Tuesday 29 November 2011

The Atalanta Affair. Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) Part 2

Part 2

Saturday 26th November 2011

On the flight to Delhi, my mind was filled with thoughts about wooing Atalanta the Goddess of Speed.  I was anxious. I had come to interpret the pursuit of speed and the pursuit of happiness as being one and the same thing.
 “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” have been considered “unalienable rights” in the United States Declaration of Independence.  And here I was, considering Atalanta and the promise of Speed as my “unalienable right.” 
As I entered my room at the Meridian hotel, I took heart, for on my bed, lay a parcel, which had been delivered by DHL just in nick of time.  I opened the parcel and inspected the contents.  Yes! At least something had turned out right.  Now the question was whether I would be within striking distance of Atalanta to use its contents.
Sunday 27th November 2011
I stood right behind the elite athletes on the starting line.  I was nervous.  I thought about the e-mail I had received from her on Friday evening, it had been brief and to the point, they were the same lines she wrote to all her suitors.  I had read them in Ovid’s Metamorphosis: “I am not to be won till I be conquered first in speed.  Wife and couch shall be given as prize unto the swift but death shall be the reward of those who lag behind.”
This is too much stress!
The Africans were warming up and with 10 minutes to start time, I could not even see her.  Where was Atalanta and how can I race her if I can’t even find her?
I knew I had to de-stress, quickly, and so I went over and chatted briefly with the incredibly friendly and gorgeously glamorous Gul Panag (who was at the start line with her equally handsome husband, Rishi). 
With 3 minutes to go to the start, I finally spotted her.  Atalanta was talking with the young and handsome son of a liquor baron (who also happens to own a F1 team, an airline, besides being the official water supplier for the race). 
There they were, laughing and talking and hugging. He looked like a Greek God with sculpted muscles and gel in his hair.  He was a guy who looked comfortably in touch with his inner feminine (something I know that women admire in a man).  He was wearing a Speedo-like spandex-made body suit, so tight, that one could see every well developed muscle in his body.  He moved around her, like a peacock showing off his feathers.   I could hear him speak in his heavily accented foreign tongue and my heart sank.  Has this guy sent in his e-mail too? How many people do I have to race? How can poor me compete with this guy? He is young, strong, handsome and sooooo wealthy (And he wears spandex)
I kept staring at Atalanta and with just a minute to go, her eyes caught mine. She started to walk towards me and her beautiful body glided so sublimely that it seemed as if a celestial form was sailing through the heavens. 
And before I could open my mouth she spoke (again borrowing the words from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili):
“O Amit, my only one, my sweet hope! Your pierced and tortured heart has suffered enough through the brutality of stringent cut-off times, difficult terrains, weather conditions, cruel race marshals and lack of aid stations. But in a few hours, you will see a happy end to your sorrows, since it is permitted for the blind desire of your yearning to lodge in my willing breast.  I am ready to respond with gentle voice and compliance to your precious love.  I desire to give proper satisfaction to your will and mine.  You, my sweet lover, have sent me your split times for 5k, 10k, 15k and 21k.  I will wait for you at each of those points”
Before I could react to these delicious words, the gun was fired. 7:10 am.  In the blink of an eye, the Africans disappeared and so did Atalanta along with the spandex man.  I was stunned. 
I looked behind me only to be engulfed by a tsunami of fast runners who had been held back to let the elite runners start first.  The Africans disappeared as if this was a 100 meter sprint and hundreds of athletes followed.  I immediately lost sight of Gul, Rishi, Dr. Aashish, Venkat and Usha. 
I was alone.  I was desolate.
But the race has to be run.  It was too late to call off this wooing business.  My neck was at stake.  I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer to the God within me and was on my way.  Sub 2:00 or bust!
The weather was nice and cool, the road broad and flat.  119 minutes to run 21.1 km meant that I had to run each km in 5:38.  Planning on an even split I planned to reach 5km in about 28 minutes, 10k in 56 minutes, 15k in 85 minutes and then the finish just a few seconds short of 2 hours.
I reached 5k in exactly 28 minutes. As I ran over the carpet, my eyes searched for Atalanta but she was nowhere to be seen.  I reached 10k in 56 minutes, bang on target. No sign of Atalanta. 
