Monday, October 06, 2008

Run Forest, run

Side note: As you all have no doubt noticed, posts here have been rather infrequent recently. I have a good reason for that. It is because a lot of my free, do-anything-you-want time is being spent on my latest passion, running. A few months ago, I decided to train for and run the Dallas marathon, with a mission to raise money for my favorite charity. There is much more about that (and what you could do to support that effort) here. Rest assured that if you wanted to pick an excellent charity to contribute to, this would be one of them.

I’m a newbie runner, and started running only about six months ago. But these six months have been a fantastic learning experience (thanks largely to some friends I run with, and the Dallas running club). Before I started training, my idea of distance and endurance running (and endurance athletics in general) was quite like the idea many, many people in India still have today. So this post is a little bit about running, my own running efforts, and some thoughts on attitudes towards running in India.

Running is not much of a sport in India. The last time someone from India won an Olympic running event was way back when India was a British colony, in 1900, by a British-Indian gentleman by the name of Norman Pritchard. Even that was in a sprint, and he wasn’t even brown. Indians don’t run. They become computer engineers or doctors or run motels. And on an athletic field I was what can only be described as average. Recognizing that, I never bothered to understand the finer nuances of endurance running. Running marathons was something my crazy white friends and colleagues here did. But then white people also liked getting burnt in the sun. They’re crazy. A marathon is 26.2 miles. In my book that’s called a road-trip. I had done some jogging on a treadmill before, and 3 miles was about my limit. So for a number of years I had decided that it was just one of those things white people did to make us brown people look bad. (Ok…just ignore all those Moroccans and Algerians and whatnot winning bagfuls of Olympic running medals. They live in the Sahara desert, so they don’t count). That feeling was reinforced by none other than Tom Hanks. Someone yelled “Run Forest, run”, and he set out to run all across the United States of America. And he was on crutches, goddamit. On the other hand, if you saw some random Indian on crutches and yelled “run Raju, run”, he’d probably turn to you and ask why he should run, was there a fire/communal riot/flood in the area, would his child get admission in college if he ran, and if not, would he get free electricity if he ran. It wouldn’t work.

And then I discovered that brown people ran as well, but were mostly closet-runners. In fact, a bunch of my Indian friends turned out to be closet-runners (particularly back in Seattle). Oh the shame! To top things, they ran marathons for charity, and were doing more to do good on earth than I was by just using grocery bags for shopping, avoiding plastic and feeling smug. There almost seemed to be some underground movement of Indians actually running. Finally, apparently one didn’t have to be born with running ability. Running is an art and a science, and just about anyone can do it. So, six months ago, I started running. I’m still surprised at how quickly I have transformed into one of those Gatorade sipping, technical T-shirt wearing runners who will never run in street shoes again. This brings me to running in India.

Recently, the fine Indian city of Chennai hosted a half-marathon. Apparently, it was a huge success, and lots of celebrities and politicians showed up for photo-ops. Their intentions were excellent, with the proceeds going to some charity. And in all that excitement, people forgot about the running part of it. In almost true Indian style, amidst the inevitable chaos thanks to the crowd (all Indian events, even sporting ones, have crowds associated with them), one of the runners died of exhaustion.

It is a terrible shame. What is also a shame is that most people in India think about marathons the same way I used to a couple of years ago. Comments from various people varied from "What better way to get fit and run for a cause (assuming that one just woke up one day, ran a marathon and miraculously became fit) to “Many believe it underscores the need for participants to check their levels of fitness before taking up such strenuous exercises.” If you are missing the irony here, let me explain. You can go to a doctor and check your fitness level and be declared perfectly fit. A fit person might be able to climb a flight of stairs. Or even ten flights of stairs. But he or she is unlikely to be in shape for a marathon. Nor is it as simple as running every day, and increasing your distance constantly. You might finally make it through a marathon that way, but it won’t be easy, and it might end up hurting your body permanently.

