Saturday 27 May 2017

The race to measure the Comrades Route

The race to Measure the Comrades Route.

Runners measure everything to do with running and on the 4th of June 2017 runners from over 60 nations will reach the start-line of the Comrades Ultra Marathon.  

The race distance will be perfectly measured for us.

However, there was a time when measuring distances was more complicated.    Humans did not know the distance between the earth and the sun.

I am reading a brilliant book written by Andrea Wulf.  It is called, “Chasing Venus, the race to measure the heavens.”   It deals with an attempt to measure the distance between the earth and the sun.

I quote, “In 1716, British astronomer Edmond Halley published a ten-page essay which called upon scientists to unite in a project spanning the entire globe.   On June 6, 1761, Halley predicted, Venus would traverse the face of the sun – for a few hours the brightest star would appear as a perfectly black circle.  He believed that measuring the exact time and duration of this rare celestial encounter would provide the data that astronomers needed in order to calculate the distance between the earth and the sun. 

It was essential, Halley explained, that several people at different locations across the globe should measure the rare heavenly rendezvous at the same time.  

It was not enough to see Venus’s march from Europe alone; astronomers would have to travel to remote locations in both the northern and southern hemispheres to be as far apart as possible.  And only if they combined these results – the northern viewings being the counterparts to the southern observations – could they achieve what was hitherto been almost unimaginable. 

Halley’s request would be answered when hundreds of astronomers from Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Sweden, and the American colonies `joined the transit project. “ 

To carry out this project in 1761 was incredibly difficult.  Astronomers had to undertake travel through difficult hostile and inhospitable terrains and on dangerous open seas for months at end to reach their destinations.  Nations at war had to cooperate in the name of science.  And from those dozens of locations, in South Africa, India, Siberia, Mauritius, Eastern Finland, Newfoundland and even on the remote island of St.Helena,  hundreds of astronomers had to point their massive telescopes to the sky at the exact same moment to see the transit. 

But what was hardest was that the data had to be shared.  No single result was enough.   Further complicating this was that in 1761 everyone measured everything differently:  Clocks were not accurate enough to measure longitude precisely.  Michelle Legro in Brainpicks explains, “A minute in India would be different than one in Halifax which would be different than one in South Africa.  The same for feet, inches, meters and miles”

“A ‘mil’ in Sweden was more than 10 kilometers, in Norway more than eleven. An English mile was a different length than a German mile.  In France alone there were 2000 different units of measurement.”

And yet, “On 6 June 1761, several hundred astronomers, all over the world pointed their telescopes towards the sky to see Venus travel across the sun.  They ignored religious, national and economic differences to unite in what was the first global scientific project. 

Chasing Venus, “became the perfect metaphor for the light of reason that would illuminate this new world and extinguish the last vestiges of the Dark Ages”

On June 4, 2017 Our voyages on that road between Duran and PMB will be perfectly measured by technology.   Everyone will all have trained in different environments, spread across all the corners of the world. 

Everyone will have measured their training precisely and yet differently. 

Some will have logged the training volume as kilometers in their logbooks, some will have logged them as miles.  Some will have measured the inclines and declines in meters, some in feet.   Some will have run through freezing temperatures, some through the extreme heat and humidity and some through rain.  Some will have measured the temperatures in Fahrenheit, some in Celsius.  We will have run at different times of the day and in different time zones.   Some of us will have trained on real hills, some on treadmills and some on staircases. 

Yet on June 4th as we will all unite to cover that one same sacred distance we will all be chasing our own unique dreams and our own unique heaven.    

And on that day, I will measure something much harder than the geographical distance. I may use all sorts of different yardsticks to measure my journey on that day: time spent on the road, overall ranking, gender ranking, friends made, enjoyment level, pain level or the kind of medal received.

But no matter which yardstick I use, I have no doubt that at some level, I will be measuring that which is the most difficult to measure:

I will be measuring myself against my idea of myself. 

Thursday 2 March 2017

Comrades , Camus and Sisyphus

Comrades, Camus & Sisyphus.

