100 m to 100 km

the making of an ultra runner…

As I crossed the 100 km mark after about 17 hours and 21 minutes, around 9:30 PM on Sunday the 22nd November, 2020, to the roaring cheer and applause of my running mates and their families, I felt elated, relieved, accomplished, thrilled, excited, joyful and above all a deep sense of gratitude and love with utter disbelief! A sea of emotions and memories flew past my mind in a flash traversing my 7 years of running experience.

I still vividly remember huffing and puffing after less than 100 meters of attempted running on a May morning in 2013. My friend Prasad was a regular runner and one day I told him I’d also like to join him and try my hand on some fitness as I was over 90 kg heavy and had shock of my life when I couldn’t run up to my office the previous week in order to urgently get something that I had left behind. I lost all hope of running any further – the voice in the head said, ‘if you couldn’t manage 100 meters of running comfortably, what’s the point!’ Nevertheless, Prasad encouraged and I went with him once in a while to walk around the Race Course circuit. I used to take 55 minutes to cover two rounds of the 2.5 km stretch. Still I kept going, as I had company. To my surprise I found that I was getting comfortable with running and even started liking it. But after a few weeks, Prasad had a knee injury and couldn’t continue running and so I too stopped. But somehow I wanted to pursue, and almost after a year, he introduced me to the Race Course Chapter of Coimbatore Runners. By then my pace had improved to completing two rounds of Race Course – 5 km – in 35 minutes.

With the constant encouragement and disciplined running routines of Ramesh (Tiger), Nithya, Shanmugaraj, JP, Valliappan and Veeshal I kept running longer distances and in December 2013 I registered for the 25 km run at the Bangalore Ultra. It was out of sheer excitement of running in a trail in the cool climes of Bangalore. Completed the 25 km in under 3 hours and felt great. That gave confidence to register for the Coimbatore Marathon in 2014. Just a month before my knee started hurting. That was the first, and thankfully for the last, time I experienced an injury. Still ran the Coimbatore Marathon with a knee grip in under 3 hours with tremendous pain and agony. That day I resolved my motto as ‘run for fun, without injury’. And thank God, I continue to do it till date, thanks to my incredibly cooperating body.

That was the turning point in my running life and there was no turning back. In 2016 I ran my first Marathon at Auroville, in their characteristic red soil trails and finished in about 6 hours. Several marathons and half marathons followed, dotted by some 30 km runs in the hill stations of Ooty and Yercaud. If running in the hot, sunny and humid conditions of Singapore was horrifying, it was no less running my two marathons in Mumbai and Hyderabad each. Each was a test of my limits.

The Anchor

My key turning point in running came in 2017 when I noticed on FB a guy named Arunan who was posting regularly his running stories with his photogenic pictures depicting the varied interesting settings in which he ran – over 100 days without missing a day – sometimes closer to midnight just to finish the day’s run before Cinderella’s clock struck 12. This intrigued and inspired me and a new challenge emerged. Little did I realise then that it was also the beginning of a significant relationship, both on and off the road. Arunan soon emerged as my personal guide, mentor and advisor on all running matters. He always had a practical tip, cryptic instruction, wise advice or a well researched recommendation to any question I pose to him. It varied from focussing on strengthening the core, increasing the cadence, interval training, stabilising the heart rate to what shoe to buy, how much hydration to take and which event to register. He always had an answer, not readymade, but totally attuned to my specific temperament and idiosyncrasy. He is my go-to person for any of my running and fitness related matters. He is a perennial optimist and level headed motivator. Having him in my corner is a huge boost to my confidence and possibilities. In due course we turned out to be personal besties and emotional anchors to each other, was a life-enhancing coincidence.

I resolved to do the Hundred Days of Running (HDOR) challenge the following year, and I did. It was a challenging yet cool experience running every day and sharing the success stories with my running friends. Since then I have successfully completed 3 HDOR challenges in a row under interesting circumstances. In 2019 I was on a road trip for 22 days, covering about 9 states and 16 cities during that period. Running in all conditions, during different times during the day and night was awesome! It even felt weird at times. But not as weird as the previous year when I had been to Kailash Mansarovar during the HDOR days and I ran at the 12000 feet altitude of Mansarovar and the 16000 feet altitude of Kailash Parikrama. That was a surreal and unforgettable experience. Not to mention running in the rains on my 50th birthday during that trip in Syaburbeshi – a decrepit border village in Nepal. Each run only increased my stamina and endurance and bolstered my interest in and love for running.

