Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Sometime in Mar 2014, I bought the book, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I began reading it almost immediately. 
The book tells the tale of Louie Zamperini, the legendary runner from the US, whose tale of survival through the horrors of WW-II first as a survivor at sea from an air mishap for 47 days and then as a POW in Japan for nearly 2.5 years, lends the title to the book.

I must admit that I have not have had much interest as an adult in war stories. Most of my interest in Zamperini’s tale stemmed from his being a runner. Some tinder was set to it, thanks to the movie announced by Jolie, due to release in Dec 2014 and early 2015.

But the book I must say, makes compelling reading. I also found it extremely difficult to read because it played havoc with my head. It has detailed descriptions of torture inflicted on Louie and his fellow POWs that make your stomach churn, overwhelm you emotionally, make you lose your appetite and sometimes all of these together. What kept me going was that I knew Zamperini was alive and hence must have somehow survived the various ordeals he underwent in the book.

Particularly despair-inducing was the fact that Louie was running a 4:12 mile before he was peaking as an athlete in his quest to attend the 1940 Olympics, before war stole his best years. There aren’t many who have run in the Olympics 5000m final at the age of 19, especially having not run even a dozen races at that distance. Louie was set to discover his calling as a miler before WW-II threw his plans in disarray. I am aware of various accounts of the horrors of war - both large and small from around the world across eras. So this should not have been that tough to digest. But I find it easy to relate to Louie (despite not being anywhere close to even a 5 minute mile let alone a 4:06-4:07 mile) since I understand the effort that goes into training for one. And then to see it all wiped away plunges you into a sort of public depression where you share his misery although you are actually not undergoing any of it. Sample this extract from the book “Someone brought Louie the Aug 15 issue of the Minneapolis Star-Journal. Near the back was an article titled “Lest We Forget,” discussing athletes who had died in the war. More than 400 amateur, professional and collegiate athletes had been killed, incl. 19 pro football players, 5 American League Baseball players, 11 pro golfers and 1920 Olympic champion sprinter Charlie Paddock*, whom Louie had known”. Some of the anecdotes about courage and gentlemanly behaviour by the officers under testing conditions are simply mind-blowing.

I would strongly recommend you read it too if you like reading about athletes or about the WW-II or tales of resilience in general. Once you learn about such stories, you can dig deep in your own moments of misery, rather than be overwhelmed or wallow in self-pity. It is quite a big book, but I assure you that not a page will bore you.

Postscript: I did begin this post planning on writing a review of the book but I find it disturbing to revisit the horrors of war, which occupy a significant portion of the book. So, I have left the reader with only a taste of what the book contains and how it made me feel, which I feel is enough for you to decide whether you should read the book too.

* For those of you who have seen Chariots of Fire, Charley Paddock is one of the American athletes Harold Abrahams meets in the 1924 Olympics.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Bought this book, yet again on credit card points, from Infibeam, thanks to the convenience of being able to redeem points online, something I hadn't done so far. I have always gone to Landmark (and even Crossword on one occasion) mostly because they allowed me to swipe points. Am waiting for Flipkart and Amazon to come up with their equivalents to increase my options. Infibeam, all said and done doesn't have the breadth of choice and it doesn't dazzle with 24 hrs service like Flipkart does.

The choice of the book was driven more by its price and my ability to fit it into the points I had (still sticking to my policy of not buying any new books except thru prizes or points), than my interest in it. I couldn't find any of the items on my booklust on Infibeam at suitable prices or otherwise. Also due to my new found love for ebooks, which have helped me make progress on my reading, I tried buying ebooks but Infibeam mostly sucks on that front.

Now to get back to some reading

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

MahaYodha & ebooks

There's this interesting new game called MahaYodha which is a board game based on characters from Indian myth (the game is set to release in June 2014 or so). Since there isn't much to sample yet, one can easily say that their artwork is quite fantastic. Hope the game is good too.

Thanks to some contest they've run on their Facebook page, I have won a couple of Flipkart coupons over the past week or so, at least whenever I have been awake and the questions weren't already answered by someone else.

