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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
Promoted as a temporary event in place of existing event. This was followed by organisers of Berlin, New York, London etc.,
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.
Promoted as a business proposition or as a means to raise funds for charitable causes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The views below does not reflect those of the events or their organisers that I have been associated with or likely to be involved in future.
The views conveyed below are in no way sacrosanct and is amenable for suggestions from others.
Among the various disruptions due to COVID-19, includes Running events which carry a significant risk of transmission. The prevailing guidelines issued for various other activities are certainly difficult, if not impossible, to be followed in running events. While it is still unclear on when they will be allowed to be resumed, one can be sure that at some point of time, it has to be resumed. As RK Narayan writes in one of his short stories, “for even diseases must end someday.”
Over the years, the significance of a running event has extended beyond the few recreational runners who started organising them for fun, to event organisers, sponsors, host cities, television and media, and importantly, charitable institutions, for whom marathons presents an opportunity to raise funds. In 2019 London Marathon, those running for charity raised £66.4 million for various charitable institutions. As the events got bigger, they also bring in a few unpleasant traits – crass commercialisation, prohibitively exorbitant entry fee, winner-takes-it-all approach bringing in the negative side of competitive sports, disassociation with community leading to constant friction with non-participants, and damage to environment. In addition to the above criticisms, organising a running event now also carry the risk of being categorised as a ‘Super spreader’ of COVID-19, should any of the participant get infected. In an attempt to find a way out through the current pandemic, it could be useful to have an overall rethink on the way running events are organised and the purpose they serve could be more useful.
Running and COVID
To start with, Running events should not be organised in conflicts with the current guidelines issued by Government or medical authorities relating to COVID. Debates ranging from the existence of virus to the validity of steps undertaken exist in all spheres of society. We don’t need a running events to be used as a platform for testing the different hypothesis proposed. Whether the virus is for real or not (given the lack of trust among some sections of the society), the symptoms, including death, are for real. In simple terms, there is no need for a running event like the Adria Tour organised by few tennis players. Any adverse incident not only jeopardise that event but will soon extend to all running events. It could take the form of unwarranted intervention by government authorities or poorly drafted guidelines that are not possible to be adhered to.
“Virtual” events aren’t a solution
The recent trend of virtual events are never going to be a meaningful alternative. With technological advancements, it could evolve into a new category of event in itself; but the disregard for human connect would never make them a substitute for existing events. Established brands like New York Marathon and others are using the route to either cash-in their popularity or keep their community intact to retain continuity. A similar opportunity does not exist for all organisers. The reliance on technology is huge and many times, it will make those selling t-shirts and medals masquerade as event organisers. Incidents of malpractices and technical errors can also frustrate runners. Further, there is every possibility of alienating runners who are not technologically savvy, which is certainly not a requirement for running. On the positive side, it does help to build the community and keep them together during these times. Such efforts can only fructify if it presents hope to be a physical event soon.
Connect with Runners… again!
Once events grow in stature, many organisers start distancing themselves from the runners. The trend of ever increasing entry fee despite the increase in sponsorships is a case in point.Unlike entry fees, sponsorship amounts are not likely to be paid upfront. While sponsorship amounts are contractual and paid on the fulfilment of obligations, most events retain entry fee even if the event is cancelled. This is not to say that everything about sponsorship is bad for the event and should be avoided at all. Events need to look for committed sponsors who are in it for a long duration. It certainly starts with the stake holders of the sponsoring organisation being active runners.
Winners don’t take it all
Not every event needs to have a single winner. The craze to see a handful of winners among the multitude of runners is a burden on the organisers. The energies devoted to the care of these few elite runners can be deployed on caring many other runners. The compulsion of deciding the winner makes mass start mandatory which in current situation needs to be avoided. Another recent trend of awarding prizes according to different age groups can be done away with. There are embarrassing situations like no prize winners in a certain age group or a fourth placed finisher in a higher age group is faster than the top-3 from a lower age group. It promotes mediocrity and ‘event shopping’ by desperate prize winners.
Involve the community
The benefits from running events must extend beyond the apparent stakeholders – runners, organisers, sponsors – to the overall community. While there are tangible benefits through tourism, emphasis must be made on the intangible benefits that the community derives by hosting a running event. When asked about what she feels proud about the Comrades marathon, Cheryl Winn, who won in 1982, replied,
“It showed the country what it could and should be.”
Running events present a wonderful spectacle of harmonious and peaceful congregation of diverse set of people. Running events can certainly learn from the various temple festivals in India that involves all communities.
Small is Beautiful
In times like these, small-scale running events involving a few hundred runners from the local community organised in their local area can present a viable alternative. The Park Run, started in The United Kingdom, is an ideal model for many running clubs to follow. It is heartening to note that they are likely to be resumed by end-October 2020 with adequate precautions. It will also help monitor the spread of the infection as most runners are likely to be living within the locality.
Major events are becoming unsustainable from the environment perspective, despite their efforts in recycling. Apart from use of single-use plastic, many events provide inferior quality t-shirts, goodies, and needless extravaganze that is hardly connected to running. This is certainly a time to rethink on many such practices and eliminate some of them.
Work with existing regulations and not challenge them.