I think of her promise to meet me at the timing carpets and I curse the man in spandex.  Is she out there with him? I wonder. 
I ignore the grandeur of India Gate and the fabulous roads of Delhi.  My eyes are focused on the road and on my Garmin, my mind is focused on my hydration and on my energy consumption. My heart searches for Atalanta.  I am worried and stressed.  The kilometres are disappearing fast. She is nowhere to be seen. 
Then suddenly, I see the unique form of the spandex man, he runs without swinging his arms.  They are held up but they don’t swing. It looks really different. 
Atalanta is not next to him either.  I let out a sigh of relief although this does not really solve the problem.  Perhaps he did not e-mail her and she knew him merely from being page 3 acquaintances.   
Now the Greek God and I run within a few meters of each other.  There is a problem in running close to a celebrity.  Every time I see a photographer, I raise my head, adjust my stride, widen my light brown eyes and give my best smile however they jump right in front of me to take a picture of him.  And then they look at the camera screen to check their shot.  I am ignored as I run by.  This happens again and again and again and again. And I know that there might be no visual record of me having run this race. 
I can’t outrun him. I really can’t run faster than 5:38/km. We both reach 15k together in 85:01. 
I still can’t find Atalanta. I am getting angry and stressed.  I back off just a little and let him pass by. It’s no use racing him since that was not the plan to start with.  The goal was just a sub 2:00.
With 3km to go I am getting tired, physically and mentally.  I am still on pace but it’s getting harder and harder.   The minute I lose concentration I see that the pace falls to 6:00/km.  Running an even pace is hard.  I hate this whole ‘wooing’ idea.  What was I thinking when I took up this whole “pursuit of speed” thing?  What is wrong with me?
My lower back is beginning to hurt a bit, I sense each of my steps, they hit the ground harder and harder, they resonate on the ground; their echo runs up my spine and hurts my head.
Atalanta is nowhere in sight.  I have been fooled by myself, and to be fooled by one-self is a far greater tragedy than being fooled by someone else.   She said she would meet me at every timing carpet and she is nowhere to be found. With 2k to go, my strength is fast disappearing.  It seems that it is hard to run even splits even for a 21.1k.  I can’t hold 5:38 any longer.  The pursuit of Atalanta has been futile exercise. 
Emile Coue de la Chataigneraie, a French psychologist discovered a law which he called the Law of Reverse Effect.  He said that the harder you try to do something, the less chance you have of achieving it.  There are certain things which, if you try to do, you will undo.  Desperately trying to get some sleep is an example.  If you try too hard, it is impossible. 
The desire for speed has caused too much stress.  I need to let go, I need to relax.
Lieh Tzu tells a parable: 
There was a man living by the seashore who loved seagulls.
Every morning he went down to the sea to roam with the seagulls.  More birds came to him than could be counted in hundreds.
His father said to him one day, “I hear the seagulls all come roaming with you – bring me some to play with.” Next day, when he went to the sea, the seagulls danced above him and would not come down.”
The key in Life is to simply let-go. Seagulls, happiness, ecstasy, pleasure and speed are not things to be pursued.  They can’t be forced.  You have to persuade them, indirectly. They are not a right. All one needs is a little love, patience and poetry.
I drop all ideas of finding or wooing Atalanta.  I simply want to run for the pleasure of running. I want to run to feel the pain, to see the limits of my strength, to feel my heart beat fast, to feel my lungs exploding in my chest, to hear my footfalls.  From that point on I run because I love to run.
I don’t need no Goddesses.
With 1km to go, I can barely hold my pace at 5:38/min. My stride is all over the place, my back is hunched, my neck is stiff. I am having the time of my life. I have a smile in my heart.  
The sign says 500 meters to go, I pick up my pace.  300 meters to go, and I am sprinting towards the finish. 100 meters to go and I strain my eyes and try to focus on the clock above the finish line.  It’s says 1:59 something.
And suddenly there she is, next to me.  She is also running as fast as she can.  She does not even look at me. 
75 meters to go and we are racing.  She is surging ahead. 
I remember the DHL package.  Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, had come through and DHL’ed 2 golden apples with the advice to use them in a situation like this.  I shout at the top of my lungs: “Atalanta!!!” and throw two apples on the road.  She cannot resist golden apples and for a split second she turns back to collect them.