Milestones

By 2018, under the repeated advice from Arunan, started looking for a fitness coach to train us on strengthening our core. We hit upon a jackpot in the form of Sowmiya, who is a real tough task master. She graciously yet firmly made sure we all sweated out profusely and got returns worth every rupee we paid. Most sessions were gruelling and ruthless. Yet we persisted and prevailed in spite of our groans and moans. Strengthening the core contributed significantly in improving my running gait and eventually the increased pace.

Setting a time or outcome bound goal helped right through. I had my breakthrough dream run in 2018 Bengaluru Marathon, shortly after my first HDOR challenge and core sessions – which brought down my marathon time by 1 hour 10 min where I clocked under 5 hours for the 42.2 km, in the cool and salubrious climate. I thought I had reached my pinnacle and that I did not want to push anymore. Little did I realise then that it was only the beginning of many more personal bests to follow.

Fast forward to May 2020 and the lockdown that followed the onset of the now infamous Covid-19 pandemic. While we all were forcibly bound to our homes and running was impossible, I started focusing on whatever could be done to stay fit, indoors – literally confined to the 4 walls of my study. I enrolled for yoga sessions. Did Yogasanas and pranayama regularly for months. Undertook intermittent fasting, inspired by Rodney, a fellow Singai Singam. It started with a 12 hour fasting window and gradually went up to 19 hours and stayed that way for few months. By that time, inspired by Santhosh, enrolled with Fittr coach Dayanand and started a new high protein-low carb diet along with regular strength training. With gyms closed, started with home weights and gradually past one month started going to the gym. Meanwhile, I also got a bicycle and started regular cycling. Began with 5 km per day and graduated to 10 km per day and slowly did a couple of 25 km rides and a 50 km ride. Coincidentally after HDOR ended, Tour de 100 – a 100 day cycling challenge – came up and I enrolled for the same. To test my endurance and to also gain some cross training, did a 100 km ride and a 125 km ride followed suit. I never realised till then that I enjoyed cycling too! Every bit of conscious fitness choices and the variety of activities contributed significantly to my overall fitness and endurance. Interestingly, when the lockdown was gradually lifted and I could start running within my society campus, I clocked my best 5 km in under 25 minutes, best 10 km in under 55 minutes and my fastest half marathon in under 1:55 hours. I was thrilled!! I was immensely satisfied with my achievements. I thought I can’t aspire for more.

The Mega Run

One fine day in September Ganesh and Senthil approached me if we could do the 100 km Indian Flag Running event. I’m still not sure why they asked ME and not anybody else. I reasoned to myself, maybe because they would’ve thought I’m the maverick who’d jump in to take up any such crazy ideas. Initially I dismissed it and laughed it off. Eventually, I could not resist the temptation. With under 3 months to go, I was hesitant. Checked with Arunan, hoping he would advice me not to attempt. But to my dismay and delight he said ‘yes’. But came along his usual cautious optimism, with several riders like mandatory regular training, proper workouts, diet, hydration etc. The tipping factor was the confidence of having endured over 9 hours on my feet at the Malnad Ultra, just last January. So here I go again, literally chasing yet another seemingly impossible challenge about which I had no clue what was in store.

I’m no big fan of excel sheet training plans. They look good on paper, and am sure works best for many. But my temperament is to go with what my body feels and says on the day. So, I decided to capitalise on all the gains of lockdown work and gave myself an easy but systematic build up plan to the D-Day where we (Ganesh, Senthil and I) are to run 100 km in under 20 hours. I was at the fag end of my third HDOR by then and so added a few half marathons along the way. Even did a hattrick just before HDOR ended and all felt good. Doubt led way to hope. Still confidence was evading. A full marathon followed which gave some boost to the morale, given the ease with which I could finish it. Two weeks before the mega run, went for the big kill… a 60 km run. With some difficulty completed the 60k in about 8:30 hours and that gave confidence for the first time.

Planning

The two weeks leading to the race day was dedicated to planning the event and tapering off running.

A WhatsApp group was formed with all key planners, to which all aiders and pacers were added. It helped in having everyone on the same page and for easy correspondence, realtime.

When the plans were emerging Arunan checked with the Saravanampatti Chapter of Coimbatore Runners for volunteers for aid stations and pacers. The response was immediate and spontaneous. Santhosh put to use his planning experience of the 60 km run and enrolled volunteers from Singai Singams.

