How the West was Lost (Short Version)

February 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Pic: courtesy m3space.net

I grew up on a diet of  Wild West novels and a dominant American narrative that celebrated the victory of the white man against the native American Indian. It was always about how the West was “won.”

The turning point in my thinking occurred in 1996 when I was lucky enough to attend a lecture and solo performance by the legendary R. Carlos Nakai at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Nakai spoke poignantly about how the West was “lost” by the Indians. If the point had been missed by anyone, he played a set of brilliant scores on the native American flute, which transported the audience to the America of a few centuries ago. A few days after the concert, I had bought 3 of Nakai’s albums which included this masterpiece – How the West was Lost.

In the last few months, as I re-read the complete 17-novel Sackett series from master storyteller Louis L’Amour, an extract from Treasure Mountain stood out. I reproduce it below – the short version of How The West Was Lost (as recounted by Powder-Face, an old Indian, to William Tell Sackett).

Powder Face shrugged. “I know,” he said simply.

“We killed them and killed them and killed them, and still they came. It was not the horse soldiers that whipped us, it was not the death of the buffalo, nor the white man’s cows. It was the people. It was the families.

“The rest we might conquer, but the people kept coming and they built their lodges where no Indian could live. They brought children and women, they brought the knife that cuts the earth. They built their lodges of trees, of sod cut from the earth, of boards, of whatever they could find.”

“We burned them out, we killed them, we drove off their horses, and we rode away. When we came back others were there as if grown from the ground—and others, and others, and others.”

“They were too many for us. We killed them, but our young men died, too, and we had not enough young men to father our children, so we must stop fighting.”

And William Tell Sackett’s subsequent conversation with Powder Face reveals the American value system relevant even in the 21st century:

“Remember this, Old One. The white man respects success. For the poor, the weak, and the inefficient, he has pity or contempt. Whatever the color of your skin, whatever country you come from, he will respect you if you do well what it is you do.”

“You may be right. I am an old man, and I am confused. The trail is no longer clear.”

“You brought your people to my cousins. You work for them now, so you are our people as well. You came to them when they
needed you, and you will always have a home where they are.”

The flames burned low, flickered, and went out. Red coals remained. The chill wind stirred the leaves again. Powder Face sat silently, and I went to my blankets.

 

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For a few minutes less: running the Mumbai Marathon 2012

February 7, 2012 1 comment

Look for the Asterix reference at the tail end of post (Pic: courtesy zenitram.over-blog.com)

This is Part 2 of my Mumbai Marathon 2012 race report and continues from For a few minutes less: a race report from Mumbai Marathon 2012.

The First 7k

Somewhere in my pace calculations, I erroneously concluded that  5:50 was the goal pace for a 4 hrs 10 min finish. Perhaps 6 seconds/km is not significant to the seasoned runner but in my limited experience I’ve learnt that every attempt to run faster (than trained for!) in the first half has come back to bite me in the second half. So, my first running mistake was an arithmetic one. 🙂 In order to account for my extra mile of sprinting (and anxiety) before the starting line, I revised my pace – by a ‘generous’ margin of 5 seconds and stuck to a 5:55 pace for the first 5k.

It was the first race where I was in sole possession of last place — at the 10 meter mark. Having survived 45 minutes of anxiety, I was just plain relieved and happy. I told myself that I would overtake hundreds, most likely even thousands of runners – that pumped me up. At the 2k mark, my pal Jothi (here’s his race report) yelled an encouraging “catch-up”. I waved back knowing fully well that, with my revised goal pace,  I wasn’t going to catch up anytime soon. As I alluded to earlier, an important pre-race ritual had been missed – emptying the bladder. What started as a mental distraction soon turned into a physiological nag. Keeping a lookout for a Sulabh on the Marine Drive stretch, the first open one was sighted at the 7k mark. Turned out to be a quite a popular loo – the pit stop having cost me nearly two minutes.

