A Scorecard for the year

Recently, users of Strava, a popular app among fitness enthusiasts, would have received a barrage of statistics in the form of ‘Year in Sport’. The aggregate data comprising no. of activities, time spent, kilometres covered, ‘kudos’ received, etc., is presented as a comprehensive summary of the year bygone. While the objective may be noble, the interpretation can be a little hazy. For instance, it compares the metrics of this year with those of previous year. Given the way the year went, it is obvious that most would be disappointed about the lower number in 2021 compared to 2020. Then, numbers aren’t everything. As a Union Minister once said,

Maths never helped Einstein discover Gravity.

I want to help runners (as well as those engaged in other fitness activities) with a ‘feel-good’ scorecard to measure their activities during the year and stay positive for the year(s) to come. Let’s admit, at some point of time during the year, everyone felt lucky just to be alive, let alone pursue some fitness activity. More so, we have a generation of students who have been declared ‘all pass’ for the last two years. So, why let kids have all the fun?

This is a very simple questionnaire where you can give 1-point for each accomplishment and none if not accomplished during the year. Further, I have added some bonus points as additional tokens of appreciation for extra(ordinary) efforts.

Qn. 1 – Did you run regularly?

Ignoring the mandatory quarantine period or recovery time from COVID, if you consider yourself to be fairly regular in your runs during the year, you deserve a point for that. Fairly regular is a subjective term and depends from person to person. If you have attempted to run at least once a week, it can be considered as fairly regular, for I am sure you will be in the top 1% of the population taking those efforts. One point for the starters.

Qn. 2 – Were you kind to yourself?

Times are tough and frustrations can make it worse. It can be frustrating when not being able to run for a while. On resumption, many tend to over do and get injured. If you have been able to keep your head over shoulders, and stayed injury free throughout the year, yours is the one point.

Qn. 3 – Did you try learning more about fitness, health (other than COVID), and wellness?

Efforts towards education and enriching oneself by listening to podcasts (you can checkout my recommendations), reading inspiring/heartening articles, watching videos that adds positivity, or taking up a good book on running, should certainly be rewarded. Such initiatives merits one point, if not an academic degree. Unfortunately, education through WhatsApp University finds no appreciation; although half-a-point can be given if you have debunked any of those myths. 

Qn. 4 – Did you run with a group?

Participating in group runs motivates oneself and the group they run with. Given the way the pandemic unfolded, most running clubs started scaling down group runs during the year. You deserve a point, if you participated in a group runs whenever they resumed.

Qn. 5 – Did you run with a new buddy?

These are times when everyone looks at their neighbour as a potential carrier of virus, or a super-spreader. If you got over the mental block and ran with a new runner during the year, you have certainly taken a step towards normalcy. One point for that!

Qn. 6 – Did you participate in a running event?

Running events were scarce during the year. In the limited time frame when the pandemic looked under control, few organisers braved to organise the event with COVID-related protocols and other safety measures. While it did rise the cost of these events, it certainly gave hope that running events will come back sooner. You get a point if you have participated in at least one running event during the event just to encourage the organisers. (Note – “Virtual events” don’t count)

Qn. 7 – Were you a conscious consumer?

This was a tough year on the economic front too. Many lost their livelihoods, and those who had jobs saw their disposable income reduced. In these times, it is certainly prudent to avoid unnecessary indulgence in exotic gadgets or swanky outfits. You deserve one point for demonstrating modesty. 

Qn. 8 – Did you try pushing your boundaries?

Any fitness routine is about stepping outside the comfort zone. If you have tried a new activity, a new routine, ran for a cause, or simply, discovered a new running route during the year, it deserves recognition. Pushing boundaries is not about overdoing or going extreme for the sake of it. It is more about getting the mental block out while being aware of physical limitations.

Qn. 9 – Did you make efforts in changing your food habits for good?

If you were able to regulate your eating habits or avoid junk foods, you have certainly taken the first step. It is indeed a complex subject with myriad opinions, confusing facts, and guilt feeling engulfing every meal. You can give yourself one point if you have made any conscious effort to improve your eating habits, however trivial it may appear.

Qn. 10 – Did you practice socially responsible behaviour? 

The biggest challenge of the pandemic is bringing in socially responsible behaviour, be it sporting masks or not visiting crowded spaces or not spreading rumours on vaccination. Runners are generally very disciplined, given the rigour that the activity demands over the years. Being socially responsible is the first step towards getting out of the pandemic and it is time to reward you with another point.

Even if you haven’t scored enough points above, you are still eligible for bonus points below.

10 Bonus Points

If you didn’t bother about the statistics from Strava or have not installed any tracking apps; if you never worried about commonly accepted evaluation of your fitness activities, give yourself ten points. You know why you do what you do. You enjoy running and that alone matters for you. You deserve 10 points more than anyone else.

10 ‘Additional’ Bonus Points

If you were never into any fitness activities, and still wanted to read this blog out of sheer curiosity, I certainly owe you ten points. You have made a beginning and I am sure you will take up running very soon. Ten points for the curiosity and the first step towards a healthy new year!

That should ensure points on everyone’s scorecard. Wishing everyone a Happy and Healthy 2022!

தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு

Initials indicate town and parentage… But that’s for lesser folk who have to announce their antecedents. It’s not necessary for me. If you say Margayya, everyone will know. However, that’s not my name

RK Narayan, The Financial Expert

During my cycling trips through Tamil Nadu, the often asked question is, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு” – Thambikku entha ooru. It cannot be expressed in English so easily. The literal translation would be – “Where are you from?” or “Which place do you belong to?” or in a more contemporary style, ‘which place bro?’ The translation does do justice to the attempt by the inquisitor to unlock a wide range of information in such a simple question. The purpose of the question is not just to find out where I started the trip or where I live presently, but more about my origins, my ancestors, my ethnicity or possibly who am I?

As a fourth generation migrant (no idea about my ancestors beyond that!), this is certainly not a question that I enjoy answering to. I would invariably come up with some absurd response to make the questioner repent asking such questions. On some occasions, I would rattle out the lines from the Tamil movie ‘Parasakhti’, written by Karunanidhi and expressed by Shivaji Ganesan.

“பிறக்க ஒரு நாடு பிழைக்க ஒரு நாடு, தமிழ்நாட்டின் தலையெழுத்துக்கு நான் என்ன விதிவிலக்கா?” 

Translation – Born in one country, surviving in another; When this is the fate of most Tamilians, how can I be an exception

On other times, I quote ancient poem of Kaniyan Poongunranar, “யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர்” (Translation by APJ Abdul Kalam – I am a world citizen. Every Citizen is my own kith and kin). On one instance, I was embarassed by a homeless person standing nearby, ‘I should be saying that.’

