Two Oceans Marathon

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The Two Oceans Marathon is one of the unique and popular marathons in the world. To begin with, it is more than a marathon – 56 Km in distance; and the attraction of the event is not on the difficulty of accomplishing the distance but on the beautiful scenic route. As is the norm in South Africa with most running events, they are stringent about the cut-off time for finishers – 7 hours from the gun shot and not a second more, which makes the event a challenging one too. Started in 1970 as a training run for the Comrades Marathon, it soon entered the marathon calendar of South Africa and became one of the most popular events in the world, with over 11,000 participants registering within the first two days of opening the registrations for this year’s edition. Organised every year during the Easter Weekend, the event was later expanded to include a half-marathon race, an international friendship run, trail runs, kids run and so on – there’s an event for everyone in the family – attracting over 35,000 runners from all over the world. In 2018, the event was held on March 31st and I happened to be one of the participants.

I arrived at Cape Town on March 28th in the backdrop of the acute water shortage that the city was then facing. Few minutes after my arrival, dark clouds gathered from nowhere and I was welcomed with thunderstorms and heavy rains that the city most wanted. My host was stunned at the instant impact that I had on the city. Needless to say that the runners can claim some credit for that and the rains during the next two days. Considering the situation, the organisers had taken steps to ensure that the event does utilise any water from the city’s water resources and sought the assistance of runners to be mindful about the wastage of water. Runners were even asked to carry their own hydration packs that can be refilled in specified points.

My running weekend started with a visit to the Marathon Expo on March 29th. The routine affair of collecting the running bibs for both the marathon and the international friendship run, followed by window surfing of some of the irresistible products designed for runners that different brands have showcased in the expo – from alternatives to safety pins to clothing to shoes and what not! It was also an opportunity to meet runners from different parts of the world. The expo also featured talks by eminent runners including those with ‘Blue numbers’ – an honour for those completing 10 Two Oceans marathon. There were legendary runners who have done it even forty times! The only sore point of the expo were the super long queues leading the bib collection. The bibs were printed at the expo and it had some techinical glitches. 

The other important activitiy of the day was the scheduled visit to Robben Island. I had the romantic dream of re-creating this scene from the movie Invictus, where Matt Damon, playing the role of Francois Piennar, would visit the Robben Island ahead of the final game. He would stand inside the prison and visualise Morgan Freedman, playing the role of Madiba, reading the poem ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley.  You wouldn’t need to get inspired anymore than watching it again.

The best laid plans often go cropper and this was no different. The rains, that looked good the previous day, was translated into bad weather on this day and the boat trips to Robben Island stood cancelled. I checked with them if I can change the dates to the day after the marathon but there were no bookings available. I was quite devastated about the miss and walked around the museam for a while. There was this beautiful quote from Madiba that cought my eyes.

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After being robbed twenty seven years of his life, Madiba, just wanted that no one else suffers the same fate as him. This wasn’t just an act of forgiveness but the firm belief he had in freedom and rights of an individual. At a time, when my fellow citizens calls every individual who disagrees with the government of the day as anti-national, this was refreshing to read.

The International Friendship run on March 30th was certainly an unique feature for this event. Attended by people from different countries all over the world, with Germany, United Kingdom and Brazil having the highest number of participants. The organisers had thoughtfully arranged flags of all the countries. On finding that no has yet picked up the Indian flag, I grabbed the chance to carry the Tricolour. It was a 6 Km run through the beautiful promenade of Cape Town. Every country was cheered and welcomed by the spectators, including Aussies, whose cricketers had an uneventful time a week earlier at Cape Town. I did my best to sledge an Aussie who had his hands in his pockets when I enquired if his name was Cameron, David, or Stevie! At times, it looked like the best way to test one’s knowledge about flags of different countries. 

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I certainly had my moments of entertainment. Everytime someone gives me a shout for coming from India, I responded by saying, ‘My second name is not Gupta’ leading to some hiliarity. Running with a German family of runners was really special and it must be noted that they really had a good sense of humour! Somewhere, I felt that events like these bring people of different countries together more easily than the high powered summits attended by heads of state which invariably causes discomfort to the public of hosting cities.