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”: Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Yesterday on March 1, 2017, I started serious training for the Comrades Ultra Marathon.  As it was a Wednesday, I did a longish run which ended with me doing two hill reps.

As I stood at the bottom of a longish hill, I contemplated the climb ahead.  I realised that I was at the bottom of the hill in more ways than one.

Like most normal recreational runners, I cannot sustain peak training for more than a few months.  If I trained hard all year round, my body would break down.

I try and train as hard as possible from March to May.  At the end of May, I hope to be in peak shape for Comrades.

After Comrades, I come down the hill: mentally, physically and emotionally.  I can no longer sustain that rigorous training and so I lose a substantial part of my fitness in the months that follow.   I more or less return to naught.

I’ve now been running Comrades for 8 years and it is the same story every year.

As I begin training for a new Comrades I am appalled at the amount of hard work which awaits me from March to May and the tragedy is that I know that after working very hard through those months, I will not be able to bank that fitness.  In the months that follow Comrades, I know that I will lose much of it and will again find myself at the bottom of the hill when I start training for the following year.

I stood below the hill yesterday, contemplating the absurdity of my position.  I climb a mountain each year and then I have to climb it again in a year’s time.  There is no possibility of staying on top.    Become fit and then lose the fitness and again become fit and lose the fitness over again.  

To what end must I do this?  I know that at some point in the future, I will no longer be able to run Comrades and then at a point further in distance, like everyone else, I will die.  So is this worth doing?  Is their any meaning in this?

What is the point in this ritual, up and down the mountain?
Is it not an absurd thing to do?
Is this worth doing?  
This race is so hard that it takes all I have and more often than not, what I have is not enough.
Why then should I suffer ?
What is the meaning of struggling to go up that hill when I know that I will come back down?
Is there a meaning to life and its absurd daily bustle?

3 months of brutal training to gain fitness which will be substantially lost as soon as Comrades is done and I will have to start all over again next year!  What is the point in making it up the hill?

Standing at the bottom of that hill, yesterday,  I was reminded of Sisyphus, one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology.

Sisyphus was condemned by Zius to roll a huge boulder up a hill for all eternity.  And the moment he managed to push it up to the top, it would roll back down.   Sisyphus was condemned to do this for all eternity.  Push the rock up the hill with all his might, only to have it roll down.

I wonder what Sisyphus would have felt when each time on reaching the top he realized that he had to walk down again and restart the whole process.  To know that he had accomplished nothing.  The futility of the labor must have eaten into his soul.

Albert Camus in his fabulous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus draws a picture of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill..“One sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over, one sees the face screwed up, the cheek against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of the two earth-clotted hands.
At the very end of his long effort measured by sky-less space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved.
Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments towards the lower world whence he will have to push it up again towards the summit.”

A tragic & absurd fate like this would push one into contemplating if life is worth living.   But Sisyphus accepts his fate.  He does not search for meaning expect doing what is at hand.

And so for Camus, Sisyphus is an hero because in that moment when he turns around to return to the bottom of the hill, he is fully conscious of his wretched condition and in this clear awareness and acceptance of his fate, he becomes “superior to his fate”.  He embraces the absurd and in embracing it, he overcomes it.

“He is stronger than his rock”.  

He does not give into sorrow or religion.  

He does not look for a meaning to his life outside of his condition.  

He understands that there is freedom beyond what the Gods can grant.

He remains “awake”.  
He learns that there are no tomorrows and that he is free.
He concludes that all is well.

Camus concludes that “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I am no Sisyphus.  The Gods have no time to take a hand in my fate.
My fate is a personal matter, which I must sort out myself.

I know that I will lose my fitness again and again and someday I will not be able to push up the hill anymore. So be it.

But like Sisyphus, I know that pushing up the hill is neither sterile nor futile.   Climbing up the mountain is my thing.

The struggle towards the heights is enough to fill my heart.

I know I am happy.