An exercise to find one’s origins usually makes stories filled with passion, emotion, pride, as is normally seen in most movies or television soaps. I consider it as a futile exercise for me to discover my ancestry or native place. Even if I have to claim a certain place as my origins, I would be invariably told by others that I don’t resemble or behave like someone from that place. Given that real estate is expensive across all places, it is highly unlikely that I am ever going to get the ‘காணி நிலம்‘ (Translation: a piece of land measured in Tamil metric) anywhere to claim it as my place. Having lived across different towns of Tamil Nadu, my Tamil accent is a mix of various regions which will leave many confused about my antecedents.

For celebrities, it is a matter of pride for many to seek credence by arbitrarily tracing their antecedents all the way to Gods and Goddesses, a custom that is common to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. At times, the town or village will automatically start owning them even if they have a very tenuous connection. Very recently, a nondescript Thulasendrapuram found its identity by claiming Kamala Harris as one of their own. Of course, it was obvious that her mom would have been estranged as soon as she married a Jamaican or even before, for crossing the sea.

My search was limited to my dad’s choice – Vishnampettai in Thanjavur district. The only reason for his choice was his inheritance of small fragment of land. The land was disposed off long before I was born and there has been no contact with the village since. For a large part of my life, I was more confident of discovering Malgudi rather than Vishnampettai and its existence sounded only less fictional than Attipatti! Later, Google maps confirmed the physical existence of the place.

On October 16, 2021, I set out from Kumbakonam to ride all the way back to Coimbatore over a day or two. I wanted to ride along the river Kaveri till Musiri before taking the highway towards Karur and then to Coimbatore. The map suggested that Vishnampettai is not far away from the road and I decided to take a detour. At about 17 Kms from Thiruvaiyaru, the road takes a detour towards Vishnampettai. As I rode towards the village, the first person I encountered asked me, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு?” I refrained from answering the usual way and instead sought the way to the Agraharam – the ghetto of Brahmins. There was no one in particular whom I could look up to. I rode through the Agraharam which seems to be a rundown version of a prosperous locality of yesteryear. There was a well in the middle of the road that was built in 1938!

As I reached the end of the road, I spotted a temple with few uncles standing outside of it. I requested their permission to take a picture of the temple and soon, conversation began.

It started with routine questions on my current residence, job, marriage, which unfortunately did not elicit adequate response for them to probe further. After claiming that I ‘supposedly’ hail from this village, they conducted elaborate inquiries about my father, grand father and the gothra! Since I looked clueless for most questions, they decided that it was best to let me off. They were kind enough to offer me a lunch. It was a festival day and the final set of rituals were to be performed at the Temple. I offered the maximum amount possible (in fact, the highest I have ever offered to a temple!), with the hope that my dad would be impressed by my gesture and reimburse them. I soon realised that the presiding deity belongs to the rival sect and later, my dad didn’t show any eagerness to reimburse. After declining lunch with the excuse that I have long way to go, they offered me with sumptuous amount of chakkra pongal to binge on.

The route from Kumbakonam to Vishnampettai was filled with places associated with Carnatic Music. From the holy Thiruvaiyaru to Umayalpuram (Sivaraman), Maharajapuram (Santhanam), and Papanasam (Sivan). I wasn’t sure if Vishnampettai had any musician to their credit. When I asked a little boy on the significance of Thiruvaiyaru, he promptly answered, ‘Asoka Halwa’! I rode around to see if there are any other temples that can be remotely associated with my ancestors. Karumbeshwarar temple, located on the north of village, close to the Kollidam river, was an option for me to claim as a ‘family deity’, but there is no way to corroborate those claims.

Karumbeshwarar Temple

When triangulated with other data points, the claims of this village being my ancestral or native village somehow doesn’t add up. For instance, I have been long told that the family deity is Vaitheeswaran Koil (you can read about my visit by foot as well as cycle!) which is located about 100 Kms away form the village. It is unlikely that my ancestors would have performed their ‘duties’ in a temple so far away (not that any of us do now!). Considering that I have no financial stakes in discovering my nativity, it is easy to ignore the village. However, it is also true that the village doesn’t need me either.

“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”

Jean Paul Sartre

STOP Running

One Friday evening, about 5 years ago, I started reading Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog where these lines appear.,

“You run and run, mile after mile, and you never quite know why. You tell yourself that you are running toward some goal, chasing some rush, but really you run because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death.

Phil Knight, Shoe Dog

The following day, I went for a long run and promptly dedicated the run to these lines. Recently, it re-appeared on Facebook as memories and I started having second thoughts, ‘Does stopping really scare me to death?’ Of course, the thought of everyone stopping to run should certainly scare Phil Knight to death as it affects his fortune. But, why me? Is stopping something that anyone should be worried about?

People take up to running for various reasons – fitness, recreation, socialising, health reasons, out of boredom, or just an excuse to binge more food. Over the years, I have observed many take up to running, ramp up their efforts in short time, achieve extra-ordinary distances and personal records, some fame on the way and, then suddenly, quit running altogether. This is very common among professional runners, who rarely participate in running events after they officially retire from the sport. There are plenty of reasons, from physical injuries caused during running to challenges on the personal and professional front that demands prioritisation over running. While analysing the reasons for quitting, it is important to find out why they took to running and what drove them to dizzy heights before an apocalyptic fall. 

Fran Lebowitz, famously known as a writer who never writes, doesn’t own a mobile phone, never used a computer and has only heard about e-mail and social media, has contempt for many things and is always willing to express them without holding back. It includes running. Here, she is giving her opinion on why people run… 

When I was young, you never saw adults running. Running was something children did; Running was playing and playing was for Children. So, I never saw this. And now, you see 70-year olds running. I don’t think they are doing it because it is fun. They are doing it because they believe that if they keep doing this, they are not going to die; or they are going to look fantastic, even though they already look horrible.

As someone who loves her cigarettes, Lebowitz is certainly not the best person to look up to for opinions on running. But, she raises two pertinent points – First, do people force themselves to run? And secondly, do people find fun in running?

Let’s admit that running as a tool of punishment, is deeply entrenched in the psyche of most school-going children. Late for school? Run as punishment… ; dirty uniform? Run a few more laps… So, nobody has been taught to have fun through running. In later years, people take up running more out of self-interest than any external compulsion. The only incident when I was compelled to run was when I chased a chain-snatcher; and I failed miserably. However, if someone doesn’t have fun in running, they are obviously forcing themselves to run; and when they force themselves to run, they get injured easily and quit running altogether. 

I recently listened to this lovely conversation between Malcom Gladwell (also a prolific runner) and Adam Grant.

Among the various things they discuss includes whether running can be called as the most obsessive sport? (Starts at around 24 minutes into the podcast, incase you want to skip the rest). Malcom vehemently disagrees and suggests that only during races, do runners push themselves to the edge. On other occasions, running teaches one about the virtue of restraint. Adam Grant, using the research work of social psychologist Dr. Robert Vallerand, explains the difference between harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

Applied in running, obsessive passion is when people take to running out of compulsion – not just competitive runners who run for their livelihood, but also those who feel obliged to run due to social pressures, fame, and self-aggrandisement. They focus on the outcome and ignore the joy that comes during the run. Such obsession would force them to run regardless of their physical or mental condition, which leads to injuries.

