Tuesday 27 September 2011

Running Versus Jogging

A few days ago my friend Ria, who is training for her first half marathon, asked me a question: “What is the difference between running and jogging?” 
This was a relevant question because Running and Jogging are profound words for a runner.  
The problem with the answer to that question is that words, in general, and their perceived meanings, cause all sorts of problems.  Communication is difficult business, even when people speak the same language.  We ascribe meanings to words according to our own realities, experiences and understanding.  Words convey and yet don’t convey.  The interpretation of words is where the problems lie. 
I have heard that once upon a time, George was coming home, completely drunk, in the early hours of the morning.  On his way home, he passed a cemetery where he noticed a signboard.  On it was written in large letters: ‘RING FOR THE CARETAKER’ – and that’s what he did.
Being the middle of the night, the caretaker was disturbed.  He came out, groggy, disoriented and angry.  When he saw George, totally drunk, he became angrier.  He shouted, “Why? Why did you ring for me? What do you want?”
George looked at him for a long silent moment.  Then he looked at the signboard and said, “I want to know why you can’t ring the damn bell yourself?”
The signboard had read: RING FOR THE CARETAKER. 
Words can be interpreted in any number of ways.
In fact, the spoken word is as open to misinterpretation as the written word.  Empires have been won and lost because of such misunderstandings.
One of my favourite books is The Histories by Herodotus.  It is considered by many to be one of the seminal works of history in Western Literature.  Written around the 450s BC, it stands as one of the first accounts of the rise of the Persian Empire.  It covers the Greco-Persian wars between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states in the 5th Century BC.
The book tells the story of Croesus, King of Lydia from 560 to 547 BC.  In Greek and Persian culture, the name of King Croesus became a synonym for a wealthy man.  Even today, the expressions “rich as Croesus” or “richer than Croesus” are often used. 
Croesus, like most men, wanted more power and more wealth.  He wanted to declare war against the Persians.  However, before declaring war against Cyrus the Great of Persia he turned to the oracle at Delphi and asked whether he should go to war against the Persian Empire.
The oracle answered that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would indeed destroy a great and mighty Empire! Feeling secure with these words, Croesus attacked the Persian Empire in 547 BC.  An initial inconclusive battle was fought.  As usual in those days, the armies would disband for winter and after the battle, Croesus did accordingly. Cyrus however did not disband his army and attacked Croesus again and captured him. 
Tied to the pyre, to be burned alive, the words of the Oracle at Delphi must have finally become clear to Croesus: The great and mighty Empire he was about to destroy by going to war was his own!
Hindsight is 20/20, one can easily assert that when the oracle told him that, if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire, he ought, if he had been wise, inquired which empire was meant, that of Cyrus or his own? He neither understood what was said, nor took the trouble to seek enlightenment.
Words cause a lot of problems and misunderstandings. 
Ria asked, what is the difference between running and jogging.  I knew the answer and was willing to share it with her. 
A few Sundays ago I ran a hard 21k and was very satisfied with my time.  Monday was consequently a rest day and towards Monday evening, I called my friend Sushant to ask him his Tuesday morning plans.  Sushant told me that he had run a hard 25k himself and planned to run an ‘easy’ 10k.  This perfectly coincided with my plan to run an ‘easy’ 10k.  We met exactly at 6:00 am on the beach and started our ‘easy’ run.  Sushant set the pace for our ‘easy’ run.  By the time we reached 4k, I realized that I was on pace for a personal best 5k time.  Sushant was flying.  I was dying.  As far as he was concerned, he was jogging. As far as I was concerned, I was sprinting.  For him an ‘Easy’ run meant running at 5:15 min/km, for me that speed would mean I am running at my fastest possible pace. 
At 4k, I abandoned my run and bid him goodbye.
Words can cause a lot of misunderstandings.
What is the difference between running and jogging? I knew the answer. I had learnt it the hard way. 
Like a wise old man I answered, “One man’s jog is another man’s sprint.”

Monday 19 September 2011

Greed Is Good !