I aggregated my winnings from the last 2 quizzes and bought "The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets" by Simon Singh, which is a fascinating book for both lovers of mathematics and Simpsons' fans. I first learned about the book from this article on Slate and finally managed to buy the book today.

Should be fun reading the entire book.

Monday, March 03, 2014

New e-books

Added the following books in some really slow bout of e-book buying thanks to some gift vouchers from a quiz and some old balance on Amazon credits.

The Mammoth Book of Travel in Dangerous Places by John Keay
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Great Arc by John Keay

While the Keay books were bought due to my liking for the author, I bought the other book due to the protagonist's rather incredible story. Let's see if my tempo of reading ebooks is sustained in this month and the rest of the year too.

Most of the time spent/wasted online was due to my desire to buy books I couldn't afford for now, especially a new book by Bryson as well as an old one by Simon Winchester. They have now moved to my long wishlist :)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Links to my Writing

This post is to aggregate my writing (all that is available online) over the years#

My work can be seen at the urls below,

Writing for Citizen Matters

Writing for MINT

Post for the Guardian Running Blog

Book Reviews for Business World

Article on Marathon Training for Health.India

# Some of my writing has been published in print media but not online

Friday, January 31, 2014

SCMM 2014 - Half Marathon

Running a great time vs. having a good time

Sometime around the TCS 10K 2013, a running buddy H, himself a fierce runner, had suggested that some of us try and break 1:30 for a half marathon (HM) and also try and do that in Delhi later in the year. I had agreed to chase that goal. After all, I was in good shape and run the TCS 10K in a dead flat 41:00 mins but I had lacked the confidence to be able to do that in India. I have run thru the first halves of 2 separate races in under 1:31 in the US but running 1:30 in India is frankly out of my ballpark, at least I thought so. I am what I label a warm weather wimp. I just melt down in warm and particularly humid weather. While I had trained hard for the Chennai half on 1st Dec, I had an awful race, finishing in 1:41 and feeling even more terrible since my fastest trainee ever, till date also had a miserable race. I am not quite sure whether it was the 25 deg C weather combined with ~90+ % humidity contrasted with the sub 20 deg C weather we had run under for most of our training that hurt us or the rain which made it doubly difficult compounding the humidity issue. Whatever it was, I took a partially frustrated and partially driven by injury break of 3 weeks. I didn't run a step till 21st Dec to let my stress fracture in my left shin heal. That seemed to help at least for the first week before the familiar niggle was back. So I focussed on starting my base mileage for my planned race in May 2014, rather than train for Mumbai. So while I did run track, I ran target race paces rather than my interval paces or tempo paces. The longest run I did was a 17.5K in over 2 hours with one of my trainees at her pace. But I could see that this does help my aerobic base.

Unlike Chennai or Hyderabad, I didn't even do a practice 10K at race pace since I told myself SCMM wasn't a priority in this year. I had also promised myself to get a specialist to look at my shin once in Mumbai. I would take my decision on running SCMM HM hard once the specialist gave me some assurance that I wouldn't do long term damage by racing. My plan had been to run 1:45 so that I could retain my starting block for next year. That would so as there was no way for me to break into A and besides A starts only a few seconds ahead anyways. What I did in stead was to not run on Thu, Fri & Sat, which isn't what I usually do. That gave me loads of freshness in the legs although I did try and shake that off by doing some ill-advised scooter rides with my wife as part of her Mumbai-dekho trip. We also did a wonderful lunch at Moshe's with more of my trainees+friends+ex-colleagues. And then there was the visit to Gateway of India(GoI). It was while looking at some of the absurd pictures taken at GoI that I realized that for the 1st time in recent memory I was not thinking of my race. Usually I am so wired before races that I am bad company as my wife can vouch for, esp. from our Berlin trip. But this time i was determined to make up for being such lousy company by doing other things in the days leading up to the race. So we did see a movie (Dedh Ishqiya - which btw I strongly recommend if you like Madhuri Dixit and her dancing like I do) and walk around Mumbai, a fair bit.

The 1st thing I had done in Mumbai was to head to the specialist who said that an MRI would be needed for an accurate diagnosis but that I could run on Sunday taking care to back off, if I felt any pain. I told him how fast I have run in the past and that I wanted to finish in or under 1:45 although I wouldn't start at that pace.