Artist's rendering of the throwing of the Apples.  Apparel may be added as per possible sponsorship deals

I run across the finish line. My watch says 1:59:53.  I look back and the finishing clock reads 1:59:58.
I turn to watch Atalanta come into the finish.  She walks up to me and without a word, hugs me close and gives me a luscious biting kiss full of divine sweetness.  “Here I am’ she says, “the healing and instant remedy of your grave and vexing pains.  Here I am, a ready consort for your amorous and bitter suffering and sharer in everything.” 
My resolutions of Not pursuing speed start to fade fast.  This is not so bad.  Perhaps I can run fast forever.  Perhaps I should marry her.
She then continues, “But dearest A, this is the year 2011.  One does not marry on a first date.  I like you. Will try and catch up sometime soon for coffee. Will bbm.”  And before I can react, she walks away. 
I watch her walking towards the young spandex man.  I laugh and walk towards the Procam hospitality tent to join my friends. 

Monday 28th November 2011.
The 5:30 am Alarm wakes me up.  It’s time to go out for a 10k recovery run.  I wearily get out of bed.  I decide that today, I don’t want to look at my watch. I won’t wear my Garmin.  I don’t care about speed.................for now.
I am better off pursuing my wife, Neepa. One Goddess at a time is enough.   

Sunday 20 November 2011

Wooing Atalanta, the Goddess of Speed. (Airtel Delhi Half Marathon Part 1)

Some of my friends insist that they run the marathon, not for the pursuit of speed but for the spiritual experience it provides. To them I say: “Amen”

Some of my other friends insist that they run the marathon not for the pursuit of speed but for the camaraderie and the atmosphere of the race day and for the sheer pleasure of running.  To them I say: “I hear you, my brothers and sisters”
But some other friends say that they run the marathon for the spiritual experience, the camaraderie, the pleasure of running and the pleasure of running...VERY VERY FAST!!!  To them I say: “Billions of blistering barnacles!!! Ten Thousand Thundering Typhoons!!! f%^^$&^%$&)*^$@#!!!”
I had always been naive enough to think that running fast and attaining spiritual enlightenment were mutually exclusive concepts.  I now realize that a fast runner can and does enjoy all the things a slow runner enjoys...he only does so...faster.   
I have been missing out on ‘fast’ for too long. 
Vlam, the 12 hour pacer at the 89 km Comrades Ultra Marathon, always keeps shouting during Comrades, “Speed Kills, Speed Kills, Speed Kills”. 
However I had always misunderstood it to mean, “Don’t run too fast, you will crash and burn”. 
I have now come to realize that it has been the lack of speed which has killed me more often.  I have either been picked up by the Ambulance for not reaching cut-off points in time or have reached the finish line after the carpets and timing clocks have been removed and the race organizers have long gone home. 
No More!  Never Again! I have decided to shamelessly woo Speed. 
I have always felt that the best person to turn to for help in any crisis is a woman. And in this case that would be Atalanta, the Greek Goddess of speed and running and romance. 
I found her through a Google search (http://gogreece.about.com/od/greekmythology/a/mythatalanta.htm)   and now all I need to do is to simply woo her and make her my partner. 
But wooing a woman is never easy.  As I was to find out, there are always problems and complications.
Atalanta is young, beautiful and muscular.  She has two fetishes: golden apples and running sandals.   
As a new born, Atalanta was abandoned in a forest on a mountain top by her father King Schoeneus, who was disappointed she was not born a boy.
The Goddess Artemis sent a she-bear to raise her and thereafter some hunters adopted her. 
As she grew up, she became renowned for her speed as a runner, power as a wrestler and her commitment to remain unmarried.  She used to hunt with her good friend, Meleager. And although, he was in love with her, she just thought of him as a good friend. (I have experienced similar issues often times)  
Together, they had hunted the fierce Calydonian Boar.  Atalanta first caught up with the Boar and wounded it and then Meleager caught up and killed it.
As recognition of her bravery and for her first strike, he gave her the priced skin of the boar as a gift.  His fellow male hunters got jealous and murdered Meleager.
Atalanta was soon thereafter reunited with her father, who apparently still wasn't too happy about her being a girl and wanted to marry her off quickly.
Atalanta however did not want to marry.  She wanted to retain her maidenhood.   And so to wiggle out of marriage she proposed a test to select her husband. 
She decided that she will marry only that suitor who challenges and beats her in a foot-race.  She would kill any suitor who failed to beat her by beheading him. Ouch!  
Lots of slow runners have subsequently lost their heads and consequently their lives in her pursuit. 
Atalanta with a skeleton (of either the boar or of a slow runner)

