Wednesday 17 December 2014

Mind Over Matter

It’s All In The Mind !

The wise have always spoken about the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  I have often personally experienced that knowledge without wisdom is dangerous.  The enlightened masters try and share their wisdom but things often get lost in translation.  Communication is difficult business especially when it is between people. 

As a passionate recreational athlete, I have tried to follow the words of all the great runners and athletes and come to realize that I often, totally misunderstand what they are trying to say.  Sometimes I don’t understand their point at all, and sometimes, and this is worse, I understand only half.

For many years, I have often heard people use the phrase, “It’s all in the mind”.  Until last year, I never really understood what it meant.  
People use this phrase very often to describe the last leg of a marathon.  After 32km, they say, “It’s all in the mind.”  For 89 Km Comrades Ultra Marathon, they use the phrase after the first 60km. “You can train for the first 60km, but after that, it’s all in the mind.”

My understanding or rather misunderstanding of this phrase, started with a fictional character.  It started with the Rocky movies. The first movie was released in 1976. I was just 10 years old then and I went to see it along with my Dad. I still vividly remember the awesome experience.  The 6th Rocky movie was released in 2006.  I own all the DVD’s and I know every scene from every movie.

In almost all the movies, there would be a fight when Rocky would be down and out inside the ring, his face would be beaten to pulp, his eyes would be swollen up and his nose broken.  There would be blood all over the place.  After a massive blow from his opponent, Rocky would fall down and the commentator would shout, “And Balboa is down!!” 

Then the music would start and we would get transported inside his mind. A slightly disoriented Rocky would visualize his coach shouting encouragements at him, his wife pleading him to get up, he would visualize his son, he would visualize fragments from his other fights, and all the time the beat of the music would be rising to a crescendo and then a voice-over would speak some kick-ass lines:  “Life isn’t about how hard you hit.  It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.  How much you can take and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done!”

By now, the music would have reached such a crescendo that I would have stopped eating my popcorn or sipping my coke. I now wanted to jump out of the seat and jump into the ring myself. 

And then, Rocky would miraculously find his strength! BOOOM!! BOOOM!!! BOOOM!!! Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!!

He would then get up, in slow motion, and within minutes beat the other guy to pulp.

My conclusion on watching this: “It’s all in the mind.”

As I grew up I started to believe that some miracle happens when a champion is down and is in need of inspiration.  I started to believe that the champions have a special corner in their mind into which they can dip whenever they are in need of a reboot.  They simply dig deep and are able to pull-off miraculous recoveries at their own whim.  I came to believe that they have a superior mind which triumphs over adversity, a mind that triumphs over the weaknesses of their mortal bodies. That they are made of sterner awesome stuff! 

I came to believe that by purely the power of their mind, they can overcome all hurdles.   

I have often tried to do a Rocky.  

At 65km mark in 89 km Comrades Ultra Marathon, Neepa has shouted at me, “Come on Amit, it’s all in your mind. Be strong, think of the kids, they are waiting at the finish, Come on, RUN, don’t walk, let’s do this, let’s go, let’s go, you’re not tired, it’s all in your mind, you can’t give up, let’s go, let’s go, it’s all in your mind!!”

Standing on that Comrades route, buggered beyond reasonable limits, with salt having leached out of my body and onto my skin, with my stomach sick and full of a concoction of GU, Energade, Cola and being ready to vomit at a moment’s notice, I have searched inside myself and my mind for that elusive strength. I have searched for that mind which can prevail over my weak matter. 

I have waited for inspiration.  I have waited for the bells to ring, for the sound of music, for lightning to strike, for the heavens to open up, for the clouds to part and for the phoenix to rise.  I have waited for the elusive voice-over with some kick-ass dialogue.....It has never come. 

Matter has always won over my mind.  My mind has always given up.

After a few such experiences I concluded that either my mind was not strong enough, or that I have misunderstood the phrase, “mind over matter”.

Osho often used to say, “I am responsible only for what I say, and not for what you understand.” And I have come to the conclusion that I had understood only half of what the phrase meant.

Comrades 2014 finally made me see the light or at least the halo of a light.  I might have still not fully grasped the concept but I do now know that my original understanding was wrong and that in-itself is great progress.

For the 2014 Comrades, I followed a training schedule given to me by my friend Celi.  Celi dramatically altered my training routine.  I used to run about 1000km between Jan and May.  Celi made me run 1600km.  He made me do far more speed and hill training than I would have ever done on my own.  It was hard to push so much, but having experienced agony and tragedy on that Comrades road a few times, I was determined to do whatever it took to enjoy a safe finish. 

Celi gave me only one piece of advice besides my training schedule.  His advice was simple and elegant and scary.

For every speed and hill training day, he wrote: “Kill Yourself”*.  For every speed repeat he wanted me to push hard: “Kill yourself”*. 