On March 31st, the two major events of the weekend were flagged off. The first of them was the Half-marathon participated by 16,000 runners at 5:50 AM followed by the main event, the Ultra Marathon at 6:30 AM. It looked like the organisers wanted the runners enjoy the route in the best possible way during broad daylight. To run in the main event, every runner must have run at least one marathon within 5 hours to be eligible for participation. This ensured that runners are aware of running etiquettes and respect each other, which is critical for smooth start of the run as well as running through narrow roads at many sections. There was not a minute during the seven hours when I could feel lonely in the course and yet not feel my way blocked by another runner.

The initial 30 Kms were fairly flat terrain where the only challenge was to conserve the energy for the second half of the run. The route takes us all the way towards East where one gets a chance to run alongside the Indian Ocean glistened by the morning sun. The routes goes through the suburbs of Cape Town, where the residents come out in big numbers to cheer the participants. It was from the 29th Km that the gradual ascend begins towards the Chapman’s Peak, where the English explorer John Chapman landed in South Africa. Situated at the coast of Atlantic Ocean, the road leading to the peak provides us with breathtaking views of the Ocean. Ideally, one would wish that the run ended here. Sadly, that wasn’t the case and one can even say that the real run began there!

After reaching the top of the peak, a downhill run followed by a relatively flat terrain takes us close to the marathon distance. Things were going as planned until then – First 27k in 3 hours and the marathon in 5 hours. Now, all that I need to do is do the rest 14K in 2 hours, which looked plausible. It was difficult to observe the contours as the focus was on the time and the distance to be covered. There were few inclines and downward slopes. At about 46 Km, the next challenge was in store – a steep climb for couple of Kms followed by a steep downhill. This is the place where the race is won or lost for the lead pack and for the rest, it was a matter of hit or miss.

At this stage, I feared that I might miss out the cut-off mark as I had started facing muscle cramps in my legs. My legs refused to move any further and it looked like it was all but over for me. While I knew that I will recover from cramps and complete the course somehow, the time limit was hanging straight over my head. It took me about 28 minutes to cover 3K at this stage, and finish was looking a distant dream. My confidence was also further shattered with very little hopes for the distance ahead. I spotted a runner with blue bib and asked him if I still have a chance to finish under the time limit. He suggested that if I can keep running, I am sure to finish – That was encouraging. I started counting the loss in case I miss the cut-off. I consoled myself by saying that I can offset this loss with my miraculous finish at Comrades. Then, I had paid a significant money for getting the medal embossed, and I am not sure of the medal. This seems to hurt me more.

The next 3K was all down hill and I focused on getting back my rythm. The route took us through some of the green cover of Cape Town offering the much wanted cool shade when the Sun was rising over our heads. The theme for the event was “Run as One” and it was certainly implanted in the spirit of each runner. Seeing me struggle with cramps, one of the runners stopped to offer salt tablets. I had my gels and wasn’t sure how salt tablets would react with it in my stomach. I was joined by an Aussie runner in what I would call as the mission impossible, and we kept encouraging each other with undying hopes. The uncertainty persisted all the way until I saw the last Km board. I looked was finally convinced that I can really make it to the finish line. I entered the University grounds and the crowd made sure that they celebrate in each one of our finishes. With 64 seconds to spare, I finished the race filled with thanks to my fellow runners and the wonderful Capetonians for what I am convinced as the “World’s Most Beautiful Race.”

On my way back, I watched the movie 89, produced by Amy Lawrence. It was a movie about the famous English Football League match between Liverpool and Arsenal that happened on May 26, 1989. The winner of the match and the league were decided in the final minutes. The match also inspired Nick Hornby to write the memoirs in the best seller, ‘The Fever Pitch.’

When asked to recollect the memories of that match, George Graham, the gaffer, said,

“Isn’t lovely to have moments in your life where you think …Nothing to beat that”

Not once, but twice; I was lucky to have such moments.

(And edited version of the Article appeared in The Hindu, Metro Plus, April 11, 2018 – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/running-in-the-two-oceans-marathon/article23492438.ece)

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

Come out to Cheer….

