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.

 

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”

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.

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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.

Run the Marathon of your Life

Emil Zatopek is often credited to have said,

“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”

Andrew Johnston, a business faculty member, explains in a popular TEDx talk on how he taught his students the fundamentals of Business by making them train and run a marathon. The course titled ‘Change through Challenge’ has since become very popular in community colleges in USA. Most runners would vouch that the lessons learned during training and running a marathon can easily be applied in facing many other challenges.

While experience for runners may vary from person to person, one can be certain everyone will have something to learn in the process. Unlike other challenges in life, this is one where you alone would be the judge to measure the success or failure.  Here are a few steps to get started:

Choose the Race – The first step is to choose an event that you wish to run. If you are in Coimbatore, the choice is made easier with the annual Coimbatore Marathon held on the first Sunday of October. Some runners plan their marathons along with their business or personal travels by finding events closer to their destinations. Personally, the choice was made easier for me as I was lucky to win a lottery at the Berlin Marathon to be held in September.

Training Plan – While there are plethora of plans of available on the Internet, the best one would be the one you make, for yourself. Prepare a plan that balances your personal and professional commitments along with the running schedules. The first step would be to block the dates on which you are needed the most for other activities. The next step would be to line up your long runs – the maximum being 80% of the race distance three weeks ahead of the event. Then, spot the gaps and fill-in the mid-week runs which includes a variety of sprints and slow runs. Finally, top it with adequate rests, stretches and strengthening workouts. You can view my training plan for Berlin here..

Travel Plan – If you run is outside your home town, it is best to plan for travel and stay well in advance. Find your hotel rooms close to the event venue to get the best out of the run. If travelling outside India, it is important to get your visas well in advance.

Spread your ideas  –  It is best to speak out to your friends about the run, training plans, and your  periodic progress. Seeking opinions from diverse audience enhances your planning and reinforces your conviction to accomplish your goal. Through social media, one can expect motivation and help from unknown quarters too. If you intend to run for a cause, it gives a wonderful opportunity to speak about it too.

The Group – Even if your run is going to be all about you, it is important to have a group in which you find the strength to see through the distance. Coimbatore Runners actively supports runners planning to run the Coimbatore Marathon with their training needs, encouragement and motivation from their experience. Each runner undergoes his or her own experience and it is important to learn not only from your experience, but also others. The support from running groups often extend to assistance in planning the trip as well as stay arrangements. Of course, they are the best to celebrate with, once the race is accomplished.

Intermittent Targets – As a part of your training plan, assign a few intermittent milestones to measure your progress as well as reward yourself. If you are planning to run a marathon, the 30K runs or the fastest 10K during the training phase can be a milestone that deserves to be celebrated.

Live the Journey – To ensure that the event counts for, the best way to live through it. It is important not to see running events as an examination or a mundane ritual. This is a challenge that you have set for yourself and start looking to make changes in your routines to help you accomplish it. Every training run is an experience by itself and a step towards the finish.

Visualise the finish – Visualising the finish, either by watching videos of the past editions of the event or through a picture of the finish line. I have the picture of Brandenburg Gate, through which one finish the Berlin Marathon, on my work desktop.

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Photo courtesy: Getty Images

It is a powerful tool to help us keep focused on what we wish to accomplish and relish when we actually accomplish. At times, the thought of seeing yourself at the finish line with the medal and celebrating with your near and dear will take you through the tough phases of training.
When you reach the start line, remember that you have run most of the journey and race is only an icing on the cake. As Albert Salazar, winner of the New York Marathon in 1982, said,

“When you cross the finish line, no matter how slow or how fast, it will change your life forever.”

An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu – Metroplus on May 27, 2019 under the title “Run the marathon of your life”

https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/steps-to-get-started-for-a-marathon/article27260490.ece

Training for Coimbatore Marathon

Mornings in August aren’t the same in Coimbatore. The pleasant weather, with an air of chillness emanating from the western ghats recently washed by the south west monsoon rains, is something to cherish and relish. While for some, it implies another hour of extra rest; for others, it is an opportunity to go for a morning walk or run, possibly followed by a hot cup of tea or coffee at one of their favourite joints. The Coimbatore Marathon, organised on the first Sunday of October over the past 5 years, has presented a perfect reason for people to step out and train for the event during this period. One cannot miss the bright red shirts of Coimbatore Marathon when going for a walk down the race course road, Codissia road or at Sai Baba colony.