On the other hand, harmonious passion is when someone derives joy during the run as well as when finishing the run. It could be from watching the sunrise, enjoing the camaraderie with fellow runners, breathing in the morning fresh air, or post-run breakfasts. For such runners, every run is an experience and there are no good or bad runs; all timings are their personal best, slow or fast. They just don’t stop with running and contribute actively to help others enjoy the same, be it volunteering for events, coming out to cheer during marathons, or pacing their friends in events. 

It is important to constantly evaluate our relationship with running. It can be harmonious as well as obsessive at different time periods. It is true that running can become another addiction and not necessarily good always. Stretching physical limits often can result in fatigue physically and eventually, mentally. 

Many times, when asked if I run everyday, I am lost for an appropriate answer. I certainly don’t run everyday – my historical records over the last 6,000 days show that I have run only about 36% of the days. I certainly don’t intend to do it everyday and rarely run when I am physically or mentally fit enough to do so. I have often and willingly missed my run in order to volunteer, cycle, trek, play football, or for early breakfast meets. And I have never regretted missing running on those days. Being able to run everyday or run whenever I want is something I would like to choose for myself. But, I am aware it depends on various factors, internal and external, and I have no regrets in making those compromises. It is when we find it difficult to make such compromises, running becomes problematic.

Every run is not a race to be won; it is just another step in making running a part of our life. Like the disclosures in mutual fund advertisements, past performance never guarantees the same performance for future, it is the same in running too.  In conclusion, I would like paraphrase from David McCullogh’s famous speech…. 

Run, so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. 

Run because you can and Run because you love to. Else, just Stop Running, or in Phil Knight’s style, 

Just don’t do it!

P.S – You can stop running only if you start running in the first place… So, get started first.

PPS - Special Thanks to my good friend Pankaja for a quick review

To Measure, or not to Measure…

Sometime back, I attended a lecture on the pitfalls of modern Education. The speaker passionately spoke on the negative impact of examination on the learning process in Children. He went on to elaborate on how the fear of failure inculcated through examinations have severe consequences on their emotional and mental development. When the house was thrown open for questions, the first among the audience asked,

“Is there any other way we can measure the progress of Children?”

The obsession to quantify results (and then compare) in any field of human endeavour – from cradle to grave – is deeply ingrained in most minds. From academic performances to social status to professional careers to health, there is some quantitative metric that is relied upon as the sacrosanct indicator of one’s progress or otherwise. There is no doubt that using data helps in simplifying complex issues and makes them easy for anyone and everyone to understand. It gets nebulous when it gets over-analysed, oversimplified, and worse, misinterpreted by those who have no clue on how, as well as, why the metric was introduced in the first place.

Before a metric is chosen, the fundamental question of “Why to measure” is rarely addressed. There are instances when it is unnecessary to have a metric, like enjoying a good music or appreciation a piece of art (there again, digital age provides data on the count of the number of times a music is played or the number of viewers, being taken as a proxy for quality of the music or art). In an interesting piece for The Guardian, Jenny Valentish, quotes Kieran Setiya, who calls a set of activities as “Atleic activities” – activities which have no goal. 

Atelic activities are things we do without fanfare, purely for enjoyment’s sake, that have no endpoint. They can be enjoyed in the present and might offer growth in a way more oriented to wellbeing. Singing, gardening, going for hikes, learning a language, playing sport just for fun – they’re all atelic activities, provided you don’t build in some kind of mission statement.

There is merit in having some atelic activities in life where nothing gets measured, no explanations offered, and nothing gets reviewed or even rewarded. In these activities, simply pursuing them is a reward by itself.

The common justification in measuring is by quoting the popular business management mantra –

What gets measured, gets managed

the source of which could not be traced; like anything corporate, it is credited to whoever is favoured. More often, it is the data that gets managed instead of the activity that it is supposed to measure. It is done by either constantly shifting the goal posts; or by changing the key metric. Take the example of measuring a company’s performance – the key metric would change – from revenue to profits (with its variants) to cash flow to market capitalisation and so on – depending on which metric looks favourable to the management to justify their existence. In case of growth rates, the denominator is chosen carefully to give the best impression of the results – year on year or quarter on quarter or a CAGR over suitable number of years.

Using data indiscriminately to explain results often masks the distinction between the seen and the unseen factors that led to the results. While there are certain aspects that can be measured with reasonable clarity (like standardised test scores), there are many intangibles (like knowledge, efforts, wisdom) that can never be measured. The end-result, explained through numbers, is confused to be an indicator of the unseen factors and if it cannot be explained, ignores the unseen

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics

Again attributed to wide range of sources. The importance that most show towards the use of data, they rarely show towards the calculation of it. A case in the point is that of Gross Domestic Product which is the numero uno when it comes to measuring the growth of  an economy, invariably translated to the development of the country. Rutger Bregman, in his book, “Utopia for Realists”, writes,

When the United Nations published its first standard guideline for figuring GDP in 1953, it totaled just under 50 pages. The most recent edition, issued in 2008, comes in at 722. Though it’s a number bandied about freely in the media, there are few people who really understand how the GDP is determined. Even many professional economists have no clue.

The role of data analytics in sports have become a separate field by itself. The success of Billy Beane in managing Oakland Athletics through data, serialised in the book (as well as movie) ‘Money Ball’, is one of the most popular stories managing sports through metrics. More than just managing, metrics have also changed the narrative of how sports are viewed in media as well as among fans. Gone are the days, when football game was all about the number of goals scored by the team. Now, teams have to improve their possession, number of passes, crosses, tackles, dribbles, heat maps, and what not. While these metrics explain the quantity, they are certainly not a proxy to explain the quality of the sport.

In the book, ‘Stillness and Speed’, Dennis Bergkamp recollected an incident in his later years of football career when data analytics were gaining prominence. He was once confronted with a barrage of statistics during his contract negotiations and an exasperated Dennis struck back,

Where in your statistics does it say that I changed the game with a killer pass?

Coming to Health and Running, in specific, there has been wide range of data analysis that has been used extensively by amateur and professionals. Technological improvements have resulted in getting state of the art gadgets to capture  data and availability of analytical tools, from spreadsheets to complex softwares, have made interpretation and conclusion easier. There are merits in going for a data-based approach to measuring runs and work towards running better. With wide range of metrics available, it often becomes challenging to find the right metric and interpret them in an appropriate manner. Although I stayed away from it for long, I eventually succumbed to tracking data during my runs and had mixed results. Before I narrate my experience, I would like to start with some caveats. 

First, find out why you would like to measure your running or health? You will be surprised to know that it is perfectly fine to run without bothering to measure. I never used a tracking device until 2017 and yes, I was running before I started sharing my runs on Strava.