So this then is my problem with wooing the Goddess of Speed:  I need to win over the Goddess of Speed if I wish to run fast but in order to win over the Goddess of Speed I need to run fast.  This makes perfect sense to me at many levels. Life is paradoxical.  Existence itself is paradoxical. Paradox is at its very core.  
The only added problem here is that the stakes are a bit high. If you can’t beat her, you lose your head and a bit more. 
This is perhaps what Vlam was talking about.  Speed does kill (literally) and it caused me to pause and think!  Will I get killed in my attempt to woo Atalanta?
But I am desperate and I started my attempt by striking up a correspondence with her.  I liberally borrowed words from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and e-mailed her:
“O delicate and divine Atalanta, lend me your sympathy now to my first words and anxious writing and believe in good faith that I bear a greater and rarer love toward you than ever a lover did in this world.  Lend a charitable ear to these just and honest requests by which I ask only your charming and precious love. To save this my life I know of no other recourse but the sweet thought of you at every hour of the day and night. 
Dear Divine fleet-footed Atalanta, to save my life I know of no other recourse but the sweet thoughts of you at every hour of the day and night; and this thinking seems to be the best remedy, more necessary now than ever for on Sunday, Nov 27th 2011, I need to run the Delhi Half Marathon in under 2 hours.  Please desire my salvation and behave kindly and well toward me, in which case you will behold me in perfect happiness, a triumphant victor, crowned by love and in utter contentment.  But if you don’t let me finish the race in 1:59 you will behold me wretched, miserable and discontent. 
Now, my hope, my divine darling, do not deny me the pleasure of a Sub 2:00 run. I, who am all yours and who thus pitifully beseech you to temper with your kindness my oppressive fire; for I know not how to live without you – and even if I did, I would not wish to.
Nevertheless, here is my soul which I offer as a sacrifice, and my meagre heart; dispose them both as you will, for you are their ruler, whilst I remain yours in perpetual affection, alive or dead.
So help me, then, succour me and save me!  Show me your favour, satisfy my need for speed, act kindly and stay your anger, calm your soul, quieten your mind, soften your heart and accept my amorous affection – offered, my Lady, by your faithful slave, who wishes to run fast eternally ”.
I think that this e-mail should work its charm, but on the other hand, in case it does not work, then, unbeknownst to Atalanta, I have also kept a back-up plan. 
I also got in touch with Aphrodite via e-mail. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite) 
Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty has a soft spot in her heart for all crazy lovers and she has advised me that if Atalanta decides to outrun me, I should throw a few golden apples on the route.  Atalanta loves golden apples so much that she will stop to collect them at which time I can try and run ahead. 
There is however a problem.  Aphrodite has run out of golden apples and so as replacement I shall carry with me 3 strawberry-banana Energy Gels to tempt her with.
And finally, If somehow I don’t make it in under 2:00 hours, I shall just meet her at the finish line and address her so: “O Atalanta, Goddess of Speed and ruler my heart and soul, my lovely and my adored one, do not fall into the evil repute of having consented to the death of my soul. For your sublime condition is incompatible and repugnant to such impiety. Let me live to woo you another day after some more speed training.  I promise to run more 800s”
And if that does not get through to her, I shall speak plainly and remind her that this is the year 2011 and in this day and age, one does not plan marriage on a first date and that is all this was: a first date. 
So Dear A, please, No Beheading!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Dare To Hope

I agree with runners who claim that running brings them closer to God and Nature.  I think running makes us sensitive to what is around us.  For many of us, running becomes a spiritual experience, a way of discovering ourselves. 
I feel that I am incredibly blessed for having enjoyed this pleasure of running. I want to use this gift of running for a higher purpose.
Swami Vivekananda said that, “The highest truth is this: God is present in all beings.  They are His multiple forms.  There is no other God to seek...The first of all worships is the worship of those all around us...He alone serves God who serves all other beings.”
In India, Cancer amongst children is slowly assuming an important place as a major cause of childhood mortality.  The Tata Memorial Hospital sees nearly 2000 new patients (under the age of 18 years) every year.  Almost 60% of these children need financial help. They are from amongst the poorest of the poor in India. The Tata Memorial Centre is a wonderful example of private philanthropy augmented by Government support with a mandate for Service, Education & Research in Cancer.  Almost 70% of the patients are treated almost free-of-cost.
Danny Thomas said that, “No Child should die in the dawn of Life.”  As I stand on the start line of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon on the 15th Of Jan 2012, I will run for the Children who are being treated for Cancer at the Tata Memorial Centre. 
No Child must be left alone in a hopeless situation, unsupported in his fight to Live. Please help these kids. We must ensure that they too grow up and enjoy all the pleasures that we have enjoyed. 
Please use the link given below to connect with the United Way Web site (the official charity partner with the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon) and donate.  Every rupee will help. Thank You!

