Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Great Vacation Bad Race

In the 5 years that I’ve lived in the USA, I’ve never traveled to the west of the country till very recently. The idea of travel for its own sake terrifies me. I have to be doing something I consider ‘useful’ or I tend to get back from my trip with a feeling of guilt. I realized I wasn’t going to see the rest of the country (or the world for that matter) if I didn’t travel to run. 
My running obsession has taken me twice to Vermont, to all the five boroughs of New York City, to parks in Queens that border Long Island, and to the most inconvenient places at the most inconvenient times of the year. This year I decided to run a race across the country. Alaska has the perfect weather in August and no one I knew had ever gone there to run a marathon.
 I signed up for the race in January, shortly after injuring myself during yoga( because that’s how depressing injuries can be). I had to minimize the amount of yoga I did so I didn’t aggravate my condition. I restricted myself to medium and low intensity runs and strength work with weights. I wasn’t able to do any significant speed work or hill repeats till June, I relied solely on weight training and plyometrics for anaerobic training. 
I signed up for races during my training. They ranged from being excellent or mediocre to being debilitating shit shows. I made a PR during the Queens 10K in nasty and humid weather and my confidence soared. I trained during the worst part of the NYC summer, and as I recovered from my injury, I re-introduced speed work and hill repeats to my routine. I’m not and never have been a natural athlete, so I was beyond ecstatic when my weekly mileage peaked at 40 miles. I watched my diet and consumed almost no junk food or alcohol. I dropped a few pounds and felt like a whippet with boundless energy. 
When I landed in Anchorage last Thursday, I felt a joy I didn’t know I could feel. The unbridled wildness and raw beauty are so unreal you don't want to leave. The flight from New York took 10 hours. I did a ton of sight seeing two days before the race. This included a helicopter ride, a trolley tour, walking around a trail, checking out antique stores and cafes, and shopping (Alaska has no sales tax, even the shopping there is wild). 
My approach to this marathon was going to be different. I was going to start slowly, and keep persisting and pick up the pace in the last few miles. I wasn't going to space out and 'acquire the void' (ref: 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' by Haruki Murakami), I was going to be present and 'mindful'. I did all of the above. I started slowly, and didn't space out or hit the wall, I kept myself hydrated and fueled at all times. It was raining, but it was still more pleasant than running in the New York humidity. The only trouble was, I wasn't able to get faster.
No one ever tells you how hard 'mindfulness' really is. This race taught me that. I had cramps (related to women's problems if you must know) and had the hardest time speeding up without cramping. No amount of hydration or electrolyte consumption helped. Mindfulness forces you to come to terms with excruciating physical pain. I have never taken pain killers during a race, and I wasn't about to risk upsetting my system any further. So there I was with my 'mindful' running, plodding through the Alaskan wilderness, forcing out any thoughts of irritation or anxiety. The volunteers, spectators and other runners were nothing short of supportive. The only other time I've experienced such genuine and generous encouragement was during a 50k in Queens. I was moved to the point of wanting to break down at mile 18. I suppose we don't remember intense pain very well, because the finer details are starting to blur. 
I did run a negative split. After struggling for 20 miles I ran the last 6 faster than the middle 14, not fast enough to make a PR but not slow enough to be worse than my NYC marathon debut. Some races test your physical limits, some test your mental fortitude. This one tested them both. My muscles are not terribly sore right now. The only thing that is hurt is my pride. 
I'm back home after 15 hours of flying between airports and timezones. I don't really know what I could have done differently to make the race go better. I'm not proud of myself and I'm not trying to make excuses. I'm merely trying to find the fine line between disappointment and 'lesson learned', and trying to stay on the more compassionate end of that spectrum. 
Would I do it again? Yes! A thousand times over! I want to go back to run the ultra sometime. You know you've gotten over a bad race when you're starting to plan your training for the next one. Is there anything I would do differently? I would probably take more days off and explore other parts of Alaska, but that's for another trip. Till then I'll just keep running I guess. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Running Long Distances

I have changed. I started this blog as a 21 year old engineering student harboring secret dreams of living in Paris and being a writer. I had the interiors of my tiny Parisian apartment planned right down to the tapestry on the drapes and the embroidery on the table cloth. I had my daily schedule planned out; including the details of my meals, the kind of wine I would drink, the kind of clothes I would wear, the music I would listen to, and the hours I would spend at museums meditating on works of art. It was meant to pan out like an upbeat, Audrey Hepburn version of Jean Rhys' 'Good Morning Midnight' with smaller quantities of alcohol and a happy ending.