This point requires a detour to introduce Santhosh. Two years ago Santhosh joined Singai Singams when he was still in the UK. He had promised he would join us for runs once he’s back home in Coimbatore and he did exactly that. He instantly charmed all our members and infused the group with his bubbling energy and generous heart always available for anything we needed, both on and off the road. While he was working his fitness goals, he also took up all organising responsibilities of our gatherings, outings, tours and trips and never complained. He put to good use his communication and relational skills and became the go-to guy and one-stop shop for all of us on almost anything, right from reference for a hotel to planning a weekend run, from organising the core sessions to getting a whole anniversary trip organised. The gentle giant was ever available with his characteristic smile and conspicuous presence and made sure he made time whenever we needed. We forged a close bond as friends not only in supporting each other in running, but also in life at large.

Back to planning the 100 km run, each and every friends of both Singanallur and Saravanampatti chapters of Coimbatore Runners came forward wilfully with lots of gusto and enthusiasm. They defined their roles, organised themselves and fit into the jigsaw perfectly. Each one took ownership and jumped in as and when needed and stayed flexible true to the mission. The whole process went about like a well oiled machinery. Or more so like a well orchestrated symphony or play. Each actor entered the stage at the right time, did their part of the act and left gracefully at the right point. Each instrument was played at the right time, to the right note and gave way to the next. The whole event was conducted seemingly effortlessly by Santhosh and Arunan. Hari was the master planner of the route. He even rode with me the week before on a recce of the probable routes before finalising. His mastery in looking at various environmental factors in deciding the route was fantastic.

We wanted a route that would be easy on us by avoiding monotony of repeat loops to the extent possible and the harsh sun on our face in the morning. We wanted a shaded canopy for the second half when the sun was at its peak, to beat the heat. Thus we decided to take the Highway upto Eachanari to begin with and do the city roads with canopy of trees for the afternoon session. The effect turned out to be perfect at the end. Hari was there almost till the end to suggest tweaking the route as we were covering the last quarter of the distance.

I could only think of the metaphor of childbirth. Hari, Arunan and Santhosh conceived, other running friends acted like supporting midwives, and finally we three delivered successfully, needless to say, with long hours of labour!

Friends in Need

The significance of the role of our friends who came to provide hydration and food to us all along the way and those who paced us for varied distances through out the day cannot be overstated. All acted like a true leaderless high performance team with each one assuming leadership and initiative at the right time.

Prabhakaran and Sumithra waited for us near Eachanari with refreshments and water. They came with us up to the Trichy Road junction stopping at strategic points to hydrate ourselves. Devaraj cycled alongside us for most part of the bypass road, with his regular lemon juice with saaaalt! Rodney and Shankar came with their home made egg sandwiches and pongal and several other snacks and sport drinks. Pavithra came near Decathlon with her father and kids with yummy lemon juice and ragi idli-sambar. Suresh came, as usual, with his fruit basket, and all other nutritious goodies. He met us near Codissia.

Moving to VOC park, after an arduous stretch in the hot sun, around noon, we had wholesome lunch by Ponmalar, Vasanth and Girija. Sandwiches and curd upma have never tasted so good! After a long 45 minutes break, Arunan and Hari took full charge of us and we inched towards Bharathi Park. Our aid station was set up by Hari and Deepak strategically between the two Bharathi Park main roads. After every loop of about 4 km we were treated by ever flowing supply of oranges, sweets, lemon, salt, lemon juice, tender coconut, biscuits and so on. Venkatesan Sir, the patron saint of Saibaba Colony chapter personally saw that we were not in short of any support. Latha came with ice packs, ice water and towels to give us the much needed massage and pain relief. Vidya, Suresh and Manju were there to cheer us up and support us with hydration.

And when we returned to Race Course to finish the run, Prabhakar and his family waited with more goodies. Ponmalar and family brought yummy Sundal. Mani and family brought ice cream and Pavithra came with delicious mushroom soup. In effect, after 100 km and close to 18 hours of running and burning about 8000 calories, I had not shed even an ounce of weight. Such was the treat through out the day.

While our friends fed our body, what still remains is the fondness and the unconditional love with which they offered themselves that day. It was the biggest gift to me that day. Of course, the run by itself was rewarding. But what infuse life and meaning into it was the sea of friendship and bonhomie that we swam in that day. The timely and thoughtful support from each of them was uncanny. The gratitude I feel for them is immeasurable.

