Sunday, June 22, 2014

Whither Landmark?

This rant has been pending for a while.

For years I have bought from the Landmark bookstores across India, especially in Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai in my stints in each of the cities. I have lamented the condition of full-priced books at Landmark on several occasions in the past. I admit I am a bargain hunter, but even if I weren't, it is reasonably standard practice in the industry to discount books which are not in excellent condition. If you walked into the Forum outlet in Bangalore, you will find books in poor condition ranging from soiled copies to those with dog-ears and several with torn covers, all at full price. I have shown these to the store manager (more than one of them) on my visits to the store in the past, but the incidence of such copies has rarely changed. On several occasions, the copy in less-than-perfect condition is the only copy the store has. Combined with the drop in the available selection of books at Landmark, this makes a trip to the bookstore quite a chore.

Additionally I learnt of a weird condition that Landmark imposes. You can't use their gift vouchers or gift cards online. This means that you may end up buying books at increased prices at the store when you can buy them online bookstores including their own website at discounts. And I know this is not a fair comparison since online bookstores usually sell copies at discounts anyways but a bookstore which has an online presence does expose itself to this comparison anyways. Why'd you shoot yourself in the foot like this? Sure, not every book buyer looks up prices online when they are buying. But surely you'd notice the disparity sooner or later.

In any case, I no longer buy from them and have switched to discounted copies from Flipkart/Infibeam or ebooks from Flipkart/Amazon. I ended up making a visit today since some generous souls had gifted cards. I can't figure out whether it is apathy from the management to let the books section decay or whether it is a deliberate move or something else.

But still it pains a bit each time I visit the store to see the store whither like this, since I have good memories from shopping there in the past. Such is life

Books time

Thanks to gifts from friends (more power to the benevolent billionaires!) and some credit card points (yes, I know it is the same old boring story the past few times, but you can't believe how much discipline it has enforced on getting some read while not loading up on too many new unread ones)
I added the following books to my collection

Atlantic by Simon Winchester
Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami
The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham

The meditation+running book was a gift. I am curious about it since I have been considering meditation for a while. Added incentive is that the author qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon in the last decade. I had my eye on the Winchester book for a while and even dropped one version I found in a sale in Palo Alto since I couldn't carry too much on my trip back from the US. Infibeam allows me to buy using my credit card points while Flipkart from whom I have bought more, still doesn't. As for the Murakamis, I bought them all under a 3for2 offer. And as my good friend P says, when you buy Murakami you don't need to worry about which one. The 3 I did buy join some more works by Murakami that I already have. I shall also save up a rant on Landmark book store for a separate post. These are also rare fiction purchases for me as I have tended to buy more non-fiction works in recent times. All in all, nice bibliotherapy for the weekend. Amongst other decision drivers, the back cover of one of the Murakamis said, "...When a man's favourite elephant vanishes..." How can one not buy such a book?!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

What after Mission Boston?

When I started training after SCMM 2011, for my first attempt at qualifying for the Boston Marathon, my best marathon was in 4:00:18 at the New Jersey Marathon in 2007. Since then I have run 7 marathons (one was at SCMM 2012, trying pace Bhasker to a 3:45 finish failing comically) - 6 of them in the pursuit.

When I started training, I was less than 34 years old. I needed to run 3:10:59 to meet my BQ norm. I ran my first marathon in 2005 in 5:04 hrs. From there till 3:10 today has been a good climb. Also, running a BQ has been a proxy for reaching a level of performance that reflects a mix of effort and talent, that varies from person to person. Since running is something I started doing of my own accord, it has been a fulfilling pursuit. 