Wednesday 9 November 2011

A Bucket Of Ice Cold Water

I have been reeling them in, one by one, from the 32k mark.  The unexpected heat and humidity has taken a toll on them.  Now, with just over a km to go, I catch up with the last of the Kenyans.  I shake his hand and wish him well (something I learnt to do from Bruce Fordyce).  I can see in his eyes that he has given up.  He is finished.  So now, it's just an empty road ahead of me.  With just a km to go, it's less than 3 minutes of suffering to endure. 
Victory Awaits!  The crowd is going crazy. 

However, the shrill noise that I hear, is not that of the crowd but that of Neepa screaming at me.  "Wake up! Wake up! You can't sleep in.  Today we HAVE to do our 10k marathon pace run".
I struggle to open my eyes.  "And what pace is that?" I ask groggily.   
"7 mins/km", she replies. 
Am I dreaming?  I look around the room.  Yes, this seems to be my room.  I look at her.  Yes, she does look vaguely familiar. 

Was I just dreaming about 3 min/km pace or am I now dreaming about a 7 min/ km pace?  Which is my reality?

I sit in the car, eating a banana, as she drives us to the beach. Everything had seemed so real, the cheers of the crowds, the beats of my heart, the pain in my legs, the blurred vision from extreme fatigue.
"Wasn't it real?" I ask myself.    She knows something is wrong and asks me, "Why are so depressed?"

I don’t know if she can truly understand how I feel.  So, by way of explanation, I tell her a story I have read....
One early morning Chuang Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher, was sitting in his bed, covered with his blanket.  He was very sad. His disciples had never seen him looking so sad. They were all worried. They were afraid that he was very sick. So they asked him, "Chuang Tzu, what is the matter?"

Chuang Tzu replied, “It is much more difficult than you think. It is not a matter of a small illness.  Last night I dreamt that I had become a butterfly.”
His disciples started laughing. They said, "That is not much of a problem. Everybody thinks many things in his dreams. Happens all the time to the best of us.  It’s to be ignored”

Chuang Tzu said, “I don’t know or care about how everybody thinks. I know only this much: it has created in me a very existential question. If Chuang Tzu can dream that he has become a butterfly, why can a butterfly not go to sleep and dream that she has become a Chuang Tzu? Now the problem is whether I am the butterfly who is dreaming she is Chuang Tzu or I am really Chuang Tzu.”

I explain to Neepa that I too, have been caught in a very existential question.  Am I a 7 min/km runner who was dreaming that he is a 3 min/km runner or is it the other way around?  Am I a 3 min/km runner who is now living a nightmare? 
Which is my reality? Am I in the dream state or in the waking state?

"So what happened with Chuang Tzu?" asked Neepa.

Nobody knew what to do about it until Lieh Tzu, who was away, returned from work.   He was brought up to speed about the problem: “Chuang Tzu is still sitting in his bed. He does not want to get up until the problem is solved. And we are all trying to solve it but there seems to be no solution. It seems logical that if Chuang Tzu can dream he is a butterfly then why can the butterfly not dream she is Chuang Tzu? We are all so confused."

Lieh Tzu said, “Wait, I will solve the problem.” He went to the water well, pulled up a bucket of ice-cold water, then went into Chuang Tzu’s room and poured it over Chuang Tzu’s head.
Chuang Tzu laughed, and he said, “You came at the right time; otherwise, I would have spent the whole day sitting here, feeling mighty sad. You solved the problem.”

Lieh Tzu asked, “Do you need another bucket?” Chuang Tzu replied, “No! The water is ice cold. I am Chuang Tzu, because if I were a butterfly your bucket of ice-cold water would have killed me.”

"We don’t need a bucket of ice cold water", said Neepa.  "Why don't you simply run with me for the next 10k?"

About 70 minutes later as I sat in the car on our way home, with my vision out of focus, my legs trembling and my heart ready to burst out of my chest, I had an epiphany. I knew my reality. 