On the eve of my attempt to run the 89 Km Comrades Marathon from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, I met an elderly gentleman, who had completed the event more than twenty times. Our discussion was largely centred on the event and he was helping me to ease my anxieties. He gave me one important piece of advise “All that you need to run is till the start of Durban town. The crowd will ensure that you finish the remaining 9 km before the cut-off time.” It was so true the following day as it appeared that the people of Durban have conspired to ensure that I finish and get my medal. Such was the ability of the people to change the destiny.

When it comes to sports, history is rarely made in empty arenas. The greatest of the sporting actions invariably owe their greatness to the support of the audience. They have made winning teams lose and losing teams win. Even in the age of television coverage of sports from every nook and corner of the globe, watching a sports action live has its own charm. For many, it provides them with a life-time worth experience. Nick Hornby writes in his memoir Fever Pitch, which was inspired by witnessing the title winning match between Arsenal football club and Liverpool football club in 1989,

So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.

While it is easy to understand the rationale behind people spending exorbitant money to watch a game of cricket or football, it is often difficult to comprehend someone going to watch a marathon entirely free of cost. Sometime back, I asked a friend of mine to come out and watch a running event that I was involved in organising. He cynically replied that he finds more meaning in watching paint dry than seeing folks put one foot after another for 42 long kilometres. A marathon runner certainly lacks the artistic appeal of Zinedine Zidane or the controlled aggression of Malcom Marshall. Looked unitary, a runner many not provide you with an excitement or enthusiasm, unless you know them in person. But, there is more to marathon.

A marathon is a spectacle by itself. One gets to see a diverse set of crowd, separated by age, gender, caste, creed, race, nationality or even the shape of their body; yet united by a single pursuit to see through the distance.  Other than the lead pack of runners who compete for prize money, the rest of runners run their own race. For them, the race day is the crowning moment of all their training efforts over many days and weeks. Every runner has a story and the marathon weaves their stories together. Watching the entire city move in one direction, towards one goal, instils the belief that anything is possible if we collectively move together. Kathrine Switzer, often credited to be first women finisher of Boston Marathon, once said,

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

Marathons have their share of fanatic crowds too. The “Wellesley Tunnel” created by students of Wellesley College in Boston by standing on either side of the Boston marathon route has become an integral part of the event. London marathon once surprised the participants by having celebrity sportspersons handle their water station. The Comrades marathon in South Africa is often a symbol of unity in a country torn apart by years of racial discrimination. Cheryl Winn, who won the race in 1982, says

“It showed the country what it could and should be.”

Closer home, the Mumbai Marathon brings the best of the spirit of Mumbai. In 2009, I participated in the Mumbai Marathon, which happened to be the first major event after the city was jolted by terrorist attacks in November 2008. For the city, it was moment to stand as one and move forward.

This Sunday, Coimbatore will be hosting its own Marathon. With over 13,000 participants, it promises to be biggest sporting event in Tamil Nadu outside Chennai. The marathon, started in 2013, is organised in aid of the Coimbatore Cancer Foundation and has been growing every year in terms of the participants. It is also an opportunity for residents of Coimbatore to come out and experience what marathons are all about. These runners are none other than friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues – ordinary people – collectively trying to do an extraordinary feat of completing the distance. Sportspersons rarely acknowledge or remember the audience by their first name. In marathons, runners will remember each one of their friends who came out to support them, however trivial it may look. For the crowd, it would be an experience that would be best left to witness than describe.

To close the loop on the friend I mentioned earlier, he did come out to watch a marathon in subsequent years and complimented, “Yes, there is something special in watching a marathon.”

An edited version of the blog above was published by The Hindu in the Metroplus edition of Coimbatore on September 29, 2017. The online version can be found here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/come-out-and-cheer-the-runners-of-the-coimbatore-marathon/article19768671.ece

 

Training for Coimbatore Marathon

Legendry Boxer, Late Muhammed Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” Training to run a marathon, which largely comprise of drudged long runs, hardly excites anyone and contrary to the experiences of the running at the event. There is no one to cheer you on the run, the roads aren’t closed for traffic, no water points to hydrate and finally, no one awaits you with a medal, pongal and vada!

