by itself. There are no short-cut techniques or a quick fix formulae or a miracle drug to become a long distance runner. It is a slow, patient process over years and a journey of discovering one’s physical and mental limits. As Rabindranath Tagore writes,

“NOT hammer strokes, but dance of the water sings the pebbles into perfection.”

Conditioning oneself to run long distances is like getting pebbles into perfection.

Some steps to help us get started:

First, plan your weekly mileage of running and do not increase it more than 10% of the previous week’s mileage. Increase the distance gradually.

Second, learn to run slower. The easiest way to run longer is to run slower as it teaches the patience to run longer. The ideal pace for running longer is to run at ‘conversational pace’ – a pace at which you can comfortably engage in a conversation with a fellow runner (not on the same lines as News hour discussions!)

Third, Learn to walk between runs – It might sound blasphemous to suggest walking to a runner. Nevertheless, taking walk breaks between runs help in recovery of muscles between the runs and gain energy to run further.

Fourth, Set yourself time-based targets like a run for 1 hour, 2 hours etc.,; distance will improve automatically.

Fifth, Hydrate well. Hydration is the key for running longer. Take frequent sips of water between the runs to keep yourself hydrated. Always carry your own bottle of water during the runs and get it re-filled at intervals.

Sixth, One of the major challenges physically in running longer is the loss of salt (Sodium) in the body causing dehydration, muscle fatigue which leads to muscle cramps. Most sports drinks, electrolytes help you to replenish the salt content during the run. You may choose natural alternatives like salted lemon juice or orange juices.

Seven, eat small portions of solids on the run. It goes without saying that the energy lost on the run must be replenished. Eating small portions of solid food, be it peanut butter sandwich or bananas or energy bars, will help in getting energised for longer runs. Professional runners normally resort to energy gels containing concentrated carbohydrates. Some of the readily available foods like peanut candy, dry fruits, chocolates and biscuits will come handy!

Last but not the least, learn to compete with yourself! In long distance running, there is nothing more to achieve than what you have achieved the previous day. You are no less inferior or superior to other long distance runners. Each runner is unique and works according to his/her strengths and weakness. Comparing with others is not only deplorable but also potentially dangerous. One may never know the years of training/conditioning that the other runner has undertaken before running the distance.

Running long distances are often a metaphor for any activity in life – career or relationships or any other passions. It is an education by itself as it helps to understand and push the physical and mental limits. At physical level, it helps you to understand your body better and the relative strengths and weakness. Personally, long distance running has helped me to understand and get rid of medication for asthma.

Shortcomings in flexibility and physical strength can be easily detected and worked upon. Mentally, it is a meditative experience there is no doubt that over the long run, you are re-born into a better person.

An edited version of this piece can be found here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/Let%E2%80%99s-go-for-a-long-run/article16895753.ece

Copyright ©2016 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

The article was originally written for Chennai Runners who publish an article every fortnight under the series “Road Runner” in The Hindu – Metro Plus.