All I wanted to do was to get back in bed.

Thursday 3 November 2011


Inspiration is always all around us. 
Whenever I walk into my library, I am surrounded by the inspiring biographies and autobiographies of politicians, scientists, philosophers, artists and athletes.  However, no matter how well written a story, most of the time, you really don’t know the man/woman personally. The book is generally written after he/she have achieved their distinctions and although they may tell you about their struggles, most of the time, we did not personally know them while they went through those struggles. We only see the finished product in the book. 
So, what really inspires me is when I meet an ordinary person, much like myself, and then see them break all boundaries and achieve spectacular success.   
I am truly inspired when I meet such a person in the early stages of their career because I get to watch them grow into that which I want to become.  It tells me that, I too, can do what he/she has done.  It is sometimes more inspiring to watch a work-in-progress.
I first met Heather Howells on the internet.  Both of us were training for the 2009 Comrades Ultra Marathon.  Both of us were scared and needed to share our concerns and anxieties about the gruelling 89 km Comrades.  Heather and I have similar running histories.  We both started running pretty late in life, Heather at the age of 40. She ran her first 21k in 2006 her first 42.2k in 2007 and by 2009 she was ready for the 89k Comrades in South Africa.  We used to exchange e-mails all the time and share our running schedules. 
Heather works as a Labour and Delivery Nurse in Honolulu. She works 12 hour shifts and so scheduling Comrades training was a challenge for her.  She always keeps saying that she lives in Paradise and the pictures on her blog are a testimony to that. 
I personally met Heather for the first time, the day before Comrades 2009, which she went on to finish.   
Within a year of Comrades, she registered for the 250 km/156 mile Kalahari Augarbies Extreme Marathon (KAEM).  The KAEM is a self-sufficiency run held over 6 legs in 7 days with set distances for each day ranging from 28km to 75km.  She had to carry all her supplies, clothes and safety/survival equipment for the duration of the event in a bagpack on her back for the duration of the event. There is no outside assistance.  The temperatures in the Kalahari desert vary from 40 degrees Celsius during the day to single figures in the evenings.  Tents to sleep in and a limited amount of water to drink are provided for.      
In a matter of 4 years Heather went from a 21k to the finish line of a 250km extreme marathon in the Kalahari! 
I think that if we are to only train for a 21k, then the 21k seems hard.  The minute we register for a 42k, then the 21k becomes just a training run.  When I registered for my first Comrades, the 42k became a training run but Heather went on to push the limits and she made the Comrades distance into a training run.
I often find that when I plan to run a 10k, I am tired at the end of 10k and find that I cannot run a step further even to save my life.  However on the day that I plan to run a 50k, I somehow manage the 50k.  
I think we make our own barriers in our own minds.  For many years it was widely believed impossible for a human to run a mile in under 4 minutes.  Yet in 1954 Sir Roger Banister ran the mile in 3:59.   He had broken through the “4 minute mile” psychological barrier and then within 56 days John Landy ran it in 3:57 and then within 3 years 16 other runners cracked the 4 minute mile. 
Sometimes, it is just a change in our thinking that makes all the difference.  Banister wrote in 1956,   “Though physiology may indicate respiratory and cardiovascular limits to muscular effort, psychological and other factors..set the razor’s edge of defeat and victory..”
There is a story I love about Emperor Akbar: He drew a line on a wall and asked his courtiers to make it smaller without touching it.  The courtiers were at a loss.  How could they make the line smaller without touching or cutting it? Finally Birbal, the Grand Vizier, stood up and drew a longer line next to it and the first line became automatically smaller.  Akbar’s line was neither touched nor erased.
This perhaps, is then the Art of Life. I need to awaken a higher state in my life alongside the lower one.    
My friend Heather is simply fearless.  As Shakespeare put it, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”  Heather simply continues to draw new longer lines on her canvas and she keeps inspiring me to do the same on mine.  Aloha Heather and Keep running my friend.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Devotion to God, Sex And Running