Don’t rely on virtual events as a long term solution
Focus more on runners
Prioritise participants over winners
Involve the community as a whole
Downsize if required
We always have a choice to wait for change or make/be the change. Most runners that I am aware have been change-makers in various spheres of life. While I am certain that it will not be late before running events are back, I wish it returns back with a difference. It should certainly present the society a way forward in conduct of public events. In 2009, Mumbai Marathon was the major event for Mumbai after the infamous terrorist attacks in November 2008. It presented a chance for people to come together again and move forward. Running events present an opportunity to help the society move from COVID.
One of the eye-catching scenes of the Tour de France is watching a solitary rider who breaks away from the pelaton. It could be someone heading for a stage win or few additional bonus points or the last rider who is trying to save himself from disqualification; or simply just to hog the limelight. Whatever may be the reason, it certainly takes a lot from a rider to go all alone on any stage of the gruelling tour. In the final part of yesterday’s Stage 8, Peters Nans, the French Rider, launched a solo assault to reach the finish line 47 seconds ahead of rest of the pack. It was certainly a sight to watch.
During my solo ride today morning, I started reflecting on my solitary rides over the years. If I ignore the cycling during my school days, my real ‘cycling’ adventures began in 1999, when I was stuck at home during my summer vacations in Karur. It was an unfamiliar town and I didn’t have any friends either. Moving from Chennai, where I did my schooling, it was quite an uncharacteristic town. Luckily, the cycle that I used during my school days was still around and I started exploring the town and beyond. Starting from the cement factory at Puliyur, reaching the banks of river Cauvery at Nerur (didn’t know the greatness of Sadasiva Brahmendra back then to visit his Samadhi) and Vangal, and various other locations that I cannot remember off the head now. These rides used to be for about an hour or two and I was back home for breakfast.
Fast forward to 2007, the present avatar of my cycling journey started with a chance meeting with ‘Coach’ Srinath Rajam at the Saravana Bhavan in RK Salai who thought I was a ‘serious’ cyclist – something I could only aspire and never become. I was soon added to the cycling group – Madras Bike Hash, and soon started riding with the group. Our rides used to be those easy ones on saturday morning, covering about 25-30 Kms and finishing with a heavy breakfast. Occasionally, a ride on the ECR This was the time the ‘cycling’ in Chennai was expanding with the influx of foreign brands and fitter and faster cyclists. Our group slowly disbanded into multiple groups and after moving to Pondicherry, I once again became a ‘solitary rider.’
Unlike running, cycling with a group is quite a complex. To start with, the traffic on the road is a deterrent to it – the constant disruptions by other vehicles and narrow roads will make it difficult to ride with others. Given the range of cycles that people ride and the condition of those cycles, the speed of the cycle is not dependent on the riders’ physical ability alone. Sometime back, a newbie cyclist riding with me commented that I am slow, only for me to respond back, ‘I didn’t ask you to ride with me’! This is not to say that I don’t like to ride with a group or other individuals. I have some wonderful memories of riding with excellent fellow riders – Manjula and Magesh (Singham) on the last day of Tour of Tamil Nadu 2010, Srini on a weekend trip from Pondy to Vaitheeswaran Koil and back, and many others on different occasions.
With Manjula on Kodai-Palani Road. Photo by Ryan Karz
With Srini at Richy Rich Pondy after completing our weekend trip
After I moved to Coimbatore in 2016, I became part of the Coimbatore Cycling. Soon, Satish and Manju started accompanying me on my routine Saturday rides. More than a ride, it is all about the conversations and post-ride coffee sponsored by Satish. The only challenge with them are they prefer a familiar route; and long rides are restricted on special occasions like Independence Day and Republic Day rides – Understandable, given that they have ‘family duties’ on Saturday. The rides are fairly regular, if all three of us are in town and not engaged in other commitments. I continued pursuing my long rides and few adventurous rides as a solo affair.
These solitary rides give plenty of time for me have conversations with myself on issues as diverse as colours in a kaleidoscope. It gives me time to criticise myself, demonstrate a non-existing expertise in everything, play devil’s advocate on my thought process, draw plans for ‘changing the world,’ before getting grounded by a reminder of pending items on my ‘to-do’ list. As RK Narayan writes in ‘The World of Nagaraj’
‘What is going on?’ she asked, surprised. ‘Are you talking to yourself?’ ‘Why not?’ Nagaraj asked. ‘I am my best listener: quiet and agreeable and never disputing.’
Such rides usually atract undue attention from the passer-bys. There are urchins shouting, ‘Vellaikar! Vellaikar!,’ before I reply back with some abusive word in chaste Tamil; Then, there are moments when other cyclists start trying to “race” with me. Frustrated motor bike riders speeding past me after brushing past to show their superiority; In the less explored places, there are myriad questions from curious onlookers, including the purpose of cycling, if not my existence. Not to miss out the standard query on the cost of the cycle, for which my response would that my cycle is not for sale. With the proliferation of cyclists all across Tamil Nadu, one would expect that such inquiries are a thing of past; but the solitary rider is still not spared.
The solo tours – be it the Tour de Malabar in 2009 or recently, the tour for Asha, has been an exploration of routes, unknown places, unknown people, and plenty of surprises and challenges. It is the uncertainty factor that prompts me to go out and try it again. After all these years, I still do not know why I do these tours or solo rides. While the experience on the ride is a mix of pleasure and pain, the memories have always been sweeter. Only two things happen – You enjoy or you learn.