Second, find out the relevance of the metric and the reference values, when you set your targets. Simply suggesting that you would like to run fast or use Usain Bolt’s speed in his 100m race as a reference for running a marathon does not make any sense. 

Third, get a clear idea on how it is measured. There is no point in relying on heart rate data from a device if you cannot measure your heart rate without using any device.

Fourth, don’t interpret a data for the purposes of deciding a medical treatment unless you are a medical practitioner. If you are feeling uncomfortable, consult a medical practitioner regardless of the data thrown by the device.

Fifth, allow room for possibility of error in measurement as well as interpretation. Every device is bound to fail at some point of time and every metric can be wrongly interpreted. Do not attach significance to either the data or the interpretation if you are not confident of the result.

Sixth, more (complex) data isn’t always better. Technological improvements bring in more varieties of (fancy) data with more errors. There are some new concepts like fitness age, recovery time, VO2 max, power readings, and so on. There is not doubt that these concepts are well researched, but remember that it may not be applicable for every individual in a similar manner.

Seventh, the cost versus benefit conundrum. Most activity trackers carry significant cost and not always, the benefits derived are commensurate to the costs due to limitations of the device as well as the user.

Finally, do not COMPARE data with other runners for interpretation – the physiology or the efforts made by two persons can never be the same, even if the run is on the same day and route.

Whether you measure or you don’t, never let it interfere with the joy of running, which cannot be quantified and must be reason to run.

 

Barefoot Running – The Future

Give the rise and fall of the idea in a short span of time, it is difficult to predict a future for running barefoot or in minimalist footwear. Then,barefoot running was never a discovery and certainly not an innovation. It was happening always and it would continue to happen. However, the question is more about its relevance. While barefoot running may not be a fad anymore, there are still some reasons on why runners will and should consider running barefoot. 

Increasing cost of shoes

Top among them is the increasing cost of shoes. Today, an average running shoe costs in the region of Rs. 10,000 (~US$120) and lasts no more than 500-800 Kilometres. Vishwanathan Jayaraman, a barefoot runner since 2012, said in an interview,

“The biggest cost for a runner is his shoes. I actually calculated, it works up to around ₹10/ km — more expensive than taking a cab.”

When a friend of mine questioned a shoe salesman about the expensive prices, he replied, “You are paying for the technology.” Then, running is a simple sport and the beauty of it is in the simplicity of it. Does it need such technology that creates inequality?. While minimalist footwear don’t come cheap either, they are certainly bound to last longer than the conventional shoes. You can wear it till the soles get worn out completely and possibly, even after that. Also, there is very little talk of “technology” giving rise to new versions and additional costs. 

Rising Inequality

The other dimension to the cost factor is the rising inequality among shoes. Recent innovation by Nike has resulted in break-through performances in long distance running with most of the world records shattered. While most of the shoe makers will catch up with Nike, it still leaves a large section of runners behind. These shoes cost a lot more than other shoes (with possibly less life) and makes running an expensive sport. Prof. Ross Tucker has written extensively on this topic and the ethical implications for allowing such footwear.

While the issue affects the professional athletes more than amateurs, it is bound to have some trickling down effect like the costs spread across all the varieties of shoes and increase in their prices.

Impact on Environment

The impact of shoes on environment will certainly make a compelling argument to avoid it. In her book, Foot Work: What Your Shoes Are Doing to the World, Tancy E Hoskins provided some alarming details about the environmental impact of shoes. 

Estimates by worldfootwear.com shows that 24.2 billion pairs of shoes were manufactured in 2018 alone and 90% of these shoes end up in landfill. Recycling of footwear is almost non-existent for various reasons including trivial ones like people don’t dispose shoes together or they get separated in collection process. 

Most branded footwear recommends change of shoes as over-using the shoes leads to injuries. Hence, discarded running shoes have very little purpose outside running.

Sheer Simplicity

The final and the most compelling, yet not quantifiable, reason to go barefoot is the sheer simplicity of it. People love running because it is a simple activity to pursue and everyone runs to their ability. Running barefoot appeals when looked from that point of view. For frequent travellers, it is a pair of shoes less in their luggage. Innovations in shoes may not appeal beyond certain level. It will start make people question about the complexity of running shoes and the need to pay for them.

While barefoot running may not become a fad again, it is certainly going to be in vogue regardless of the innovations in shoes. 

Barefoot Running – My Experiments

It is ten years since I first wore a minimalist footwear for running. My decision to try one was largely due to frustrations with three pairs of shoes that I used until then. This was in 2011 and there were not any running-focused footwear shops in India; and the regular stores rarely stocked shoes for variations in width or contours of the foot. It was around the same time that the barefoot running was a hot topic in many running forums and was gaining the status of a cult movement. I rarely got affected by those discussions and was not even tempted to read ‘Born to Run’. It was only in 2019 when I finally read the book and realised that it was more than about running barefoot. Going back to shoes was, and still is, an option that I retain with me. After running Comrades in 2012 in the minimalist shoes, I was rarely tempted to go back.

Over the last decade, they have become an integral part in my running and I would like to reflect on the role played by them. Two caveats here – 1. What is applicable for barefoot running can be applied for running in general; and 2. I am still a ‘learner’ as I continue to learn the art of running. I am ever willing to correct if new evidences appear or I discover something new about myself.

Why Barefoot Running?

It is easier to run barefoot than to find out why to run barefoot. There is no conclusive evidence that it helps in running any faster or any longer. It can also be dangerous due to presence of sharp objects on the roads and trails. In terms of experience, it can be exhilaration at its best and excruciating at its worst; and one may experience anywhere in this wide spectrum.

Unlearn and Re-learn

The simplest approach to barefoot running is to start all over from the basics. The beginner mindset certainly helps in unlearning some of mistakes that we commonly do. Think you are running for the first time and do what you did when you started (without the mistakes of the past).

Aligning Body and Mind

A statement like, ‘you don’t run with legs alone’, makes running sound meta-physical and takes arguments into the realms of philosophy. Ignoring the factual accuracy, barefoot running is certainly more than removing the protection from the foot. While running by itself is about sacrificing some comforts of life, barefoot running forces the runner to take up additional challenges. The main challenge in barefoot running giving up the comfort from cushioning in shoes, which requires changes at multiple levels. 

The shock-absorption provided by shoes has to be transferred to ankles, knees, and hips. It requires extra care while landing and being conscious of the impact on different parts of the body. Landing entirely on the heel would have worse impact than running on shoes. It also requires to be more mindful while running to avoid sharp objects as well as stumbling over uneven surfaces. 

Over the years, I have learned to focus on my running posture, especially the upper body – reducing the slouch, opening up shoulders, and swinging arms better. A good running form should result in understanding the role of thighs, hips, core muscles, shoulders, arms, and sometimes, even the neck during your runs. It is a slow ongoing process and the only way to learn is by trying again and again.