Distance running requires a combination of many things: speed, endurance and strength (both physical and mental). Miss any of these, and you are in trouble. So, in order to build speed, you train using track workouts (running distances of say 800 meters, in sets) and interval running (where you run in fast bursts during sections of a run). To build endurance, you train on long distance runs regularly. And for strength, you combine running on hills with active cross training and strengthening exercises in the gym. As your strength and endurance increase, so does your mental strength. Finally, during and before the run, a runner needs to think of hydration and salt balance (which is why runners drink Gatorade. And I thought it was just an American aversion to water), and eating a sensible diet (particularly the night before a run) rich in carbs (with some protein thrown in), without too much fat or sugar. During the process of training, your body metabolism itself changes (becomes more efficient, and burns more calories, even while resting). Now throw in proper running form (running with your head held up, hands unclenched, without crouching your shoulders and with your back straight, leaning slightly forward) and good running footwear (no, regular sneakers don’t do the job), and finally you’ll be on your way towards becoming a runner.

There was a time, long ago when I was still in high school, when I did a little bit of running. During our annual sports day, the school would also organize a 5k “road-race”. It used to be great fun, and a bunch of us would show up and run. Here’s how it went. We’d all show up, wearing the stipulated stiff white cotton shorts and white vest, and white canvas shoes (terrible for running). The whistle would blow and we’d be off, tearing down the route. In about two kilometers, a bunch of us would be out of steam, while others would soldier on. The few really fit students (mostly boarders who spent their time playing soccer, hockey and basketball) would then soldier on and win the race. There was some potential there, with many of them (particularly those students from the North Eastern states, or Nepal, or the Himalayan states, used to higher altitudes) being natural runners. Most of that potential was wasted. Imagine the possibilities if the physical education instructor had even the slightest idea about distance running (instead of just yelling “run up, run up”), or if the kids had used proper running shoes instead of the thin soled canvas shoes (which always left your feet in pain after hard exercise). All these kids were from affluent families, and could easily afford good running gear. Most of them though would never even think of becoming runners.

For the few who actually discover running in a scientific way, it is usually too late. They are by then in their late teens or much older, and far too old to take up athletics seriously. And of course, competitive running is one thing. But running for fun (which can be a fantastic way of being fit) itself will take a long while to catch on in India. I cringe when I see people heading out for a fast walk/jog in the mornings, with the best intentions of getting fit, wearing sandals and thick cotton clothing. Or heavy sneakers that might look nice, but do nothing to support the feet (or the heavy impact on the body that running brings with it). But there’s potential there, and I’m dreaming of the day when the Mumbai (and other) marathons become a serious event with thousands of Indians running it, because they are passionate about running.


Wavefunction said...

I admire the perseverance. You probably must have read about E O Wilson's middle age love affair with running in his biography "Naturalist". It's something to inspire all of us who are gradually getting to that point!

Unknown said...

Any pointers to more detailed resources on this that you might have found useful?

Sunil said...

Ashutosh.....I actually haven't yet read Wilson's biography, but it is something on my (long) list. There's just so much to read, and so little time :-) favorite running resource is the Runners world website:

It is terrific, with lots of information about running, for everyone from beginners to experts. There is information on training, running form, injury, recovery, nutrition and everything else.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,

Good perspective on running. I started running in the second year of grad school and have found it one of the most relaxing activities. However, long distance running began to get really slow for me, which is when I moved to working out. I pretty much feel the same way about it that you do- I never thought I would soon be transformed into protein eating, muscle building kind. Then, fearing that I would become one of those hypertestosteronic beefcakes, I moved to yoga. If I were to draw a literary parallel, I would say the Mystic Masseur would describe my downfall really well.
Good luck with the marathon.


Sunil said...

aniket.....usually when you run a lot, you tend to lose weight and muscle, and look rather funny. It takes some effort to avoid that and still look respectable!
Thanks for your encouragement for the marathon.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the club ! I took up running rather late, and often rue not starting earlier.