7k to 21k

Maintaining an average pace of 5:56, I steadily overtook groups of runners. I slowed down going up the Pedder Road incline and, after reaching the top, went tearing down with long strides. I gained no more than 20 seconds but it was done to get the adrenaline pumping. Crossing the Bandra-Worli sea-link was fairly uneventful, especially compared to the 2010 edition. Somewhere between 15k and 20k, I overtook Rahul Verghese’s 5:30 pacing bus and Amit Sheth/Neepa Sheth’s 5:00 pacing bus. The latter was a high-octane peloton with several catchy slogans.

Gobs of Gu and Sacs of Salt

Whether it’s the first, fifth or tenth marathon you are running, if something ends up deviating from plan, it will only happen in the second half (most likely in the last 10k). I crossed the half-way mark in 2 hrs 5 min. It should have triggered a “going too fast per my revised goal” warning bell but it didn’t. In any case, it was too late to make any adjustments and my body and mind were in good harmony at this stage. I was so focused that I passed Ravi Venkatesan (a fellow BHUKMP runner) without noticing him. He called out and, for fun, I did a 20 second burst of reverse running while engaging in a short conversation. I recall thinking this guy ran a fast first half – that too in his first full marathon.

For all but two of my marathons, I’ve been carrying a Gatorade bottle and using Gu gels. The only change I made for SCMM2012 was to consume a gel every 5k (instead of 6k), so a total of 8 energy gels.  It didn’t feel like I overdid it so I’ll repeat this for the next race too.

After suffering severe calf cramps in the season’s first marathon (Hyderabad – Aug 2011), I used Endurolyte capsules (mostly salt) for the next race (Kaveri Trail Marathon – Sep 2011). They seemed to work because I didn’t cramp at this venue for the first time in 3 consecutive years! At the Bangalore 50k Ultra (Nov 2011), the Endurolyte tablets weren’t sufficient to stave off several bouts of calf cramps. My running experts told me that 5 capsules probably didn’t account for the hot weather. So I came to SCMM2012 armed with 8 endurolyte capsules.

The eventful second half

Shortly after passing Ravi at the halfway mark, I started feeling some niggles — in my quads and hamstrings. The quadriceps and calf muscle groups had made their presence (and displeasure) felt in many earlier marathons but the hamstring niggle was new. I popped some extra Endurolyte capsules as a preemptive measure, dropped my pace a wee bit – ran 20-25k at 6:00 pace and the 25-30k stretch at 6:04 pace.

Somewhere in the region of 32-33k, my right hamstring niggle morphed into a moderate cramp. All signs in the preceding 10k were pointing to this eventuality but I was still disappointed. If my marathons #1 through #4 were characterized by struggles with exhaustion and cramps in the final 10k, marathons #5 through #9 have been devoid of exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong – I would be plenty tired at the 32k mark but my energy meter still showed plenty of juice.  So my last 5 marathons have primarily been struggles against cramps – thank god for small mercies!

I stopped, did some general stretches and continued at a slower pace. I repeated this sequence and was it a wonder that my 30-35k lap pace was 6:40? Worse was around the corner. Close to 36k, my moderate hamstring cramp turned into a full blown cramp. As I passed a friend and fellow Bangalore runner (Sunil Chainani), I asked him if he had any miracle cure for a hamstring cramp (I had exhausted my supply of salt tablets by now). Of course a miracle cure was not to be (yet)!

I continued (my now familiar) ritual of running-walking-stopping-stretching. Somewhere in the 30-36k stretch, I passed fellow Bangalore runners (Sridhar  and Satsang) and Chennai runner Ridhima Suri. For a while, Sridhar, Ridhima and I were playing a cat-and-mouse game with each other. At the 38k mark, my fortunes turned. As I pulled under one of those green ‘oasis’ tents with cool water sprays, I asked a fellow runner if he had a pain spray. What he did have (and kindly offered) was a Volini pain relief sachet. I liberally applied the gel to my right hamstring and, on a hunch, also applied it to my left hamstring. 10 seconds later a miracle happened – the above Asterix visual is the best way to describe how I felt! Of course I didn’t attain superhuman strength but my cramped hamstring had been banished to some temporary jail and that, my friends, was superhuman enough.