Before you start reading the blog, please check if you have at least 10-15 minutes with high tolerance levels. An easier way is to to scroll all the way down, check the final part of the blog, and contribute to Asha. It would be more meaningful than the entire blog!
It was in the year 2009 that I was introduced, inadvertently, to two activities in my life – Self-supported cycling tours and Asha for Education. It would be impossible to gauge the impact of these two activities in my life over the next decade and possibly, much more into the future. In March 2009, I undertook the tour of Malabar – an eighteen day cycling tour on the west coast of India; an unique experience that brought me in touch with many ground realities of the world. In June 2009, I visited Thulir – a project supported by Asha, during a cycling tour in Dharmapuri district. Over the last decade, it is certainly not an understatment to say that Thulir has been my another home.
I was keen to combine both and find out if I can do a cycling tour covering the projects supported by Asha for Education. I looked up to the list of projects supported by Asha in Tamil Nadu and chose five of them (Thulir was an automatic choice!) for site visits.Padmanava a.k.a Paddy, projects co-ordinator at Asha, helped me with an introduction to each of the projects. Thanks to Sulu and Anand at Cycology, my bike was fitted with a pannier and I was ready for the tour.
Asha for Education was started in 1991 by Late VJP Srivatsavoy, Prof. Deepak Gupta, and Prof. Sandeep Pandey, during their student days at the University of California, Berkeley. Their belief was that education is a critical requisite and an effective catalyst for social and economic change in India. Over the next 3 decades, Asha has grown in manifold across USA and India, raising funds for numerous supporting grass-root level institutions, and managed in a decentralised manner through various chapters. For details, please visit the website http://www.ashanet.org
I was introduced to the Bangalore chapter of Asha through their running program, anchored by Santosh, a volunteer with Asha, before he moved to start Runners High. From Santhosh to Anita and Sanjeeev, I started getting interested in the projects supported by Asha. Since 2013, I have been a project steward for Thulir and you can read my site visit reports here.
The Tour Plan
Day 1 – February 24, 2020 – Ride upto Mettur
My first destination was Puvidham school, located in Dharmapuri district, about 200 Kms from Coimbatore. Riding all the way on the very first day didn’t look like an option to be contemplated. Also, reaching a remote place like Puvidham in late evenings could be challenging; and I detest riding in the dark. I split the ride into two days with a halt at either Mettur or Erode on the first day, depending on my energy levels. The ride from Coimbatore to Bhavani was on the National Highway with very little to report. The soreness in my legs, following the half-marathon at Annur, was bothering me and I preferred to ride it with ease. I reached Bhavani at about 11:30, before it started getting too hot. The ride from Bhavani to Mettur was a reminiscent from the Tour of Tamil Nadu (ToT) 2018, when we rode from Erode to Hogenekkal on day 1. The Tamarind trees on either side of the road offered much wanted protection from heat. One of the sad outcomes of the road expansion projects in India is the axing of these trees from the road. They were planted decades earlier and had myriad benefits for a host of people. I was reminded of this excellent piece in The Hindu few years back, where the author poignantly concludes,
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
I reached Mettur at about 3:00 PM after a lunch enroute. I was able to find a budget hotel to crash for the night and keep my bike securely. The entry to the Dam closes at 5:30 PM, and my afternoon nap delayed my visit.
Day 2 – February 25, 2020 – Ride from Mettur to Puvidham
The start on the second day was delayed in fixing a puncture and then, a bizarre incident of dropping a glass of tea! The owner was kind enough to let me go for Rs. 10 towards damages and offered another cup of tea too. The ride had plenty of climbs starting from the ghat section near Mettur dam. The view from the top of the hill was breathtaking.
The route until Mecheri was chaotic with lorries and school buses. The number of school buses has increased in Tamil Nadu exponentially over the past decade; largely because, it offers an excellent scope for the owners of the school to make big bucks. In the process, the distance travelled by children has increased taking much of their percious daily time, which could have been used for better purposes. After some breakfast at Mecheri, the ride to Puvidham was through some scenic village roads. It was a pleasure to ride in these roads – well paved and superior to many city roads in India.
Before reaching Puvidham, the route took me to Nagavathi Dam, which was nothing more than a vast tract of empty land. Dharmapuri is one of the most drought prone districts of Tamil Nadu. Despite the fact that the river Cauvery flows through it, the region is economically backward and relies on rain-fed agriculture. I reached Puvidham in time to have lunch with Meenakshi, the founder of the institution.
Day 3 – February 26, 2020 – Stay at Puvidham
The origins of Puvidham goes back to 1992, when Meenakshi, an architect, and Umesh, an engineer turned agriculturist, decided to settle down in the driest region of Tamil Nadu and engage in conservation efforts. Early 2000, Meenakshi started the school, which offered an alternative to conventional education. Starting with her own children, she wanted the school to be a place of self-learning through nature and physical activities. The school also has a hostel attached to it and it caters to both local children as well as outstation children. Children study here upto class 8 and then proceed to the the high school nearby or at Dharmapuri, located about 20 kms from Puvidham.