One exercise that I found beneficial to help me focus and improve my running form was 100-Up. Chris made a reference to it in his article in New York Times.

Breathing

While aligning the body and mind, it is important to focus on breathing. Just like running, breathing is another area where we can constantly keep improving and it gets better with each effort. My first education in breathing was from Venu ‘Sir’. He advised me to focus on exhaling well rather than inhaling; as the lungs shrink more, they automatically expand to inhale more air. Attending Yoga sessions also helped me to learn deep breathing and use them during long runs.

Stretch and Strengthen

Regular stretching has certainly helped in a long way. Also, stretching need not be limited to pre and post runs. It can be done all through the day with adequate caution. There are no specific stretches that I would recommend but would suggest to keep stretches gentle. Core strengthening is an area that I am yet to explore in depth. Overall, a better understanding of the musculoskeletal system is of great benefit.

Impact of Body Weight

While I detest discussions on body weight and the obsession of ‘reducing’ body weight, it is important to understand the role of body weight on running. There are many reasons other than running or lack of it that affect one’s body weight. I have preferred to adjust my tempo and distance according to the changes in body weight.

Cross Training

Regular cycling has certainly helped me to recover well from my long runs. Cycling is certainly a great way to relax more than just training. Long walks is yet another way to recover from long runs.

Setting Modest Targets

I have not pursued any aggressive targets or challenge myself to do something simply because of external pressure. While this is also due to natural ageing process of my body, barefoot running helped me to be extra-cautious on this front. It is more about running naturally, understanding limitations, and never to push too hard. While running has helped me to go beyond my limits, it happened naturally with time than in a forced manner.

Changes Outside Running

The major change, outside my running, is overhauling my entire range of footwear – from casual slippers to formal shoes. I moved out of heavily cushioned footwear or even heavier footwear. I prefer flatter shoes with minimum cushioning for my regular use.

An Education

Barefoot running is an education in itself and each will have their own phases of learning. Progression in running is not about running fast or longer; it is about pursuing it with joy everyday. Unless some one runs to earn their livelihood, I do not see the need to get stressed on time or distance.

Think of barefoot running as an art rather than a ‘rocket science’ with all complexities. Run as you would like and use it as an opportunity to express yourself. It should not be seen as an end by itself – but a means to an end, which is to enjoy running and stay injury free. Should barefoot running interfere with either of the two objectives, it is best to choose the shoes that fits the best.

Born to Run – Counterview and Middle Ground

“There are very few things that are known with absolute certainty, and when you’re dealing with incredibly complex human physiology, the individual differences that make us who we are, what we’re good at, how we run and what we eat, for example, are so vast and complex that nothing can be polarized without being wrong!”

– Prof. Ross Tucker

The arrival of ‘Born to Run’ was a seminal moment – back then, if not later – simply because it questioned the status quo. For any runner, shoes (and socks) form the major part of their expenditure, or investment, in their pursuit of running. Here was Chris suggesting that we are better off in not making that expenditure. With the footwear companies already engaging in a ‘war’ with each other on different fronts through their marketing departments, ‘barefoot running’ looked like a refreshing new entrant in the war. It was a classic underdog against the top dogs, rather ‘Shoe Dogs’. To extrapolate, a public voluntary movement against corporate behemoths – Who doesn’t like such a story!

In the course of time, the barefoot running movement became a kind of religious movement and it wasn’t surprising when some of my friends added the prefix ‘Barefoot’ to their names. Such passionate debates inevitably invokes strong opinions filled with emotions, leading to polarisation of thought process. The shoe industry was accused of being unethical in their research and insincere in their marketing efforts. While Chris presented substantiative research to support his case, nothing can be ever definitive when it comes to human physiology. .

The Vibram case

A major jolt to the barefoot movement happened in 2012, when a runner filed a class action suit against Vibram USA, maker of the famous FiveFingers running shoes. The runner claimed that Vibram USA,

deceived consumers by advertising that the footwear could reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles, without basing those assertions on any scientific merit.”

It was reported that Vibram USA had agreed to settle her claims, following which over 150,000 claims were filed till November 2014. The case was pending final court approval back then and nothing has been heard since. In the process, Vibram also took back their claim that Five Fingers shoe “is effective in strengthening muscles or reducing injury in its marketing and advertising campaigns” till they discover any scientific evidence for the same. The heated debates across various running forums and magazines took a breather and the arguments ended inconclusive.

While it didn’t disprove Chris’ hypothesis that shoes cause injuries, it was now agreed that barefoot running can also cause injuries.

The Need to Learn

Following the case and complaints, the two of the major manufacturers of ‘barefoot footwear’ – Vibrams and Vivo Barefoot – started ‘educating’ customers on how to transition to barefoot running.

Although, we are naturally born to run, we don’t run all our lives. Most recreational runners start running much later in their life or after a long hiatus, during which their body would have undergone significant changes. Such changes cannot be undone overnight. Hence, barefoot running can no longer be considered as a natural way of running for most adults.

New World Records

The third hypothesis of Chris that runners can run longer or faster without shoes could never be proved. What happened over the past decade were actually contrary to his claims. World’s best timings in marathon and half-marathon have been repeatedly broken by runners wearing shoes. More recently, Nike’s introduction of Vaporfly shoes was used by Eluid Kipchoge to break the 2-hour mark in the marathon; and subsequently set best timings in marathon and half-marathon. The soles of these shoes thickness measured a whooping 4 cm! In Ultra marathons, Hoka Shoes, also with thicker soles, became popular. 

Balanced Views

Around this time, Prof. Ross Tucker, a renowned sports scientist, published series of articles on barefoot running. He approached the subject in a more objective manner without being dragged into either of the camps. In summary,

1. Barefoot running is a skill by itself and like any other skill, the adaptation to the skill differs from person to person. 

2. Barefoot running can help all runners, if undertaken separately as a fitness routine, for it activates muscles and tendons that doesn’t function when we run in shoes. 

3. There is no conclusive evidence to either prove or disprove the benefits of running barefoot, including injury free running. If runners continue running with their heel striking first, the damage caused by barefoot running is more than the damage caused by running in shoes. 

4. It may not help high performance runners – runners with targets to clock high mileage or faster times. Such runners, when they attempt to do something beyond their physical abilities, need assistance from shoes.

The Middle Ground

The setbacks certainly halted the ‘barefoot movement’ but did didn’t end it entirely. In 2013, Scott Douglas, who wrote the ‘Runner’s World Complete Guide to Minimalism and Barefoot Running’ credited the movement for driving the message of ‘shoes serving the runner, rather than the other way around.’ In the article, ‘Minimalism in The Long Run’, he explains on how the barefoot movement paved way for a middle ground in minimalistic footwear. Every shoe manufacturer started introducing minimalist version of running shoes, incorporating features like reduced thickness in soles, and a more ‘flatter shoes’ with lower heel-to-toe drop. The desirable features of ‘barefoot running’ like zero heel-to-toe drop, lighter shoes, avoiding motion control in soles were incorporated in the newer versions of the shoes. To position themselves better, they also added the thin layer of cushion that runners desired and was missing in the barefoot shoes. 

