Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Books in 2013

2013 was a poor year from a "number of books read" standpoint. Since I rarely read books which aren't well-recommended by people whose opinions I respect or those written by authors or on topics I am interested in, that usually means I didn't have as much pleasure from reading as I usually have in a typical year :(

Am hoping 2014 is a better year.

The Sports Gene by David Epstein is easily the best book I read in the year and I even dedicated a blog post to it. Let me know if you read it and like it. Also reading recommendations are welcome.
  1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  2. Bounce by Matthew Syed
  3. Leaders on Leadership (AIMA book)
  4. Lets Talk
  5. A Life Without Limits by Chrissie Wellington
  6. The Dinner by Herman Koch
  7. Lucknow Boy by Vinod Mehta#
  8. The Olympic Marathon by Roger Martin and David Gynn
  9. Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens#
  10. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens#
  11. Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath
  12. Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  13. Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane
  14. The Sports Gene by David Epstein
  15. The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
  16. Follow Every Rainbow by Rashmi Bansal
  17. The Hansons Training Method by Luke Humphrey with Keith & Kevin Hanson
  18. Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson
  19. Adapt by Tim Harford#
  20. Soccernomics by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski#
  21. The Man of Numbers by Keith Devlin (I had forgotten to log this)

# Unfinished. Although I can’t say I am unhappy about not finishing the Vinod Mehta book, I am certainly disappointed at leaving the Hitchens’ books unread. In fact I stopped reading Mehta's book since I was tired of his style which involves frequent name-dropping/some form of braggadocio which somewhat negates his self-deprecation. The Kahneman book suffered since I just didn’t have the time to finish it while I started really late in the year on Soccernomics. The Dobelli book was yet another quick & lovely read while the MacFarlane book was akin to a gentle journey. Admittedly the list is heavy on sports, but that is partially dictated by my current line of work.

Rolf Dobelli's book and his interview with the Guardian was instrumental in influencing me to stop reading the daily papers in 2013 and I am happier for it.

Inverting the Pyramid is clearly a labour of love and Jonathan Wilson's love for football shines through brilliantly. I mention this since I am lazy to not write a full post on it, despite making notes while reading. As I tweeted to a friend, it moves you to tears by parts and delights you, by turns. I began reading a paperback version more than 2.5 years ago and then lent it to someone who didn't return it/misplaced it. I started on an ebook version of the revised book, a few weeks ago and finally finished it. Whatever the reason, finishing the book has been an emotional moment since it celebrates so many things dear to me - idealists, romanticists, Argentinian football, Barcelona and volatile and charming characters across the world - Russia, South America and even England. I don't think I have felt this much pleasure in reading a book in a while (I know I designated The Sports Gene as my book of the year and I stand by that choice, but I started this book more than 2 years ago - so I will hide under that ambiguity). I would urge you to read it if you like football.

Actually, just go ahead and read any book which makes you happy and feel free to recommend it to me. I am looking forward to a much more productive 2014 and we shall meet then.

Overall 2013 has been as much a fun year in reading as any and a reminder of the pleasures of reading to the extent that I regretted not doing more of it. Special thanks to V and V, both of whom were my "billionaire benefactors" thereby helping me further my reading habit.

Happy New Year

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Sports Gene by David Epstein

"I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker because I'd rather I make money from my writing than someone else."*

If you had to read just one book this year, make it this one

Some time ago, I read a lovely book called The Genius Factory by David Plotz, which discusses a completely bonkers project to unleash the power of Nobel Prize winners by harnessing their sperm and then extends into a larger discussion on nature vs. nurture. The Sports Gene by Epstein takes this popular debate into the arena of sports and discusses several controversial questions while ensuring the reader is never bored for a moment.

Here is a short & lovely story about how the author got started on his book.

I began reading the book, thanks to a lovely teaser chapter in Sports Illustrated where he discusses how/why the very best baseball players could not handle a softball pitcher, a woman, to queer the pitch, in an already hormone-charged sport (all puns intended).

I didn't even know that running would be such a big theme in the book. Once I learnt that the author was an accomplished collegiate runner himself, before he embarked upon a career in writing, I was even more interested, being a wannabe writer and an amateur runner myself.

Starting with that discussion on baseball sluggers and softball pitchers and the role of talent, skills, training and context and the role of differences between those aspects in those two sports, Epstein grabs the reader from the first chapter. It is not material if you don't understand American sports such as baseball although your reading pleasure would perhaps increase if you did.

The author switches between discussing research, especially of the less-popular variety and conventional thought on the role of talent and training in the lives of sportspersons, peppering the book with some fantastic anecdotes on several sports legends.