I am 30 now. I live in New York City. I barely write. I find art to be pretentious and insufferable. I think literature is having its apocalypse, and I can't bear the idea of moving to a tinier space than my New York apartment. You see, the Parisian dream had no plot. The writer needed to express something. The plan was completely devoid of that need. I moved to Ithaca and got a Masters in Engineering instead. I wrote short stories and insipid poetry, sometimes under the influence of a glass of whiskey and at other times under the influence of some research paper.

One day, I decided to get out. I had stopped eating because of what I now call an eating disorder.I had to run, for the first time in my life without any prior history of physical activity. I covered 3 miles in 50 minutes. I walked most of it. I came back home and decided I wouldn't settle for anything less than a marathon. I had found what the writer needed to express. I didn't need a bag of words to give it meaning. I sat down to eat. Real food with nutrients and not the usual dry cereal.

A few months after that I found myself in New York City. Working as an engineer, running so I would feel like eating. Numbers gave me comfort, as did my abysmal running stats. I ran so I could just be; human and imperfect. I found myself being more forgiving, and less demanding. Epiphanies were no longer limited to illegible late night scrawls in my diary. The first 8 mile run, the first 11 mile run, the first half marathon, the first 18 mile run, the first marathon, and then the second marathon. All epiphanies in their own right. I am not an athlete. I have tiny strides and run 11 minute miles on a good day. I like the stoic silence of octogenarian runners who plod through the last 6 miles of a marathon, and the contemplative faces of charity runners raising money and trying to make sense of the suffering and death of loved ones.

Through running I have found silence; the quiet meditation among works of art, the tapestry on my drapes, the embroidery on the tablecloth, and  the plot to the book I wanted to write. 

Sunday, January 06, 2013

On Doris Lessing and Feminism

When I first read Doris Lessing's 'The Golden Notebook', I failed to see why it was hailed as being 'a feminist classic'. In its depiction of women as being needy, desperate, and incomplete without the presence of a man; it seemed to be the exact antithesis of a 'feminist' novel. I was much younger when I read it. I imagine I expected to read a tale of triumph,of  unabashed sexual liberation, and of women devoid of any vulnerability. Reading Simone De Beauvoir's 'The Second Sex' has made me consider 'The Golden Notebook' differently.

Till very recently, and for that matter even at present, women have been objectified to the extent that they're not expected to think and function outside the box that defines their 'intrinsic purpose'. So here came a book with very gritty details of inner turmoil and personal strife. It spoke of thwarted attempts at sexual and political liberation. I particularly remember one of the men who went to the extent of deciding what kind of orgasm a woman was allowed to have.There is, in the book, a rather poignant line about women who allow men to treat them with utter disregard and remain passive accomplices in their own mistreatment. It goes on to say that such women deserve nothing better since it is all they ever ask for.

The purpose of literature is not always to exalt and glorify the human spirit. It can sometimes serve as a mirror, maybe even a magnifying glass, to reveal the sores and warts that we don't want to acknowledge. 'The Golden Notebook' did exactly that.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Running in New York City

Over the past week, I've been running without earphones. It is the most amazing feeling to just run without anything going on in your head (When the music plays, I tend to crunch running stats in my head). On the other hand, I can't help overhearing conversations that take place between people and their running partners. So here are some observations based on one week of listening and watching.

1. People who run along the East River seem happier than those who run along the Hudson. I suppose it's because there are fewer people running by the East River and , people running along the East River are mostly solitary runners. East River pathway runners and bikers tend to be more polite and considerate.

2. A lot of people are really frustrated and unhappy with their jobs. Runners in the Battery Park City area don't hold back from any kind of venting. Do I sense a correlation between unhappiness and working in the financial district?

3. Running with a partner can be very unnerving and annoying. I noticed a bunch of sour faced couples running near the Hudson River Park. This is understandable since it's not always possible for two people to run in sync. Things get worse if the couple in question has a baby in a stroller.

4. Men tend to talk about sports. Yes, it's been all about football statistics the past week.

5. Women tend to talk about who dated whom and who said what to whom etc. etc. (dear ladies, why must you live up to that stereotype?).

6. Dogs are the best running partners. They go out of their way to please their humans. The trouble is,dogs are generally sprinters and not long distance runners. I wish more people understood that.

7. Babies in strollers don't care how fast you run. 

8. Tourists find runners very amusing. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Loneliness of the Slow Runner

I move my limbs with great trepidation. Movement has never made me happy. I feel constrained, as though there is an invisible string tied to each and every muscle of my being. In order to run, I must move. In order to dance, I must move. My shoulders sag from the weight of thought. I want to be inconspicuous, invisible, non-existent even. I think all the time; my mind works like an endless oscillation, vacillating em to stop, between extremes.

I cannot look at the others. They pretend not to stare, but I see scores of eyes piercing my frame. The endless scrutiny, often a figment of my imagination, is unbearable. I want to beg them to stop, but I can't. They only do these things in my head.