I had 4k more of road to pound so I took off like a released torpedo. According to my calculations, I was definitely going over 4 hrs 20min but there was just a chance I could salvage a PB out of this race.  The 35-40k leg was negotiated with an average pace of 7:28 – probably would have been 8:30 without the Volini. For the final 2.5km, I finished strong with a 6:21 pace – the course ended up being 42.5km (not 42.2km). My net time turned out to be 4 hrs 24 min 3 sec – shaving 2 1/2 minutes from my previous PB at Auroville 2011.

Closing Thoughts

Notwithstanding my blunder-laced start, there were several positives to be drawn from my 9th marathon finish:

  • Did not run out of energy in the final 10k – revised goal pace mostly in the ball park.
  • Rebounded from my hamstring cramps creditably (thanks mainly to the benefactor at 38k)
  • Mentally a lot stronger in the final 5-7k than all previous marathons.
  • Salvaged a PB in spite of cramps, 2-minute pit stop, extra 300 m, extra mile of sprinting before race start.

The biggest open question I need to address for next season is cramps. This time it was hamstring, last few times it was calves, and before that it was quadriceps. What’s a sure training and race-day strategy to prevent cramps? (my next research area) And yeah, even if I figure it out, need to carry pain relief spray for sure.

For a few minutes less: a race report from Mumbai Marathon 2012

February 1, 2012 1 comment

Writing a post-marathon race report is a bit like [insert-metaphor]. Write it too soon and it runs the risk of coming out shallow and half-baked, wait too long and it might never see the light of day. A fortnight after completing Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), I’m right at the dangerous cusp. I often describe SCMM to my non-running friends as the Vaishno Devi for marathon aficionados – ‘nuf said!

I didn’t have a perfect race. If I did, a single tweet would have sufficed. As I recently observed in this blog post, one learns more from an imperfect race than a perfect one – hence this blog post. 🙂 I had a good and exciting race. What I didn’t bank on was that the excitement would start well before race start.

What if the auto-driver had arrived at my friend’s place on time. What if I had managed to catch the express train (instead of the slower local) from Kurla to CST. What if the security guards at gate #4 had allowed me to enter Azad Maidan without my bib. In the hour before race start, the three “what ifs” came together for a perfect storm of anxiety.  Not just for me but also for my friend Jothi. The underlying blunder had already been committed the previous day when I requested Jothi to pick up my race kit and bring with him the next morning.

Before race start

Reached gate #4 at 5:25 am. I knew it was a mere 15 minutes to the starting gun but I wasn’t freaking out just yet. However, I was feeling guilty for having put Jothi in a tricky predicament. After a series of phone calls between Jothi and me, Jothi rushed towards gate #4, only to not find me because.. he had been misdirected to gate #5. If Jothi had left my bib and timing at the baggage counter and tried to make it to the starting line on time, I would have totally understood but he’s too cool a friend (Here’s Jothi nonchalantly talking about the episode in his race report). It was 5:35am when Jothi told me to come to gate #5. I sprinted the 600 meter odd distance from gate#4 to gate #5. Jothi quickly handed over my bib/timing chip and hurried to the starting line while I rushed to the baggage counter. As I fixed the timing chip to my shoe, one of the baggage counter guys helped with my bib. In a moment of insanity, a calm voice within me asked the baggage counter guy “where are the restrooms?” He gave me an incredulous look and said “Sir, hurry to the starting line or you might miss the cutoff!”

Off to the races

Azad Maidan at 5:45am bore a deserted look.  I sprinted the 600m odd distance from the baggage counter to the starting line along with 4-5 fellow late starters. When my timing chip recorded its beep at the starting mat, the gun time was 5:52am. I was 12 minutes behind the pack, my running partner (Jothi) was a few minutes ahead but I visibly relaxed. Whew! I had made it – there was just a little matter of running 42.195km.