The only other time I have started cautiously in Mumbai was in 2010 when I ran 5 weeks post-surgery.

Although I am a creature of habit, I tried 2 new things on raceday I would not recommend you try. I wore a fresh pair of shoes (although they were identical to the ones I trained in - Mizuno Wave Ronin 4s) and I had breakfast, partly based on Damian's advice about my Berlin race. I have never had breakfast before a half marathon before, since I don't feel the need. This time I did so, partly out of the realization that I would not get home before noon, having planned to meet my trainees, the last of who'd finish only around 11 am and partly because I had no major timing plans. So this food would not ruin any plans, mostly because there were no plans.

The race morning itself began a little comically. I forgot my cap at home at 4:30 am and when you ring your doorbell waking 3 people up 2 min after locking the door behind you, you know you are accumulating bad karma. And then I realized that my vaseline was also in Bangalore. Thankfully Mumbai wakes up early and I bought a small container just around the corner from the place I was staying at. I had had the foresight to carry enough change. I had realized my HRM was in Bangalore on Sat itself when I was laying out my race gear.

My rendezvous point with one of my trainees, S (who had booked a cab), was about a km from where I stayed. So I used it to warm up although it was about 45 min before race start time and hence not the best prep, but better than none at all.

Then I joined S who was accompanied by a colleague of his and headed to the race starting line. Once in the starting block,  I had loads of time to kill. I did a fair amount of stretching and drills. I even managed to take a leak. I also checked out a few fellow runners who were also raring to go incl one who was doing splits! A Caucasian runner and I shared a smile looking at this. And then we saw a bunch of 'VIP" runners descend into starting block A, driving up in their fancy cars. Also met up my specialist who was running too.

I started mostly on feel. There were a few runners who tried to keep up with me or run alongside but I picked up some pace on the sea-link uphill to get away from them or drop behind while they continued. 1 guy in particular tried drafting and I tried the Kiprotich routine of zig-zagging to throw him off while running hard. It worked.

Until I got to Pedder Road, I was comfortable since I had not had to breathe heavy at all. While getting up Pedder Road, I saw my pal & trainee S, who was clicking pictures and waved. I lost about 20-30 secs off my average going up but I more than made up for it, descending Pedder Road. This was also the time I gained some ground on few people who had kept up the pace. By this time, a runner in blue and another in yellow JSW Runner kit were in my sights. And they were much faster runners. So I tried to maintain the gap with them, barely ever looking at my Garmin.

Once on Marine Drive, I knew I had 5K to go but I had no idea whether my shin would hurt if I went faster and I knew that I had gotten thru 16K faster than last year and was quite happy with that. So I just stuck to the pace or just bumped it up about 5 sec/km - until I saw Damian.

This was the turning point in my race. Damian gave me such a shout with about 2.2 km to go that I was startled (partly out of respect for his stature as a sub-elite runner and that he would cheer me so and partly because I had not expected to see him cheering (I found out later that he had wisely pulled out from the full, due to a cold & infection)). That set my backside on fire (this was a km before one usually feels the adrenaline rush). I just took off and never looked up back.

In fact, the only time I slowed down in the last stretch was to call out to my fellow runner in yellow to try and finish together. He had after all run alongside for ~10km. Anyone who does that becomes a part of your life. I realized much later from the timings that he had indeed run faster than I did and his effort in the 1st half had slowed him down

And once the 1000m mark passes you, there's no holding back the adrenaline. I just smiled all the way to the finish line, while running sub-4:00 min/km for the last km (I neither smile nor run sub-4:00 min/km often!). I did see the race clock with about 200m to go and I knew I would go under 1:30 but it is only with about 100m to go that you can see the digits clearly and I was quite surprised. While my Garmin did tell me that I was well on course for a sub 1:30 even at the 18 km mark (the last I had checked), actually doing it is another matter altogether.