Yesterday, I was looking at my log book and analyzing all my plans.  Everything has been planned from now until the 3rd of June 2012, when I hope to run and comfortably finish the 89km Comrades Ultra Marathon.
There are some short term goals and some long term goals.  I want to run the Delhi Half Marathon on the 27th of November in 1:59. As the official pacer for the Mumbai Marathon on Jan 15th, I want to bring in the bus in 4:55.  I want to run the 106k, Three Cranes Challenge, South Africa in February 2012.  I want to run a yet unplanned marathon in California sometime in late April 2012 and then I want a comfortable finish at Comrades on the 3rd of June 2012 in South Africa.
As I analyzed the log-book, I realized that I 'want' quite a bit.  Perhaps I am too greedy!
There is a story I remembered about a King and a beggar.  One day, very early in the morning, a great wise King, was taking a walk through his Capital.  He came across a beggar who was sitting in the street.  The King asked the beggar, “What do you want?” The beggar answered, “Are you sure that you can give me what I want?”  The King got a little peeved at this and said, “I am the King, what do you want?” The beggar said, “Ok, if you can, then fill this begging bowl”.  The King laughed and said, “You think I cannot fill this little bowl of yours?”  The beggar said, “Ok, I will hold you to your word, after all you are the King. But you must not stop until this bowl is completely full, all the way to the brim.” 
The King simply laughed at the size of the bowl and then to impress the beggar with his wealth and power, called for his treasurer and asked him to fill the beggars bowl with diamonds.  The treasurer brought the diamonds and poured them into the bowl, but they disappeared.  Shocked, the King asked that more be brought.  More and more diamonds were brought, when those ran out, precious stones were bought and yet they disappeared inside the bowl. Then gold was brought from the treasury and then the silver and then the jewellery.  Everything kept disappearing inside the bowl.  By evening the news had spread all over the Capital that the King and the Kingdom were ruined.  The treasury empty. The King folded his hands and fell onto the beggar’s feet and started crying.  “What is this bowl?” he cried, “it has made a beggar out of me!”
“I found a dead man’s skull at the cemetery”, explained the beggar, “and since I am very poor and did not even have a begging bowl, I fashioned one out of the skull.  And now, no matter what I put into it, it wants more and is never satiated.  It keeps asking for more.” Man, the beggar went on to explain, is never satisfied with what he has.  He always wants more. His greed knows no end.
I wonder if I too want too much.  Don’t I already have enough?  Am I too greedy? Should I not be satisfied with whatever I have?
But, I reasoned that all that I wished for was to run more.  Running is the source of my pure and happy thoughts and if I am tuned to happiness, then there is no need to ask less of it.  Running is my way of celebrating life. It has become a source of goodness in my life.  It helps me to live life intensely and passionately. I think it is OK to be greedy for more running. 
I think, we get that which we want for in life.  Happiness and positive thoughts can keep growing if that is what we wish for.  There is an endless supply.   If, on the other hand, I was to tune into unhappiness, then it too would keep growing.  It pretty much depends upon the tuning inside me, much like the wave-length of a radio.  Tune in and run towards happy thoughts and they follow, tune in and wish for unhappiness and it follows. 
But, this is too much philosophy and I guess I will stop my analysis now. 
Osho once narrated a joke: Mulla Nassruddin was walking into town one evening when he suddenly came across a pile of cow shit on the path.  He bent over slightly and looked at it carefully. 
“Looks like it,” he said to himself.
He leaned closer and sniffed. “Smells like it”.
He cautiously put his finger in it. “Feels like it”.
He then tasted it!  “Tastes like it. I’m sure glad I didn’t step in it!”

“Beware of too much analysis!” warned Osho. 
Running is my source of joy.  It is good to be greedy for more. No need for any analysis. 

Saturday 10 September 2011

The Agony and Ecstasy of Multi-Tasking

In the few hours that I spend at work, in order to earn my living, I am simultaneously looking at e-mails on my laptop, messaging on my bb, reading the Huffington Post on my ipad, answering questions from my colleagues, and thinking about my companies finances, marketing and sales. I am also looking at the price of gold on Bloomberg and regretting that I did not buy some when the price was $600/ounce. 
In those few hours at the office, I am not really there.  Thousands of thoughts fill my mind and I am tired after a few hours of this juggling act.
On some days, I treat my runs much like my work.  I am quite spaced out.  My mind is multi-tasking. I am thinking about past runs or dreaming about future runs. As I run, I am listening to music, I am also thinking about work, family and friends.  I am planning my future runs and races. I am thinking about future training programs and the status of the current ones. My mind is all over the place expect where I am.  
Some days ago, I bought an air gun for my son Aryan.  He had wanted one for a long time and I had delayed buying it for as long as possible.  However, as a kid I had owned one and had enjoyed shooting at discarded battery cells, plastic bottles and such and so I thought it was only fair to buy him one.
We decided to sit in the garden and shoot at a can of Coke.  After sharing the Coke we put the can about 20 feet away and as I handed him the loaded gun, I decided to ask him the question that was asked about 5000 years ago by Dronacharya to his pupils during a lesson of archery. 
I asked Aryan, “What do you see?” He gave me a ‘look’ and said, “Coke Can!”  My question had seemed so bizarre to him that I had to tell him the story about Arjuna from the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata.   
The great master archer, Dronacharya, used to teach a great many princes the art of war, amongst other things.  Archery was his favourite subject and his favourite disciple was Arjuna. 
One day, Dronacharya had asked his disciples to shoot their arrows at the right eye of a dead bird he had hung on a tree. They were all ready with their bows and arrows but he said, “Before you shoot, I want to ask a question, and each one has to answer.”