Chris also seems to have settled down on the debate. He now focuses on ‘running gently’ rather than barefoot running as his website currently states,

“the debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently. Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please”

Born to Run – A ‘Delayed’ Review

“How come my foot hurts?”

A question that led Christopher McDougall to a life changing exploration that was later documented in the all-time classic book ‘Born to Run’. A foreign correspondent by training, Chris covered wars in Rwanda and Angola, and was also an amateur or recreational runner. When his foot hurt, he was either advised to stop running or take painkillers. Not satisfied with the rudimentary responses, Chris tried to get to the depth of the problem. When he viewed  his personal problem as a crisis for the society, it led him to discover the complex world of human physiology behind the simple act of running.

Released in 2009, the book soon became a best seller with raving reviews from critics and runners. Simon Kuper, reviewing it for The Financial Times, wrote that the book,

…reaches the state of bliss that runners, or so we are told, very occasionally experience in the midst of an endless run.” 

Simon Kuper, Long Distance Love, The Financial Times

Reading the book resembles a typical long run – No body knows what they are getting into, taking one step at a time, experiencing moments of pleasure and confusion, and finally, a finish that is relished later than when it happens. The book starts like a travelogue, where Chris takes the reader to the Copper Canyons of Mexico, the drug cartels, and his discovery of the Tarahumaras. His meeting with Caballo Blanco in Mexico prompts him to chronicle the history of Ultra Running in USA – the weird and crazy ultra marathons, participation of Tarahumaras in these marathons, the troubles with sponsorship and some excellent biographical sketches of runners. In the process, he analyses the impact of shoe industry in long distance running and the innovations to these shoes over the last few decades. It is here, he delves into the art of barefoot running and tries to understand it through scientific research on human physiology. The final part of the book is an absorbing report on ‘the greatest race the world has never seen’. It is difficult to classify the book as a serious read or a casual read – and still lovely read either way. The reason, the book is still relevant, a decade after first edition, is because Chris attempts to shift the way we think about the importance of running shoes. The enduring legacy of the book has been the debate it triggered between running with shoes and running barefoot.

Barefoot running does not require anyone to discover it, as by default, everyone started running before learning to put on shoes. Human beings have been running for time immemorial and footwear, especially running shoes, came much later. Even as recent as 1960 Olympics, the winner of the marathon event, Abebe Bikila, ran barefoot (He later won the 1964 Olympics wearing shoes).

The growth of shoe industry coincided with the growth in recreational running as well as growth in consumerism in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to various reasons, including aggressive marketing campaigns, shoes soon became an integral part of long distance running.

Chris found this development troublesome and he presents the alternative – Barefoot running. He presents passionate arguments for barefoot running through a mix of personal anecdotes of many runners and scientific research. While he brings in a certain degree of dogmatism to his conclusion, the views, insights, and research work by various people adds credibility to the book.

He looks up to Dr. Joe Vigil, holder of two masters degree and a PhD, a renowned coach at various levels including the US Olympic team and a critic of the impact of shoe industry on running. Dr. Vigil is a purist in his thoughts and he believes that running has to be aligned with nature. He feels that the American approach to running in the recent years have become too artificial.

Back in 70s, American marathoners were a lot like Tarahumara; they were a tribe of isolated outcasts, running for love and relying on raw instinct and crude equipment. Slice the top of ‘70s running shoes, and you had a sandal: the old Adidas and Onitsuka Tigers were just a flat sole and laces, with no motion control, no arch support, no heel pad. The guys in ‘70s didn’t know enough to worry about ‘pronation’ and ‘supinations’; that fancy running-store jargon hadn’t even been invented yet.”

Dr. Joe Vigil, Former Coach of US Olympic Team

While not a direct proponent of barefoot running, Dr. Vigil was keen on finding one Natural Born Runner – ‘someone who ran for sheer joy, like an artist in the grip of inspiration- and steady how he or she trained, lived, and thought.’ 

Also featured in the book is Dr. Daniel Liberman, Professor of Evolutionary biology at Harvard University and an author of many popular science books like Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health. His extensive research on the biomechanics of endurance running can be found on his website, an encyclopedia for anyone who wish to understand the subject scientifically.

Dr. Liberman is a passionate advocate of running as a life style. Regarding injuries, he believes

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-folded shoes, had strong feet and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.

His research convinces him that humans were designed for running without shoes and it is natural instinct for everyone to be able to run without shoes. 

Apart from the views of experts, it is the stories of runners who run barefoot that makes the book an absorbing read. He starts with the Tarahumara runners, whom he romanticises – from their running to their quality lifestyle. Then, there is the fascinating story of Caballo Blanco, an American who settled in the Coupon Canyons to live and run with the Tarahumaras. Other runners include ‘Barefoot’ Ted, who went on to make one of the successful minimalistic footwear.

In the two years following the release of the book, the frenzies over barefoot running reached its zenith. In 2011, Chris claimed that the ‘bare-foot’ styled shoes (I use one of them) was a $1.7 billion industry in his article for the New York Times titled ‘The Once and Future Way to Run” attracted attention from even those who have never run. 

What I’ve been seeing today is there is a growing subculture of barefoot runners, people who’ve gotten rid of their shoes. And what they have found uniformly is, you get rid of the shoes, you get rid of the stress, you get rid of the injuries and the ailments.

Christopher McDoughall, “Are we born to run?”, TED Talk

In summary, Chris presents three key hypothesis:

  • We are born to run, and our legs are designed to run. Hence, we don’t need external support in form of shoes.
  • Shoes, especially the badly fitted ones, are the major cause of injuries.
  • Runners can run faster and longer without shoes than with shoes.
  • Reviewing it ten years after it was first published can mask many of the euphoria or the excitement that the book brought during the initial days. It was certainly the start of what I would call as the ‘Barefoot Running’ movement. While the subsequent events took some sheen out of the arguments presented by Chris, his basic premise is still relevant and valid. One can agree or disagree with the contents of the book, but cannot avoid the book in entirety.

    Rethinking Running Events – Part 3 – Virtual Events

    One alternative to running events that has become popular in recent times has been the Virtual Events, where participants run on their own and connect with each other through a platform – an app or a website. Though there are no clear definition of what can be called as virtual event, I would keep the definition open to any event that is called a running event but are not held physically at any location. In my earlier post, I suggested that the recent trend of virtual events is not likely to effectively replace the running events regardless of their increasing presence and popularity. However, I do feel that they have potential to be a separate category of event altogether and find an audience of its own if they can offer some meaningful way of engaging with each other.