One thing which becomes quickly apparent to the reader is the author's grief with the so-called 10,000 hr rule which gained notoriety/currency thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's writing. Epstein devotes quite some effort to deconstructing that myth & consequent over-simplification of the path to athletic success which has stemmed from it. The reader could be forgiven for thinking parts of the book are almost an exasperated, if very-educated rant against such superficial and eye-catching but inaccurate/half-baked observations. Using the examples as diverse of football players (soccer players to Americans), NBA athletes, winter Olympic champions and of course, Kenyan runners, the author passionately highlights both the role of genes and rigorous practice/training. He makes it even more interesting by writing about animals especially dogs in racing of both short and long distance events. There's also examination of the difference between sexes, thanks to genetics.

The book is so well written that the reader could pretty much start with any chapter and read them in any order, thanks to the brilliant writing and perspective the author brings to his writing. Even if you were a researcher and not just someone looking for a good read on sports, the book provides you enough food for thought.

I would particularly recommend it if you have some role to play in the development of a child who is interested in sports.

As your bonus for reading this post, here's a chapter that was dropped from the book, which still makes compelling reading. It gives you a flavour of why Epstein is considered as a must-have participant for debates on talent and performance in sports by my favourite sports scientist.

The book was a finalist at the 2013 William Hill Sports Book of the year awards and is likely to be top of the list for most sports buffs for a while.

Must Read.

*The 1st line of this post is thanks to some support from the nice folks at Grammarly

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Monday, December 09, 2013

Berlin Marathon 2013 – race report

So you want to talk about Berlin?...

See this if you want to see nos

Over the last 2 months or so, I have evaded making this post. However I have been asked “So how was Berlin? What happened?...” so many times and answered the question in some fashion that I decided it was time I wrote down my thoughts on my 2nd most awaited event for 2013, before my memory began to fail me. (I got married about 6 months ago – so that was easily THE event for my year 2013). And honestly I am hurting mentally much less now than I have for the past couple of months.

I had run the Ave of the Giants in May 2011 in 3:09:46 (I had also run the CIM in Dec 2012 in 3:10:07, but the organizers needed only one time) based on which I was allotted the D Corral which was for runners with an expected finish time of 3:00-3:15 hours, mostly based on prior times, although some people who looked like they could not have run even a 3:30 had managed to sneak in. Humility check was done by the fact that corral A is for elites.

I had trained well for Berlin. I had kept away from doing any races – even shorter ones except for 2 runs. I did a circuit of Nandi hills in preparation for my Hyderabad HM, which I was treating as a run at race pace for Berlin. And that was done in 1:32:53 which was a big plus, given the elevation profile of the Hyd HM route. The only gap, if there was one was that I had not managed to run my tempos at my tempo pace since I find it difficult to run 4 min/km pace in India, while I manage that comfortably (if tempo pace can be called comfortable at all) when I am in the US, perhaps due to the temperature difference, although there is a mathematical chance that the Bay Area/New York (places where I have spent over a month training in the past) being at sea level may help as well. I had counted on accumulating mileage at planned race pace, which I did manage with some difficulty. So Hyd HM was the longest I had run at race pace in training and I thought that was good enough. 2 weeks before Berlin, I did run at Cubbon Park and finished in 1:34 or so, on a route which was relatively flat compared to Hyd. While that was disappointing, I put that down as due to running the first 5-5km in darkness since I had started my run at 5:30 am or so. Also, due to tying the laces in the front part of my shoe rather tightly due to hurrying in the dark, wanting to finish my run before 7:30 am, I ended up with blisters despite running in my tested shoes and socks. Good lesson. Thankfully the blisters vanished by the time I left for Berlin.

I had one another annoyance. My left shin had bothered pretty much all through. But the pain had never escalated since I didn’t do too many hard runs. Since the tempos were at race pace, impact was much less. (I now know that my suspicion that it was a stress fracture is true. I am now recovering)

We landed in Berlin the evening on Thursday after some flight snafus from Qatar Airways, well in time for the race. Once the bib collection was completed the same evening, we had little to do except some sightseeing on Fri. Although I had planned on not doing much to stay off my feet, I changed my decision and went out and saw 2 museums on Fri. My legs weren’t very taxed by the trip and I didn’t expect any disruption from that. I stayed at the hotel for almost the entire day on Sat and that helped me feel fresh for Sun. I developed some inexplicable pain in my abdomen on Sat afternoon which diminished as surprisingly as it had appeared by Sun morning, after some anxious moments on Sat night. But not sleeping well on the night before the race is normal for me. I had slept well on the previous nights. So I wasn’t bothered by this at all.

I had a breakfast of sugarless and mostly milkless coffee. 3 large bananas and half of an apple, which weighed 840g (I had bought it only the previous evening!). So I was adequately fueled.

I had worn one of my favourite sweatshirts  -  a red one, over my race gear to the start in addition to Adidas plastic wrapper given in the corrals to protect myself from the cold. Some of my trainees and I jogged to the start from the hotel. By the time I got to my corral, my Garmin showed 2.5 km. However I had begun walking from Brandenberg gate to conserve energy. So it was not like I was sweating or something. I threw that and the wrapper off just before the start.