I spent the day at Puvidham talking to the teachers and students, and attending some of their classes. My favourite class was learning to spin the cotton by using a takli or drop spindle. It was here where I learned that my hands don’t listen to my eyes and I ended up struggling to spin the takli. I promised Meenakshi that I will learn before I visit Puvidham next time. The challenge now is in getting a takli, which seems to be unfamiliar even in Khadi shops.
You can read my site visit report at the project page. The school is supported by Asha – London and Seattle chapters – since 2004. To know more about Puvidham, you can visit their website or visit the project page in Asha website.
Day 4 – February 27, 2020 – Puvidham to Thulir
I started from Puvidham after an excellent coffee from/with Meenakshi. My first destination was Dharmapuri, where I planned to have my breakfast. Dharmapuri, a nondescript town, is known only for being the district headquarters and that, it is on NH7. Finding a decent breakfast place was a challenge. From Dharmapuri to Harur, the ride was through one of the finest roads – it was unbelievable to see a well maintained broad road with reasonable tree cover. I was likely to be late for lunch and requested Anu to keep lunch for me, as I always relish Thulir’s wonderful lunch. After Harur, the route took me to Theerthamalai with plenty of short and steep climbs. This was my third visit to Thulir in bicycle. The first one was in 2009, when I reached Jolarpet by train and rode from Jolarpet to Thulir, after riding up Yelagiri. The second time was in 2015, when I rode from Pondicherry to Thulir via Thiruvannamalai. I rode different bikes in each of the above occasions, and this time, it was a chance for my third bike to pay a visit to Thulir. I reached the school at about 3:30 PM, an hour before the school closes. With the senior students out for a tour, the school was filled with the tiny tots. Some kids were curious on what I would do if my tyre was punctured!
Day 5 – February 28, 2020 – Stay at Thulir
Thulir was started by Anu and Krishna in 2003 when they moved to the Sittlingi village. The objective of Thulir is to cater to the educational needs of the Sittlingi Valley, located amidst the Kalrayan hills in Dharmapuri district. Thulir started out as an after-school learning centre for school going children during evening hours and holidays. Later, they introduced a Basic Technology Program for school drop-outs. After a few iterations, it has now evolved into a primary school. Personally, it has been a great learning for me in associating with Thulir for over a decade and witnessing the change in educational needs in the village. The day was spent well at the school interacting with teachers and lunch with the children. In the evening, the senior students (age 8-10) returned back from their trip and it was a pleasure meeting them. Some of them travelled for the first time without their parents.
It was the additional day of the year and I certainly wanted to make it count. After some lovely coffee from Archana, I set out on the ride well after the sunrise.
The first 20 kms was through the Thumbal forests and I hoped to encounter a bison or two; alas, none were around. The road was unexpectedly good for long stretches and I was thrilled to ride on it! Unfortunately, good things don’t last longer, and I encountered a rough patch for about 5 Kms, where I missed my MTB the most! I crossed Thumbal and reached the Salem-Villupuram highway for some hot breakfast. I had to find the route to take me to Malliyakarai, where I join the Attur-Thuraiyur road towards Thuraiyur – familiar from the ToT 2015 edition, when we rode from Thuraiyur to Kallakuruchi. The day was getting tough and my struggle to ride further found me under a pipal tree for relief from the heat. These unplanned rest breaks offer some time for additional contemplation on whether the trip is worth anything before reassuring myself to hang on there. At Thammampatti, I found a ‘new’ restaurant to get charged up for rest of the ride. My riding speed certainly improved after the lunch.
Thuraiyur brought back memories of ToT 2015 and the difficulty of finding a place to have our dinner and breakfast as most restaurants were very small back then. Padmas cafe, where we had our breakfast, has since been upgraded and the capacity has been expanded. I stopped for a coffee and some pleasant conversations with the owner, before riding to Payir. It was a slow day and I reached Payir at about 4:30 PM. I was warmly welcomed by Senthil and Preethi and had my dinner with them, listening to their stories of starting Payir.
Day 7 – March 1, 2020 – Stay at Payir
It was obvious that getting time with Senthil seemed practically impossible as he is engaged with various facets of Payir round the clock. On Saturday, there were students seeking his help in academics after his dinner time. He was still kind enough to allot some time for me on Sunday. Senthil is a engineer by graduate and worked in corporate for a decade. He quit his high flying career to relocate himself to Thenur and start Payir. His TEDx talk would give an excellent overview of his work at Thenur and the surroundings.
You can read more about Payir in their website. Asha has been supporting the educational program at Payir since or visit the project page in Asha here.
Senthil is also an Asha Fellow since 2017 and I was keen on knowing about his work and plans. I had a freewheel chat with him about the various challenges in the region and his work with them over the decade and half. Later that evening, I also attended a meeting of farmers in that region over watershed management in that region. You can read more about his fellowship and my observations in the Fellowship page here.
Day 8 – March 2, 2020 – Payir to Madurai
I was keen to find out routes that would keep me away from the highway for that day but couldn’t find any. My first pitstop was Manachanallur. I wanted to stop for a coffee but the cozy hotel tempted me to have some hot idlis and vadai before washing it down with a cup of coffee – the breakfast was cheaper than a coffee at some of the city restaurants! I wanted to bye-pass the Trichy town to avoid the morning traffic. In the process, I could catch a glimpse of the Rockfort while crossing the river Cauvery.