Coimbatore Runners, an informal group of recreational runners, brings something different when it comes to the training runs for the upcoming Coimbatore marathon to be held on October 1, 2017. Starting from the very first edition of the event in 2013, training runs have been integral part of the various initiatives taken by Coimbatore Runners towards the excellent organisation of the event. These training runs aren’t led by a professional coach who demands you to put in your best performance; but by runners who run for the joy of running and voluntarily help you to enjoy towards achieving your best.

While there is abundant literature about running available on the Internet and through various media sources, there is nothing even remotely closer to listening to a personal experience of fellow runners. One may read about a 95-year old man running a Marathon or an 85-year old woman participating in a triathlon; but they are just words as you never get to witness it in person. “When you run with Coimbatore runners, you see the runners, speak to them, run with them and experience the changes that running brings in them” says Manjunath, who was part of the training initiatives during the first edition on behalf of Coimbatore Runners. A quick profile of some of the trainers would tell us more about the training program.

Shanmugaraj, or Shan as he is affectionately called, used to be a Ball-badminton player during his school and college days playing for tournaments at district level. He got into running after hearing about it from his colleagues in 2013. He found an ocean of difference in the approach towards training for a marathon. “When training for Ball-Badminton, we were always obsessed about how our opponents would play and train to better them; in running, you always train for yourself as you aspire to better yourself.” He currently volunteers as the lead trainer on behalf of Coimbatore runners and supported by his friends during daily runs. He believes that injury-free running must be goal for every runner and helps them in achieving it.

Veeshal took up to running in 2014 after reading an article about Coimbatore Runners in The Hindu. It was actually the picture of the runners that attracted him to the group. He spotted one of his friends, whom he knew for sure wasn’t an “athlete” and wondered about the newly found celebrity status. His friend responded that he too would be a celebrity if he can wake up at 5:30 AM and report three times a week for morning runs. “The warmth and the camaraderie of the group on the very first day made me easily feel a part of the group. I felt confident to call myself a runner very soon.” He ran the 2014 edition and was eager to give back to the group which led him to be one of the trainers for the last two years. “Fitness is not just about physical fitness but also mental fitness. I enjoy running with back of the pack runners, casual chat about many issues, listen to different perspectives and make friends for life.”

Valliappan was a regular morning walker for most of his life and participated in the 10K event in 2013. His initial apprehension about running with Coimbatore runners were mostly about the “astronomical” distances covered during their morning runs. In 2014, he decided to join the training program for 10K event only to realise that he can actually run more and ended up running the half-marathon. He realised soon that it was just a mental block that was preventing him from going extra distance and, most runners weren’t any different from him. “Trainees who come with a very open mind about running soon realise that they can actually aspire to go farther distances. The key however is to enjoy the runs and stay injury-free.”

Saravana Kumar is possibly one of the coaches who can get closer to description of a professional coach. A state level athlete during his school and college days, he had adequate knowledge about sports and prior experience in training. However, He still believes that he is only a learner when it comes to long distance running. “Running is easier and simpler for anyone to get started. Once started, runners can choose to have their own goals and paths.” He feels that runners need not invest in expensive gadgets and accessories from the very first day. “Use basic and comfortable clothing and footwear to get started. Once you are with the group, you will get excellent advice on what to buy and what not to buy from diverse people.” The only thing that is expected from runners is the commitment to get started and continue.

The training program is currently held at Race Course road where the group meets four times a week. The details about the program and the contact person are available on the website http://coimbatoremarathon.com/site/trainrun. Inspired by the success of the training program in Race Course road, training runs are now organised at Codissia, Saravanampatti, Sai Baba Colony and Perks Arch road.

(An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu, August 14th 2017. You can read it online here – http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fitness/training-for-the-coimbatore-marathon/article19480184.ece)

 

Nilgirs Ultra – Part 2: Hot Air Chasers!