Also, I have come to realize, esp after the first BQ I managed, in my marathon(what turned out to be my very first sub-4), that I didn't want to run at Boston, as much as I wanted to have the choice and capability to do so. This was further enforced when the BAA revised its BQ norms even as I was training in 2012 by 5:59 min. Suddenly I needed to run a 3:05 to qualify in 2013, since I had ended up missing the final cutoff for the 2012 race by 1 minute. I didn't feel like whining much. After all, running faster meant I would be a better runner than I was. What was there to complain about? Of course, it would be difficult but this was something I really loved. I quit my job in Sep 2011 to chase my dream. But then I got older and moved to the 35-39 age group. So I needed to run a 3:10 again. In Dec 2012 I ran 3:10:07 in what remains my gutsiest effort in 3+ hours of heavy rain and headwind at CIM, missing a BQ by a tantalizing 7 seconds. And I had been in great shape for that race, hoping to run  3:05. At the time of writing this post, I am not 100% sure but for the 2013 race, I think it was sufficient to merely run the BQ time and apply to run in the 2013 race unlike the 2012 or 2014 editions, where you needed to be better than the age-group norm by nearly 80-90 seconds . Since the norms had just been tweaked by 5+ min, the no of eligible runners had dropped significantly. 

That revision only enforced my will to work harder. I stopped quizzing (my only hobby until I began running) and spent most of my time trying to be a better runner.

So does 3:04:16 mean I will now not run as much? Not at all. But I will run with a sense of lightness unburdened by the attritional goal. Was it fun? Easy question - ABSOLUTELY. I have not enjoyed anything in my life more than chasing this goal.

From a self-confidence perspective, this means I can now succeed at a goal I set for myself at something I love. I have some loose plans to cycle in Europe sometime in the near future, even looser plans to try a triathlon. I have firmer plans to run Comrades sometime in the next 5 years and perhaps at least one of the WMMs. Theoretically I have attained a good for age (GFA) norm for the London Marathon (more ego massage!) although London allows only UK residents on GFA. All international applicants must apply for the lottery.

I now have logical closure on my book (still stuck with a working title) on my journey from Bangalore to Boston. So its publication is a possibility now (all publishing leads welcome).
3 years of training have driven more wisdom into me than anything else I have undergone in my 3+ decades of living. The value of support from friends and family has been reinforced several times over and the sheer joy of living has increased. Overall, the one pleasing takeaway (and I say this with no smugness or attempt at cliches) has been that passion combined with hard work produces a personal transformation, which is a joy in itself. No amount of money can buy that.

In 2011, I used the expression "I am ready to kill myself" to accomplish my goal*, with no flippancy. There were several days during my training when my HR stayed at 200+ for more than a few seconds. I was sore all over and so fatigued that I opted to sleep rather than even eat food. In some senses, training like that and quitting my job soon after, killed some part of the person I was in 2011.

3 years later, that person from 2011 is dead. As I have recounted to friends, I am not as brave/reckless/singleminded as I was then. I would not have the courage to quit a cushy job, foregoing so much income (believe me, the money or the lack of it, hurts!).

I have no idea what my next all-consuming goal will be, although I have a few ideas. But I am ready to die again. Carpe Diem!
* And I will revisit this in my post on running & depression

Mountains 2 Beach Marathon 2014

Sometime between Feb 2nd and May 25th this year, the 16 weeks that were filled with my training for yet another attempt at securing a place at the starting line of the Boston Marathon, I was having a conversation with a friend C (from running circles), post my run, discussing races in Australia in particular, the Gold Coast Marathon. I have also considered the Melbourne Marathon and the Perth Marathon in the past as races to run good times. One of my trainees has run Perth and the above-mentioned friend has run Melbourne. C was encouragingly dismissive about my query saying I wouldn't need another attempt, adding that I'd make it this time. I achingly wished that were true. This would be my 6th attempt in 3 years. I had qualified once before in 2011, but my time of 3:09:46 wasn't enough to meet the eventual cutoff time of 1:14 min under the age group norm of 3:10. But more on those runs and the collective lessons some other time.

If you are still with me, I am happy to tell you that I ran 3:04:16 at the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon (M2B) 2014 on 25th May, about a week ago.