I took stock of my situation.  I reminded myself that this was my ninth marathon so the issue was less about finishing and more about my finishing time. Adjustments were needed to my running pace but how much? Before talking about my race day adjustments, a quick look at my training plan and the method behind setting a goal pace.

Training Plan Recap

I had been following Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1 training plan. I picked an ‘Advanced’ plan instead of an Intermediate plan, not because I’m an advanced runner but because I wanted a plan which incorporated interval runs and a weekly mileage higher than what I was normally accustomed to. Of course I made changes galore to the plan. At the half-way mark, when I was supposed to run a half-marathon at goal pace, I ran a 50k (my first Ultra marathon!). During the three weeks of highest mileage (85k+), I ended up missing at least one middle-of the-week run with the result that those weeks became 60k+ and 70k+ weeks instead. A cold Hyderabad morning and recalcitrant lungs conspired for a DNF on my final  32k training run.

On goal pace and the inevitable adjustments

I used this popular goal pace calculator to set my initial goal. A common trait shared by all goal pace calculators is a disclaimer that reads something like this – “Of course these are estimates’ of what you can run. Actual results will vary depending on the course, the weather, if it’s your day or not and a myriad of other factors.” Thanks Sherlock! To give you a sense for how ridiculous these calculators can be, consider this! When I inputted my fastest recent 10k (a little under 48 minutes), the calculator spat out 3:45 as my goal pace. Which suggested that I could cleave a whopping 41 minutes from my PB – crazy! Psychologically, anything faster than 3:59 was irrational exuberance so I decided to train for a 5:40 goal pace FULLY aware that adjustments would be forthcoming.

I had known about the benefits of interval training for a while but this was the first time I incorporated into my training regimen. I missed a few long runs, a few tempo runs and several easy runs but I didn’t miss a single interval run. The other thing I did differently was to run all my weekday runs on the treadmill. This was driven by a constraint (early morning time paucity) rather than any deliberate strategy. As the Higdon plan recommended, a ran at least two of my interval runs as Yasso 800’s. Running most of my intervals (including the Yasso 800s) at 4:00 pace, albeit on the treadmill, gave me the confidence that maybe (just maybe! my goal pace was not terribly unrealistic.

In the final week of taper, as I broodingly looked at the “plan” vs. “actual” spreadsheet and see the numerous deviations and contemplated on the fact that my PB was 4 hrs 26 min, I decided that a goal finish of 4 hrs 10 min (average pace of 5:56) was a more realistic target.

The rest of the race report continues here…. For a few minutes less: running the Mumbai Marathon 2012


Pankaj Advani on learning from failures

January 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Pic courtesy topnews.in

At a recent TEDxIIMB event, I listened and watched as the billiards and snooker prodigy Pankaj Advani walked us through his accomplishments. He lingered on a photo that displayed his living room resplendent with glittering trophies. “These are just for the tournaments that I WON outright,” he stated almost nonchalantly.

The trophies for second and third place finishes were relegated to a backroom. No trace of arrogance, just matter-of-fact. He then surprised me with “Mom thinks the second and third prizes are not important but I don’t agree. They were incredibly important because I learnt something from each of those losses. I hated losing each of those matches and I resolved not to repeat it.”

I’m sure every sportsperson learns from his/her failures and the truly great gets extra motivated with each loss. Why am I filing this post under the “Running” category? How is it relevant to an amateur marathoner who’s not really gunning for a podium finish? It”s relevant because the amateur marathoner is motivated by a desire to constantly improve and move to a faster running orbit. By his reckoning, a “winning” race is characterized by his meeting his race goal (whatever he had trained for). A “losing” race has a whole range of characteristics – cramping, running too fast in the first half, hitting the wall at 35k, etc. In short, the regular amateur marathoner goes through a season of “losing” races before hitting pay-dirt on a “winning” race.