After crossing Trichy, the barren highway had very little to describe. At times, you feel that you are riding towards the end of the world. This is exactly where the podcasts came handy. On this tour, I rekindled my love for podcasts. Apart from the usual favourites from The Guardian, there were few others that got me interested like We Crashed by Wondery. On that day, I was listening to a two and half hour conversation between TM Krishna and Amit Verma in a lovely series called The Seen and the Unseen. It was a thought provoking conversation on caste, carnatic music, gender, privilege, and social structures, as viewed through his own life. I am sure a reference to his name can get people polarised to extremes; but this was one conversation where I find him being honest with himself. He was willing to accept that his rise in music was not just a symbol of meritocracy but also linked to his antecedents, caste, and the society he grew up in. More so, on that day, it helped me to cover 50 Kms in an otherwise boring ride. I reached the outskirts of Melur for my lunch at about 1:00 PM and stayed put there till 3:00 PM. I reached the “Temple City” at 4:30 PM after surviving an ‘attack’ by a two-wheeler, which seems to be an integral part of riding in Madurai. Although a long day of 10 hours and 30 minutes, my riding time was only about 7:21 – tail wind helps!
In Madurai, Asha supports the Madurai SEED project at Karumbalai. It is an after school learning centre for school going children aimed at education beyond the school curriculum. The objective is to help children continue going to school and also, to find out the true potential of the children. The assistance extends beyond their education in helping them achieve their aspirations. To know more about Madurai SEED, you can visit their website or view the project page here. In addition, the founder of the project, A. S. Karthik Bharati is also a Asha Fellow. I had planned to visit the centres during the evening (as it functions only in evenings and weekends) and meet Karthik for a chat the following day. The evening was well spent going around the four centres of Madurai SEED in Karumbalai.
Day 9 – March 3, 2020 – Visit to Gandhi Museum, Meeting Karthi Bharati and ride to Vathalakkundu
I started the day by visiting the Gandhi Museum, purely out of my inquisitiveness. This was the first time I have even heard about it as people rarely associate Madurai with this museum. Housed in the erstwhile palace of Rani Mangammal, it was inaugurated in 1959 and contained some interesting collections of memorabilia from the life of Mahathma Gandhi. It also had an extensive photo exhibition on freedom struggle.
The photographs from the Gandhiji’s trips to Tamil Nadu were treasure troves. I was particulary impressed by the collection of letters that Gandhiji had written to various people. One of the letter was addressed to the Principal of Gujarat College requesting him to re–admit the students who had participated in the civil disobedience movement. At a time when people are debating the relevance of students’ participating in political movements, this was interesting.
The next two hours were spent conversing with Karthik and he was kind to take me for lunch too. Karthik has been a Asha Fellow since 2013, supported by Asha Boston. He grew up in the Karumbalai area and was the first graduate in his family. He was keen on giving back to the society as he was supported by others. This prompted him to start the Madurai SEED and has since worked extensively with the children and youth in that locality. You can read more about his fellowship in Asha Project page here.
The ride from Madurai to Kodaikanal was about 120 Km. I preferred to split into two rides – from Madurai to Vathalakkundu (or is it Batalgundu or Batlagundu?) that evening and climb the ghats, the following day. I was hoping that the hotel where we stayed during ToT 2010, enroute to Kodai, would be still around. I reached Vathalakkundu and realised that the hotel has been shutdown sometime back! I had to ride back to the town to find Hotel O2 Residency, who were kind enough to allow me to carry my bike to the room. It was good to finish this section of the ride earlier to allow the following day only for the climbs.
Day 10 – March 4, 2020 – Vathalakkundu to Kodaikanal
My first conquest of Kodaikanal was back in 2010 when we rode from Vathalakundu via Pattiveeranpatti and Pannaikkadu. This time, I chose to ride through the highway. I find riding uphill as a very ‘spiritual’ experience – I struggle, I curse it during the ride, but the satisfaction of accomplishing it surpasses it all. Riding slowly with high cadence is like a poetry in motion; it is just between you and your bike. My first attempt to climb hills was in 2008 when I rode uphill to Coonoor and yet, every ride still makes me feel that it is the first time I am trying it. It has been a learning experience, shuffling my ride strategy between cadence and power. Often, the breathtaking views after few hundred metres of climb will reaffirm the confidence and push towards further climbs.
There were some additional challenges – The newly laid road caused a few problems with the stones sticking on to my tires. A temple festival in one of the villages that held the traffic for a while. After reaching Kodai, I was surprised to see rooms unavailable in TTDC on a weekday during off-season! I finally checked in at Hill Top Towers, who also provided me with a safe place for my bike. I believe many hotels and homestays have been shut down in the recent past due to violations of building rules, among others.
I spent the evening going for a walk around the Kodai lake. The ambience around the lake tempted me to go for a run, which I did on the following two days. The one awkward moment was when someone asked me if I want to rent a bicycle! A statue of Jawaharlal Nehru was an interesting find, when you observe the names of dignitaries in the inauguration plaque.
Day 11 – March 5, 2020 – Morning run, Betsy Creche, and the phone!