Apart from being instrumental in organising the event, Coimbatore Runners, a voluntary group of recreational runners, also take the additional step of organising training runs for runners interested in participating in the 10K or 5K event. Their “Couch to 5K” program is widely popular with runners, who initially joined out of curiosity only to go on become regular runners, with some even finishing marathons. Uma Palaniappan and her husband, Palaniappan Annamalai are one such example.

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Uma Palaniappan. Photo Courtesy: Annur Runners

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Palaniappan Annamalai Photo Courtesy: Annur Runners

Uma and Palani joined the couch to 5K training program during the 2014 edition of Coimbatore marathon. Although regular walkers and practice yoga, both had very little background in sports which kept them away from running. They joined the group only to find that they actually run the 10K distance. Subsequently, in 2015, they participated in the Annur Half Marathon, where Uma was among the top 3 finishers in women’s veteran category. “The biggest prize that I have received in running are the wonderful friends who constantly encourage me to find my best,” says Uma. In 2015, both ran their first full marathon in Bangalore and it capped a fine transition of them to a complete runners. “I feel proud to say that we are able to set a good example for our daughter and son to take up active life,” says Palaniappan.

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Manjunath H V Photo Courtesy: Annur Runners

For Manjunath H.V., it was not only a change of lifestyle that prompted him for running, but also a change of place. After moving from Chennai to Coimbatore in 2012, it was difficult for him to settle down in a new place. Inspired by his colleague, he took up to running during the first edition of the Coimbatore marathon. “Running helped me find new friends and helped in settling down in Coimbatore, in addition to relieving stress and improving fitness” says Manjunath, who is now a runner and cyclist. He has since completed many full marathons and long cycling rides, including the 200K Brevets. His personal bests are always running with the group more than the solo runs. “In group, there is always someone to converse with, in various languages and topics, and you rarely get tired of running, irrespective of the distance,” says Manju

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Rani and Sudheer Photo: Special Arrangement

In 2016, Sudheer Elenkath and his wife Rani Sudheer had registered for the 5K event and had plans only to walk the distance. On hearing about training runs, they wanted to just check it out on the way to some other work. “On the first day, we covered the 2.5K around race course and actually ran some of the distance. We couldn’t believe that we can actually run!” says Sudheer who along with his wife has gone on to run the 10K in 2017 and now getting ready for the half-marathon. “Running is like a meditation. It helped us gain lot of confidence, meet diverse people and we are highly motivated to do more” says Rani from her experience in running with the group for the past two years.

Coimbatore runners organise these training runs voluntarily. “The only investment we seek from runners is their time and commitment. Our objective is to make sure that runners finish the event strongly and cherish the moments, and of course, the breakfast” says Ramesh Ponnuswami, co-founder of Coimbatore Runners and also the Race Director of Coimbatore Marathon. The training runs are oriented towards helping runners to achieve his/her potential.  “We do not push the runners to run in any speed. Everyone run in their own pace making marginal improvements all the time. The group is full of enthusiasm and we have extended our activities to strength training sessions to help us run injury free,” says Karthikeyan P, co-founder of the group, who leads the training runs in Sai Baba Colony.

Running is an education by itself; One can never know it all or know less of it. For each, the learning is different and it is best to experience one self. Training with the group helps in facilitating this learning. The sharing of information and personal experiences with each other helps in improving  oneself in running as well as life. Pull out that shoes and head towards the door before the day breaks.

Start Points:

Race Course Road – In front of Income Tax Office

Coidissia – Outside Jenny’s Club on the road leading to Codissia

Sai Baba Colony – Children’s park, opposite BSNL on Alagesan road

GV Residency – Outside the Vinayagar Temple

Saravanampatti – Outside Lisieux CMI Public School, Sahara City, Saravanampatty,

Kovaipudur – Q block park

Start Time: 5:45 AM

Contact: Coimbatore Marathon helpline number – +91 8939801188 or write to us at coimbatorerunners@gmail.com or info@coimbatoremarathon.com

Copyright ©2018 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

(And edited version of the Article appeared in The Hindu, Metro Plus, August 1, 2018 – https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/on-training-for-the-coimbatore-marathon/article24572866.ece)

 

Let’s Resolve to Run!