The race was off to a great start. Haile flagged us off! I could see that most people in D corral were perhaps closer to being 3:00 hr finishers rather than 3:15 from the rhythm they established from the beginning.

My 5K splits as well time for the last 2.2K are as below

I am not sure if I missed the fuel stations or if there was nothing beyond water till the 9km mark. My head was completely forward (so I didn’t look sideways for a while) till I realized that I hadn’t had sugar sometime after the 5K mark. I had taken 4 salt pills and decided to pop one of them in stead at around the 5 km mark. I did feel a mild panic about missing sugar but the cold weather meant I wasn’t going to really go low on sugar that quickly. The salt pill got stuck in my throat and I carried that silly annoyance in my throat till the 9 km mark or so when I managed to down it with some water. It didn’t hurt in any fashion but I wasn’t exactly happy about it either.

I didn’t see anything other than a water stop, till the 15th km mark. So I caught up at the 15 km mark with the Powerbar stall where I had about 150-200 ml of the electrolyte drink and thereafter at every Powerbar counter, which was every at every 5th km from thereon. So I never felt weak from an energy standpoint during the run. I have hit the wall before and know the feeling.

There’s a mild bump in the elevation in Berlin from around the 25-29 km mark and everyone does slow down a bit. If I had any anxiety about the few seconds I lost in that segment, it was mitigated by the fact that the same people were around me till the 34km mark.

I did feel a mild left calf strain during the run before the halfway mark and a mildly tight right hamstring before the 25 km mark. I tried to elongate stride to ensure hamstring loosened, which seemed to help.

The first time I noticed that I had slowed down was at the 34 km mark or so, when I noticed that some people who I had been with for almost 2.5 hours had suddenly moved about 25m ahead. I checked my watch for the next split and it told me I was about 20 seconds off my target pace for that km. I wasn’t really alarmed then but when those people kept piling on more metres, I realized my race was over. At around the 37 km mark, which is what I had planned for picking up pace, I was certain that I was going to miss the 3:10 mark since I was unable to maintain 4:30 min/km. I was hoping to somehow manage the 3:10 mark since I had been on 3:05 pace till the 33-34 km mark, but sometime around the 38th km or so, the 3:15 pacer went past me. That settled it. My last few kms were miserable mentally although the crowds were amazing.

I had also thrown my beanie off at around the 34 km mark since it was no longer as cold. My head felt cooler once I threw it away but I am not sure it had done any harm.

Some guy in my corral had asked me before the start what time I was planning to finish in and I told him I would very happy to finish in 3:05 but 3:08 would do as well. He said that was too fast for him but he’d try and stick to me. He stuck to me till 31km or so and kept asking if I was on pace. But I was too slow for him. (He picked up after the 31st km and eventually finished under 3:10.)

At least 2000 runners must have passed me in the last 7-8 km.

I had nothing left by the time I came round to the last km. So there was no surge to the finish. I finished with more than a tinge of disappointment since this meant more than 6 months of training were wiped out in about 3 hours. I went to the medical tent since I felt a little woozy but recovered within minutes with some sugar. With body fat levels that you get to, from training, and a hard race, this isn’t much of a surprise. It isn’t like I blacked out. I also needed a blanket in addition to the wrapper they give all runners since I was shivering. I also learnt that Wilson Kipsang had broken the WR.

I went out and had all the nice goodies for finishing. I had promised my wife that I wouldn’t get all sulky for the next 2 weeks if the outcome was poor and I stuck to it. As I tell her now, I spent my breakfasts for the next 2 weeks, privately grieving (She isn’t much of a breakfast person. So she never saw me wallowing in self-pity J)

Was I stupid to do museum tours on Fri? I don’t know. The more plausible explanation I have for my slowing down in the last 5K is that I had not run much race pace in such weather in that geography unlike my previous attempts (Ave, Grandma’s and CIM) when I have stayed in the US for a month or so prior to my raceday.

My only positive is that despite the slow finishing time, this is the longest I have carried on at ~7 min/mile. Previously, I have crashed from the 20 mile marker or earlier although in Ave, I had held up better pace for the last 10K.

I have some sage advice based on my annus mirabilis 2011 - The best things may not come to you when you expect them. Don't stop working till you achieve your goals. It is best to die trying. Dissatisfaction should not be a reason for death. Exhaustion is a much better way to die. As Greg Cass said in this wonderful article in the NYT, the gift of the marathon is a curse as well - the number of variables are not easy to control. On that perfect day which all runners chase, you get it right. Most times you will fail. But don't stop trying.

I have no races planned till mid 2014 when I might return to CA to try again. Until then, I shall rest and relax.

p.s. In case it wasn't obvious I finished in 3:18:40, about 10 min slower than I wanted to

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