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10 Years on…

Being nostalgic is often seen as a virtue of getting old and best avoided. Despite  depressing on most occasions, largely for the those at the receiving end, and occasionally elating, it does help one to get a perspective. As George Santayana would say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
Turning the clock ten years back, it was the Sunday that elated and humbled me in equal measure. January 15, 2006 – The day, I first attempted to run a Marathon, rather, The Marathon. During the days leading to the event, I was greeted with a mix of surprise, ridicule, encouragement and sometimes, even false hopes of winning a prize. On looking back, it is fairly obvious that it was a poorly thought out decision to attempt running a full marathon, with very little idea of what is in store. I was only a 5K runner between the Gandhi Statute and Labour Statue on the Marina Beach on a regular basis. It would made sense to register for a Jil-Jil run or at best, a Half-marathon. A mix of vanity and false sense of determination made me choose The Marathon.
The marathon brought in with it, some extravagance into my life which was back then ostentatious and unacceptable. A new shoe for Rs. 3500 for someone who was until then using only a canvas shoe; Air travel to Mumbai, even if costed less than the train ticket in AC compartments, were enough for my parents to blame it all on my newly found wealth – All these for a just ‘a run’ on a Sunday morning made people wonder if it was ever worth it. The registration for the event, luckily, wasn’t among them as it costed only Rs. 200 (Excluding Rs. 100, which was optional for timing chip. I did not miss it as there was no prize for those not wearing it). Thanks to my good friend Prashant, who was also running in the event, for hosting me and sparing the hotel bills!
There is very little to write about the run as such, for there was very little running during the  marathon. Starting at 8:00 AM under the bright sunshine, my race was effectively over in less than a hour. A dodgy knee and the mammoth task ahead left me wondered if I have to continue any further. It was then, the entire effort of undertaking the race dawned on me. From the financial extravagance to the ‘training’ runs and the hype that I managed to build around the event, it was indeed some kind of an ‘effort.’ Quitting was not a choice anymore and I was left with the only option – to walk all the way. I was not carrying any watch and had no idea how long it would take me to the finish. I crossed the timing mat at 14.5K  in 1hr45mins and the money spent on timing chip was justified. Before I reached the next timing point, the mat was being rolled off and taken away despite my desperate requests. A long walk followed through the dust, heat and traffic of Mumbai accompanied by a few other ‘walkers.’
The walk came to an end at 2:45 PM and couple of Samaritans near the VT Station informed me that it used to be the finish point earlier in the day. Proceeded towards the finish tent where one of the volunteer sympathetically reopened the carton box and gave me the medal; more sympathy followed with the volunteer parting a portion of his lunch to me. It did not really dawn on me that I was a marathon finisher and have joined a select few who have managed to accomplish it. The immediate feeling was that of making a fool of oneself and of disappointing a minuscule who had high hopes on me. Somewhere down the line, the accomplishment of finishing the distance slowly sank in me and helped me feel better. The inability to compete in the next two editions despite registering for it, made me realise that the participation is as important as finishing.
It has been a long journey since – many marathons followed, from domestic travel to international, track pants making way for running shorts, extravagance redefined as essentials, more words of encouragement from near and dear (now largely comprised of runners!) – there has been a sea change in running and running events. The first marathon still stands a special moment irrespective of what it turned out to be. Attempting a marathon now with such conditions still looks indomitable. Even if it was frustrating on that day, the memories are still pleasant and worth recollecting. I have run the Mumbai marathon for 4 times subsequently but the resilience shown that day was never to be repeated.

Running and Environmentalism

After Religion, if there exists a social group that breeds more hypocrites, it must be Environmentalism. Although, my friend Rajesh does not see much difference between the two as he considers environmentalism as just another new age Religion.

We still do not know where the green brigade stand on iconoclasm, whether they will fight crusades, or create backstories to fill out the mythology. But make no mistake, this is a religion alright. Across national boundaries, never have a group of people been so singularly driven by a single ideology

Environmentalists are everywhere… To begin with, in those places where they can be more visible and attract adequate attention. They find every human activity as a potential threat and at times, they even find the mere existence of humans threatening to the environment. Apparently some scientific study told them that Earth existed before human beings and hence, it should continue to exist even without them. With more people taking up running and participating in running events, it has started becoming an issue of concern for these saviours of Earth. Believe it or not, in the eyes of environmentalists, Running is becoming a major threat to environment and can potentially damage the Earth, giving it only a few days to survive!

Take the example of this scintillating piece of ‘research‘  with this sensational finding…

A new pair of synthetic running shoes typically generates 30lbs of carbon dioxide emissions, the researchers found. That’s an unusually high carbon footprint for a product that does not use electricity, or require sophisticated components. The researchers said it was equivalent to leaving a 100-watt bulb burning for an entire week.

Mind you, if you leave 100-watt bulb burning for an entire week, you will end up writing cr@p research work like above which is more harmful to the society than running!

The major area of moral hazard that environmentalists care for is that of running events. Running events are increasing and the participation in these events are always on rise. Apart from the increased emissions of carbon di oxide, there are two areas of concern for these ‘morally upright,’ ‘socially conscious’ folks.

1. Increased carbon emissions due to increased travel to and from start points of running events as well as morning runs – Yes, but for running events, most people would prefer to lock themselves in their homes on a Sunday morning and pray that the Earth should be protected by evil forces!

2. Increased levels of Garbage – This is a single most sensitive issue for many environmentalists. Even if a runner generates far less per-capita garbage compared to a Saturday night party goer (you might see some of the environmentalists there, as they need a breather from their busy schedule to save the world!), it still matters the most. Potential areas are in the water stations and breakfast areas. Forget the fact that many of them carry loads of water during their training run, they should not be entitled to drink water on a race day from a paper cup as it will end up generating garbage. Also, the post run breakfast must be discarded in favour of runners going back home and preparing their breakfast. I was once advised by a chain-smoking, air-miles chasing, beer-drinking environmentalist that water stations in running events must have re-usable cups that can be cleaned after each runner uses it. Keeping the difficulties (I have once been in such aid station and cleaned a few cups) and hygiene factors aside, such a suggestion coming from a person who employs a maid servant to wash their own tea cup, was ironical, to say the least!