A new year brings in new beginnings, at least a new calendar to start with; unless you have preserved the 2007 calendar and choose to re-use it! Every New Year also opens a new set of resolutions which mostly gets buried even before the end of January. Many end up resolving not to take New Year resolutions, only to break it in the following year. Whatever may be the past, a beginning has to be made somewhere and a new year certainly gives us an opportunity to try something new; something better than the previous year.

A healthy body leads to a healthy mind is an old adage and worth recollecting, when we have to choose among multitude of resolutions. Invariably, it will be the most fundamental requisite for any other resolution that we undertake in the New Year. My recommendation towards a healthy body is to take up running as a regular routine for the upcoming year. Running is the simplest, easiest and least expensive fitness activity among various other choices. Over the past decade, no other fitness activity – gymnasiums, yoga centres, boot camps, zumba etc, – has found acceptance as much as running and the reasons are fairly obvious. Here are some of my tips to get you started!

  1. Start Walking – No one starts running from the very first day or the very first minute. Start walking and ask yourself ‘why walk when I can run?’ It would be only a matter of time when your feet starts running, and soon flying! It is absolutely not necessary that you have to see through the distance or time purely by running. Walking is also a pleasure; if not more than running.
  2. Time or Distance – Set yourself simple goals, either on the basis of time or on the basis of distance and gradually increase the targets. Ideally, running (with interspersed walking) for an hour or 5 Km should be a perfect and reasonable target to start with. Once achieved, don’t rush too soon to the next target. The rate of success that one achieves in early days doesn’t get replicated in later days.
  3. Join a Running Club – Nothing motivates you more than joining a group of like minded fellow runners. It has been a decade since I have been part of some running club or other and I can vouch for the support that the running clubs provided me in running, and even beyond it. Most running clubs are egalitarian in nature and are open to new and old runners alike regardless of one’s personal traits.
  4. Sign up for an event – Signing up for a running event invariably evokes memories of examinations of school/college days. Nevertheless, it is one great way to set a target and move towards it. No matter the distance or time, you will be a winner when you finish and rewarded suitably. If you are in Coimbatore, I would suggest you to run the Coimbatore Marathon on the first Sunday of October every year (the author is a member of the organising team). The only sore point is the ‘post-exam-style’ discussions on your timing, which is best avoided.
  5. Maintain a diary – A simple diary of activities is often the best way to keep you motivated. Start with a basic spreadsheet with date in Column A and just a word – ‘Running’ or ‘ Walking’ or ‘Others’ – in Column B to indicate your accomplishment on that day. You will soon find that scanning the sheet alone would motivate you for the following day(s). Personally, I started doing it back in 2005 and over the last 13 years, it is not an exaggeration to say that one can read my life through it. Unfortunately, it became too complicated in recent years which prevent me from sharing it.
  6. Social media – If you are on social media, there are plenty of runners who do wonderful posts that would be a great motivation for you to run. Their everyday runs, tips, experience, photographs and links to other resources help you in retaining motivation during the day. However, caution needs to be exercised in not getting dragged into the commercial sides of the so-called “influencers” or into the political and religious ideologies of these runners.
  7. Reward yourself – Rewards could be as simple as a sumptuous breakfast in your favourite restaurant after a Sunday morning run (ignore the calorie intakes, which often is more than the calories lost while running!). Buying yourself new attire, shoes, gadgets or planning a running-vacation, where you sign up for a running event in an exotic location and combine your vacation can be other choices as you take further steps.

I have consciously left out discussions on complex issues like getting a right shoe, attire, nutrition, strength training, cross training, stretching and many others that are associated with running at different levels. Although critical and necessary at some point of time, they are certain not to prohibit you from getting started or preventing you from running. The key is to get started and it is still simple and easy to do so.

The benefits from running differs from individual and for some, it has even helped them to stay off medication from lifestyle diseases. It is best left to the individual to find out what benefits he/she derives from the exercise. Never mind the incidental benefits, one is sure to just start running for the joy of it. The journey by itself is a reward. Let’s take the first step!