Pacers – the Guardian Angels

We decided to cover the whole distance through interval running – 750 meters of run followed by 250 meters walk. This helped us regain energy and also maintain our heart rate within safe and comfortable limits. We tried this during our 60 km trial run and it worked like magic.

Kathir, Mani and Santhosh joined us from the Start point at 4 AM and ran with us for 42, 56 and 42 km respectively. Thirupathi and Rodney ran 10 km with us, up to Ukkadam. Praveen ran with us in small segments on the L&T bypass road.

Vijay joined afternoon and ran back and forth to keep up with our slow pace and finished more than 30 km. Ramesh, Hari and Arunan joined us from VOC to run about 15-21 km each and eventually they each ran a full marathon by the end. Anush joined at SBC and paced Senthil till the end. Suresh, Chellamuthu and Thena joined at SBC and Thena ran his longest – 25 km – running with us till the finish. Praveen and Ramesh Kumar joined us at Race Course and saw that we finished comfortably.

The pacers not only gave us company but also constantly monitored us and provided with timely advice and support in terms of required breaks, or changing pace or pep talk when spirits plummeted. But for them, I doubt if we would have completed so comfortably.

Praveen needs a special mention for the indelible mark he has left on me with his silent yet powerful presence through out the day. He came with Gopi and Jesheer at 4 to the Start point and the trio never left our side till we finished the run past 9 that night, all of the 18 hours. They followed us in their car every step of our way. They came to our rescue whenever we wanted something to drink, eat or a spray. They took charge of the camera as well and clicked pictures and recorded videos through the day. Their commitment and dedication is worthy of emulation. I find it hard to fathom their spirit of giving, just for the pleasure of it. Hearty salute to Praveen, Gopi and Jesheer!

The Run

On Saturday the 21st, the eve of the race day, I had packed up everything needed for the run and went to bed early by 8. As expected, sleep was eluding and in about an hour I must have gone to sleep. The light sleeper I was coupled with the excitement and anxiety of such a goal looming large, I could not sleep beyond 1:30 AM. Some how spent the next 2 hours tossing and turning and woke up before the alarm went off at 3. Got ready and was out at the start near the Purva main gate. Senthil was already waiting there, and slowly one by one began to gather. Vasanth and Ponmalar, Prabhakar and Sumithra, and came Santhosh. Kathir joined shortly and finally Ganesh arrived.

It was 4:00 AM and we started the run after a group huddle. The weather was perfect – cool and dry with a mild breeze. As we turned right on Trichy Road the reality sank in and the thought that we had the whole day to be on our feet was all pervading my mind. We went past Uzhavar Santhai where Rodney and Thirupathi joined us. Shortly afterwards Mani joined us, being picked up at Purva and dropped there by Ponmalar and Vasanth. The run continued through the dark busy stretch along the flyover under construction. It was a real rough patch that tested our patience. No street lights and the road was uneven with potholes and undulations. My head light was the only bit of light to guide us, which was insufficient for the contingent which was running in 3 different paces. Unfortunately, Rodney had a fall and mildly injured his knees and palms. We still resumed our run turning left at Sungam towards the Ukkadam bypass road. With Valankulam to our right, it was a breeze covering that segment quickly and a sudden detour took us through the newly built waterfront on the road taking us to the Trichy Road. We traced back to the bypass road and ascended the Ukkadam flyover which was well lit with its reflection glistening on the still waters of Valankulam. Coimbatore never looked that beautiful. When we reached Ukkadam, Rodney and Thirupathi took leave and began their return. After a short water break we continued towards Athuppalam, turning left at the Ukkadam junction.

The newly laid road under the new flyover under construction took us to Karumbukadai and Athuppalam. There on, turning further left we entered the Pollachi Road. Our steps were steady and Ganesh kept tab of our run-walk sequence. We ascended the slop to the Kurichi Kulam tank bund and kept running south wards towards Kurichi, SIDCO Industrial Estate and very soon we were atop the Eachanari railway gate flyover. As we neared the Eachanari Temple, we heard from Prabhakar that he had already reached. We took our first main break there and after virtually saying hello to Eachanari Pillayar, who had not yet opened his doors for Darshan, we continued straight and just before turning left on to L&T bypass had a beautiful sight of the sun rising in the horizon in the backdrop of palm and coconut trees. As we turned left and approached the toll gate it was 6:20 and the sun had risen. We unfurled the Indian flag and started running with he flag. The sense of pride and the joy of running gave an extra push and we crossed the toll gate and ran past till we reached the highway joint Foodie Buddy. After a short break there, we continued further and went up and down the rolling terrain till we reached RHR Hotel near Trichy Road junction. The run was comfortable, our feet were fine and intact and we had covered 32 km by then.

