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?

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Speed Training : Viewed Through A Perforated Sheet

I have always approached all my marathons with a simple strategy.  I start the race slowly and then I keep running slower and slower as the race progresses. 
This peculiar race day strategy has been adopted not because of some grand insight into distance running but due to a lack of running ability.  I am the ultimate back-of-the pack runner.  When I run the Comrades Marathon, I aim at finishing it in 11:59:59. (12:00:00 being the cut-off).  I get no pleasure in this.  I hate running slowly on race day.  But you can run on race day only as fast as you have run in training.  I no longer want the excitement of struggling against the clock at every cut-off point.   The suspense is more than I can bear.
I have decided to run FAST!
But like the maturation of fine wine, running fast is an art.  It has to be nurtured slowly and with great care.  There are no shortcuts. 
I started by reading about it.  One of the best chapters on Speed Training is in the book: ‘Alberto Salzar’s Guide to Road Racing’.  Salzar explains that first thing to do in order to increase one’s speed is to increase training volume and correcting abnormalities in one’s stride.  However once that is done, the only way to increase speed is through speed workouts. 
Alberto breaks up speed workouts into 4 categories: long intervals (1000m to 1600m), medium intervals (600m to 800m), short intervals (200m to 400m) and tempo workouts.   He explains that each category of workout has different characteristic and physiological goals.  The long intervals boost VO2 max.  The medium intervals not only boost VO2 max but also help improve running efficiency.  The short intervals focus only on running efficiency.  The tempo workouts are designed to boost lactic acid threshold. 
He explains that even for a novice, one speed workout in 7 days is not enough and suggests working on a 10 day training cycle. 
He says that these speed workouts build on each other much like constructing a flight of stairs.  He explains: “When I was targeting on racing 10ks at a 4:25 pace, I needed to run repeat 1600s at 4:20s.  But to do that, I had to be able to run 1200 meters in about 3:08 to 3:10.  That required a background of 800s in 2:02 to 2:04, which in turn required me to be comfortable with 59 to 60-second 400 meters.  Those 400 meter repeats draw on a base of 28 to 29 second 200s.  Without the 200s, I couldn’t have done the 400s, 800s, 1200s or 1600s and 4:25s on the 10k would have been impossible.”
He goes on to further explain that, “You won’t be building this staircase in strict bottom-up order.  Instead, you hop back and forth from one level to another, pounding in a nail here and a nail there until the entire edifice is complete.” 
I love such talk!  This makes complete sense to me. A judicious combination of different speed workouts will add to my basic cruising speed.  I need to run 200s, 400s, 800s, and 1000s and tempo runs.  Pick workouts from any of the 4 categories but to make sure that I shouldn’t always do the same workout.  Do a short interval session on one day and then follow it up with a long interval session which should then be followed by a medium interval session which should be followed by a tempo run.
So for the past 3 months I have been on my quest to improve my speed.  I run 200x16 repeats on one day and 5 days later run 800x8 repeats.  This is followed 5 days later by a tempo run which is then followed 5 days later by 400x10 repeats. The times of each repeat is logged into my log book and analyzed and dissected. The other week days are taken up by recovery runs, hill sessions, one gym session, one yoga session, a weekly long run and the most important training day, i.e the rest day.
I have fallen in love with these speed intervals.  Each distance is unique.  The experience of running 200 meter intervals is totally different than that of the 800 meter intervals which are in turn is totally different from that of the tempo run.  Each distance is unique in what it brings to me in terms of physical and emotional experiences.  I come back from each such session feeling like I have successfully wooed a beautiful woman.  The quest for speed is like the quest for a beautiful woman.  It needs a holistic approach.  
But the problem is that I don’t know whether the woman, in all her fullness, has fallen for me?  I just know that the 200s, 400s, 800s and the tempo runs are all going well.  Each of them is helping me build and strengthen a different aspect of my running.  I enjoy running them but I still don’t know whether, it will all come together on 3rd June 2012 when I run Comrades.  I know that one is improving my VO2 max, another workout is improving my running efficiency, and yet another is improving my lactic acid threshold. Yet, what I don’t know is whether it will all finally come together and translate into a faster time on race day.  Will the sum of the parts add up to something bigger than each individual part? I love each part individually but will I love the whole even more?  Will the jigsaw puzzle finally fall into place and be more beautiful that the individual pieces?
It’s like getting ready to marry someone you have only seen in parts without having seen her face which is hidden behind a veil.  The veil only to be lifted after the marriage vows are taken on the wedding day. 
This approach to speed training reminded me of the story of Doctor Aziz from Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children.  In 1915, Dr Aziz returns from Europe to Kashmir having completed his medical training.  He is called to attend on Naseem, the daughter of Ghani Saheb, the widowed landlord.  Dr Aziz is excited because a rich landlord’s sick daughter is good news to a young doctor with a career to make.