Barring some extraordinary surge in performances in the world of amateur marathoning, I should secure a place at the Boston Marathon in 2015.  But that's getting ahead of this story.

I registered for this event, only because my friend Anil had emailed me in Nov 2013, asking if I was interested. The course was downhill, the weather was pleasant and the field was small - 1500 runners. I jumped at it, snapping out of my post-Berlin funk, which had already consumed me for over a month. Add to that woes from a healing stress fracture in my left shin and I was alternately crabby and desultory (mostly in private, mind you - I couldn't let my work suffer but moments of solitude (of which I have loads, given what I do and how I work now) were largely angst-ridden)*.

After some hard training, my half marathon race in Chennai in Dec had gone bust, after I imploded spectacularly after about 8 miles. The heat and humidity, not to forget the rain for the first half an hour or so had basically neutralized my capacity to hold on to a good pace. Disgusted with the run, I had taken 3 weeks off to ensure my shin healed at least. When I began training for the HM at SCMM 2014 around Christmas, I had zero expectations as I only wanted to ensure I retained my place in the 1:45 corral for next year. I managed barely 150 km over 3 weeks, mostly as base-building for the training for M2B set to start from Feb 2nd, which would mark 16 weeks to raceday.

I had already decided to reach the US, 5+ weeks prior to raceday, in order to ensure I would do both long runs before the taper in the US, in weather conditions similar to what I expected on raceday. As I have discussed here, I had a great time (no pun intended) at SCMM HM, running nearly negative splits for every successive 5K. 

When I began training for M2B, the plan I used is the one I have used for my last 5 races with little change. Simple, high mileage (for an amateur that is). Intensity was pretty low since I ran tempos only in alternate weeks. The critical thing was that I held my weight stable. For the first time in 3 years, I had begun training less than 1 kg from my racing weight. That boosted the quality of my training. Usually I would start about 2-3 kg more than my target weight and let the mileage whittle my weight down over the training season as the intensity and volume mounted. I had consulted Heath Matthews at KDAH, Mumbai when I was visiting Mumbai, 3 days before my race. He had recommended that my stress fracture was perhaps due to my usage of stability shoes. So I went back to running in heavier but perhaps safer, neutral shoes. I did race in the stability shoes at SCMM but that was just one exception. Heath had also recommended massages every week to alleviate tightness and cumulative fatigue. I will get back to this soon. 

Training was largely uneventful with a few changes. 

I ran without an HRM on most of my runs. As Alberto Salazar says in his "14 minutes", I chose art over science for pacing. Besides an ugly episode of my Garmin getting stuck in Bangalore customs (it celebrated its first birthday recently and is still there!) last year had forced me to learn to pace without a watch itself, let alone use an HRM. 

I ate a lower GI breakfast than usual before every long run over 13 miles, thanks to Damian's comment (in response to my Berlin bustup), which was instrumental in that strong run at Mumbai.

I bumped up 2 of my long runs - the 18 miler to 20 miles and the 20 miler to 22 miles before I left for the US, largely because I take a break every 4 weeks. My run after the 22 miler was a 12 miler. So you see how much I switch both directions. I had the company of Manoj for both those long runs. Manoj accelerated a bit more than needed at the very beginning of that 20 miler. Since I dislike slowing down on runs in the latter half, I was forced to maintain that pace for the rest of the run as he disengaged at around the 25K mark. The next long run (22 miler) was harder still. Abhinav (one of my boys) joined us for about 16K and we went even faster this time. But again, I ran the last 5K or so alone. I had also taken 2 massages, one after each of these long runs to recover better. They seem to help a bit.

I landed in the US with the specific aim of running the remaining long runs (22 miler, 24 miler) trying to stick to my coach's suggestion of trying to run the last 25% at race pace. I have rarely managed that in the past even when I have been in the US, mostly due to starting too fast.