I felt a slight irritation in my right foot and sensed I might develop blisters if I pursued the same way. So I put on some vaseline to my feet and added another sock and felt my feet well padded and ready for rest of the day. The thought that we were closer to the 1/3 of the distance was a great feeling. I was not sure if I should eat breakfast or stick to liquids and fruits. I never eat hard food during runs. Not even during my 9+ hours in Malnad Ultra I. But I heard many friends like Ganesh and Pratheep say that when we run Ultras we need to eat food for the energy. So in spite of not having prior experience, I trusted these seasoned runners and decided to eat reasonably at regular intervals. After some sandwiches, pongal and sport drink for breakfast, we walked till the second toll gate past the Irugur junction and then resumed the run. My feet were feeling good and all fellow runners were also doing well. The sun had come out in full glory. Still the cool breeze and dry air made it fine for us to run without much sweat or tiredness.

Our next break was near Sri Sakthi College. We didn’t take much time there and quickly resumed running. As we approached Neelambur toll gate we started feeling the brunt of the sun. But the thought that we will turn left on Avinashi Road towards Coimbatore city leaving the sun behind us was some consolation and we trodded on. As we went past Neelambur, I suddenly found a familiar figure jogging in fatigue behind us, staring over his mobile phone. In close observation I realised it was Sandeep my brother-in-law. He had said that he wanted to join us for some time that morning and I was wondering why I never heard from him. But I was shocked beyond disbelief that he had started at 5:30 AM from Avinashi all by himself and had run solo for over 30 km by the time he caught up with us near Neelambur. I was deeply moved by his determination and conviction to support us. He continued with us for 5 more km before we picked up pace and went ahead. He later returned to Avinashi after 36 km. It was good to see my sister on the way capturing us on video before she picked up Sandeep to go back home.

We realised we were already over an hour behind our schedule, mainly due to the hot sun, terrible traffic on Avinashi Road and the unexpectedly long breakfast breaks. As we neared Decathlon, tiredness set in and we needed something refreshing. Pavithra’s sweet and salt lemon juice was saving grace. After Ganesh having his idli and sambar, we continued the run, bidding adieu to Santhosh and Kathir who had finished their marathon there. We inched ahead in the hot sun. Traffic and the Sunday morning crowd on the road was heavy and made the run all the more tougher with he noise, dust and disruption. Interestingly, near Chinniyampalayam police men asked me if we were running a marathon and what was it about etc. After I assured them that we were only running our usual Sunday runs, they let us go. The run became harder as the sun kept rising up. Meanwhile, Vijay joined us and Mani took leave. Thankfully the air was dry and there was some cool breeze. So sweat was not much and so we could continue our 750/250 interval pattern without much difficulty. We took couple more breaks near Codissia and Peelamedu and were craving to reach our lunch point at VOC Grounds. Around 1 PM we reached VOC Park and took a long break for lunch. Arunan, Hari, Ramesh, Deepak and Thena from Saravanampatti joined us there. After a filling and tasty lunch, we ran around the Stadium twice, took a bio-break and continued through Aadis Street and reached the Avinashi Road flyover. Went past the under pass, took right and joined the Brookfields Road. The traffic congestion was maddening and with no pedestrian path, we meandered through that traffic past the two traffic signals, Brookfields Mall and reached the Chintamani junction. In spite of the mad rush, we managed to stop for selfies in front of the mall.

The very thought that we were close to Cowly Brown Road where the loop of canopied roads would begin was a welcoming relief. When we entered Cowly Brown Road, we realised the shade was not as much as we expected and still we went through it up to Thadagam Road Junction and went past GCT and entered Bharathi Park Road 1, which was also not great with shade as there were trees only on one side of that road. So, with Hari’s advice, we changed our plans to do only partial loops of Bharathi Park Road 2 and Alagesan Road which were beautifully covered with tree shades through out. By then we were well past the half way mark having covered about 65 km. With just 1/3 of the distance remaining and with over 5 hours to our self-imposed target, we were very hopeful of reaching the goal. That is when we also entered the uncharted territory as none of us had run beyond 60 km till then.