“He is taken to a room at the Ghani residence where he found two women, built like professional wrestlers, standing stiffly, each holding one corner of an enormous white bed sheet, their arms raised high above their heads so that the sheet hangs between them like a curtain.  Dr Aziz stares stupidly at this tableau for sometime at the end of which he makes a discovery. 
In the centre of the sheet, a hole has been cut, a crude circle of about 7 inches in diameter.
Ghani Saheb explains to Dr Aziz that the town contains many good-for-nothings who have on occasion tried to climb into his daughter’s room.  Dr Aziz is still looking at the perforated sheet when Ghani Saheb asks him to proceed with his daughter’s examination”. 
“But where is she?” Dr Aziz blurted.  “Ah, I see your confusion,’ Ghani Saheb said, his poisonous smile broadening, “You Europe-returned chappies forget certain things.  Doctor Aziz, my daughter is a decent girl, it goes without saying.  She does not flaunt her body under the nose of strange men.  You will understand that you cannot see her, no, not in any circumstances; accordingly I have required her to be positioned behind that sheet.  She stands there, like a good girl.’
A frantic note had crept into Doctor Aziz’s voice, “Ghani Saheb, tell me how I am to examine her without looking at her?” Ghani Saheb smiled and replied,     “You will kindly specify which portion of my daughter it is necessary to inspect.  I will then issue her with my instructions to place the required segment against that hole which you see there.  And so, in this fashion the thing may be achieved.”
“But what, in any event, does the lady complain of?” asked Dr Aziz. “The poor child! She has a terrible, a too dreadful stomach ache.”
“In that case,’ Dr Aziz said with some restraint, ‘will she show me her stomach please.’
In the succeeding months and years, Naseem contracted a quite extraordinary number of minor illnesses and each time the tall young eligible Dr Aziz was summoned.  And the poor Doctor fell into the sorcerer’s spell of that enormous perforated cloth.  On each occasion he was vouchsafed a glimpse, through the mutilated sheet, of a different 7 inch circle of a young woman’s body.  Her initial stomach ache was succeeded by a slightly twisted right ankle, an in-growing toenail on the big toe of the left foot, a tiny cut on the lower left calf.  Then there was the matter of her stiff right knee which required manipulation through the 7 inch hole in the sheet....Later the illness leapt upward, avoiding certain unmentionable zones, and began to proliferate around the upper half.  
Once he was required to gently rub a powder under her armpits, through the 7 inch hole, and felt the soft secret body shake and quiver under his touch.  She was anaemic in summer and bronchial in winter.  But in all the years she never repeated an illness.” 
“So gradually the good doctor came to have a picture of Naseem in his mind, a badly-fitting collage of her severally-inspected parts.  This phantasm of a partitioned woman began to haunt him, and not only in his dreams.  And yet, he had never seen her face.”       
“By 1918, Dr Aziz had come to live for his regular trips to the Ghani residence.  Now for the first time, after 3 years, there appeared a lump in the right chest.  And the Doctor had to look at and examine, framed in the 7 inch hole, a perfectly formed and lyrically lovely....”
“This was later followed by a pulled muscle at the back of her thigh....and there, in the middle of the sheet hung a superbly rounded and impossible buttock.”  That too had to be examined and manipulated by touch.     
“Finally the good doctor began to hope an illicit desperation for Naseem Ghani to develop a migraine or graze her unseen chin, so they could look each other in the face.” 
He had fallen in love with this woman without even having seen her face!
These speed intervals are doing the same to me! I run and experience each in isolation, as if I am looking at each distance through a 7 inch hole.   I have fallen in love with them!  Each interval shows me a potential of what can be! Each shows me a possibility of the freedom of speed! Each shows me the beauty of effortlessly gliding through the distance! 
Yet I cannot see the whole!  It is like romancing the unknown. 
I don’t know if the 200s, 400s, 800s, 1000s and tempos will all add up to a magical day when I can finally see the finished whole.  Will the new normal cruising speed hold for the length of the race?  Will the edifice be built?  What will be the result when the veil lifts on the race day and the finish line of Comrades beckons? 
Finally the day arrived and Naseem developed the longed for headache.  Dr Aziz hardly dared to look at what was framed in the hole in the sheet.  Maybe she was hideous; perhaps that explained all this performance.......he looked.  And saw a soft face that was not at all ugly, a cushioned setting for her glittering, gemstone eyes, which were brown with flecks of gold: tigers-eye’s.  Doctor Aziz’s fall was complete.
I too am wooing my beloved.  200s, 400s, 800s, tempo runs.......each through a hole in the perforated sheet which will finally rise on race day. 
There is still some time for Comrades, but like Dr Aziz, I too, have already fallen in love...much before the lifting of the veil.