In December 2008, I, along with few Chennai Runners, participated in the Singapore Marathon. On returning back from the trip, there was a burning desire in some of us to organise running events of that standard and magnitude. It was this desire that got us into organising long distance running events a.k.a marathons. It would be no exaggeration to say that running events in India have since grown in leaps and bounds in terms of organising standards over the past decade; and we certainly had our role to play. Today, most running events organised by runners/running clubs have exceptional standards from those of the SDAT or Athletic Federations. With more and more runners participating in events abroad, the bar is raised each year and it has been a constant endeavour for most runner-organisers to improve consistently.

Personally, I prefer to participate only in events where runners take the lead and have complete control over the organisation of the event. I choose to run the Nilgiris Ultra for two reasons – the race organiser was a two-time Boston marathon finisher and, that the run was recommended by a runner from Hyderabad who has participated in running events in all continents. I believed that the event would have a certain standard of organisation on par with events of similar stature. Considering that the event was priced at Rs. 5,000, the very basic expectations were a well-stocked aid station and post run refreshments. It would be an understatement to say that the quality of organisation left me shell-shocked!

Most aid stations had nothing more than water, cheap electrolytes and marie biscuits. We were promised with sandwiches in aid stations but was rationed so badly that it was absent in most stations. The aid station brought me memories of SDAT Half-marathon in February 2008 in terms of quality. Post-run, we were given cheap medals and no refreshments except water. My fellow runners from Coimbatore was surprised by lack of basic facilities. Even the simplest of the running events in Coimbatore offer fresh breakfast at the finish and here, they were left high and dry without any refreshments at the finish. When asked about the methodology to measure the route, I was shocked to hear that it was measured using the GPS in mobile phone. The pre-race briefing, held in a plush hotel, was largely concentrated on creating  false panic over protests surrounding Jallikattu, which was long over by then.

To top it all, it was the arrogance of the organisers, who were hardly sympathetic, when I raised these issues (including the merit in advertising it as a training run for Comrades marathon!) that left me completely disgusted. I would like to publish an excerpt from his response to me:

In conclusion I have to make this statement loud and clear. Take my advice from a seasoned runner! You are NOT a runner or a walker.
First and foremost:  Runners have to have a positive & humble attitude even before they take up the sport of running! You don’t have BOTH.
Above all, you have taken around 12 hours to finish the 70K and we wouldn’t have even let you participate.
Do you know that we were going to have a qualifier for the 70K as 10 hours?  This year was your lucky year and a chance  that we let people participate without a qualifier. Next year, even if you want to and have a changed heart you CANNOT participate in this race because we will have a qualifier for the 70K as 10 hours.
WE WANT REAL RUNNERS to RUN OUR RACE. So YES ‘Comrades is not as challenging as Nilgiris.’  That is a TRUE statement! Just because it is organized in another country and a bunch of western runners say that it is tough you take it for granted? What a bunch of crock that is?  Bunch of Indian runners and seasoned runners are telling you Balaji, Nilgiris Ultra is much tougher and you question that? Get your stats right.
BTW you can’t even get in from next year onwards. You will see a different rating for our race.

The irony of the response was that there were only 4 runners running the 70K and none of them finished under 11 hours. So much for the haughtiness! As far as not allowing me to run, he seems to have to missed the point that I can run the route zillion times for the same cost as it is very much my backyard! After his lessons on humility, the mocking comments on an event as prestigious as Comrades Marathon was certainly unwarranted.

The sad truth is that these organisers will have their way out irrespective of their poor organising skills and arrogance. They know well that Indians are ‘cheap’ and can be easily fooled again and again! During the briefing, a lot was spoken how they are a ‘social enterprise’ albeit with limited social skills, which was nothing more than a anticipatory bail. In short, they are just chasing hot air!

The Nilgiris Ultra

Disclaimer: None of the medications suggested below is conclusive or scientific. Please do not try them in your daily life or before long distance runs.

Saturday, January 28, 2017 – The night before the run, I was still unsure of whether to run or not the following day. It has been a quite painful three days preceding the event. After my final training run (followed by a heavy breakfast) on Thursday, January 26, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with my troubles starting from a throat infection. One led to another, and I was down with running nose, common cold and fever which sapped all the energy out of my body for the next two days. The sight of strips of paracetamol tablets, squeezed lemons and empty samahaan sachets was depressing, to say the least. Frequent gargling of warm water with salt helped in easing my throat pain but not my anxiety of missing the event.