For every repeat he wanted me to hold nothing back and to give it all I had. “Kill Yourself”*, he wrote.
Every time when I ran my repeats and felt myself slowing down, I asked myself the question, “Am I killing myself?” and the answer was invariably “No” and suddenly the legs would move again, faster and faster !

What he wanted me to do during my training runs was to get into a zone of discomfort.  He wanted to get me to experience the pain of race day, again and again in training, although only in small doses. And so I pushed through pain and did in training what I hoped to do on race day. 

And finally on Comrades day 2014, whenever I felt a bit tired, it was easy to look back with confidence at what I had endured in training.  I would again ask my mind, “Are you killing yourself?” and the answer was always a “No” and then I knew that I could keep moving forward towards the finish line. 

I had realized that it cannot be “mind over matter” in a crisis unless you have trained the mind when not in a crisis.  It is only when the mind has experienced in training that which is coming on race day, can you be prepared.

I have learnt that there cannot be a magic day unless I have done in training what I want to do on race day.  This does not mean that if I want to run a marathon in 4:30 that I have to run a 42k in training in 4:30 but it does mean that I do some decent amount of distances on race-day pace in training and some shorter distances faster than race-day pace in training.  The whole combination of training has to be perfect: long runs, recovery runs, speed intervals, hill intervals and fartlek runs.  Unless everything is done right, there won't be any race day magic!

In my non-scientific, purely personal, and non-professional opinion, I have come to the conclusion that the human mind is programmed to shut down the body whenever it fears that the body will irreversibly hurt itself.  The only way to push the body beyond its normal comfort zone is to convince the mind that the body will not perish and the only way to convince the mind is to take it into that zone in small doses in training.  So later, on race day, the mind recognizes the zone and allows the body to keep moving.

Looking back, I realize that Muhammad Ali, (a real-life hero as opposed to a fictional Rocky) had articulated the message perfectly well quite a long time ago but I had failed to understand it. 

Ali said that, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses- behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

Finally I have understood what Ali meant. There is no sudden magic, the phoenix does not rise by some miraculous energy brought forth by the Gods, the skies don’t bring forth thunder showers to quench your thirst and music does not herald the victory of mind over matter.

If the mind has to prevail over matter when it matters, it has to first learn to do so when it does not matter.  

As a recreational runner, winning for me, on Comrades day, means simply finishing the race.  I have now come to believe that my battle to finish Comrades is also won or lost far away from witnesses- behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I stagger on uncertain wobbly legs into the stadium under those brilliant lights!


*(All my conclusions in this blog might be applicable only to a subset of one. i.e: To Me.  I am not a coach and would not advice anyone else to follow anything I say.  Celi’s advice to me, “Kill Yourself”, was given with a certain explanation and expectation which was applicable only to me.  The word’s “Kill Yourself” in reference to the Comrades Ultra may be quite misunderstood and misconstrued. There is no intention on Celi’s or my part to get injured or damaged or killed while following our passion for running.  It is only a phrase meant for me to remember and motivate myself to push to the limits which I am capable of.  The phrase might as well have been: “Amit, my boy, Please Be very careful NOT to get injured but try and push yourself as hard as you can” in which case, it might have not worked for me. 

A long mantra might have not done its magic.  I needed a Rocky-esque dialogue.
And so Celi gave me my very own kick-ass mantra: "Kill Yourself" and it worked and in the final analysis, that is what Matters ! 

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Life, Death & Comrades 2014

On the morning of Sunday 1st June 2014, I was on the road between PMB and Durban running the Comrades Marathon. One week later, on the morning of Sunday 8th June, I was on the road again. I was walking towards the crematorium carrying my father’s body.

People often cry at Comrades, some because they finish the race, others because they don’t finish.  I have celebrated both occasions with lots of tears, happy ones and sad ones.   This time however, when I finished Comrades, I cried and cried because I knew what awaited me on my arrival back home in Mumbai. I cried because even as I walked around with a medal around my neck, I knew that my dad was back home unconscious and running out of breaths.

Barry Holland has written that a Comrades runner does not follow the Christian Calendar.  He counts his year, Comrades to Comrades.  I’ve had a unique year starting with Comrades 2013 and finishing with Comrades 2014. It has been a year with just about as much stress as I can handle.   It all started with a DNF at Comrades 2013. I only managed to reach 85k when time ran out.  Comrades 2013 with its heat, wind, dust and my lack of ability was just the start of a long nightmare.  The minute I came back from Africa my Dad’s health spiralled downwards towards an abyss from which he would never recover.

Two operations in July took away his ability to talk and eat.  I wonder if he would have undertaken those operations if he knew about the quality of life which awaited him for the next 11 months.

With all the stress and cares at home with his health, I couldn’t run much from June 2013 until January 2014 and then a forgettable Mumbai marathon in January 2014 made me realize that Comrades 2014 was shaping up to be another disaster.