First up, there was a surprise. My longest tempo, which was supposed to a 40 min run, yielded a 10K PB at what is now my favourite location for running hard workouts - a sand track at a local school, near where I stay when I am in the Bay Area. I have now run my 5K and 10 PBs at the same location. I love that place. Whenever I run there, I run very confidently, despite the fact that I usually whine when the conditions aren't so good (the sand track does not actually make for a great time trial). But I imagine myself in a stadium with hordes of fans watching me race myself :) And the older ladies who usually walk there in the sun always cheer me when I run. The schoolkids, most of them much faster than I am, watch in amusement as I wince, grunt and hammer myself on workouts once every week. Occasionally a lacrosse ball (the school uses the infield to play lacrosse) spills onto the track and the boys and girls giggle as I try my best to dodge them, running to the 8th lane and back to lane 1, all in less than 15 seconds on my home stretch. 

Mentally fortified by that 10K PB, I set out on the 22 miler along my usual running route on Steven's Creek Trail but in the opposite direction, starting from Shoreline where Anil had generously ferried me. I met some runners from the Running Addicts (RA) group who were also running. I later found out that some of the RA runners were also running at M2B, having run in the previous year. I ran alone after starting with the group and closed out the run in 2:47:45 with the last 5 miles at about race pace (a few seconds slower), which left me mildly disappointed. I was hoping that since this was my highest mileage week, some of the slack (a grand total of about 30 seconds over 5 miles) was due to cumulative fatigue. A calf strain had made it difficult to even maintain the pace, let alone pick it up. This is when I took the first of my massages in the US. I got lucky as my therapist worked diligently on my left calf alone for 45 min (!) and relieved the tightness. During the massage he asked me whether I was a cyclist. I told him I was a runner. He added that I seemed to be in good shape and I shared my goal with him.

The next week, I ran gingerly for my first run post massage but managed to survive the week for the last long run, a hard interval workout with my coach watching, being the exception. I met my coach just once on this trip but that was enough. As he saw me hammer out my hardest session in 16 weeks, he let me know that he felt I was ready. It isn't difficult to guess what that did to my confidence :) For the long run, I started from home, after a lot of discussion with my brother on early morning logistics, opting to run alone and finish uphill, despite knowing fully well that it is harder to finish at race pace on a flat track let alone uphill, at the end of a long run. I ran till Palo Alto, running thru Shoreline till I hit 11.5 miles or so. I then turned back. At around the 16 mile mark, I noticed that my pace was below 7 min/mile. I was startled since I had made no effort to ramp up, having decided to do so only from the 18 mile mark. However my conscious slackening produced only a 5 sec/mile dip and so I continued since I was not suffering. When the next mile also produced a similar pace, I thought that something special was brewing. I then picked up the pace running with a special intent. On the 18th mile, I realized that the flattering in the 16th mile was due to a headwind which was now in full force against me! Nice timing. But I felt so fresh that upping the pace felt comfortable and I managed to hold on to an average pace of sub-7 min/mile for the last 8 miles, finishing in 2:58:56! Other than my races, this is perhaps the best run I have had in a long time and must rank with my favourite runs of all time.

Once this run was out of the way, my taper was on. The following weekend I ran with one of my running buddies, N in San Francisco, running on N's regular routes thru Golden Gate Park (GGP) onto Ocean Beach and then back (again uphill). We kept up a conversation thru the first 7 miles after which I shut up mostly to conserve energy. The fierce headwind for 3-4 of our miles helped to ensure I focussed and didn't talk much. It was a relief to get back into GGP and N shepherded me thru the route letting me know when he felt I was being overeager on pacing. We finished in 1:30:36 not my fastest half but one that would do for my race, especially since I had run this on an empty stomach and with no significant rest. We also started the run late since N and his wife Y and I had continued chatting into the night and slept later than any of us do. That ensured I got quite a bit of sun too. Running this pace in 18 deg C helped me believe I wouldn't suffer a repeat of my debacle at Grandma's from 2012.

The last 2 weeks wound down very quickly and I didn't have time to dwell as I was busy preparing for my ACE CPT exam. The anxiety of flunking the rather expensive exam, kept my mind from getting loaded with running. I did clear the exam but more on that some other time.