The day started with a pleasant morning run around the Kodai lake. It was a scenic location and a 5K run was possibly the best thing that one can do in Kodai. The road was largely free from traffic and there were a few fellow walkers and runners enjoying their morning there. It was a reminiscent of my days in Pondicherry doing my morning runs at the promenade. I feel that every city must allot some roads for the exclusive use of early morning walkers and runners.
I was scheduled to meet Ms. Hilda at the Betsy Elizabeth Creche that morning. The creche was located a little away from the hotel and it was best to ride the bike all the way. The Creche has been supported by Asha Seattle since 2007. You can read more about the funding and support by Asha on the project page.
The afternoon was spent visiting Sai Sruthi and a walk around the lake again. Somehow, I didn’t seem to get tired of the lake even if I visit it again and agin. I was also glad that I was there when there aren’t many visitors, if I visualise how chaotic it would be during the ‘tourist season.’ There was garden inside the lake which caught my attention, not for its maintenance but for the person after whom it has been named. It was named after Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who died in Kodaikanal as a political prisoner – some historical facts that I was not familiar with.
On the way back to the hotel, I found these interesting lines from The Bible in a Church.
After taking this picture, my phone fell flat and the screen broke! Yeah, the weary and burdened phone was given some rest!
Day 12 – March 6, 2020 – Morning run at the lake and Ride back home
It was impossible to resist another chance to run around the lake. I started the day with an energetic run on Kodai lake and bade farewell to its beauty. Little did I know that the following weeks will be deserted for worse!
I started the ride after a sumptuous breakfast at Hilltop, watching children being dropped at the Kodai International School by the parents during the ‘rush hour’ – One would think that settling down in Kodai is to have a laid back life; not for these parents though. A long downhill ride was awaiting me with a 5K climb in the middle. The ride was a repeat of the last day of ToT 2010, when we rode from Kodai to Pollachi. On that day, the road from Perumalmalai to Palani was ‘exclusively’ for us, as there was a landslide in-between and heavy vehicles couldn’t come through it. Even otherwise, there wasn’t much traffic and it was an absolute beauty to ride overlooking deep valleys and through tall trees. Memories of riding with Manjula and ‘Singham’ Magesh flashed by as I rode towards Palani. I am posting the pictures from that ride. The picture by Ryan on that day was outstanding (left one)!
After Palani, I had no choice but to take the route via Pollachi, as my phone was not available for navigation. The road from Palani to Pollachi was turning out to be a nightmare to ride. Thanks to the good-old ways of finding routes – Oral enquiries – I found some alternate route to avoid Pollachi. The route was tough with rolling hills but was largely free from traffic making it a pleasant ride. After crossing Chettipalayam, while riding towards Pothanur, I spotted my fellow cyclist, Manju returning from work. He went ahead and warmly welcomed me back to Coimbatore with sugarcane juice! Since Cycology was on the way, my first priority was to go and thank Sulu and Anand for their support before heading home.
These are journeys without destinations; There are only temporary halts. This was the longest tour since my tour on the west coast, a decade back. Every cycle tour teaches me plenty of things – from cycling perspective and society, in general. This time around, it was more to do with Asha, the projects supported by Asha, my own association with Asha and the projects, and importantly, how I can contribute more through Asha. The best part of volunteering for Asha has been that it is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. For me, as a project steward, it was a great experience to engage in the development of Thulir over the past decade and see the transformation during this time. It also helped me to step outside the bubble that I was living in and understand the bigger challenges that people face in their daily life.
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Running, as a fitness activity, can get boring after some time. The expected benefits plateaus and runners are often on the look for new areas to motivate themselves. Those who take up running to lose weight would not be able to lose beyond a point; the quest for speed stops when one cannot run any faster. Some of them gravitate towards other fitness routines like cycling, gym, Yoga, or Zumba to do something new. Such changes also brings with itself other challenges like a new equipments, clothing, shoes, and in worst cases, new injuries and pains too. Then, there are other ways to make running more interesting.
1. Run with friends/family
Take time out to run with your friends or family members who are taking up running for the first time. In the process of motivating them to run, you would be invariably motivating yourself to run more and better. While appreciating their efforts to take up running, it would be a reminder to you on how far you have come from the time you started running. Such initiatives build better relationships and brings good health to everyone.
2. Be a pacer at running event
A Pacer is an experienced runner who runs a race within a defined time to guide other runners to finish before the time. For instance, in a 10 Km race, a 1-hour pacer would finish before the 1 hour mark (usually a few seconds before). Those running with him/her are assured of running the race within the specified time. To become a pacer, a runner choses a pace slower than their comfortable running pace. By pacing in an event, the runner foregoes their personal aspirations and helps others to achieve theirs. It is an altruistic activity and widely appreciated by fellow runners. My recent experience of pacing at Mumbai Marathon got me unprecedented amounts of appreciation that was worth more than all my medals. Training to run at a pace slower than usual is an experience in itself and at times, it feels like learning to run yet again.