P.S. Because running in New York City is never easy.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Note to Self

Growing up as an only child has often compelled me to write notes to myself. Here's a note that borders on the verbose. I wrote it a couple of months ago, and I assume that I wrote it at 3 in the morning on a glorious day in Ithaca.

Dear Self,

There is nothing to be done. Haters will hate and parents will be parents. Bigots will not change, and the world is too large, too magnificent and beautifully imperfect. Change is constant, but it unfolds at snail pace. In your lifetime, you will want to mould certain aspects of time in a way that seems to fit your purpose. Your purpose, unfortunately, is rather open ended. Time will wrap itself around you and hold you to ransom if you allow it to. Remember, as living creatures, we're inexplicably timeless. Life is a lot more bearable if you look this timelessness squarely in the eye and make peace with it. Life is not intended to be a sequence of milestones with defined boundaries. It really is a blur. It is rather vague; incomprehensible actually. The breakdown of reason and intellect is inevitable. So is the loss of faith and endurance. It is true that nothing is necessarily written, but our destinies are sadly limited by the extent of our longevity.

When this realization sinks in, remember to laugh , to dance, to sing, to scream, and to stretch your limbs and being till they can no longer be contained. You can only yield when you've pushed the limits of resistance. In this, you will find overwhelming peace and well deserved comfort. Hold high that head, and grit those teeth; but at the same time, keep those fists 'unclenched' and those toes warm.

The self,
From without,

1. This is reproduced exactly as it was written, right down to the grammar and punctuation.
2. It seemed so compelling and phenomenal when I wrote it. Now it sounds like a generic passage from a generic self help book.
3. Ithaca can get really cold, keeping one's toes warm is of utmost importance.
4. With this post I do concede, that although I am a fence-sitting agnostic, I often pledge my allegiance to 'His holy noodliness', 'The Flying Spaghetti Monster'. I am secretly(not so secretly anymore) a boiled again 'Pastafarian'. Ramen!

Monday, April 02, 2012


If this is a legitimate Twitter account, and if it is true that 'Gangarams' is moving to a new place above Koshy's restaurant, then my blog might just have its first retraction!

Apparently , this overly nostalgic post got my blog more traffic than it's accustomed to. A lot of people took pictures of the sign outside 'Gangarams' and thought that the store was closing for good. Here's the response I got from the 'Gangarams' Twitter feed. It was hard to find any decent coverage of the purported closing in any of Bangalore's newspapers, and since I don't live in Bangalore anymore, there was no way for me to get the details from the people at the store.

There are still conflicting reports coming in from different sources. This one from IBN Live says that the owners had finalized on the location above Koshy's, but there are fears that the building may not be "strong enough to hold the weight of the books".

This isn't an official retraction, but in this case, I hope there will be good reason for me to make this a first for this blog.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The End of an Era : The Closing of 'Gangarams'

'Gangarams' wasn't just a bookstore. It was a monument, a landmark, a family tradition; a sign of assurance that people in Bangalore still loved to read. When I think of 'Gangarams'; I think of climbing a somewhat steep flight of stairs, scuttling between four different floors, keeping my belongings in lockers and , as a child, ambling down a grid of book lined shelves with my parents. The only people who could navigate the store with frightening precision were members of the staff. They could whip out books from inconspicuous corners, without the blink of an eye or a whiff of judgement. It used to be common for other booksellers to say, 'we don't have this book, but you will find it at Gangarams'.

I still remember buying 'Living to Tell the Tale' by Marquez from 'Gangarams'. 'Back to school' season wouldn't be the same without a trip to 'Gangarams' for a textbook buying spree. No competitive exam preparation was complete without the acquisition of that rarely published and rather 'ninja' study guide. 'Gangarams' also had an entire floor called 'the computer section', something that my father cherished. There were times when I would leave the store empty handed and scowling, while my father beamed like the 'Magi' as he clutched a copy of  'Computers for Dummies'. The store was also a place where I would return to reminisce; to breathe in the scent of books fresh from the press, to be the six year old that clutched her father's hand, and to be the adolescent who watched her mother's eyes light up at the sight of a favorite classic.

 Today, upon hearing this, a part of me is glad that my father isn't here to see the store shut down. On the other hand, I imagine him, in all jocular pragmatism, saying, 'Everything is an illusion. Nothing is forever; not people and definitely not bookstores'. One has to acknowledge that 'Gangarams' didn't generate the kind of hype that 'Crossword' and 'Landmark' did with their literary events. It didn't organize massive, garage sale like giveaways at dirt cheap prices, and it didn't have a coffee shop. It is now an established fact, that if a bookstore is to survive, it must give readers something more than just books.