He asked the first student, “What do you see?”

The student answered, “I am see everything: the tree, the dead bird, the sky, other trees, the birds flying, I see you my Guru and my fellow princes, I see everything”
Dronacharya went on asking the same question to the other disciples. Each disciple gave almost similar answers. 
Arjuna answered, “I don’t see anything except the right eye.”  Of course, it was only Arjuna who managed to shoot the target.
I envied young Aryan the clarity of his concentration because when it was my time to shoot the air gun, I realised that I had my eyes on the Coke can but my minds eyes were on the red blinking light of my Blackberry which meant that I had either an SMS or a BBM or an e-mail to attend to.  I realized that this was pretty pathetic.
Sometimes however, I do a bit better with my concentration when I run.  This happens when I do my speed intervals or time trials or during the race day when I want to achieve a particular time goal.  On those days I focus purely on my pace with the help of my Garmin watch.  Every few minutes I look at the display screen showing the distance, the average pace, the actual pace and the time elapsed and then I adjust my speed. 
The day when I ran to finish Comrades or acted as a pacer for the Standard Chartered Mumbai marathon was exceptional because I concentrated like a fanatic on just one goal: finishing at the right time.  There is a joy in concentrating on just one single thought. 
The ability to concentrate like that on a single goal can also make me a better runner if I can do it more often. 
But there is something even more magical than this single-pointed concentration.  Concentration is normally exclusive.  You need to drop everything to the exception of one thought.  However, unfocused awareness is all-inclusive and far more enriching. Multi-tasking can be wonderful if it has a meditative quality. 
I have recently signed up for the Three Cranes Challenge in Africa.  It is a track and trail race which is run over 3 days inside the forest.  One is supposed to spend the nights inside a tent for the duration of the stay and go out each day and run different trails through the forest. The total distance to be covered is a little over 100 km. 
I have therefore started to do some trail running.  I have found a small trail inside the Borivali National Park which is not very far from my house.  The roads inside the park are paved but there are 2 or 3 trails which run through densely forested areas and are very desolate.  Nobody goes there.  There have been news of panther sightings often enough to keep people off these trails in the early morning hours.
And I have discovered that which many of my friends already knew: trail running is absolutely magical.
It needs, not the concentration which is exclusive but an awareness which is all inclusive.  I cannot be ‘spaced-out’ while trail running nor can I have a ‘single-pointed concentration’.  I need to be present on the trail.  I need to be ‘there’ while running through the forest if I don’t want to be face down on the forest floor.   
Now, when I run alone inside the forest, I run without music, I focus on the stony path to get my footing right, I hear the insects and the sounds of small lizards and crickets around me, I hear the chirping of birds, I notice the occasional flowers on the forest floor, I hear the sound of the wind, I hear the rustling of the leaves, I feel the greenness around me, I feel the muscles in my body as they strain to move forward, I see the butterflies, I see the small puddles of rain water, I see the small crabs running to and fro, I feel the cool wind, I feel the perspiration on my skin, I can hear the sound of my breath and feel the air as it enters and leaves my mouth and nose.
But I have no time to verbalize anything, I feel and I see, I am aware, I simply watch everything as I run past, I am totally there. I have no time to think! I have no time to verbalize! The beautiful distractions inside a forest are far greater than the mundane distractions of a modern society, but the only way to run inside the forest is to see and feel everything and focus on nothing except the act of running.
I am simply running.  There is magic.
I remember a story which was shared by Osho about a Zen master. One of the Emperors of Japan had gone to see a great Zen master, Nan Yin. The Emperor asked Nan Yin, “What have you learned that makes you a great master, known all over the country?” 
Nan Yin said, “Very simple: when I chop wood, I simply chop wood; and when I carry the water from the well, I simply carry the water from the well.”