Ramakrishna was a famous mystic of 19th-century India.  He was born in a poor family in rural Bengal.  At the age of 20, he became a priest in a temple dedicated to Goddess Kali.
Ramakrishna also experimented with other religions, notably Islam and Christianity, and said that they all lead to the same God.  Though conventionally uneducated, he attracted the attention of the middle class, upper middle class and numerous intellectuals.  
Ramakrishna always spread his messages through parables.  One of them is my favourite.  I have also found the same story in a Hindi poem by Nirala.
The story made me think about a few things! The story goes as follows:
One day Narada, the wandering sage, went up to Lord Vishnu and asked him who His favourite devotee was. Now as most Hindus would know, Narada is supposed to be Lord Vishnu’s greatest devotee. In fact he punctuates his every sentence with the famous words, “Narayana, Narayana”. (Narayana is one of the many names of Lord Vishnu)
Narada was sure that there was no comparable devotee. But when Narada questioned Him, Vishnu replied, “There is a good farmer on earth who is my greatest devotee”
Narada was shocked to hear this. The words stung him. But he quickly regained his composure and said, “If that is so, I would like to test him.”
“By all means”, said Vishnu smiling kindly.

Narada arrived at the doorstep of the farmer’s hut and stayed with him for a few days.

During those days Narada observed that the farmer took the Lord’s name only three times each day – before going to the fields in the morning, before eating food in the afternoon and after returning from his field at dusk. So Narada wondered why would Vishnu call this farmer his favourite devotee?
He was puzzled. On returning to the Heavens, Narada asked Vishnu. Vishnu was expecting this question.

He said, “Narada, before I answer you, I have some work that only you can do.” He handed him a bowl filled to the brim with oil and asked him to walk around the earth once without dropping any oil.
Narada went away to do as he was bid.
When he returned, Vishnu asked him, “So how many times did you remember me while walking around the earth?”  “Not once,” replied Narada, with some hesitation. “This was difficult work, how do you expect me to chant your name when I was concentrating on the bowl of oil?”
“Narada, the farmer’s work is also given by me to him. He has many responsibilities, and he fulfils them all but still remembers me.” Vishnu said.
Narada was ashamed, “That is true,” he said, with his head down.

What a wonderful story about devotion!  But I think many people think of the Lord more than just a couple of times a day.
And so I Googled the following question: how many times does an average man think of god?
There were 76,600,000 results.  None were a perfect match.  The first three hits were as follows:
1) How many hairs does the average man have on their head? 
2) How many times does the average man think of sex every day?
3) Why do guys sleep with so many women?
So of course I then Googled the second obvious question:
How many times does an average man think of sex?  There were 96,000,000 results.  All the results on the 1st page were perfect hits.
1) Men think about sex 5000 times a year – Telegraph
2) Every Seven seconds men think about sex
3) How many times does the average man think of sex everyday?
Wow! This seems to be a very scientifically analyzed question.
I then Googled the next question which came to my mind: how many times does an average man think of running?
207,000,000 results but the first hit made me almost fall of the chair....laughing! It read:
1) Are you an Average man?
And then the rest followed as usual....
2) So...do men Really think about sex every seven seconds?
Wow! God, Sex and Running! It seems there is no real contest on which is the uppermost topic in the average man's mind. 
But I am not sure about these Google results.  And although I am sure that Sex wins over God almost every single time....when it comes to Sex and Running... the jury may still be out... or Not!

(Important Technical Note: When you google these questions immediately after reading this blog please google the question 'word for word' as I did to get same results. The operative word in the search seems to be "AVERAGE MAN"... put that in and google seems to take you straight to sex !"