On days like this, the naive sentimentalist in me trumps over the headstrong technologist. I feel as though a part of my memory has been sliced away and that I will never have access to it for either consultation or comfort.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bookstores in New York : 'bookbook'

This is the first in an intended series of posts that chronicle my adventures and misadventures in New York bookstores. It has been two weeks since I've moved to New York, and I've already visited my first bookstore! The idea for this series comes from a friend who seems to have a very prescient understanding of my obsession with books, despite having known me for less than a year. This is not intended to be an authoritative reference on what bookshops to visit and which ones to avoid. The intended purpose of this series is to have a catalog for posterity (I have this irrational fear, that someday, I will lose my memory, and that I will have to reconstruct my life from scratch.). I intend to cover bookshops in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.

'bookbook' is a tiny and intimate shop located roughly at the intersection of Bleeker Street and Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. I'm ashamed to admit that I discovered this place, in a rather unromantic fashion, on 'Foursquare'. The only redeeming part of my minuscule 'adventure' is that I was sitting in a park in Greenwich Village, watching squirrels, and listening to a jazz band, when I decided to pull out my smartphone and look for bookshops in the vicinity. 

It is somewhat disheartening, even for a Kindle user, to walk into a 'shop around the corner' bookstore, and to hear people whispering about buying Kindle versions of books on display. The staff at 'bookbook' are courteous enough not to chide truant customers for uttering 'the K-word' (there are bookstores where such people are publicly shamed). So here's my little tip for readers who want a nice deal; 'bookbook' houses all its bargain books either outside the store, or in the first few shelves inside the store. There maybe discounted and regular priced versions of the same book. In fact, one of the store managers went out of his way to encourage me to buy the discounted version. I suppose it speaks volumes about the state of business in smaller bookstores.

I bought two books by Murakami ('Kafka on the Shore' and 'Dance Dance Dance), and 'In Cold Blood' by Truman Capote. At first sight, 'bookbook' may not look like a place that has too much to offer, but trust me on the impressive variety for a shop of its size. The selection of books is somewhat restricted to genres like art, music, poetry, literature, and pop culture. I wouldn't go far enough to label this place as 'niche', but look elsewhere if you want books on science, technology and fast paced reading in general. It is one of those places where asking gets you around faster than just looking.

As a bonus, a friend of the store manager walked in with his pet Pitbulls, and I got to pet the friendlier one. The purportedly 'unfriendly' one had a gag around her mouth. Apparently, she bites people 'despite having only one tooth' !

Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Sporting Life

In keeping with the spirit of the 'kitchen sink' tradition, 'This Sporting Life' is yet another film that I loved. I am generally wary of movies about sport, because the narrative tends to be very mundane and predictable. Lindsay Anderson's 'This Sporting Life' doesn't fit the mold of the average 'feel good' fable of triumph. Not with its unlikely cast and the interleaving of past and present events into the narrative.

Richard Harris (better known to kids and teenagers as the 'original Dumbledore') plays Frank, a young man with humble beginnings who becomes the star player of  a rugby club in Wakefield, Yorkshire. The film opens to Frank passing out after getting bludgeoned on the rugby field. It's Christmas eve, his teeth are broken and he needs a dentist. He is told that his front teeth will have to be pulled out. As he settles into the anesthesia, his subconscious rewinds through a blurry retelling of past events; of his try-outs for the league, of his landlady and of his ambition to be the best .

Frank lives in a rented room which is a part of a larger family home. His landlady, Margaret; a young widow with two little children, is pert, reserved and is in perpetual mourning for her husband. She keeps her husband's old boots by the fireplace as a reminder of her widowhood and Frank loathes the sight of them. It is quite evident that he wants her and the gulf between them seems to widen with every advance he makes. He brings presents for the children, takes the family out for rides in his car, and still sees no hint of approval in her eyes. There is tension between Frank and Margaret; a dreadful mix of longing and denial. They swing between moments of great tenderness and empathy to those of violent resistance and bitterness. Frank turns down the advances of other women. The only woman he will have is the one who won't have him.

Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts turn out wonderful performances. Both had reputations for being intensely passionate people, on and off stage. For this film, some of that passion is repressed. It is repressed to the extent that it shows up unexpectedly after a rare moment of gentle acquiescence. Richard Harris has a bestial quality. One can see it in his eyes and in the twisted features of his face, famously described has being one 'of a thousand Irish navvies'. This quality leaps forth on occasion; the one thing that makes his performance so unpredictable and believable. Rachel Roberts personifies perfection with her performance. She is bitter, anxious, wild and vulnerable at the same time. She resists and yields, she loves and loathes, and a part of her yearns for all that Frank has to give.

The film ends with Frank yielding a deathly blow to a spider crawling up the wall. He is aptly described as 'nothing but an ape on the field'. It is a tag he must endure for as long as he is invincible.