The emperor said, “I had come to listen to something spiritual. What nonsense are you talking? Chopping wood, you simply chop wood? Everybody does it; what is special in it? Carrying water from the well, you carry the water from the well? I have travelled a long distance, and I am your country’s Emperor. You should at least give me some spiritual advice.”

Nan Yin said, “That was my spiritual advice, and I want to make it clear to you that this is not what everybody is doing. It took me years to chop wood without any thoughts: to just be there, chopping.  And it is tremendously beautiful: the sound in the valley, the chips of the wood flying all over, the wind blowing through the trees, their song, their music. And I am utterly silent, just chopping wood.   Carrying water from the well is the same”
Nan Yin continued, “My whole day is the same. I have given you, in short, my basic approach of life. Be where you are. Don’t let mind go away.”

I am sure that Zen Master Nan Yin would have gone through his life with the same meditative spirit even if he had lived in this age of Blackberry’s, ipad’s, and 24 hour News Channels. 
But I, for now, am delighted if all I can manage is to always simply run, watching the space within me.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Airtel Hyderabad Marathon : August 2011

The Nawab’s Marathon

It is only fitting that the finisher’s medal for the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon is inscribed with a rendering of the Charminar. 
The Charminar (Four Towers) is a magnificent structure made of granite, limestone, mortar and pulverized marble.   Its four ornate minarets supported by four grand arches as inscribed on the marathon medal have become a symbol of Hyderabad.  It was built in 1592 AD by Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the ruler of Hyderabad, to commemorate the elimination of a plague epidemic from the city. But what I love most about the Charminar besides its architectural beauty is the prayer which the Sultan offered while laying its foundation. He prayed, "Oh Allah, bestow unto this city peace and prosperity. Let millions of men of all castes, creeds and religions make it their abode, like fish in the water."
As I ran through the hard and undulating course of the Hyderabad marathon along with my wife Neepa and other fellow runners, the words of the Sultan resonated in my mind. Like the varied fish in the water, we were an assorted bunch of runners comprised of all castes, creeds and religions running in peace and prosperity. We were running in perfect weather on a cool and cloudy day and we were a happy bunch, except when we saw that each small downhill was immediately followed by another up-hill, and as I labored my way up and down the rolling road, I wanted to add to the Sultans prayer, “Oh Allah, let my journey through the streets of this city be fast and easy”
We were in Hyderabad because my dear friend Rajesh Vetcha of Hyderabad Runners had invited us to run the marathon.  We had quickly accepted his invitation not only because we have fond memories of having visited the Charminar, the Salar Jung Museum, and the Golconda fort but also because it gave Neepa and me another opportunity to enjoy authentic Hyderabadi cuisine.    
There is something unique about the taste of a Hyderabadi biryani.  I think it beats the traditional pre-race and post-race pasta meal hands down.  The fragrance of basmati rice, cooked with or without meat, in a curry of onions, yogurt, spices, lemon, saffron, cashew nuts, coriander and accompanied by Dahi Chutney and Mirchi ka salan is simply divine.  I think a Hyderabadi biryani eaten the night before the race gives you a reasonable chance of knocking several seconds off your race pace.  
As we ran through the modern city of Hyderabad, past an area known as the Cyber-City, I marveled at how times change.  Just 11 km from the city lay the ancient fort of Golconda.  The fort although in ruins now, still remains the potent symbol of what was once the wealthiest and most powerful princely state of all India.  Every Indian knows the stories of how successive Nizam’s hid vast hoards of treasure inside the fort. Today however, a visitor to the Golconda fort will be shown how hundreds of years ago, the builders of Golconda designed the perfect acoustical system by which a hand clap sounded at the forts main gates, the grand portico, was heard at the top of the citadel, situated on a 300 foot high granite hill.  Running past modern buildings with glass facades housing the most advanced software companies of the world seemed to me quite a contrast to those ancient days when signals were sent without the use of any electronic technology.
Running alongside Neepa I could not help but tell her the stories of Nizam’s of Hyderabad.  For 7 generations starting from 1724, the Nizam’s created and ruled a state that was unique in the world. 