But then something unique happened.  I met Celi Mokhoba towards the end of January 2014. 
Celi happens not only to be the Technical Director of the Comrades Marathon and a Board Member and an elite coach but also a 6:50 Comrades runner himself.  Celi was visiting India to be part of the Mumbai Marathon Expo and as the Indian Ambassador for Comrades I spent time with him.  Being with him for a few days changed my perspective towards training. 
I requested Celi to help me with a training program and promised him that I would follow whatever plans that he was willing to set for me.  

After understanding my training routine, Celi simply upped my training volume.  I used to run about 900 to 1000 km between Jan and May for Comrades, Celi upped it to 1600km.   The thought of injury did cross my mind but I decided that I would rather injure myself and not go to Comrades than go to Comrades based on my old routine and get another DNF.

Celi promised me that if I followed his routine, I would not dramatically improve on time but that he would promise me a comfortable finish. 

A comfortable finish sounded to me like manna from heaven.

And so I embarked on 90km weeks from the 1st week of February. 
But as the days went by and the kms increased, my Dad’s health kept deteriorating.  He could not speak but he continuously wrote me notes explaining his discomfort and I ran around trying to find symptomatic treatments to deal with his ailments.  The underlying cancer was beyond treatment and the only goal was now to keep him comfortable. 

I would come home after half a day at the office and although I could not solve anything I would just sit at home and provide moral support. 

Every morning before I left home for my runs, either at 4:00 am or 5:00 am I would stand for a while outside his door to hear the sounds coming out of his room to check if he was sleeping or coughing or needed something.  I started carrying a phone on all my runs to ensure that my Mom could quickly get in touch with me.    I wanted to go out and finish my run and come home before he woke up from his meds induced sleep.
The helplessness one feels when seeing one’s loved ones suffer is a tragedy no one should experience.

And so day after day and hour after hour I battled to keep him comfortable and I failed every time.  Every new doctor would offer some meds to deal with a particular symptom and the med would create a new symptom which was equally bad.  And then all that could be done was to lock myself up in the bathroom and cry.
At the same time, I kept running and the kms kept increasing along with the heat and humidity of Mumbai but the hours spent in the morning on the road were the hours which kept me grounded on the job at hand.  The hours provided me with space to think and to keep myself from falling apart.  They provided me with an outlet for my stress. They provided me a private space to cry.
The days kept going past, the kms kept increasing, my dad’s health kept getting worse and I kept losing weight...83kgs fell to 82 to 81 to 80 to 79 to 78 to 77 and on and on until I would find myself in May at 72.5 kgs. 
By early May my Dad could not get out of bed and by mid-may he was unconscious.  The doctors advised that the end was near. 

I had to decide if I wanted to take the chance of flying out to South Africa to run Comrades.  At no point did I doubt my intention.  I wanted to run Comrades.  My only concern was the additional pressure my not being home would put to my mother.  But when she suggested that I go run, I knew I would go.

I ran Comrades with a heavy heart, often times on the road I thought of my Dad back home, unconscious and in a mental and physical state I knew nothing about.  I had left him without telling him that I was going to Africa.  He was no longer conscious but the ability to hear is the last sense which leaves a person and I didn’t want him to know that I was not at hand as I had been for the last 14 years to react to his call.  I had left him alone in his last days. 

I had the easiest Comrades run that any athlete can have.  Celi was right. It was a comfortable finish. 

I returned to India on the 3rd and my Dad passed away on the night of the 7th.  As condolences poured in on his demise, the overwhelming sentiment amongst my runner friends was that I must have dedicated this Comrades run for my Dad.  They suggested that he would have been so proud that I finished Comrades. They opined that he waited for me to finish Comrades and come back home before leaving on his final journey.  That he must have been proud to see my medal. 

An overwhelming number suggested that I must have run “this one was for my Dad”.

I kept quiet as I heard this again and again because these were words spoken with a good heart and with good wishes.  But I felt it was unfair to my Dad if I kept quiet.

The truth is that I didn’t run Comrades for my Dad.  I ran it for myself.

My relationship with my dad was not based on any responsibility.  It was based on love and love meant freedom.  For 14 years I did everything I could do to help him fight the disease.  I can say with certainty that no one could have done more to help and I can also say that I did all that I could, not out of any responsibility towards him but because I loved him.

My Dad had no real choice in the matter. I would have gone to the ends of the world for him, simply because I loved him.  My love for him arose out of freedom of action and thought. 

If I had stayed home and not gone to Africa it would have been out of a responsibility towards him and I felt that I was not responsible towards him.

My action towards him were always guided by free will and by my love for him.  I am responsible only towards my own conscience and towards my inner being.  My heart had told me to go and run Comrades because I love the race. 