The Last Frontier
Slowly, one by one we started feeling the strain of the exertion on our bodies. My right knee started hurting. Ganesh did not have much of a difficulty except general fatigue and strained ankle, but Senthil found it hard to manage. To our shock we realised he had not eaten anything nor had he taken any electrolytes all through the day. After the first loop on the circuit we all needed some real stretching. Our friends were really available to make us lie down road side and massage and stretch our feet completely. We were reminded of the pit stop in car races. Venkatesan Sir was coordinating the aid along with SBC chapter friends. Latha had brought ice packs which made a huge difference and gave us the impetus to get up and run with renewed vigour. Hari and Deepak had a well stocked aid station and we made the best of it. After every two km, my knee kept hurting and I told Arunan, I’ll need to take the pain relieving spray as the pain was getting more intense with every step. He and Ramesh realised I needed them more and so they stretched their runs, even though they had decided to only run about 15 or 21 km. They both kept pace with me and whenever I slowed down to walking, they gently coaxed me and nudged me to double up and push a little harder to keep the momentum. Their commitment and dedication to keep me going was outstanding.

Meanwhile, Hari, Thena and Suresh helped Ganesh keep pace, while Anush was literally babysitting Senthil who needed undivided attention all the way through with frequent massages, hydration and pep talk. All these pacers kept at it patiently and before we knew, we had touched 85 km. At one pint we thought if we could finish the whole run there. But running in loops got monotonous and so before boredom set in we wanted to move out of the circuit and enter the last phase of our run. It was about 7 PM and we returned via Brookfields Road and the Avinashi flyover to enter Race Course, through Collector Office. The stretch was painful with my knee and ankle hurting badly and the pain exasperated with the blinding headlights of the traffic and the poor polluted dense air and heat. We somehow managed to go past that rough patch and entered into our familiar territory, the mother chapter to most of us, the Race Course. But the stretch was also bad due to patch work on the road and insufficient lighting. We decided to run most of the remaining 12 km around Race Course and not in it. Seeing 88 on my Garmin was thrilling and the finish point was now very much within reach.

On reaching the IT Office on Race Course, I was happy to see Mohan and family waiting along with several running friends and their families. After a short hydration break there, we resumed the run. With every step, the pain increased. Surprisingly I did not feel the pain in my muscles, nor were the muscles fatigued which is common even during a marathon. My heart rate was very within normal limits of 140 bpm and energy level was also high. The only glitch was the nagging knee and ankle. After passing through Nirmala College, Damu Nagar and INS Agrani, we reached Zone on Avinashi Road and sat for a break. After sitting for a few minutes, it felt like, the last 3 km was too far. All muscles had to be reactivated and it was the most painful moment. At that point Arunan and Ramesh came up with a brilliant idea of interval run-walk in periods of 3:2 minutes. While it was feeling bit comfortable to begin with, soon it also became a labour, as the pain in the knee and ankle went down to the nerves along the right toe stretching up to the heel. It kept pulling intermittently and that made me walk most part of the last 2 km. As we were getting closer, Ganesh was almost there and we cheered him up to sprint up and finish powerfully. I could see him saddle up and cross the finish to a rousing welcome from our friends. And now it was my turn to double up for the final 500 meters. I sprayed all the pain spray I needed and gathered up all my energy and took a deep breath and increased my pace to a sprint and ran through the final stretch strongly. Arunan always used to say ‘finish strong!’ and here I did exactly that!

Mission accomplished! The long arduous day was behind me and so was the 100 km. The pain had drowned amidst all the applause, cheer, hoots, hugs, hand shakes and fist bumps. Senthil followed soon in about 40 minutes and finished with a beaming smile and fast sprint in spite of all the painful bouts he went through. We did it! And nothing else mattered.

Medals were presented, photos taken, wishes exchanged, goodbyes were bid and a dream fulfilled! Left with wondering… ‘what next?’

Lessons Learnt

“I learn something significant from all life experiences!” Susan Jeffers

It’s hard to summarise the experience of having graduated from struggling to run 100 m to comfortably scaling 100 km. The experiences are multi dimensional and to put it in a linear list of lessons would be unfair. My ABCs of what I learnt from my few years with running…

Ask for help and support

Breathe comfortably

Care for fellow runners

Discipline to be regular

Enjoy every step

Face new challenges

Finish strong

Grow at your pace

Have fun

Hydrate sufficiently

Is this the right gear for you?