I crossed the finishing arch and was almost immediately overwhelmed with tears. It has been a hard few months of training (or not training!) and to get a surprise like this with so many things dogging your mind and to have it all flushed out of you at one magical moment, overpowers your system. Considering I have run longer before, I can't recall ever running with so much ease except at Ave (till mile 17). The last time I was overwhelmed was in 2005 when I ran my 1st marathon. Even when I ran my 1st sub 3:10, I was mostly bewildered. I was quite overwhelmed when I ran my 1st HM too.
This is what cyclists describe as "no chain". This is the only 2nd time this has happened in a race. If you see my pics from the race too, you will see me mostly smiling. I usually have the strained/pained look when I am racing. I am not sure whether that comes from exertion alone or a combination of exertion and the mental focus while suffering at peak effort. Even in training, I can't necessarily smile unless I see someone like Santhosh or Bhasker. I guess not having any expectations from the race helped. Whatever it is, I will take it.

Although I didn't need a humility check (my emotion being one of gratitude for so many things falling in place), my pal & trainee D, pointed out that last year, I ran 1:32:23 and placed 64th in the event. This year, I ran 1:28:56 and was 86th :)

Thanks to everyone who supported my run in ways they know and don't. More love to Mumbai. It adds to an already rich memory of running in the city. See the link below for race-data. I do wish that I had HR data to validate my "feel" post-race but I guess you can only get so much in 1 day. And someone on the train stepped on my white shoes on the way back but I am not complaining :( :)

On to the rest of 2014 now.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Book Lust/List for 2014

This post extends my biblolusting into 2014 from last year. Thanks to a bunch of gifts, prizes, etc, I have whittled down that list from 2013 and added a few from my reading around in 2013. Here is the updated list for 2014. I shall keep updating this from time to time.
Actually Bill Rodgers' book wasn't available in Kindle form or else I would have knocked it off with my latest purchases.

Books I want to own 
The Runner's body by Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas 
Best Efforts - Kenny Moore
Running and Being - George Sheehan
Train Hard Win Easy by Toby Tanser
The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinot
The Wonder of Whiffling by Adam Jacot de Boinot
The Age of Insight by Eric Kandel
The Professor & Other Writings by Terry Castle
My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World by Bill Rodgers (Author), Matthew Shepatin (Author)
Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley
The Broken Road, Between the Woods and the Water, A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Ingenious by Jason Fagone
Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8): A Memoir of Love, Exile, and Crosswords by Sandy Balfour

Books I am happy to read (maybe I will buy them if I like them as much!)
14 minutes by Alberto Salazar (with John Brant)
Radioactive (a graphic novel about Marie Curie)
Hark! a vagrant by Kate Beaton
National Geographic’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom
Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini
The Night life of Trees
I am feeling lucky by Doug Edwards
Calories and corsets: a history of dieting by Louise foxcroft
Guy De Lisle's Shenzen
Guy De Lisle's Jerusalem* 
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Self made olympian - Ron Daws
Marathon - Clarence de Mar
Corbitt - John Chodes
Thirty phone booths from boston - Don Kardong
The Fast Men - Tom McNab 
The Olympian - Brian Glanville
Anything for a t-shirt  - Ron Rubin
The runner's guide to the meaning of life - Amby Burfoot
First marathons - Gail Kislevitz
Running on Empty - Marshall Ulrich
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,
Jim Crace's Harvest
Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go
Robert Macfarlane's Holloway
Skies Belong To Us by Brendan Koerner 
Silence (Endo)
OceanEndLane by Neil Gaiman
Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll & others
River Town by Peter Hessler 
Ghost Wars by Steve Coll
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen
On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz
Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull
The Undercover Economist Strikes back by Tim Harford
Gulp by Mary Roach

Updated on 18th Mar 2014

New Year Book buying

Thanks to Grammarly, I was able to buy the following Kindle editions from Amazon and also clear out some books from my Book Lust as well as a really long wishlist. Now to get 2014 off to a better reading start than 2013.

The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Program to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence, and Happiness by Dr. Steve Peters
Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise by Alex Hutchinson
To Sell is Human by Daniel H Pink
The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown by Daniel Coyle
Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter
Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work by Chip Heath, Dan Heath
Running in Literature by Roger Robinson
Two Girls, One on Each Knee: The Puzzling, Playful World of the Crossword by Alan Connor

Anyone interested in paid reviews of these books, let me know. Will be happy to oblige now that I have the books :)