 

In that case I’ll buy a cheaper car

January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Pic: courtesy Bing/Mercedes-Benz

A conversation between our 6-year old (A) and his mom. I was just a fly on the wall.

A: When I grow up I’ll buy a Mercedes.

MOM: Why Mercedes?

A: Because its your favorite car.

MOM: (gives him a sentimental hug and replies practically) Then you have to study VERY hard in school and college, get a REALLY good job, save money for SEVERAL years and then you may be able to afford a Mercedes.

A: Then I’ll buy a cheap car.

MOM: (looked at him disapprovingly for shirking hard work).

A:  But I want to buy a car as soon as possible.

MOM: Ok, so when you get a job, buy a nice used car and keep saving until you have enough for a Mercedes.

A: Thank you Mama, I really DO want to buy a Mercedes for you.

 

The need for political skepticism

January 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Nobody reads essays anymore, especially those from the early twentieth-century era. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that the large majority of our “pulp library” is still in California (most of the books are in my sister’s garage and some in my cousin’s attic).  If you want to know how unconventional our US-to-India move  was, check out A sense of satisfaction… and accomplishment. We managed to bring 10-odd books with us, sorta “Desert Island mini library”. The rest of the books are coming home  via a patent-pending “Web 2.0 meets slow-boat-to-China” shipping strategy – more on that in a separate post.

Bertrand Russell’s Skeptical Essays was a volume I picked up at one of the annual Bangalore book fairs in Palace Grounds. As you can imagine, it’s not easy reading but compared to other philosophy works, several essays are lucid enough. I found the eleventh essay, The Need for Political Skepticism, particularly educational and relevant to put in perspective the struggling and bumbling democracy that is India. Remember that this essay was delivered as a a presidential address to the Students Union of London School of Economics and Political Science in 1923!

On political parties

One of the peculiarities of the English-speaking world is its immense interest and belief in political parties. A very large percentage of English-speaking people really believe that the ills from which they suffer would be cured if a certain political party were in power. That is a reason for the swing of the pendulum. A man votes for one party and remains miserable; he concludes that it is the other party that was to bring the millennium. By the time he is disenchanted with all parties, he is an old man on the verge of death; his sons retain the belief of his youth, and the see-saw goes on.

I want to suggest that, if we are to do any good in politics, we must view political questions in a different way. A party which is to obtain power must, in a democracy, make an appeal to which a majority of the nation responds. For reasons which will appear in the course of the argument, an appeal which is widely successful, with the existing democracy, can hardly fail to be harmful. Therefore no important political party is likely to have a useful programme, and if useful measures are to be passed, it must be by means of some other machinery than party government. How to combine any such machinery with democracy is one of the most urgent problems of our time.

On specialists in party politics

There are at present two very different kinds of specialists in political questions. On the one hand there are the practical politicians of all parties; on the other hand there are the experts, mainly civil servants, but also economists, financiers, scientific medical men, etc. Each of these two classes has a special kind of skill. The skill of the politician consists in guessing what people can be brought to think advantageous to themselves; the skill of the expert consists in calculating what really is advantageous, provided people can be brought to think so. (The proviso is essential, because measures which arouse serious resentment are seldom advantageous, whatever merits they have otherwise.) The power of the politician, in a democracy, depends upon his adopting the opinions which seem right to the average man. It is useless to urge that politicians ought to be high-handed enough to advocate what enlightened opinion considers good, because if they do they are swept aside for others. Moreover, the intuitive skill that they require in forecasting opinion does not imply any skill whatever in forming their own opinions, so that many of the ablest (from a party-political point of view) will be in a position to advocate, quite honestly, measures which the majority think good, but which experts know to be bad. There is therefore no point in moral exhortations to politicians to be disinterested, except in the crude sense of not taking bribes.