Join a running club

Know your limits

Listen to your body

Learn continuously

Mind what you eat

Notice your gait, posture and landing

One step at a time

Push your boundaries

Question the myths

Rest adequately

Sleep enough

Stretch well

Set up goals

Trust those who have been there before

Trust your instincts

Try various strategies

Understand the basics

Value your gifts – healthy body and sound mind

Work on the core

Xceed your expectations

You are your benchmark and competition

Zest at the finish line!

This will also pass… again!

Mindfulness-Meditation

Picture Source: https://listtribe.com

Vipassana means ‘observing as it is’. That is what Gouthama The Buddha, at the age of 35, did on a Chitra pournami night around midnight, under a peepul tree. He sat with an ‘adhittana’ (meaning self-determination) that he would not move until he attains ‘nibbana’ – the ultimate state of realisation. And it is said, within the hour after midnight the whole secret of life was revealed to him. Of course it was not the result of a day’s effort, but the culmination of years of (may be lives of) searching, seeking, practice, and learning from many gurus of his period.

All his earlier practices did take him closer to self-realisation, but none revealed to him the secret behind human suffering. Even though the religious and philosophical thought of those times did mention the reason behind human misery is attachment to objects in the form of raga-dvesha (like-dislike) and therefore propagated that the only way out of this vicious cycle is by developing the state of detachment, none of the systems showed him how. What he discovered on that full moon night was exactly that – the key to mitigating human suffering.

My rudimentary understanding of the chain linking the objects outside of us and the suffering we experience within us, based on the teachings of The Buddha after attending the 10-day Vipassana course for the second time, can be summarised as: when our six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and mind) come in contact with an object (any outside stimulus) it is subject to the 4 broad functions of the mind. Initially the sense takes cognition of the object (vijnana); cognition leads to recognition (sanjya); recognition creates a sensation in the body (vedana); which is followed by a reaction (sanskara) by the mind, in the form of craving or aversion. It is this reaction that forms a recording in our mind which has the habit of repeating itself with every similar object being cognised by the senses. These repeated sanskaras are part of a vicious cycle that is the source of misery whenever we do not get what we crave for or when things happen which we have an aversion to and so want to avoid. Therefore, it does not matter if the sensation is pleasant or unpleasant. Both lead to misery if we develop an attachment to it, be it through craving or aversion. Both craving and aversion are the means to developing attachment.

If we want to be out of misery and be in a state of eternal bliss, we have to break this chain at some point. We cannot eliminate all the objects outside in the world; nor can we stop our senses from recongnising them; the very nature of mind-body complex makes sensation inevitable. But the only link over which we have power is to not react with craving or aversion. If we stay ‘equanimous’ to every sensation in the body and not react with craving or aversion, instead simply observe the sensations and let them pass, realising the truth of ‘aniccha’ meaning changing or impermanent, we can sever the cycle of misery. Therefore, the secret of nibbana lies in the two faculty of awareness and equanimity. And that is exactly what Vipassana teaches us to practice.

When we simply observe sensations and develop the sense of detachment we are not creating any new sanskaras. Then our accrued sanskaras from the past (if you believe in rebirth, then this includes from all previous births as well) surface as sensations in the body and pass away, provided we stay equanimous to them irrespective of they being pleasant or unpleasant. I was reminded of how the Johari Window works. We do not know what is there in the ‘unknown’ part of our self. But if we work on the ‘blind’ and ‘hidden’ parts, stuff from the ‘unknown’ surfaces either through the ‘hidden’ or ‘blind’ parts, thus providing opportunities for us to get them to the ‘open’.

Then the question arises – what is the motivation for people to do anything at all in that case? That is where the notion of dharma (or dhamma in Pali, the language in which Buddha taught and in which his teachings were recorded) becomes relevant. All beings are to act according to their nature (dhamma), which is actually postulated by The Buddha’s four fold path namely sila, samadhi, panya and nibbana. Sila is right conduct; samadhi is being equanimous; panya is the wisdom knowing the changing nature of all phenomena; and nibbana the eternal peace or bliss. One leads to the other and builds on the previous step in the path. The path is dhamma.

Some aphorisms from the discourses of Acharya Goenka in the evenings of the Vipassana camp stood out to me and struck a chord in me to understand this path of dhamma.