Running is my happy thought.  It is the foundation which brings stability to me.  Running helped me love my dad to my full ability.  It gave me strength to walk into hundreds of consultations over 14 years with doctors to help cure him.  It gave me strength physically and mentally to keep up a brave face even as we were losing the war to save him. 

But I didn’t run Comrades for my Dad, I ran it for myself.  I ran Comrades because running Comrades makes me a better person and I aspire to greatness.

I believe that my Dad didn’t know that I went to run Comrades because I didn’t tell him.  I don’t believe that he knew that I completed Comrades because I didn’t tell him.  He was unconscious when I left and also when I returned and I doubt that he had a sense of time and space in those last 20 days.
I also know that my Dad didn’t care much about my running. He never expressed either a positive or a negative sentiment about my running but I know that he came from an old school of thought that “time at work” was the only time well spent. 

But I also know that my relationship with my father was not based on my running.  It was based on love and freedom.  He allowed me to chart my own course. 

It would therefore be an insult to him to say that I ran Comrades for him and that he would have been proud of my Comrades medal.  He was always proud of me because he loved me.  A Comrades finish or medal had nothing to do with love. 

A few hours before he passed away he opened his eyes.  I was standing close to him, I held his hand and told him, "Papa don't worry, I will look after everybody".

On the morning of Sunday 8th June, I was on the road, I was walking towards the crematorium carrying my father’s body. A week later on the morning of Sunday 15th June, I was swimming in the pool with my son Aryan.

I was missing my Father just as I have missed him every moment from the time he left me. There is this hole in my heart which will never be filled. 

As Aryan showed me his diving skills I pondered on the idea that I had once heard.  Someone said that you realize that your time is limited once your own father dies.  It’s then that you realize, for the first time, that you will be next.  I have often thought about my death and how I will face it.

But I wondered what really happens after death.  Was my father’s consciousness in a good place? Was his consciousness happy?
Aryan realized that I was distracted and asked me to play properly. It brought to mind a dialogue described by Osho about a meeting between Confucius and Lao Tzu. 
“Confucius asked, “What happens after death?” And Lao Tzu became aflame, like a flair, and he said, “Again! Are you going to drop your stupidity or not? You are alive - can you say what life is? You don’t know life while you are alive and you are bothering about death! You will have enough time in your grave. At that time you can meditate on what death is. Right now live! And don’t live lukewarm.”

Osho goes on to say that, “Many people go on living on dimmer switches. They go on dimming and dimming. They don’t die, they simply fade out.  Death happens to only a very few people, to those who have really lived and lived hot.  They know the difference between life and death because they have tasted life, and that experience of life makes them capable of death too. And because they know life, they can know death.  If living, you miss life, dying you will miss death.”

And so for now the thoughts of Death can wait!
Celi promised me that if I follow his program I can do a sub 11 Comrades in a few years time.

I am alive and I am never more alive than when I run Comrades.   I refuse to fade out.  I am not on a dimmer. I will taste life to its fullest.  I intend to live Hot.  

Comrades 2015, awaits!!

Friday 23 May 2014

I Go To Seek A Great Perhaps : Comrades 2014

    “I GO TO SEEK A GREAT PERHAPS”: Francois Rabelais

People often wonder why we need to run the Comrades Marathon again and again. I cannot explain the reason to them because there is no way to rationally convey my answer in words they would want meanings conveyed.  I would be equally flummoxed if I was asked why I enjoyed breathing.

To say that Comrades is a hard race is an understatement.  However sometimes, what is harder than the race is the long process which gets us ready to reach the start line. Normal everyday routine Life intervenes and the journey to the start line in Africa is never easy. I would argue that the journey is almost as tough as the journey from the start line to the finish.    

So why are we so hell bent on making this yearly pilgrimage? 

I sometimes think that Comrades runners are much like the Salmon. Just like the fish which need to return to the river of their birth after years at sea, we runners, having once tasted the waters on the road between Durban and PMB need to get back once a year to the start-line, no matter the difficulties that we face in the journey. The salmon swim determinedly upstream to their spawning grounds. Some have to jump over waterfalls, getting battered on the rocks in the process, and yet they keep trying again and again. It is a life force which the salmon would be hard pressed to explain. 

I have been to the start-line 5 times and yet, as I sit here today, in my home in Mumbai, I am as eager to get there as I was in 2009.  I started planning my return to the start line 2014, even before I returned home from the 2013 run but juggling the events of Life is never easy.    

Will I make it to the start this year? Will I make it to the finish line this year?

I have spent the last 15 weeks training like a man possessed and yet with just 8 days to go before the race, I haven’t the slightest idea if I will be on the start line, let alone the finish.   

For the last 11 years, my dad has been suffering from Cancer and fortunately for 10 of those years, he had the upper hand on the disease.  Unfortunately since the last 11 months the tables have turned.  My Dad is 86 years old and has had a wonderful life. It has been a life celebrated with work and full of accomplishments. It is a life which has been honored and respected by society at large. 