Besides, every-time I stand at the bottom of the hill, I know that I will struggle up the hill again, in the company of heroes.

And at the top.. glory awaits.

Friday 10 February 2017

The crossroads of history

At the crossroads of history !

'Standing at the cross roads of history', is such a well known and important phrase.

Reading it again, in Andrew Solomon's book, Far and Away, made me think of a few things.

Yesterday was Aryan's last day at school.  He is done with the first 10 years of schooling and now after the 10th grade exams, he will embark on a whole new chapter in his life. He is, in a way, standing at the crossroads of history.  His own history, mind you, but history nonetheless.   After all, each one of us is the most important character in his or her own story.

When Aryan came home from school he didn't seem particularly upset about the closure of such a major chapter in his own life.   I think it's because he knows that so much more is now going to happen.  Life has great things in store for him.

Watching him reminded me of my last day at school decades ago.  I still remember that I was relieved that school was at an end.  I hated my school and I distinctly remember one of the girls crying in class on the last day and wondering, "what's wrong with this girl ?"  I guess I was excited about the days to come.  

I was sure that the future would be better than the past.  
I was standing at the crossroads of history.

5 years later when I finished college, I was again only mildly sad about the fabulous time that I was leaving  behind.  I had loved College but I was excited about the future.  I was about to go to study in the United States and the future held so much promise.  
I was standing on the cross roads of history and ready to plunge  ahead.
I was sure that future would  be better than the past

Six years later, I broke down as I sat in the departure lounge of the Logan Airport, Boston, as I left my beloved United States to return back to India.   I loved my friends in the US and my life there and was heartbroken to leave the States and I fell on my knees and kissed the floor as I boarded the return flight.  

But still there was tremendous hope about the future.  I was to return to India and start work with General Electric Plastics and start a whole new chapter in my life.    
I was sure that future would be better than the past.  
I was once again standing on the crossroads of history.

Working for GE, getting married, and leaving GE to start my own business were again all major crossroads in life.  Each time, there was sadness at leaving behind a major chapter of my life but there was always hope about the future.   The crossroads lead to greater happiness and a better future.

A few years later Namrata was born and then Aryan was born and life continued to change and there were always happy new events to look forward towards.

There was always sadness at the end of a road travelled, but there was always excitement about the new road on which I was embarking.

I started running at the age of 38 and the last 12 years have just been completely awesome.

My dad always used to tell me that his life used to change dramatically every 10 years.  Mine has been perhaps changed more or less in the same pattern .  Every decade has seen great changes take place.

Yesterday, over lunch, my mom and I were discussing the health issues of a relative and my mom suddenly asked me.  "Amit, How much life insurance do you have ?"
The question took my thoughts to the question of my mortality and the well being of those I will leave behind.

I turned 50 , seven months ago.  And I realised that once again I am perhaps at a new crossroad.

5O is such a major milestone and I wondered what the next decade will bring !

Will my strength ebb now ? Is it time to start packing up ?
Will I be able to run the races and distances and speeds that I still want to ?  How many comrades are left in these legs ?

Must I look at the decade to come with the excitement that I've had at each crossroad in the past or will the half century that has gone past be the glory days of my life?

For a while, I hesitated.

Can the future, now that I am 50, be even better than the past ?

Andrew Solomon one of the greatest journalists of our time, writes in his book, Far and Away, about his 9th grade teacher who used to keep using the phrase, 'standing at the crossroads of history' in describing the lives of the great important figures (Ramses II, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson).

Every time the teacher used the phrase, 'standing at the crossroads of history', young Andrew Solomon envisioned them as brave men and women who disregarded traffic lights, turning sharply left or right where everyone else had planned on proceeding straight ahead.

I like that vision.  To think of every major decade as a traffic light with options on how I wish to proceed.

I think only I have to decide what I want the future to hold.

The direction that I want my life to take is of my own choosing.

And I want the decade to come to be the best years of my life.

Good health, a happy family and loads and loads of great exotic runs around the world await me.

Ever Onwards then, through the the traffic lights of history !!