    To start with, the concept of virtual event is not something new that came out of the COVID crisis. The first time I heard about such concept was when astronaut Sunita Williams ran the 2007 Boston Marathon in space. The Hundred Days of Running, a movement that started formally in 2015, has been organising virtual events for a while, and their flagship event attracts more than 10,000 runners annually in each of the last two years. The most important development in virtual events over the past decade has been the rising popularity of Strava – an app that combined the features of GPS watches and social media. In an excellent piece, titled “Kudos, leaderboards, QOMs: how fitness app Strava became a religion” Rose George summarised it well,

    Perhaps the golden years of this clever, uncommercial app being available for free are numbered. But Strava is still a beacon of positivity among the bile and manipulation of other social media. Trolling is rare and usually only takes the form of excessive kudos from randoms – and what’s wrong with that?

    The growth story of Strava has lessons in it for many of the organisers to find ways to make their event popular and carve out their niche in the increasingly crowded space of virtual events. During my recent conversation with P. Venkatraman, who started the movement ‘You Too Can Run’ and also created a registration portal by the same name, he classified the organisers of virtual events in four categories – 

    1. Promoted as a temporary event in place of existing event. This was followed by organisers of Berlin, New York, London etc.,
    2. Promoted by current event organisers as a new offering. New York Road Runners, organisers of New York Marathon, are regularly organising such events through Strava for free.
    3. Promoted as a business proposition or as a means to raise funds for charitable causes. 
    4. Online challenges offered for free/pay – The Hundred Days of Running challenge is one such example. Ajay’s Goals.fit helps many clubs to organise similar challenges. 

    Regardless of who organises it, there is certainly some value in these virtual events, if viewed separately from physical event. I would like to explore some of the areas where these events can help in the cause of running and help runners get together.

    Think Different

    Renowned Design Guru Mario Garcia, in a podcast, highlighted the changing dynamics in the media world.

    “65% of newsrooms in the world still come to work everyday to plan a printed edition, but 80% of the people are reading content on other platforms. It’s like, you own a restaurant, and you lay out the table cloth, the flowers, and candles every evening, and everybody comes to pick up the food in takeaway.”

    It does not help to organise a virtual event while planning it like a ‘physical event’ and assuming that runners would be attracted to virtual event in the same way, they are attracted to the physical event. There is a need to create a totally different ecosystem and get users to adopt the ecosystem. In some instances, there could be a totally different set of audience that these events can cater to.

    Purpose of the Event

    It is rather too easy for anyone with business acumen to start a virtual event, for it practically costs nothing to start one. Every rupee earned through registration is a gain and there would be a host of ‘entrepreneurial’ folks keen to enter this space. On the day, when Berlin Marathon was supposed to be held, there were at least half-a-dozen ‘Virtual Berlin marathons’ in addition to the event organisers’ virtual event. 

    One easy way to stand out of this mess is to identify a cause or purpose for the event (certainly, not in memory of those who never ran!). Virtual events can certainly be a fund raiser for many causes. It is also a way for people to show their support for a cause by more than just donating money. In other instances, it can just be an act to show support for each other in these troubled times. As one study points out, staying at home for long can make one socially awkward and virtual events can help people to step out (with precautions) and stay active.

    Entry fee

    For events that are organised for raising funds for a cause, the answer is fairly simple. Their audience will certainly pay what is being asked for as they are likely to believe in the cause and the organisers. Events that are organised for commercial purposes need to find out what they offer before they decide on pricing. Presently, Strava hosts many virtual events for free of cost. They offer easy registration, good back-end support to capture data accurately, provide excellent leader boards and rankings (for subscribers, it is more), and offer a ‘e-badge’ to brag about; not to miss out those ‘kudos’ and words of encouragement from your followers. Similarly, Garmin has come up with Garmin Sports to promote such events. Most virtual events that I checked out, do not even offer anything more than what Strava offers for free. There are events that offer medals and t-shirt for the fee. Such events resembles an e-commerce activity than a running event, as participants are not even obliged to run to receive them. 

    Innovations

    Virtual events have a chance to innovate and try new areas to get their audience engaged. SCC Events, the organisers of Berlin Marathon, organised the 20139 Run – How far can you run in 2 Hours 1 minute and 39 seconds, a timing that corresponds to the record set by Eluid Kipchoge for the marathon in 2018? They provided the participants an app, in which the run was tracked accompanied by music and commentary mimicking a real event in the process. My friends in Coimbatore Cycling launched a new challenge to riders to visit 20 spots around the city which was well received. One way to get them popular is try innovative ways of engaging people. There is absolutely no need to get events to replicate the distances of physical events like 5K, 10K, etc., The ‘Segments’ feature in strava is certainly one unique way of organising events, subject to risks though.

    Data Protection

    As a popular saying goes, “If you are offered something for free, you are the product.” There are plenty of issues in Virtual events when it comes to privacy and data trading. Not many runners would be aware of what they are signing up for and how their data could be used or misused. Strava, for instance, sells ‘anonymised’ data for commercial as well as non-commercial purposes. This relates to data on locations where people ride or run often. Recently, they offered to provide town planners with information on where cyclists ride often in their town and plan cycling routes accordingly. It is important that organisers are transparent about how the user data would be used in events to build trust with participants.

    Building a Virtual Community

    The success or failure of virtual events depend on how well they can build the communities that would eventually translate for real. During the recent lockdown, I found solace through my Strava connecting with my friends across the globe – from Manivannan in USA to Manish in Australia. It certainly helped us to keep encouraging each other and move forward. The binding is strong because we knew each other from the past and hope to meet and run sometime in the future too. For sure, no one would be interested in running with bots. 

    The Limitations

    Finally, however good the concept and execution turn out to be, virtual events just cannot replace the existing running events. To start with, the lack of human connect would make it an imperfect substitute. The joy of running with hundreds and thousands can never be replaced by an illusion of running with millions and billions. The carnival-like atmosphere and the crowd support are irreplaceable. As I wrote in one of my earlier blogs, history is rarely made in empty arenas. 

    Second, virtual events make it necessary for every runner to rely on some gadget or platform. It certainly misses out many runners who aren’t tech savvy or cannot afford to be in expensive platforms. 

    Third, no matter the quality of technology or the GPS receptions, technological glitches are bound to happen and it can frustrate runners. I had difficulties with the Berlin Marathon app and it was frustrating to get your head around it at the start. It was difficult to save the run giving some nervy moments. For others, it could mean battery running out or lack of GPS reception.

    Fourth, data can be manipulated. From simple hacks like riding a bicycle to editing the file, any of the information can be manipulated by runners in virtual event.

    Lastly, there are inherent dangers in virtual run like risks arising out of accidents, over exertion, and irresponsible behaviour. Not very long ago, many landed in trouble playing the Pokemon Go and there has been instances of death due to chasing segments in Strava. 