Of course, there was the positive events leading to the run that kept me cheered about. The first one was visiting my good old friend, Birendra Nepal at Wellington after almost 14 years! Biru, as we used to call him (and possibly, I still can call him that way!), was one of the earliest persons to encourage me to take up sports in spite of all my short comings. A pleasant conversation that took us back years as if the last 14 years were non-existent! The second of it was the presence of the Hyderabad Runners who has turned out in big numbers to celebrate the unique achievement of Mr. Hariharan in participating in 100 running events! The pre-race dinner with the Hyderabad Runners helped me to cool some of my nerves and made me feel confident about the next day.

As I went to the bed at 10:00 PM on Saturday, I was still in two minds to do or not to do. I wasn’t keen on hurting myself any further but the race meant a lot to me. Over the previous two months, I had done plenty of training focused towards the run. Adding to it was my fund raising initiative which was well supported by my near and dear. It looked like I was a different man altogether when  I got up the next morning at 5:00 AM. A cup of coffee followed by some stretches and morning ablutions, I was confident and raring to go! The start and finish point for the race was barely 200m from my place of stay. Thanks to Anu for permitting me to stay at her home, I could leave home at 5:53 AM and be in time for the start of the race at 6:00 AM. As John Bingham would say,

” The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

To write about the run can be as long as the run itself and for the reader, it would be as boring as watching me run. There were some great moments like spotting a Gaur in the early morning, watching the day break in the hills, nice drizzle that always kept me fresh, stunning landscapes of potato fields, carrot processing units, tea estates and breathtaking valleys. More than the physical endurance, it was all about retaining the focus on moving forward without getting distracted by the discomforts and the intermittent challenges.

Run with your Heart

This time around, I chose to focus on my heart rate to avoid distraction from other areas. The strategy was simple and clear – Not to get my heart rate over 160 (beats per minute) at any point of time. I set myself an upper limit of 150 and lower limit of 140. Every time, I cross 150 while running, I would switch over to walking till I bring my heart rate below 140 and start again to run. I was reasonably confident that the distance would be accomplished as long as I have been feet on the ground and keep moving. The heart rate of 140-150 turned out to be my comfort zone where I could accomplish distances with minimal effort.

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It was more of walking the uphills and running the downhills. The bigger challenge for the run was getting appropriate aid station support (about which I will write in detail in the next blog).

The distance was accomplished in 11:27 minutes and a detailed statistical report can be found here:

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1548049409

A big thanks to all my friends and special thanks to all those who came forward to support my fund raising initiative towards ASHA for education. More about it here – https://runningunlimited.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/running-for-cause/

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.

Pacing the 5:30 Bus

To be a pacer in a marathon is an unique challenge, for it comes with a great deal of responsibility. You not only run your race but also help someone to run their race. My only experience as a pacer was during the Hyderabad Marathon in 2011, when I and KP tagged along for the 5-hr bus. Thanks to KP, we were able to ensure that the bus reached 2 minutes within the 5-hr mark (a detailed report in KP’s Blog). Four years later, I am all set for a different challenge – pacing the 5:30 Bus and sadly, no KP to help me out with the “Strategic Plan” of pacing. More than the goal of finishing the marathon in 5:30, the real difficulty is in explaining the strategy for the race. As I set to outline my proposed plan, I would also like to draw some lessons from a similar experience – running Comrades in an imaginary 12-hour bus and finishing 2 minutes to spare (the actual 12-hour bus went past me at the 6-hour mark and not to be found again!).

Who can join the 5:30 bus?

My simple answer is anyone who do not intend to finish the run under 5 hours and would like to get the best out of the entry fee they paid. On a more technical note, I would suggest that anyone who can run a half-marathon “comfortably” under 2 hours 40 minutes or “less comfortably” under 2 hours 30 minutes can join the bus to get their sub-5:30 timing for the marathon. Runners who lost their way with the 4:30 Bus or 5:00 Bus are always welcome on the run as long as they don’t wonder why we are running slow!