There is no harm in being a environmentalist or preaching about it (if you have people willing to listen to them). I don’t intend to discredit the work of environmentalists in general or the runners who are sincere in their attempts to do their bit for the environment. There are some fine work done by both these groups which indeed serve as a model for rest of us to emulate. It is the so-called ‘environmentalists,’ having to eke out their living by mere preaching, that annoys me the most. One such ‘voluntary’ group managed to squeeze out a sizable amount in terms of TA/DA bills from a running event and another group pulled out after their pitch on ‘run to save the Earth’ on realising that they cannot make money from the event! So much for ‘caring’ about the Earth.

All said and done, someone who runs on the road day-in and day-out is definitely more connected with the environment and aware of the issues than those sitting in comfy air-conditioned rooms and typing pages on “How to Save the Earth for dummies”

The Ahimsa Run

Ahimsa Paramo Dharma (अहिंसा परमॊ धर्मः)

On March 30, 2014, the Jains and Marwaris of Pondicherry organised a 7Km run to promote running amongst their community members.The theme of the run was centred around the basic tenets of Jainism. The run was aptly named as the Ahimsa Run, the key principle of those following the religion. They had two categories of the run – a 7 Km run for adults above 14 years and a 4 Km for children under 14 years. The route was fairly simple – started and finished at Vel. Chokkanatha Kalayana Mandapam at Vallalar Salai and the run was on the boulevard around the Pondy town.

The genesis of the run was in the participation of some of its members in the Seventh Auroville Marathon in February 2014. Many of them were running their first half marathon. They formed a group called ‘Marathon Runners’ and trained for the event. Following their experience of training for a marathon and the joy of running one, they wished to offer a similar experience for their entire community. The participants were largely from their community which helped the organisers to ease their concerns about organising a running event. They also invited students from Sathya Special School, Pondicherry.

The Organising team has toiled for more than a month to put together an event that would be memorable for the participants and encourage them to take up a more active life. They also had  a good representation from the women members and children of their community. Many of them have undergone rigorous practice for over a month leading to the run. In total, over 500 runners participated in the event. Even if restricted from their community, the diversity in the age group of the participants made it a spectacle to watch.

The event concluded with a sumptuous breakfast for all participants and a felicitation ceremony for the winners as well all those who worked for the event. Kudos to the Marathon Runners for their efforts in adopting Running event as an occasion to get their community folks together. I am sure that this experience will encourage them to organise similar events involving the entire town of Pondicherry.

The Servarayan Hills Ultra

In the middle of the night, Aravind wakes up and yells, ‘Praveen…. It’s 3:30 and no one has got up.’ Checked my phone and the time read 11:59. Praveen jumps out of his bed to confirm the same. Aravind quickly realises that it is the second time of the dual time on his phone screen. Those were the scenes ahead of the inaugural Yercaud Ultra, later renamed as Shevaroy hills ultra before finalising the name as ‘Servarayan Hills Ultra’ (SHU) in sync with the original name of the hills.

Yercaud

Photo by Ram. From left, Ramani, myself, Aravind, Bala, Praveen, Mani and Kannan

Aravind has signed up to run the Comrades Marathon on June 1, 2014 and it was natural for him to be anxious about every run until his Comrades. He was not the lone Comrades participant in the trip; Shahid, Ram and Kannan were also gearing up for their Comrades experience. The SHU has been intricately connected with Comrades marathon in many ways. Back in 2012, a month after (miraculously) finishing my first, (only as well as last) Comrades marathon, I joined the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC) Weekend Ride in Yercaud. The ride captain was Vaz a.k.a. Vasanth who seems to know the roads in Yercaud in and out. He introduced me to the beautiful ~34K loop road starting from and finishing at Yercaud.

Elevation

Elevation profile recorded by Shahid’s GPS on the run. Ah! The obsession over miles and feet!

As we rode on the loop road, the frequent recurrence of peaks and troughs reminded me of the early stages of Comrades route with similar terrain. At the end of the ride, I was really eager to run the route sometime in the future. Few months back, Shahid and Paul were discussing about Shahid’s plan for Comrades training and was keen on running in Ooty. I discouraged him as neither the route profile nor the altitude suits a perfect training. A year back, few of us ran all the way up to Kothagiri from Mettupalayam and the route was inclined upwards from the start till the finish. It did look like a challenging uphill run but not the right kind of run for practicing hill running.

Source: http://www.comrades.com The map is only indicative and does not explain the actual peaks and troughs!