On politicians

Wherever party politics exist, the appeal of a politician is primarily to a section, while his opponents appeal to an opposite section. His success depends upon turning his section into a majority. A measure which appeals to all sections equally will presumably be common ground between the parties, and will therefore be useless to the party politician. Consequently he concentrates attention upon those measures which are disliked by the section that forms the nucleus of his opponents’ supporters. Moreover, a measure, however admirable, is useless to a politician unless he can give reasons for it which will appear convincing to the average man when set forth in a platform speech. We have thus two conditions which must be fulfilled by the measures on which party politicians lay stress: (1) They must seem to favour the needs of a section of the nation; (2) the arguments for them must be of the utmost simplicity. Of course this does not apply to a time of war, because then the party conflict is suspended in favour of conflict with the external enemy. In war, the arts of the politician are expended in neutrals, who correspond to the doubtful voter in ordinary politics. The late war showed that, as we should have expected, democracy affords an admirable training for the business of appealing to neutrals. That was one of the main reasons why democracy won the war. It is true it lost the peace; but that is another question.

There are more nuggets of beauty in this essay so I’ll likely post a part 2 in the future.

 

My Pre-2011 Marathon Running Era

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

The T-shirt they gave to the finishers of Silicon Valley Marathon 2002

In 2002, I ran my first marathon – the Silicon Valley Marathon in San Jose. Finished in a respectable time of 4:32. After a 6-year hiatus, I resumed running after our return to India in August 2008. I had struck an optimistic note in Asthma, Bangalore and me… but deep in my heart I feared that my asthma would return, a case of when rather than if.

With the sword of Damocles hanging perilously close to my lungs in our first 100 days in Bangalore, was trying really hard to squeeze in a few runs every week. During one of those perambulating-around-the-apartment-complex runs, I was ‘spotted’ by ace Bangalore marathoner Ashok Nath. I say ‘spotted’ because he knew right away that:

  • I had it in me to be a distance runner
  • My form could use some improvement – my hands were open like a sprinter, instead of the lightly closed fist of a distance runner

After that chance encounter, Ashok persuaded me to register for the Bangalore Midnight Half-Marathon, a mere month away. With the most threadbare of training, I completed the Half-Marathon. A side effect of the half-marathon was my hooking up with an entire cast of rabid marathoners in Koramangala. The rest was history. Eight months later, I ran my second full marathon (and my first in India) in Srirangapatnam. It was an emotionally painful, slow and grinding marathon. However, the experience compelled me to return to Kaveri Trail in 2010 to make amends. The period between the two Kaveri Trail Marathons was quite eventful – a creditable showing at the Mumbai Marathon in Jan 2010 followed a month later by an un-ignorable case of “moderate” slipped disc.

Techies of the world: respect the L5-S1 disc!!!

Contrary to popular perceptions, “slipped disc” does not signal the end of an active and adventurous lifestyle. Slipped discs are neither caused by, nor are they exacerbated by, running. But they are to be respected and one does need to make adjustments to one’s life. The good orthopedist Dr. Srinivasan (of Malleswaram fame) assured me that if I religiously did a set of three exercises twice daily (before breakfast and dinner) I could continue with my worship of the running gods. Having stuck to this regimen 90% of the time in the past 21 months, I’m pleased to report that I’ve had only one episode of back pain (lasting around 4 days). Then there’s was also the little matter of resisting macho urges when it comes to lugging suitcases. For the other, more important, matter of resisting paternal urges to pick up the darling kiddos, a creative workaround thankfully presented itself.

I ended 2010 with four full marathons under my belt. In the next calendar year, I had doubled the count to eight, in the process logging a mileage of 2000 km for 2011.

My wife, in describing my last marathon of 2011, had this to say “Vishy just crossed the line from being plain-old-crazy to ultra-crazy”. Can’t really argue with that characterization but is there more to the story than mere craziness? Did I have a master plan? Had I become an endorphin-snorting marathon addict? How did I fare in those four marathons and what had I learnt? Stay tuned for the next post in this series – answers to those questions and some more.