As a young man, when I read Indian history, I had wanted to be as wealthy as the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad.   Osman Ali Khan Asaf Jah VII, the 7th Nizam had been one of the world’s richest men.  He used to keep the uncut 400 carat Jacob Diamond, the size of a ducks egg, as a paper weight.  Forbes magazine put The Nizam on “All Time Wealthiest” list of 2008 with a net worth of 210.8 billion USD.
He had gold bricks valued at $250,000,000 (Times Feb 22, 1937) and rooms full of precious stones.  It is said that his stock of pearls alone would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool, or pave Broadway from Times Square to Columbus circle.  He owned the world’s largest coin –a dinner-plate-sized 12 kilogram gold mohur minted during the reign of Jahangir. He also controlled the great mines around Golconda and it was from these mines that the famous Great Mughal diamond was excavated as were the Koh-I-Noor, Hope and Regent diamonds.  He also owned 14,250 square km of land.
Besides all this, he also had 15 wives.
Neepa didn’t seem too interested to hear all these stories however I wanted to share them simply because I wanted to keep my mind off the difficult terrain over which we were running. The ups and downs are a constant feature of this route and having not studied the route profile I could never really relax because I never knew what was coming next.   
However, we both noticed that we were running perhaps one of the best organized races in India.  There were enough aid stations well stocked with water, Gatorade, biscuits and bananas besides the aid stations were manned by incredibly friendly volunteers who were all regular runners.  Even the cops were happily cheering the runners and for once they all seemed physically fit unlike the pot-bellied cops one is used to seeing in most Indian cities.   
The marathon had started at the picturesque Hussainsagar lake front but it was the finish line at the Balayogi Stadium (also known as the Gachibowli stadium) which convinced me that this race will soon become the largest and fastest growing race in India.  The finish line was as well organized as the Comrades Marathon finish line (and Comrades has had an 87 year head start). One experiences an incredible high when running into a world class stadium which has hosted the National Games, the Afro-Asian Games and the World Military Games.  
The volunteer who handed over our finisher medals also reminded Neepa and me to go and pick up our after-race meal.  He said this so politely that it seemed that we were his personal guests at his home.
This was truly a race of the runners, for the runners and by the runners. 
As Neepa and I sat on the stadium steps, watching runners come into the finish, enjoying our fruit juice, sandwiches, cakes and cookies, I reflected on the life of the Nizam.  The world’s richest man had never travelled outside of his country, he used to dress like a pauper and carefully count the number of cookies he served his guests. He used to knit his own socks and bargain with stall holders over the price of a soft drink. He used a walking stick which was so old and broken in so many places that it had to be held together with string. 
The owner of the world’s greatest fortune was also perhaps the world’s greatest miser.  Some would argue that he was an able administrator who was frugal, thrifty and loved by a large portion of his subjects, but the tragedy is that he ended up being simply remembered as a super-rich eccentric miser. 
Did my cherished desire, from the days of my youth, to be as wealthy as the Nizam of Hyderabad make sense anymore?
Well, it wasn’t about the money anymore but there was just this question of having all those additional wives....
In 1794, the 3rd Nizam of Hyderabad was fighting against the Marathas lead by Nana Phadnavis.
The Nizam’s 1,10,000 strong army met the 1,30,000 Maratha soldiers in battle.  At the end of the first day of fighting the Nizam’s army had gained ground but whatever advantage the Nizam had gained in the battle was short-lived. 
The Nizam had brought to the battle field, his favorite wife, Bakshi Begum, and the rest of his oversized zenana. 
According to John Zubrzycki, Bakshi Begum became so frightened by the booming of the cannons and the sight of dying men that she blackmailed the Nizam by threatening to ‘expose herself to public glare’ unless he took her and the rest of the zenana to shelter inside the fort.  The Nizam decided to leave the battlefield.     
In the confusion, a Maratha night patrol stumbled upon the Nizam and his entourage.  The Nizam tried to escape but found himself trapped in the fort.  The Nizam consequently lost the battle and was forced to sign a treaty.  He had to give up several territories and give an indemnity of 30 million rupees and give up his prime-minister as hostage.
As we made our way back to the hotel after having enjoyed a wonderful run, I counted my blessings. I am a reasonably rich man, I travel all around the country and the world to run, I have two wonderful healthy kids and finally, I love my one and only wife who always leads me into all my battles. 
I would not exchange this wonderful life for anything.