An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu – Metroplus (Coimbatore Edition). – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/how-to-stick-to-your-new-year-resolution-to-run/article22266386.ece

Copyright ©2017 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Venu Sir – A Tribute

It all started with a casual conversation during May 2009. VPS and Shahid had then started a “Chapter” of Chennai Runners; morning runs were started at MCC, Chetpet during weekdays, in addition to the ‘home ground’ at Alwarpet. A new runner had started running with them. A regular walker until the age of 64, he had taken up to running with much apprehensions. To make him feel comfortable, VPS suggested to me to post a note on the Chennai Runners Google Groups to encourage him. I sent out a casual response to his mail on the group, completely unaware of whom I was trying to Encourage

Good one sir! Mails like these make me have second thoughts about bunking the next day’s run! Keep going on and on!

Eight years have gone since that conversation and little did I realise, that it was a beginning of a special relationship. It is certainly an understatement to say Venugopalan or Venu Sir, as we affectionately called him, has been an inspiration and a pillar of support for many initiatives by Chennai Runners over the past eight years. There wouldn’t be many runners, young and old alike, in Chennai who had not been touched by his warmth and kindness. During the days when the google groups were active, he contributed immensely and his mails were a treasure of knowledge – well researched scientifically and from his experience, as he constantly experimented with his running.

In July 2009, he was a participant in the ECR Run, which I happened to anchor on behalf of the Chennai Runners.

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His kind words following the event certainly helped us to set the vision for the future,

the ECR event was very successful mainly because the entire core group of Chennai Runners (the International Marathoners) were in the centre of organising the event. We all SALUTE you for your selfless service. You are on your way to make ECR runs count at International level.

Since then, he has been part of most events organised by Chennai Runners, as a runner, volunteer, as well as Pacer.  In 2014, I was assigned the task of finding pacers for Chennai Marathon for both the marathon as well as half-marathon categories. I wished to make the 6-hour bus driven by inspirational runners that would give the event a grandstand finish for the event. I hesitantly requested  Venu Sir, as he was in best of his running form and a potential winner in veteran category of the full marathon. He always prioritised the cause of encouraging runners and gladly accepted the offer. Along with Arun Krishnan and Hariharan, they formed one of the best pacing teams ever in any marathons. The picture at the finish line would stay in my memory for years!

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In 2016, I invited him to address the STAR Runners and he gladly accepted to do so. His presence and encouragement to runners was a great support for our initiative.

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His experiments in running is an example for anyone and everyone to emulate. He ran his first marathon at Auroville in 2011. I too participated in the event was totally exhausted at the 40th Km. It was there I saw a determined Venu Sir overtaking me and pushing me hard to the finish. From 4:55 in that event, he improved his timings for full marathon to 4:05 in Chennai Marathon 2013 and repeated it a month later at Mumbai in Januray 2014 with the same timing. He further went to finish at the top the runners above 70 years at Mumbai Marathon in January 2015.

He was never obsessed over podium finishes or prizes. His timings could have helped him secure a place in Boston marathon but he wasn’t the one to be fascinated by it. His disciplined approach to running, coupled with his ocean of knowledge on the subject served as an inspiration and example for everyone to follow. He always had kind words of encouragement for those who took up to any activity related to running, be it organising or writing about it. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this blog owes its existence to him, as he was one of the regular readers and the highest contributor in terms of comments.

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Final meeting with Venu Sir. Chennai Runners anniversary – March 2017

It is tough to admit that he would not be with us anymore. Over the past 177 days of running, I am sure every Chennai Runner has met him at least once and had the joy of being wished by him. The roads of Chennai is certain to be poorer without his presence in the morning. There would be a void which is almost impossible to fill in. As the running movement in Chennai gains from strength to strength, one man has certainly played his role and left behind memories for everyone to look back and reflect.

Personally,  I am indebted to him for the multitude of interactions and the support towards every endeavour of mine – running, organising, blogging or the STAR Runners initiative. His response to my very first mail sets out his expectations from me, which I hope to live up to in his memory!

I am honoured by your kind encouragement. I have great admiration for you and I value your raw enthusiasm, I can almost feel it though we have never met. You have a very long innings to play in bringing running as a way of life in India

In the Long Run, we are re-born

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

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

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

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

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

Some steps to help us get started:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Years on…

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

Running and Environmentalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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