Training for Comrades is a challenge by itself and poses many hurdles. I had tried to summarise some of my thoughts in my earlier blog on Training for Comrades. The loop in Yercaud presented us with an ideal terrain for hill training. It had ample peaks and troughs with the elevation no more than 100m at a stretch. I shared the maps (courtesy: Vaz) with Paul and Shahid suggesting the loop and in addition, a downhill towards Kuppanur would resemble Comrades route. The ~26K downhill run features a steep climb of ~4K sandwiched between downhill run of ~11K each. At first, it felt like the challenge of running the Botha Hill in Comrades but later turned out to be a bad idea because of the steep inclinations and declines.

Apart from the Comrades participants, the idea was thrown open to a small group of select runners (chosen based on the familiarity. Given the risks involved, it was decided not to open to a wider group). Among the takers includes Manivannan, Praveen, Bala, Ramani, Paul and by default, myself! It was a no-frills run and very minimal effort was taken to organise the run. It was self-organised and self-directed by each of the participants. I reached out to Vaz for assistance in Yercaud and he took the risk of introducing me to Yeshwin. Yeshwin, originally from Chennai, has relocated to Yercaud and dabbles in many activities, notably, cycling. On explaining my requirements, he suggested me a nice house for all of us to stay. The food was to be taken care by his wife, Kavitha, who runs The Pear Tree Café at Yercaud. Thanks to their assistance, we managed to have a pleasant stay and wonderful food for those two days.

Pre_race_dinner

Dinner at The Pear Tree Cafe

Our plan was to start the run at 4:00 AM and had a cut-off of 10 hours to cover the total distance with an intermediate cut-off of 6 hours for the loop (later reversed to 5 hours and it still didn’t matter). Our route reconnaissance (recce in common language) on the previous day didn’t give us a good preview of what was in store, the following day. Moreover, with 7 of us cramped on a single car (and me getting the ‘business class’ front row by the virtue of having tall legs), it was difficult to feel the elevations and troughs on the route. We retired to bed early after a delicious dinner of sandwich, curd rice and chocolate truffle. It could possibly be the only event where all runners had the same dinner and stayed together. Guess, IAAF can take some lessons from us to avoid pre-race doping!

Photo by Ramani (No. 9). Thanks to Preeti and Anurag, we had those beautiful cloth bibs!

Photo by Ramani (No. 9). Thanks to Preeti and Anurag, we had those beautiful cloth bibs!

We got ready for the run in time at 3:45 AM. The two car drivers – Pervez and Abdul – reported in time at 3:30 AM. Their assistance on the run was immense. It was also decided to run in groups until the day-break for safety reasons. Running in the dark is a challenge and also a memorable experience. The challenge is of two fold – not to get lost on the route and not to trip down. The first challenge did not exist in this run. The route directions was just simple – Keep left always! The second challenge – well, only the medicines for bruises were available.

Route info

Giving route directions on the previous day

It seems to be an unwritten law that tripping in an integral part of Ultra-marathons. Every year, I am sure there are at least 100 runners who trip themselves over the cats-eye in Comrades. Although I was lucky to escape it in my comrades run, I suffered it at Coimbatore, two months after the Comrades! The honours on this run went to Shahid who had a nasty fall suffering bruises on his elbow. It looked distressful on the first sight but Shahid was not the one to be let down by it. He quickly recovered to continue with the run.

The beauty of running in the dark is realised when the day breaks. The joy of watching the day break is unsurpassable. For those living in the cities, their day break is often spoiled by the street lights or the lights from vehicles. One can never watch a true break until they get themselves in a totally dark place. The first two hours of the run was a very pleasant experience except for the presence the street dogs. There were more ferocious ones inside many fenced residences but the ones on the street troubled us by pacing us on the run. Living in a street where there are more dogs than humans, I found it easier to tackle them.

I had chosen to play the sweeper role on the run and the drivers were instructed that I will be the last runner. The loop looked like a dream route for every runner – very little traffic, no confusion about the routes, perfect blend of elevation and declines and a pleasant weather. Our original plan was to have a cut-off time of 6 hours for the loop which looked very easy to achieve. In hindsight, I thought a four and half hours cut-off (corresponds to 8:30 AM) with an added of incentive of getting a cup of coffee for 10 bucks at Sree Saravana Bhavan, Yercaud could have been a better challenge (The price of coffee goes up to Rs. 25 after 8:30 AM).

All the runners completed the loop with ease. Bala was keeping unwell and has to opt out before the end of the loop. It was a steep climb from the end of the loop (which was at the lake) to the start of the road leading to Kuppanur. While I was enjoying the running uphill, it was getting really tough running downhill. After running about 10Kms on the steep downhill road towards Kuppanur, I have to call my run off. This was the route I enjoyed riding a lot during the Tour of Tamil Nadu 2010. Little did I realise that it would such a bad route for runners. The steep declines were absolute killers and I neither had he physical strength to run down nor the mental strength to pull trough with the run. I was also scared that most of the other runners would curse me for such a horrible route. It gets worse in the last 10 Kms which was no more than a barren hill. Strangely, all those who finished took it up as a challenge and accomplished with ease.