Anil drove me to the race. He had run a 100K, just 2 weeks before! The race expo was pretty modest and we left pretty quickly after sampling a couple of Clif Shot samples, since they would be on the course the next day.

I had originally planned to run the first 5 miles at 7:15/mile, the next 15 at sub-7/mile and then hang on to whatever I could manage for the last 6.2. But the day before the race, while we were driving up, Anil had mentioned how the race route had altered and now the downhill section began only at mile 8 or so (unlike the previous year, where the first 5 miles were a loop, the next 15 or so were downhill and the last 6.2 were flat). I changed my race pacing plan to not running faster than 1:32-1:33 for the first half and then trying to hold on or pick up marginally for the 2nd half. I had explicitly told Anil that I intended to lag the 3:05 pacer till halfway and then see if I could overtake him/her after the 22 mile mark. We also weren't sure whether there would be a 3:05 pacer as we had gotten to the expo a little late on Sat at around 5 pm and missed meeting them. There were other pacers but for slower groups.

The next morning I had my breakfast of Familia Muesli (my constant companion since 2011) and my breakfast of choice before all long runs as well, along with a banana for good measure. I had carried my filter coffee dicoction all the way and I made coffee for both Anil and myself. Our shuttles were 1 hr apart, though our target finish times were barely 5-10 min apart. Anil continued his selfless streak, waking up much earlier than needed and taking an earlier shuttle, only to drop me to mine.

I met R, my pal from NYC, who was at the start pretty early too. We killed time for about an hour and then warmed up together for about 10 min. R was looking for a PB but we discussed how a marathon humbles the very best sometimes.

Once the race began (a little shakily for me since some random guy (RG) deliberately shoved me with his palm!), I decided to stick close to the 3:05 pacer (a guy) and the rest of the group for a bit and then decide what to do. There were nearly 60-70 runners when we started and the group remained large till about the 5 mile mark. So I decided to abandon my earlier pacing plan and stick to the 3:05 group for as long as I could and then decide at around the 22-23 mile mark on picking up.

Another late decision I had made, again thanks to Anil's invaluable persistent input was to have gels on the run. I was originally planning to have just water and electrolytes on the run as I had managed my long runs quite well without any. I was carrying one of my own Clif Shot gels which was more of a backup. Anil sounded rather convincing about how my burn rate would ensure I would run out of gas, despite my breakfast if I didn't supplement. It wasn't a difficult decision to listen to Anil :)

I had my only gel b/w the 6th and 7th miles since I knew the race had Clif shot gels at the 12.5 and 22 mile marks.

At about 8 miles into the race, we moved onto bike path and our group had dwindled. We had around 3 dozen runners at least. When we got to halfway, we still had around 30 runners but one could see that we would drop more people since some people were already breathing heavily. As planned, I had picked my 2nd gel up at the Clif shot station and downed it. The pacing was dead-on 7 min/mile, which would have taken us a minute or more under 3:05. The pacers (now there were 2 - a second one had joined us at around the 11 mile mark) were incredibly fluid and consistent, though a bit faster than needed. But I am sure they  ran so to ensure we had a few seconds in the tank for eventualities later. There had also been the warning from race organizers about a potential train stoppage affecting all runners finishing b/w 2:50 and 3:30 or so at the 22nd mile mark. Though the race director had assured me that the lost time due to waiting would be adjusted, I knew only too well what happens when one stops suddenly while running race pace. So I had no complaints about a few valuable seconds.