Saturday 15 October 2011

The Fox And The Hedgehog

A short time ago, I met a friend Sophia, who mentioned that she will be running her 5th Half Marathon on the 15th of Jan 2012 in Mumbai.    
I could not understand why she would not move from the half marathon distance to the full marathon distance having already experienced the half marathon 4 times.  I have quite a few friends like Sophia.  They run the distance of their choice reasonably fast but their total focus is to keep improving their performance at that very distance instead of increasing or changing their race category.
I have friends who run a 1:45 half marathon and still insist that they are not ready for a full marathon because they want to first reduce the time of their half.  So they keep training and focusing on the half marathon. They insist on running only half marathons! I also have friends who run the full marathon in a time of 3:45, and yet tell me that they are not ready to run an ultra-marathon or Comrades until they further improve on their time in the full marathon to around 3:30. They insist on running only full marathons until then!
I on the other hand want to run and experience all manner of races (albeit slowly).  I take part in 10k’s, half marathons, marathons and ultra marathons. I don’t focus on any particular distance with the specific aim of running it at my fastest potential speed before exploring other distances. 
Archilochus, a Greek poet once said:
 “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing”
Nobody knows exactly what Archilochus meant by this.    Perhaps he simply meant that the hedgehog’s simple defence (of curling into a ball, and presenting spikes to the predator when attacked) defeats the fox’s many tricks.  
Perhaps he meant that the hedgehog has one single powerful response to all its challenges. The fox, by contrast, has no single response to challenges, for they ‘know many little things’.  They react to challenges by drawing on a pattern of general experienced understanding, often making mistakes along the way but never committing to one grand strategy.
Perhaps Archilochus meant that Hedgehogs single-mindedly pursue one ideological goal and organize their thoughts in relation to it, Foxes are knowledgeable in a number of areas but do not specialize in any one.
Isaiah Berlin, a famous philosopher expanded upon this metaphor to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: Hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, a single specific objective and a single strategy and foxes who draw upon a wide variety of experiences, who are flexible in their approach and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. 
Of course, the metaphor for the hedgehog and the fox can be applied to runners as well.  The runner who needs to conquer each race distance, at his/her best possible speed before experiencing other distances seems to me much like a hedgehog. He/she has focus and clarity of vision.
Foxes on the other hand lack such central vision and universal principals; they seize many experiences and pursue many ends.  They don’t have a grand strategy.  They lack single-mindedness – they pursue a range of interests and dabble in whatever they find intriguing at a particular time.  The need of certain runners to take part in as many different races over different race distances as long as they provide new experiences seems to me the characteristics of a fox.
I think that each way of thinking has its strength and weaknesses; neither is superior to the other. 
Of course, the fox seems less consistent and disciplined. Sometimes, as a runner it is very important to create a good base running speed and my friends who master a particular distance before proceeding to the next longer distance may certainly be doing the right thing. Also, the runner who keeps participating in all manner of races rarely gets time to train and focus on one particular race.    
Sometimes knowing one thing exceptionally well (being the fastest you can be at a particular distance) is not a bad thing.  It has always been said that a Jack of all trades, is a master of none. 
I have heard that once the fox was boasting to the hedgehog of his clever devices for escaping his enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping the enemy.” "I have only one," said the hedgehog; "but I can generally manage with that."
Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Hedgehog immediately scampered towards a bush and curled himself into a ball and presented his spikes outwards. "This is my plan," said the hedgehog. "What are you going to do?" The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, he knew a lot of things that he could do but while he was debating, the hounds came nearer and nearer. The Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. The Hedgehog, who had been looking on, said:
"Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon."
I have often found myself wondering, at the 30k mark of the Mumbai Marathon, “What in the world am I doing here.  Why didn’t I just stick to the 21k?”
But on the other hand being a fox is not all that bad. It is good to run different distances and experience different things. It is great to experience the pain of Comrades (or races longer and tougher than Comrades) and at the same time to occasionally run an easy 21k, it is fun to run a reasonably fast 10k and a long slow 42k.  It is great to experience all the different race distances even if one is not exceptionally good at any of them.  It makes you polymathic.    
I have heard a famous parable, perhaps a version of it was first uttered by Ramakrishna (1836-1886) a famous mystic.  It is about a Pundit (a learned man) who knew everything about the great religious book The Gita, but little else.
Once, several men were crossing the Ganges in a boat. The pundit was making a great display of his erudition, saying that he had extensively studied the Gita and knew everything there was to know about it.
He asked a fellow passenger, 'Have you read The Gita?' 'No, revered sir, I am a farmer and don’t have time for it in the morning' answered the fellow passenger'.
“Has it ever been read to you?” 'No, revered sir' answered the farmer, “I have to mend all the farm implements and look after my animals in the evenings and can’t find the time.”
'Have you no idea of the philosophy expounded by the Gita?” 'No, revered sir' answered the farmer, “I also fish in this river sometimes at night.”
The pundit was talking in this vain way, when a great storm arose and the boat was about to sink. The passenger said to the pundit, 'Sir, can you swim?' 'No', replied the pundit. The passenger said, 'I don't know about the Gita or its philosophy, but I can swim.'
Sometimes, it seems, it is better to know many things as opposed to one, great thing. 
I think that to be a good runner one needs to be a little bit of BOTH, a fox and a hedgehog.  One can learn a lot from both stereotypes. Sometimes, as the occasion may demand, we need a fox-like flexibility and versatility and sometimes, a hedgehog-like vision and focus. 
But generally one personality trait dominates in each one of us.  Which one are you?