But now he is not conscious.  I open his room door and see him asleep on his white hospital bed with white bed sheets. There seems to be a slight frown on his face.  He sleeps sitting propped-up and the bottom part of the bed is elevated so that his knees are a bit folded.  Behind him is a stand on which they would hang the feeding bag.  He seems to be sleeping, but to my mind, it seems that he is alone, drifting in a small battered boat helplessly in a stormy sea.  The stand behind his bed seems like a mast but the sail is missing. He is alone. He is in a place I do not know nor can I imagine.

And so I wonder about the future. I have done everything that can and could be done over the last 10 years to help cure the disease and then everything in the last 11 months to help reduce the discomfort.  Now he can nether see me or talk to me.

It has been exceedingly easy for me to give up on all the routine activities of my daily life over the last 11 months to be with and help my dad in whatever and whichever way I could. The one constant companion which has sustained and kept me focused on Life has been the idea of Comrades. Comrades is my happy thought. The idea of spending a few wonderful days in Africa, in the company of my extended family, gave me comfort in many stressful and sorrow-filled hours over the last 11 months.  But now suddenly the event which was in the distant future is only 8 days away and I must decide whether to board the plane on the night of the 28th. I don’t know what the future holds. I do not know if I should board that plane or if I will board that plane.  I don’t know what to plan. And then, I wonder if it is really something that I can plan.  Is it for me to decide? Is it something I have the power to decide?        

Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story, “What Men Live By”.  In the story, Michael an angel is punished by God for disobeying his command and as punishment is sent on earth to find answers to 3 questions.  One of the questions was: “What is not given to man?”

Simon a kind and humble shoemaker finds Michael (the angel) alone and naked on the road and saves him.  He takes Michael home and teaches him the art of shoe-making.  Michael soon masters the art and becomes a famous shoemaker. 

One day a customer, who is a nobleman, comes to their shop. The nobleman outlines strict conditions for the construction of a pair of thick leather boots which will not lose its shapes or become loose at the seams for a year or else he would have Simon arrested.

When Simon gives the leather that the nobleman had given them to use to Michael, Michael appears to stare beyond the nobleman's shoulder and smiles. It is as if Michael is smiling at someone standing behind the nobleman.   

Later as Michael sews the leather to construct the boots, he does so in a fashion that makes them soft leather slippers rather than thick leather boots that the nobleman ordered.

Simon is too late when he notices this and cries to Michael asking why he would do such a foolish thing. Why make slippers when boots have been ordered?

Before Michael can answer, a messenger arrives at their door and gives the news that the nobleman has died and if they could change the order to slippers for him to wear on his death bed.

Simon is astounded by this and watches as Michael gives the messenger the pre-made leather slippers.

The reason that Michael had smiled when the nobleman ordered the boots was because he could see the angel of death sitting on the nobleman’s shoulder and realized the futility of the nobleman’s plans.

The nobleman wanted boots to last for a year when he himself was meant to die shortly.   By the end of the story, Michael leans the answers to all the 3 questions that God had asked him. 

He learnt that the answer to the question, “What is not given to man?” from his encounter with the nobleman. He had learnt that “It is not given to a man to know what he needs.” A man cannot really plan for anything.

It is not given to man to know whether when evening comes, he will need boots for his body or slippers for his corpse.

I think I have no idea what the future holds.  I may plan whatever I want but in the end we cannot predict or plan for anything. 

Where will I be come the 1st of June 2014? I haven’t the faintest idea.  Will I reach the start line, leave alone the finish?

But then, I am Comrades Runner and I survive on hope. Hope may come to fruition or it may come to naught. 

I remind myself that I am a Comrades Runner.

Nothing will stop me from seeking a Great Perhaps. 

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Dare To Run: Judging your Race Day : Triumph or Disaster

Dare To Run: Judging your Race Day : Triumph or Disaster: Now that the SCMM 2014 is done and dusted, the social media is filled with stories of glory and defeat.   Some runners are delighted with ...

Judging your Race Day : Triumph or Disaster

Now that the SCMM 2014 is done and dusted, the social media is filled with stories of glory and defeat.  Some runners are delighted with their finish times, some are delighted simply with the fact that they finished, while some are happy with the fact that they started.  Some on the other hand, are disappointed with their race day finish times, some with the fact that they could not finish. 
Of all the stories that I read, the one which caught my eye was that of my young friend Arsalan Shaikh.  I have known this kid for about 3 years. He is one of the most dedicated young runners I know of in Mumbai.  I have seen him train these past few years. He has run a few Ultra marathons.  He is just 19 years old. 
I encouraged Procam to appoint Arsalan to be a sub 2:00 pacer at the Delhi Airtel Half marathon and when he paced well in Delhi and assured me of his ability, I again encouraged Procam to appoint him a sub 4:30 pacer for the 42k at SCMM.
He was then interviewed by several Newspapers and Radio stations. He was really happy with his responsibility and felt that he was up to it.  
Post the race, his FB post on Monday morning reads:
“We were on time till the 30km, thereafter suddenly at worli sea-face, blood came from my mouth, my ankle was paining from 2 days before the race. I had taken a painkiller tablet before the race. It locked at peddar road and I could not run, I said to all the runners who ran with me in 4:30 bus, “don’t wait for me go ahead.”
I then managed to walk/run, 27 min delay, 4:57 hr.
Sorry friends, Procam, Amit Sheth Sir”