Agree with your lack of scientific approach towards running/physical education in general in India. Couple of months ago, was walking on Marine Drive in Mumbai, and noticed a few runners - everyone without fail was running with a wrong posture and most had wrong gears.

Hopefully, awareness will catch up soon, otherwise India will be facing either an obesity epidemic or bad back/ankles/joints epidemic!

Good luck with the marathon, its a great feeling at the finish-line.

Rashmy said...

These are times when I wonder - Is the whole world in my backyard? I've been a long time reader of your blog..for various reasons - at times it motivates me, at times I enjoy the talk of science, at times it makes me realize we are all walking the same path to reach nirvana. Never ever thought of leaving a comment. It was like reading a book, closing it and then just picking up what you liked best. But in today's blog, I see that you mentioned that you live in Dallas. Funny thing is .. my husband and I moved to Dallas early this year. He just finished his Phd and I remember having ranted a few things that I read from your blog when he would complain about the external influences in his Phd. Why am I leaving a comment now? Just thought that since you live in Dallas, I could get to meet the blogger whose writings I've enjoyed thus far.

Sunil said... thoughts exactly (though my very similar observations are from the madras marina or the parks in bangalore).

Rashmy...nice of you to leave a comment, and welcome to dallas. Just send me an email offline (linuslax at yahoo dot com).


Good observations on running -:) . Its amusing to watch the locals run on the street immediately after lunch - i call it 'guilty run' because the guilt of eating a double whopper, 2 ltrs soda and a double sized fries are on their face. Think about someone runs on the road after lunch in Indian streets !. That said, i was a long distance runner from my school time. May be i started very erly following my elder brother. We (also couple of my neighbor friends) used wake up early morning at 5 and run to the nearest town on Carona canvas shoes and sometimes on bare foot. That's about 4 kilometers and back with rests. I continue running in the colleges campuses i attended and was pretty good at it. Problems started 2 years ago as i started getting real bad pain on my feet- plantar faciitis -and the joint pains on knee. Probably the injuries are from the past and because i was not veyr careful about the footwear and posture.

So the education on running must improve -especially back in India people run on the asphalt roads due to lack of sufficient tracks. In US things are clearly blown out of proportion - most of the companies promote their goods- let it be shoes, drink or food - based on the scare tactics and its so easy to back it up with a flimsy research. For example, i really think Gatorade is overrated. Also many different variants of running shoes. You don't see any of these people recommending to do long distance run in a mud track, thats safest.

Well, Indians don't run much - my running mates pant after just 2-3 minutes - i tell them keep running until they overcome the first torturous minutes but few understand what i am trying to say -:)

Armchair Guy said...


Nice article about running, but what caught my attention was your description of boarders in your school. My school was very similar, and I'm curious whether your experience is just very common or we went to very similar schools.

Did you go to school in Calcutta, to a missionary-run boys' school? (I did.)

Elaine Martin said...

Great post - funny and informative. Good luck on Sunday.

I started running 8 years ago, and have now done 8 marathons. I was never athletic in secondary school, and was amazed to find that I was actually good at a sport, even if it took me 30+ years to find that sport. My parents in Ireland thought I was crazy and would end up permanently disabled if I even finished the first marathon!

Sunil said...

sorry for being so late in replying to comments...been traveling. JK....I think gatorade is highly overrated too. On long runs, i take a salt (just common rock salt) tablet after a few miles, and that's plenty. But I can't stress enough on the importance of proper footwear., I studied in bangalore. But the school probably isn't too different from yours....mine is an 140 odd year old missionary-run boys school. How different can they be :-) ?

elaine...thanks, sorry for the late response, and it was great to see you on sunday!

Anonymous said...

(法新社倫敦四日電) 英國情色大亨芮孟的公司昨天情色視訊說,芮孟日前去世,享壽八十二歲;這位身價上億的房地產開發商成人網站,曾經在倫敦推出第一場脫衣舞表成人演。