My first scary moment came at around the 12 mile mark when I had chest pain, which I correctly guessed as being due to residual gas in the abdominal cavity, just moving around. That backed off after a while. My second moment came at around the 17 mile mark, when my right calf began to twitch and threatened to pull my hamstring. This was a fairly emotional phase since I began thinking of Berlin, Grandma's and every other race where I have tanked in the last 10K. I thought my race may be over at this point. However I decided to cut my losses and run with an abbreviated stride, which now meant there was no way I would pick up any pace. I would be lucky to finish in 3:05, which wasn't a bad place to be, as my only target from this race was a 3:08. There was another ominous moment when I saw R by the side of the course after the 19 mile mark. I just had enough time to check that he was ok but had pulled out. I later learnt that he was fine but had decided to pull out since he wasn't going to set a PB, as he had begun slowing down for about 3-4 miles. A big lesson for those of us who worry about bad days and pulling out, opting to suffer and sulk later.

The shortened stride combined with a resultant high turnover due to my efforts to keep up with the group, helped me stay on course. Around this time I was singing various songs in my head incl. my nephew's ABC phonic song which I had listened to countless times over the previous 5 weeks. I was honestly quite bored with the regularity of effort and only the difficulty of the pace we were holding, kept me from losing focus. I barely looked at my Garmin once a mile and that too when we passed the race's mile markers. After several races, I have learnt that it is futile to see Garmin auto-laps which don't necessarily match the actual race mile markers, due to the markings being on the minimum path, which not all runners can take. Due to the brilliant effort of the pacers, I only needed to multiply the marker by 7 and know where we stood.

Soon, we were past the much-awaited 20 mile mark and then the miles 21 and 22 ticked over. We had arrived at the beach and one could already see the faster runners passing by in the opposite direction. What I didn't know was how far ahead they were. I later realized that the 3:00 pace group runners were ahead by about 2-3 minutes. By mile 23 the pacers dropped back to ensure they didn't come in ahead of time and I was left to running alone. The lack of company refocused my attention on my tight right calf and every mile thereon became a hard grind. I put my mind on one runner at a time promising myself to not give up and hoping that I could run the three remaining miles at at least 9 min each and come in at 3:08 or so. I passed about half a dozen runners, some of whom had started with the 3:00 pace group in the last mile alone. Till the 25th mile mark, I had no surety whether my body would desert me in this critical moment. Once past that, I picked up pace. While my actual mile pace for the last mile was over 7, I must have been the fastest finisher of the dozen or so runners around me since I pushed hard to the finish.

When I got to the finishing line, the clock said 3:03:41 but my Garmin showed 3:04:15 and I knew that my Garmin was more reliable and the clock could be showing some gaps due to synchronization, which is common and is usually corrected post-race. Whatever that would lead to, I knew I had finished under 3:05.

Contrary to my expected emotional finish, I felt nothing when I finished. A feeling of emptiness, akin to boarding a bus/plane or something similarly commonplace was all I remember. Of course, I felt relief but there was no rush of anything in my head.       

In fact I didn't even need to bend down to get my breath back (mostly since I ran comfortably all thru) or rest my legs etc, which is the case on even a short interval or tempo run.

I had the presence of mind, to find R and call my wife using R's phone and let her know I was done. We then waited for Anil, whose first reaction upon finishing and learning that I had broken 3:05 was to lift me in the air and hug me (these mad ultrarunners I tell you! Hadn't he just run a marathon at sub 8 min/mile?! But that tells you more about him than me).

I then walked around the finishing area, gathering some snacks, eating most of them, although I wasn't really hungry but I knew I would be shortly, once the body's adrenalin dropped. Once I got hold of my phone, I spoke to my brother about the result (By then, my wife had called my mum who had called him, well before I did!) and then tweeted about it. 

We ended up walking almost a mile in search of a lunch location. Anil, R and I celebrated with a short lunch and we left Ventura soon after. 

M2B has been everything I had hoped it would be. For now, my mind was empty and I didn't really regret it.

See this for activity details

This brings to a close a plan I hatched a little less than 5 years ago, but put into place about 3 years ago. 6 races, 5000+ miles of training and a lot of heartache.

I will write on what it has meant to me in another post. Thank you for reading.

* I have plans to write a post on running and depression but that's for later. Let me get this post out of the way for now.