I can see that the boy is gutted.  He is beside’s himself with grief.  He must feel that his world has imploded on him and that everything is finished.  He seems to feel that some great misfortune has befallen him!
I’m not so sure.  Yes, on race day some runners seem happy with the way things went, while some runners, like Arsalan are distraught with grief.
But should that be so? 
I am reminded of a story told by Osho.  The story was told in Lao Tzu’s lifetime in China.
The story is simple: There was an old man in a village, very poor, but even kings were jealous of him because he had a beautiful white horse. Such a horse had never been seen before — the beauty, the very grandeur, the strength. Kings asked for the horse and they offered fabulous prices, but the old man would say, `This horse is not a horse to me, he is a person, and how can you sell a person? He is a friend, he is not a possession. How can you sell a friend? No, it is not possible.’ The man was poor, there was every temptation, but he never sold the horse.
One morning, he suddenly found that the horse was not in the stable. The whole village gathered and they said, “You foolish old man. We knew it beforehand, that someday the horse would be stolen. And you are so poor — how can you protect such a precious thing? It would have been better to sell it. You could have fetched any price you asked, any fancy price was possible. Now the horse is gone. It is a curse, a misfortune.”
The old man said, “Don’t go too far — simply say that the horse is not in the stable. This is the fact; everything else is a judgment. Whether it is a misfortune or not, how do you know? How do you judge?”
The people said, “Don’t try to fool us. We may not be great philosophers, but no philosophy is needed. It is a simple fact that a treasure has been lost, and it is a misfortune.”
The old man said, “I will stick to the fact that the stable is empty and the horse is gone. Anything else I don’t know — whether it is a misfortune or a blessing — because this is just a fragment. Who knows what is going to follow it?”