3. Run for a cause
Apart from running events that are organised for raising funds for specific causes, like the Coimbatore Marathon for cancer awareness, runners can raise money by running marathons for a cause that they are passionate about. Major running events have exclusive registrations for runners opting to raise funds for registered charities that promote their cause. Runners participating in New York Marathon through Charity route raised over $40 million in 2018 for various charities. When running for a cause, training for a marathon takes a different dimension for the runner. It is no more about his/her personal achievement. In every conversation about the marathon with friends and families, the Cause takes the centre-stage. Every donation brings additional motivation to see the distance through. Finishing the event is no more a personal achievement but a step towards a social cause. Although at a nascent stage in India, runners participating in the recent Chennai Marathon raised over Rs. 27 lakhs for the restoration of lakes in Chennai.
4. Volunteer for an event
Volunteers are the back-bone for organising any marathons. It is practically impossible to organise an event of such huge magnitude without the support of volunteers. While the tasks handled by volunteers may look mundane at individual level, they are colossal as collective. Be it cheering for the runners, helping them with water, controlling traffic, or just guiding them through the finish areas, they provide extraordinary support to the event. The heartfelt thanks extended by runners creates a great sense of self-satisfaction for every volunteer. Volunteering does take significant amount of energy and sometimes, more tiring than running in the event. There is nothing more motivating than watching people run and it will make us fall in love with running again. As Katherine Switzer once wrote,
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”
5. Talk/write about running
By writing and talking about running, one becomes an evangelist for running and it brings commitment and respect in equal measure. The medium of broadcast is much wider and accessible, thanks to the Internet, and there is a place for everyone to express their thoughts in a manner that suits their audience. By sharing your views and ideas, you have an opportunity to hear from others and improve upon it. It helps you to explore many unknown facets about running and the positive changes that it brings to the lives of many. Every runner has a story that is wanting to be told. Over the years, the stories of my fellow runners have inspired me to do more in running.
For many runners, running starts as a fitness activity and has ended up as a way of life. It has enriched their lives by improving not only in their physical well being but also their mental well being. There is a lot that one can do by just simply putting one foot after another and moving forward.
An edited version of the article appeared in The Hindu – Metro Plus Coimbatore Edition. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Coimbatore/things-you-can-do-if-you-are-a-runner/article30769698.ece
Back in 2011, Rajesh Vetcha offered me the first opportunity to be a pacer in that year’s Hyderabad Marathon, when such concept was hardly heard about. A pacer is someone who runs to finish in a pre-designated finish time at a steady pace to help other runners finish within the same time. They also share how they intend to accomplish the task, be it their split timings for different laps, or aid-station breaks. It was a new experience for both me and Karthik Padmanabhan, and somehow, we managed to finish the run 2 minutes under our designated time of 5 hours. We were largely guided by our experience of running a marathon under 5 hours a few months back in the Shahid’s Ultra. The next experience of pacing was at Hyderabad in 2015, and this time, it was the 5:30 bus. The plan was more like not to plan and I went by few simple pointers as laid out in my blog. The third experience of pacing was at yet again in Hyderabad in 2018. I had to pace the 5:00 bus and the plan was simply to cover 9.5K, 9K, 8.5K, 8K, and the rest over the 5 hours.
In early November, Shiv presented me with an opportunity to pace for the 5:45 bus at the Mumbai Marathon. I had long decided not to run Mumbai Marathon again as explained in my blog post (it garnered the highest viewership among my blogs). However, it was difficult to say ‘No’ to Shiv, as he has been a pacer for events at my request in the past. The course being a flat one with minimal complications, it did not require me to know the route well (run it 5 times in the past). One of my aversion to Mumbai was that the event is an out-and-out commercial one and altruistic concepts like pacing is certainly alien to them. With plenty of commercial interests at stake, the joining formalities was certainly complicated.
To start with, a profile picture with conditions more stringent than the one required for visa purposes. Thanks to Dr. Gautham, I could get it done at zero budget. Some additional complications like not sporting brands other than the ‘official ones’, restrictions on communication, and so on – didn’t matter much given that I don’t have any commercial interests in running. The real shocker was when I was told to register for the event paying a hefty fee of Rs. 2,300! Most events in South India offer free entry to pacers as a token of appreciation, as they sacrifice their personal quests for a greater cause. By then, I had booked by flight tickets and hotel room, and financial stakes of cancelling were high. I had no choice but to pay and register for what I would call as the “Most Expensive” city marathon in India. Over the next two months, I worked on my plan to ensure that I do a decent job for the sake of runners trusting me on the run. If not for the organisers, this one was for the runners.
Most events prefer runners from that city for pacing as they would be familiar about the weather, route, elevation, key intersections etc., Such varations would normally be factored in their timing splits for the event. Finishing at 5:45 had only two challenges – the elevation was at the Peddar road flyover, which lasts for less than 2 Km, and the run at Marine Drive towards the end between 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM, for which splits have to be adjusted. I prepared a fairly straight forward plan, starting my runs at 7 minutes 40 seconds per Km in the beginning and gradually tapering down to 8 minutes 30 seconds towards the end. As suggested, I added a minute in the first half and another in the second half for bio-breaks. I wasn’t sure of the aid stations and felt I could adjust in the time provided. I only wish I factored some time for taking pictures at the Sea Link Bridge and with spectators at Peddar road.