How do you train for the run?

I would go for something less technical and less mathematical approach. Take the event as a limited overs cricket match – you have to cover 43K (to factor the start line hiccups, GPS faults in route marking and to be on safe side) and you have 330 minutes to cover that distance. In other words, you have to cover 29K at 8 minutes per Km and 14K at 7 minutes per Km. During your training runs, find out yourself how do you feel when you run a Km in 8 minutes and 7 minutes respectively (preferably without music). This will help you to be mentally prepared for the race day. CAUTION: Do remember, you have only one wicket and there is no Duckworth-Lewis method applicable in case of rain!

The Race Day Plan

No matter what you plan or no matter how you train, all that matters is how you react to the challenges on the race day. Training and race-day plans at best helps you to be mentally and physically strong to overcome these challenges. Importantly, always prioritise safety over your goals! Your goals can wait for another day and marathons happen every month. So, make sure you don’t push yourself beyond the limits.

Pacers are normally expected to have their targets set for every Km, factored for aid-station breaks and other contingencies. This approach has its own merits and limitations. However, the objective of running the marathon is not just achieving the goals but also enjoying the run and such pedantry often takes the joy out of running. Losing an extra minute for a photograph with volunteers or dear ones on the run is more enjoyable even if it makes us finish a minute after 5:30!

I normally prefer to set hourly targets and ensuring that they are met at the end of each hour:

Hour 1 – Target 8.5K – 9K

The early morning weather of the Hyderabad, the empty roads and importantly, flat roads, must help us to run better. The humidity is often a challenge and there will always be temptation to run faster. (Average speed – 7 minutes per KM)

Hour 2 – Target 16.5K – 17K

The biggest challenge in the second hour is that the full marathon runners run into the half-marathon crowd. The road is expected to be completely blocked by the “walkers” and we need to find ways to run through them without disturbing them. If you are getting frustrated by the slow runners, do remember you were amongst them, not long ago!

Hour 3 – Target 24.5K – 25K

It is here where you start feeling the ‘hills’ of Hyderabad. For all the “elevation profiles” shared, I don’t think it would matter much impact in this stretch. If you are feeling it, it would be best to slow down and target the 6:00 Hour cut-off.

Hour 4 – Target 32K – 32.5K

This is the phase leading to the proverbial ‘wall’ of marathon. Keeping some “minutes” in hand will be useful at this phase. Walks will start featuring more in our routine.

Hour 5 – Target 39K – 39.5K

Actually, not many really knows what happens here. Let’s leave it for the race day!

The final few Kms

The exuberance of finishing will take you all the way to the finish. The last few Kms are possibly the best stretch of the route under the tree covered avenues of the HCU and the road leading to the stadium. As you enter the stadium, the early finishers of marathon and finishers of Half-marathon will be on their way back home. Some may possibly cheer and some others will give you the typical non-runners look of ‘why are you doing this?’ Ignore! This is your race and you alone is the winner!

Run-Walk

Run-Walk is for me the way to run a marathon or any distance for runners. It is a myth that it slows our running or one cannot achieve their ‘personal bests’ and so on. The key for an efficient run-walk is consistency of application. I normally choose a 4:1 split and maintain it from the 9th minute onwards (the first walk break is avoided as it will cause disturbance to other runners). If we find ourselves having sufficient time, we may slow down to 3:1 and on the hills, we may opt to shuffle between running and walking for a short duration.

Motivational Talks!

Another feature of pacers is that they are responsible to motivate. Now, that’s the challenge I am willing to be up for! If some wants motivation, just record the video and keep! It is difficult to emulate this ‘dude’.