People laughed. They thought the old man had gone mad. They always knew it, that he was a little crazy; otherwise he would have sold this horse and lived in riches. But he was living like a woodcutter, and he was very old and still cutting wood and bringing the wood from the forest and selling it. He was living hand to mouth, in misery and poverty. Now it was completely certain that this man was crazy.
After fifteen days, suddenly one night, the horse returned. He had not been stolen: he had escaped to the wilderness. And not only did he come back, he brought a dozen wild horses with him. Again the people gathered and they said, “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. It was not a misfortune, it proved to be a blessing. We are sorry that we insisted.”
The old man said, “Again you are going too far. Just say that the horse is back, and say that twelve horses have come with the horse — but don’t judge. Who knows whether it is a blessing or not? It is only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read one page of a book, how can you judge the whole book? You read a sentence in a page — how can you judge the whole page? You read a single word in a sentence — how can you judge the whole sentence? And even a single word is not in the hand — life is so vast — a fragment of a word and you have judged the whole! Don’t say that this is a blessing, nobody knows. And I am happy in my no-judgment; don’t disturb me.”
This time the people could not say much; maybe the old man was again right. So they kept silent, but inside they knew well that he was wrong. Twelve beautiful horses had come with the horse. A little training and they could all be sold and they would fetch much money.
The old man had a young son, only one son. The young son started to train the wild horses; just a week later he fell from a wild horse and his legs were broken. The people gathered again and they judged. They said, “You were right, again you proved right. It was not a blessing, it was again a misfortune. Your only son has lost his legs, and in your old age he was your only support. Now you are poorer than ever.”
The old man said, “You are obsessed with judgment. Don’t go that far. Say only that my son has broken his legs. Who knows whether this is a misfortune or a blessing? — nobody knows. Again a fragment, and more is never given to you. Life comes in fragments, and judgment is about the total.”
It happened that after a few weeks the country went to war with a neighboring country, and all the young men of the town were forcibly taken for the military. Only the old man’s son was left because he was crippled. The people gathered, crying and weeping, because from every house young people were forcibly taken away. And there was no possibility of their coming back, because the country that had attacked was a big country and the fight was a losing fight. They were not going to come back.
The whole town was crying and weeping, and they came to the old man and they said, “You were right, old man! God knows, you were right — this proved a blessing. Maybe your son is crippled, but still he is with you. Our sons are gone forever. At least he is alive and with you, and, by and by, he will start walking. Maybe a little limp will be left, but he will be okay.”
The old man again said, “It is impossible to talk to you people, you go on and on and on — you go on judging. Nobody knows! Only say this: that your sons have been forced to enter into the military, into the army, and my son has not been forced. But nobody knows whether it is a blessing or a misfortune. Nobody will ever be able to know it. Only God knows.”
So I would like to tell my young friend, Arsalan, Don’t worry, don’t judge.  You don’t need to be so gutted, you don’t know what the future holds.  Perhaps you avoided a major injury, perhaps far greater glory awaits you, or perhaps you are truly in the dumps! We just don’t know!
But I also know that we cannot all be philosophers and we are all delighted and happy when we achieve new heights and we are heartbroken at our losses.
I remember a delightful movie I’ve seen more than once called “A good year” and stars Russell Crowe.
In a flash-back scene, Old Uncle Henry is playing tennis with his grandkid, young Max.  Uncle Henry is holding a tennis racket in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other. 
Young Max— wearing a headband and wristband and looking like a pint sized version of John McEnroe is quite bad tempered because he is losing the game and starts to complain about bad light.
Uncle Henry: “Nonsense, Max, at your age I could spot a hyena on the veldt at three quarters of a mile.”
Uncle Henry lines up his serve..THWACK! Dead-center. Max lunges for the ball as if his life depended on it, but misses anyway.
Uncle Henry: “ACE! Game, set match”
Uncle Henry then dances in the “end zone” in celebration.  Pissed, Young Max slams his racket to the court…and walks toward the service box to examine the line.
Young Max: You can’t be serious!
Uncle Henry continues to gloat…without mercy.
Young Max: You don’t have to rub it in.
Uncle Henry: The real question, Max, is why YOU aren’t celebrating?   
Young Max: Because I lost.
Uncle Henry pours himself a refill of white wine.
Uncle Henry: Max….a man should acknowledge his losses as gracefully as he celebrates his victories…Now give us a jig..for your old Uncle’s sake…
Following orders, Young Max makes a half-hearted attempt to dance around the court…raises his arms and dances around….but not feeling it..abruptly stops.
Uncle Henry crosses the court and tussle’s the boy’s hair.
Uncle Henry: “Someday, Max, You’ll come to see that a man learns nothing from winning.  The act of losing however, can elicit great wisdom… not the least of which is how much more enjoyable it is to win…It is essential to lose now and then…The trick is not to make a habit of it.”
So my young friend Arsalan you and I have two choices here, either we follow Lao Tzu and decide neither to judge our victories as triumphs nor our defeats as disasters (simply because we can’t really see the “Totality of Life”) or on the other hand, we must simply learn from Uncle Henry. 
 “The act of losing however, can elicit great wisdom… not the least of which is how much more enjoyable it is to winIt is essential to lose now and then…The trick is not to make a habit of it.”
Lao Tzu or Old Uncle Henry? I think, I’ll follow the man with the white wine glass.