Finish

I was happy for the Comrades participants – Ram, Aravind, Shahid for finishing the entire stretch. This was definitely a confidence booster ahead of the Comrades. The downhill run in Comrades is lot more easier than this run even if the route has another 28Kms to cover. Also glad for Kannan for finishing the difficult stretch of the route, even if he didn’t run the last few Kilometers.

The Malgudi Runner

RK Narayan once said that if he wanted to look out for a story, he would just need to peep out of his window. It was through his eight window bedroom and of course, during his long walks that he found most of the characters for his short stories and novels. It is for this reason that we find most of the protagonists of RKN’s stories are someone whom we can usually identify with, either in ourselves or in someone near and dear; unlike the characters portrayed in a Gautam Menon’s movie. His stories were never short of colourful characters depicting the richness and uniqueness of people living in those times. Then, there is one character that his stories missed out – a runner or let’s call him (not a symbol of chauvinism but just to make it a gender more familiar to RKN as well as me), a Malgudi runner.

 RKN was known to be a prolific walker. In his memoirs for The Frontline, T.S. Satyan wrote,

 Narayan was an indefatigable walker. He saved all his time for walking and writing, keeping away from literary functions, seminars and controversies. “Walking is my favourite pastime,” he used to tell me. One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations on the people he met and the goings on that he saw. He never walked fast and stopped at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure. “If you have the language, you can write about them,” he once told me.

 Walking was very much integral to RKN as much as his writing. He could never get tired of his walks. In his essay ‘On Walking,’ he writes

 I walked because I enjoyed it and had the leisure. While walking, my mind became active and helped my writing.

He even wrote an unwritten ‘Testament of a Walker’ – An essay that deals with his lack of ‘automobile sensibility’ and pain of owning an automobile than about walking. He writes in it,

‘The most ambitious piece of work I have been planning for years is to be called ‘Testament of a walker.’ The title has been ready for decade although the book may never be written, considering its boundless scope and ramifications.

 After writing and celebrating walking extensively, it still ponders me as to why he ignored running. Wasn’t it a fad then? or didn’t he find any interesting characters in runners to weave a story around them? There were of course runners in those times but sadly never impressed him. In the essay ‘On Walking,’ he takes a dig on the runners,

“The men who walk for athletic reasons, not a few, seem to be training for the Olympics. Jogging, running, with upraised arms or swinging them in windmill fashion, stopping in their tracks to bend down, stretch or kick imaginary balls, jumping high and low, with not a care for others in their path. For me these Human Windmills are a terror.’

So, it must be the ‘seriousness’ of runners and their terrorising actions that has kept him away from writing about them. Or they must have been too fast for him to observe them and draw conclusions in his slow paced life. I somehow feel that he missed a lot in runners. Imagine a runner in Swami to vent his frustrations against Rajam in Swami and Friends; Chandran getting over his love failure through running in Bachelor of Arts before getting married to Sushila; The World of Nagaraj disturbed by an early morning disturbance in Tim, the runner rather than the late night Tim, the drunkard. Or the evergreen Raju from Guide taking up running instead of fasting, which would have made a more interesting story than Forrest Gump.

The picturesque location of Malgudi would have provided an exotic running route which would be termed ‘romantic’ by the city slickers. Starting his runs from the town centre, running towards the Kabir street, a few loops in the Lawley extension, on the banks of Sarayu river, running past Albert Mission College, Palace Talkies and others; Weekend runs may stretch into the Mempi forest accompanied by tough trails on the hills. Add those talkative men in the morning walking crowd in the park next to Sarayu river for some flavour. The grand finale for such a run must be a post-run breakfast comprising of a delicious pongal, vadai and an aromatic filter kaapi at The Boardless.

The Malgudi Runner is not likely to be a very competitive runner; or if he was, he would be a serial loser. He would find his daily lessons and philosophical understanding of life in his running; sometimes he would find solutions for issues affecting the society too. An extremely self-righteous man, he would think that Malgudi would be better inspired with his statue than that of Mr. Lawley and the Under-appreciation for his efforts clearly demonstrates the backwardness of this Nation. He believes that running alone would free his fellow citizens from the four hundred years of colonial bondage. He does not feel like he is running for himself… He runs for humanity. Whatever or whoever he was, he was sure not to be a dull person!