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”

Mumbai Marathon

During the run-up to the Mumbai Marathon this year, the Race Director, Hugh Jones said,

“This is where the running movement started in India. People in urban India have taken to street running,’’

Tall claims! Nevertheless, one has to agree with the fact that it is one of the well established running event in India. The Pune International Marathon can claim to be the oldest but has never seen the light of the day in terms of its popularity or number of runners. The Mumbai Marathon is also the only Marathon event in India that is recognised as a ‘Gold Label’ road race by the IAAF, (even if many, including me, do not understand what it means). It registers the highest number of finishers in the full marathon category in this country as one can see from the chart below.Mumbai marathonThere are many aspects to the event that keeps attracting a large number of events – The crowd support, the route through Marine Drive and the sea-link bridge, qualifier for many international events like the Boston Marathon, Comrades marathon and even Olympics;  And there is always the indomitable spirit of Mumbai that adds to the allure of the event. Yet, if there is one question that often lingers in my mind, it is, ‘Having recognised as a world class event, is this the best India can offer?’ Sadly, the answer is “No’ and here’s why,

First, the lack of attention towards the basics. The current edition is the twelfth edition of the event and it still lacks some of the essential requirements. Some of the issues highlighted from this year’s event by my friend, TR Kumar,

1. There was no clear identification of Finish Line  No Celebration, No Cheering as one gets to the finish line. The finish line was a complete fizzle out
2. There were No Clear Water Points after the finish. One needs at least plenty of water stations to hydrate and one had to walk on for ever to find some water
3. It was not clear where Medals and Refreshments were provided. It was a complete mess after the finish
4. There was No Demarcation for Full Marathon Finish (for the Last Two Kms) as was mentioned by the organizers
5. Overcrowding of Half Marathon Participants all along after 35 Kms mark. One had to do zig zag to get past the casual strollers doing Fun Half Marathon
7. Very Long Queues after Finish Line
8. There was a Ramp with Steps to Walk up After Finish to get to the relaxing zone. Was this meant to be a joke to test the endurance of the runners?
9. Medical Tents were not available after the run to get a spray or get some medical attention.
10. No Breakfast Provided at the end of the run. For all the exorbitant money charged for the event, and also the huge sponsors, a simple breakfast was at least welcome.

Most of these issues were present when I ran for the first time in 2006 and also each of the 4 times until 2013. It is sad that the organisers continue to ignore these basics. With more and more runners gaining experience of running quality events abroad, the organisers do not step up their quality of service to match runners’ expectations.

Second, the ever rising entry costs. The entry fee for the marathon has been increasing exponentially, from the paltry Rs.200 in 2006 edition to Rs. 1400 in the current edition as the chart below would show.

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It would be fair to point out that the cost of living in India during that time period was also on the rise, even if not in the same proportion as the cost of entry fee. There has also been increase in the sponsorship for the event which must have taken significant burden of the inflation. Moreover, in my personal experience, there are significant economies of scale in marathon events which leads to less marginal costs for every additional entry and also the benefit of experience in the subsequent events. The flip side to the higher entry fee, as my friend Dr. Ram said “it has become the rich man’s preserve.” It has become prohibitively expensive for vast majority in this country to even dream about the marathon.

Third, the lack of importance for the ‘Marathon.’ Most marathons in India are no more than a ‘Running festival’ with events of all distances, yet titled ‘Marathon.’ Marathon is strictly 42.195K; distance below and above that has its own lexicon and not to be confused with the Marathon. Sadly, there are very initiatives that encourage people to go ahead and try that distance. The most recent Singapore Marathon attracted over 10,900 finishers in the marathon category and the number of finishers in Mumbai did not cross 3000. The organisers seems to be content organising the ‘masala’ runs that fills their coffers and get due media attention through celebrity participation.

Finally, most events in India benchmarks themselves with Mumbai Marathon, which sadly ranks very poor in comparison with international standards. As Gautam Bhatia writes in his piece titled When the second rate sets the standards,

The history of being second rate has been so deeply ground into the Indian psyche; it is now part of the real character of being Indian. There is an implicit mistrust of something that works, does not fall apart, is efficient and is visibly differentiated in its design and presentation.

For all its hype, Mumbai Marathon, for me, is still a second rate event. Where it sets a standard, it only harms the development of running events in India.

Disclaimer: I have been involved in organising many running events. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the views of my fellow organisers or the events. I undertake to write the blog only because of my present status as a ‘retired’ organiser and also that I have run Mumbai Marathon for 5 times.