One of the the best ways to run long distances is to mix walking with running, popularised by Jeff Galloway, as the ‘Run-Walk-Run’ method. We resort to walk breaks at some point over the 42.195 kms to ease the tiredness. In this method, the walk breaks are taken up at fixed intervals from the beginning, like running for few minutes and following it with a minute of walk. The average pace required for a 5:45 finish was about 8 minutes and 11 seconds – I split it into 2 cycles of 4 minutes each with 3 minutes of running and 1 minute of walk. The walk breaks were helpful in pacing the run to its perfection. It also helps runners to take a sip of water or grab something to eat at the aid stations (well, there wasn’t much to eat in Mumbai marathon!).
Training in the pace
Typically, a pacer chooses a time much slower than his/her comfortable running pace. On the face of it, it does look easier to start the run in such slow pace. The challenge, however, is to sustain the pace over the long hours and the distance. The physical and mental fatigue can kick at any time and it requires some composure to finish the run in designated pace. If not trained, pacers end up running faster initially and slow down towards the end; Or worse, they start so slow and have to catch up towards the end by running faster. Both strategies may help them finish on time, but it does not help others to follow them. The training runs are oriented to develop the rythm at slower speed and sustain them. While I was fairly confident of my ability to withstand 6 hours on the sun, I wanted to make sure that I am well trained to run in the desired pace. During the 2 months leading to the event, I made sure that all my runs follow the 3:1 run-walk method and gradually reduced the speed in the process. My last training run of 24K, a week before the event, boosted my confidence to do so (splits above).
Start and Finish Time
Every event provides a runner with two finish times – Gun time and Chip time. Gun time refers to the time from start of the event (shot of a gun) to the runner crossing the finish line. Chip time refers to the time from the runner crossing the start line and the finish line. While Chip time matters the most for runners, as it is the time taken by them to cover the distance, Gun time is considered as the ‘Official Time’ as per Rule 165.7 of The IAAF Competition Rules 2018-19. Pacing Bus must be always be based on the Gun Time. If corrals are used for staggered start, pacing must be based on the start time of the respective corrals, the pacers are assigned to. Take the example of Berlin Marathon 2019,
The 3:00 pace bus in wave 1 will finish at 12:15 PM and in wave 2 will finish at 12:25 PM. By following the wave start time, they ensure that the runners joining those buses in respective corrals finish under 3 hours. However, if someone starts in wave 1 and joins the 3:00 pace bus in wave 2, they will not be able to finish under 3 hours. In Mumbai marathon, while pacers were assigned different corrals based on the finishing time, they did not have seperate start time for different corrals. Corrals were started as the crowds were cleared. We were asked to follow our chip time and runners starting ahead of us could not make best use of the pace buses, when joined at later stage, as they were not sure of our start time.
Event distance or GPS Distance
One of the critical gadget for pacers is the GPS watches that measures time and distance. It helps them to monitor the pace during the run and the time elapsed. Most running events do not rely upon GPS devices for route measurement. They go by Calibrated Bicycle Method – in simple terms, distance measured by bicycle odometer with correct tyre pressure. For more, you can refer to this document. The differences between GPS devices and the race distance starts getting bigger as the distance increases. To avoid this, it would be best to use ‘manual laps’ in the watches. At the end of every 2 Km (by Km marker boards), the next lap should be started and the distance and pace is monitored for that lap, instead of cumulative time and distance. In Mumbai, the maximum difference between the laps was only about 60m, whereas the aggregate difference over the marathon was 360m.
Organisers of Mumbai Marathon provided runners with pacing bands that contain the timing splits for every 2K. Pacers were provided with a pacing flag and a bag to hold it. Kudos to the organisers for the excellent work on those. This helped the runners to identify us easily on the run and the pace bands were handy to follow us on the run.
Race Day Experience
The race day did not have many surprises in store. It was easy to execute the plan and I cleared each lap close to the designated time. The bus was packed with runners from the start to the finish, albeit not the same ones. Many runners appreciated the run-walk method as it helped them to clear the distance with ease. Here’s the analysis of my run through numbers.
There were some mistakes that the above data masks:
1. Lack of planning for water stations – I somehow managed to fill the bottle on the move. While it is not possible to drink as per schedule, it will be good to fill the bottles as per schedule.
2. Photographs en route – Apart from the exhorbitantly priced official pictures, there is a chance to take some wonderful pictures at the Sea Link Bridge or with the crowd at Peddar road. I could find some time at Sea Link Bridge, thanks to the time gained in previous 3 laps.
3. Peddar Road – The only elevation in the entire route was that of Peddar road, appearing twice on the route. While it was fairly easy to ascend on the onward route, it gets a bit difficult on the return as it appears between 34-36Km. The minute saved by not using the time allotted for bio break helped us to be on track.
It was certainly an overwhelming feeling when many runners approached me at the finish line to express their gratitude. More than the medal and the joy of finishing a marathon, the kind words from runners made my run very special and emotional. I must also thank my co-pacer Subramanian a.k.a. Rajesh for the wonderful support throughout. He managed the WhatsApp group, motivated the runners regularly, took care of interaction with runners at expo (which I had to miss), and supported excellently on the run.
Personal bests in running events is not all about finishng faster. It is also about planning for a run and executing it as per the plan. What more, when your run can help others to finish well, it is certainly the best that one can have.