    In conclusion, there are some merits in virtual event being a genre by itself. Success of such events will depend on how well it is integrated with physical events and become more egalitarian. As I see, NYRR is active in this space and extending the benefits of virtual events to physical events. During the virtual New York Marathon, about 1000 participants who registered with fee were guaranteed a spot in the NY Marathon 2021 or 2022. It would be a challenge to keep the audience engaged as it is rather too easy for the audience to suffer from ‘event fatigue’ rather easily, and may stop showing interest soon. Similar to the use of apps, the success of these events depend on the ‘stickiness’ – between the participant and organisers, and also between the participants themselves with the new platform.

    Rethinking Running Events – Part 2

    Katherine Switzer, the first women finisher of Boston Marathon, once said,

    “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

    These are strange times when we are not only losing faith in human nature but also, marathons. Among the major events, it started with the cancellation of mass start in Tokyo Marathon, thus limiting the field only for few elite runners. Rest of the world major marathons – Boston, London (organised elite-only event), Berlin, Chicago, and New York have been cancelled for this year. Two Oceans marathon was cancelled and Comrades marathon was postponed first, before getting cancelled leading to plenty of outrage from runners. Closer home, Hyderabad Marathon, which would celebrated its 10th edition (and my own 9th edition!), opened up for registration and was then cancelled.

    Apart from these major ones, there are plenty of small running events and even the niche ones like UTMB, that have been cancelled this year. Other major sporting events like Tokyo Olympics, football leagues, Wimbledon, F1 Races, Euro 2020 and others that were either cancelled or postponed,  found their way back and were organised with the help of ‘Bio-Secure Bubbles’. While these events, largely relying on TV audiences, can be organised with no or fewer audiences, Running events cannot be organised in similar fashion as it is the crowd that makes the event. Events like Nike Breaking-2 or INEOS 1:59 or even the elite-only London Marathon are unlikely to be a regular event.

    I spoke to Ajay, Founder of Go Heritage Runs, about what holds for running events in the future. Ajay, also a runner, started Go Heritage Runs in 2014 to promote running in exotic places and bring a new dimension to running events. His other initiative is ‘Runcation’ where he takes people to destinations filled with scenic beauty and historical importance and organises fun runs in such locations. One example is that of Ankor Wat in Cambodia.  Although his events are non-competitive and not even timed, they are very popular with the runners. I have run Go Heritage Run at Ooty in 2018 and can vouch for its speciality.

    3C8043D7-02E7-4D7E-A875-6C4431AED7B4_1_105_c
    Ajay in action during Go Heritage Run at Lovedale Campus in 2018

    In good times, we start by asking how did it all start. Unfortunately, I have to start by asking how did it all end, for now?

    In February, we organised the Go Heritage Runs at  Khajuraho and Pachmarchi. When we returned back from khajuraho, the scare was already there and we knew that sooner or later, we have to pull the plug. We had already announced the registrations for Pench National Park Run and placed orders for medals and T-shirts. We initially postponed the event; but realised that we have no choice but to cancel the event. The registrations for other events were immediately put on hold and we decided not to organise any event till the end of this year. Also, given the uncertainty, we cannot give any promises on resuming events.

    What were the alternatives did you contemplate in the absence of running events

    Like many other events, we too joined the ‘Virtual Runs’ bandwagon. But, getting paid registrations for Virtual events looked difficult. Although our USP has always been travel to heritage locations, wanted to use virtual events to promote heritage of these destinations. We had already started working on the app Goals.fit and we thought it will be the best time to launch the app. Registration was through the app and the initial events were offered for free.

    Tell us about Goals.fit – How did you start and the response?

    (Disclosure – I am an user of Goals.Fit and hosted few challenges for Coimbatore Cycling)

    I started work on Goals.fit quite sometime back. It so happened that the current crisis presented an opportunity to launch the app formally. We are seeing adoption by people who wish to take part as well as those organising virtual challenges. It is still a work in progress and we hope to provide more exciting features for the users and organisers. 
    The app is certainly one way to reach to a wider audience and we believe that we can reach out to users globally.

    As the Government has started opening up various activities, do you foresee resumption of Running events anytime sooner? If so, when?

    Firstly, we have to admit that it is not a priority for anyone other than runners. Even among those professionally engaged in Running events, running makes up a small part of their services and they are more interested in resumption of other events. I feel that most people will get adjusted with the absence of running events. We are seeing people who run even full marathons without any formal events.
    Also, I don’t see Government pro-actively giving permissions for running events. We have to wait for a longer time to see things settle down.

    Given that some of your events are organised with smaller groups in less crowded spaces, do you foresee resuming those events?

    In the current circumstances, when most of the information about the COVID-19 looks hazy, it is difficult for us to take any call. It is certainly a risk-return trade-off for runners in attending running events. There is certainly a risk of contraction of virus through running events, even if one can argue that it is less riskier than visiting a super market or attending a marriage. But the perceived returns in other activities is much higher than attending running events.
    Moreover, it is difficult to establish and enforce protocols and procedures for participants in such events. While many of them are no-brainer initiatives like wearing a mask during gathering or reducing interaction time with others, we will not be able to enforce them.
    Of course, the stigma of the event being called a ‘super spreader’ will dissuade even the most passionate organiser to stay from organising events. 

    I am sure your revenue streams have taken a huge hit. Given that Goals.fit is in early stage, it will be a while for it to start earning for you. How do you plan to sustain this initiative during this pandemic and beyond?

    Presently, it is tough for us like many other businesses and activities. Moving forward, we do have an agreement with Madhya Pradesh Tourism, where we organise seven of our events, for a longer period. Whenever we can resume events, we will be able to organise them in Madhya Pradesh with their support. 
    We have plans for resuming Runcation soon. Because the group is small, it is easy to enforce protocols and bring in discipline. Since, some of the locations are outside India, we are confident that our partners will also adhere to the protocols. 

    Finally, can you see light at the end of the tunnel?

    We have to stay optimistic. The one good outcome of this crisis is that people have started paying attention to their health. You can see that there are many people taking up to cycling and running these days. Hopefully, people will see meeting outdoors as the way forward and running is certainly one way to do it.
    In terms of Running events, traditional events need to certainly undergo changes to keep with time. It is good to see major events like New York or London going virtual to attract a bigger audience. They have enough resources to come up with innovative ideas to promote running beyond events. 

    In short, the road back to normalcy certainly looks bleak for running events more than any other economic or social activity. It depends on multiple factors and people – from runners to various other stakeholders. More than event organisers or runners, it is the community that should feel the need for such events. May El-Khalil, the founder of Beirut Marathon, in her TED talk, said,

    We spoke one common language to each other, and that was from one human to another. Once that trust was built, everybody wanted to be part of the marathon to show the world the true colours of Lebanon and the Lebanese and their desire to live in peace and harmony. 

    The importance of organising marathons is definitely lot more than before. As people isolate themselves due the pandemic, they also risk becoming secluded  which furthers social divisions and increases fragmentations. Running is certainly one way to bring the community together and with right measures in place, it can be a win-win for everyone involved.