Friday 17 January 2014

Mind In The Boat

“It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you”
– The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown)
Neha, a fellow runner, who is about to run her first half marathon on Jan 19th 2014, recently wrote to me that she is filled with contradictory emotions.  She said that she was stressed, anxious, excited and nervous about her first 21k. 
She took encouragement from the fact that she saw thousands of runners training on the streets of Mumbai but also recognized that in some ways she was all alone. She knew that in the final analysis, she had to have faith in her own training and her own ability.  All she wanted to do on race-day was to get from the start line to the finish line with a huge smile on her face and without too many aches and pains.
Blessed are those fortunate few, who manage to run a marathon without aches and pains, because for me, the aches and pains are not just physical but also mental. 
A wise man has said that, “Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will.  Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
I, as most people will attest, am not wise!
And so, once my mind starts screaming at me to stop the insanity, I start to stop concentrating on the run and slow down.  I then start thinking about work and about whichever issue is currently dominating my life and I start losing more and more speed. 
At the same time, every small physical pain that I am suffering from is amplified and that makes me slow down even further. 
My mind fills me with negative thoughts...and I slow down even further.
My mind seems to go away on a trip of its own.  It is everywhere except in the race that I am running.  I find my mind running away from the race. 
Although, I have tried to keep my mind focused on the run, this has happened to me, once too often.  And inevitably after the race (but mostly during the race) I have to listen to Neepa, my wife, as she shouts at me: “What is wrong with you? Why don’t you focus? Why don’t you concentrate?” 
As another Marathon approaches, I am filled with dread. I know that once again, my mind, my body and my character will be tested.
I have trained hard and yet I ask myself: “Will my mind wander?  Will I look beyond the inevitable aches and pains and focus exclusively, for a few hours, on my passion?  Will my mind hold? Will I have the mental toughness to take me through those final kilometres without slowing to a crawl?”
I recently read a fantastic book, “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown.  It is a book about the sport of rowing, but it is also a book about Life.  It is one of the best books that I have ever read.
The book tells of an epic-true life journey about ordinary boys becoming extraordinary men. 
It is a story about nine young men from the State of Washington – farm boys, fishermen, and loggers – who shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in the eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics. 
It is a story about boys from extremely poor families during the Great Depression. "It was a time, when one in four working Americans had no job and no prospects of finding one.  It was a time when perhaps two million Americans were homeless and every town had Banks which had gone bust along with the savings of countless Americans and these boys came from desperately poor families."
“Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports.  Once the race start, there are no time-outs.  It calls upon the limits of human endurance. Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw upon primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body.  And rowing makes these muscular demands not at odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. 
“When you row, the major muscles in your arms, legs and back – particularly the quadriceps, triceps, biceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, abdomicals, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles – do most of the grunt work, propelling the boat forward against the unrelenting resistance of water and wind.  At the same time, scores of smaller muscles in the neck, wrists, hands, and even the feet continually fine-tune your efforts, holding the body in constant equipoise in order to maintain the exquisite balance necessary to keep a 24 inch wide vessel on an even keel.”
“The result is that the body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any human endeavour.  Physiologists have calculated that rowing a 2000 meter race – the Olympic standard – takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about 6 mintues. 
Pound for Pound, Olympic oarsmen may take in and process as much oxygen as a thoroughbred racehorse. But during the anaerobic stages of the race (at the start and towards the finish) oxygen starved muscles begin to scream in agony.  And it is not only the muscles that scream.  The skeletal system to which all those muscles are attached also undergoes tremendous strains and stresses. The whole mind and body screams!” 
“The common denominator is overwhelming pain.  And what every oarsman comes to learn is that pain is a part and parcel of his sport.
It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you”
The team must therefore learn a special kind of endurance that comes from the mind, heart and body.  Harmony, balance, and rhythm need to become 2nd nature.. 
..All things equal, victory finally comes down to concentration or the lack of it. 
The team which concentrates the best has the best chance of winning! “There is no place to stop and take a drink of water or a lungful of cool air.  You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over....”
                  “MIND IN THE BOAT”   
George Morry, was the coxswain, of the US team.  (a coxswain, is the member of the rowing team who sits in the stern facing the bow and his team mates and steers the boat, and coordinates the power and rhythm of the rowers.  He sets the strategy during the race by shouting out instructions and makes sure that the team rows in a synchronised fashion.  
George Morry came up with a mantra to help the oarsmen concentrate and focus on the job at hand.  
As they rowed, George Morry would shout:“M-I-B, M-I-B, M-I-B, M-I-B” over and over to the rhythm of their stroke. The initials stood for “MIND IN BOAT”. 
“It was meant as a reminder that from the time an oarsman steps into a racing shell until the moment that the boat crosses the finish line, he must keep his mind focused on what is happening inside the boat.”  “MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT”
"It was meant to remind him that his whole world must shrink down to the small space within the gunwales.” “MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT”
“It was meant to remind him that he must maintain a singular focus on the rower just ahead of him And that he must focus on the voice of the coxswain calling out the commands."  “MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT”
Nothing must distract him – not the other competing boats, nor the pain in his muscles, nor the lack of oxygen in their lungs - nothing can enter the successful oarsmen’s mind for he has just one focus! "MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT”
And so, for SCMM 2014, I have a plan. Whenever I find my Mind meandering away from the race, I plan to chant my Mantra....MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT, MIND IN THE BOAT..
Whenever I feel my pace falling...MIND IN THE BOAT
Whenever I feel myself tiring...MIND IN THE BOAT
Whenever I feel uncertainty...MIND IN THE BOAT
Whenever I feel pain...MIND IN THE BOAT
Whenever I lose focus...MIND IN THE BOAT
For so many of us SCMM Runners, “THE BOAT” has come to mean so much more than we can express!  
My BOAT is not just my body. It is so much more. My BOAT is my love for running, it is my idea of pride and joy and respect for myself.  It is my test of my physical endurance. It is a test of my mental and emotional toughness.
My boat is my idea of becoming a part of something which is larger than myself, and like the boys in the boat, it is my idea of pushing beyond my limited physical and mental pain threshold. 
It is my idea of growing from boyhood to manhood.
By keeping my “MIND IN THE BOAT” on this one special marathon day, I hope that I might be able to push through my aches and pains and then for a moment I might enjoy a mystical moment of pride and elation and I even might, perhaps for a brief fleeting moment, find myself closer to God!...CLOSER TO GOD !!
Really???? God?????
I think I’m going a bit overboard here..Closer to God, might just be a bit too much!
I think that I will simply settle for a time that I can learn to run past pain, past discomfort, past exhaustion, and past the negative voices in my head.  
I will simply settle for a PERSONAL BEST..