  1. We use one part of the mind to control the other parts of the mind: Most eastern approaches to spirituality and liberation call for ‘killing the ego’, ‘working beyond the mind’, and ‘not becoming the slave of our mind’ and so on. It is easier said than done. But not many tell us how. For good or worse, humans have a mind and we perceive everything through that. So if our mind enslaves us and bring misery then we have no other tool to counter it and bring it under our control. That is exactly what Vipassana does – it gives us a technique to use part of our mind (the one that seeks freedom/liberation) to work with the other part of our mind (the one that is victim of habits and drag us into that realm of sanskaras through craving and aversion).
  2. Unconscious is always conscious: The so called unconscious is never unconscious. It is that part of us which is always conscious. When I heard that it sounded so obvious, even though I never thought that way before. What we call unconscious is that part of the mind which is not available to OUR consciousness. But it is always awake to the world and so it reacts to even the subtlest of sensations which often stem from the deepest recesses of our body and mind in response to the objects we encounter. These sensations are based on our past experiences and habits of the mind and are almost automatic (involuntary) and so cannot be avoided. But what we could do through Vipassana is to let them surface at their own time and will and simply sit and observe them dispassionately with equanimity so that they do not become another added sanskara. I found resonance of this aphorism in the belief in NLP that our unconscious will always act in order to protect our self. I suspect the presupposition here is that the unconscious is always alert and active, even when we are deep asleep.
  3. Sensations are the link between our body and mind: Over the past few centuries, stemming from Descartes’s view of life, the so called divide between the body and mind is ingrained in our collective consciousness. Of late I’m beginning to realise what a farce it is and this Vipassana experience helped me clarify it further and increased my conviction that our body and mind are inseparable whole. We might want to talk of them as separate for convenience, but all our actions are a product of the interplay between the two. I’m increasingly beginning to realise our responses to life incidences are not complete unless they come from the consideration of both our body and mind. Both influence and affect each other seamlessly and continuously and our body sensations are the key link between our body and mind. One way to master our mind is by reacting to these sensations with equanimity.
  4. Liberation is a life-long process: As we sharpen our mind to be more and more sensitive to our body sensations through the practice of Vipassana we would experience the impermanence of sensations at the surface of our body. I have experienced this first hand in the two Vipassana courses I attended. I could experience the transient and ephemeral nature of all sensations, even the most painful ones and definitely the most pleasant ones. On continuous practice, I understand that this experience of transcience on the surface of the body could be experienced deeper into the inner recesses of our body in every bone and tissue. This would eventually help us experience how the seemingly solid matter is nothing but a bag or constellation of wavelets constantly in vibration. Isn’t this what science has arrived at recently? I felt bit spooky when The Buddha had realised and taught about this 25 centuries ago by sheer observation of his core inner self, without any hi-tech gadgets and laboratories. Therefore, letting all our sanskaras pass away would be a life-long process, if not lives-long process, provided we don’t add anymore sanskaras. This leads to the question of why then we should embark on this futile process, if we could not reap its benefits immediately before this life ends. In the immediate and short term the process of sharpening our mind to develop the faculty of awareness and attitude of equanimity by itself could get us lot of relief and bring meaning to our lives by brightening our outlook towards us, our relationships and life itself. Imagine how blissful life could be in the here-and-now when we could respond to rejection and affiliation equanimously. How it could help us to live life fully with joy and poise! These could be the immediate, short term psychological benefits of the practice of Vipassana, while the more ardent ones could travel further towards liberation.

In essence this is what I understood from my second Vipassana course in Tiruvannamalai. What a different experience it was from the first one, two years ago, in Chennai! The first time my mind was preoccupied and excited by the rules of noble silence and the rigours of 4 AM to 9 PM schedule. Following the routine precisely was the focus and successfully accomplishing it by itself was a big feat. So whatever experience I encountered I faced with awe and admiration. This time around I experienced the real turmoil of the mind and understood the purpose and the science behind the whole exercise. The process was real to me and was no more something that I imbibed and blindly followed as instructed by another, which is what I did last time.

Let’s move now from my understanding of the general theory of Vipassana to my experience of the 10 days of Vipassana practice at Dhamma Arunachala, Tiruvannamalai. I have to caution here that no two people will have similar experiences. Not even the same person will have similar experiences over two courses. My experience during the second time was very different from the first one two years ago. May be because I was no more the same. Also may be because the sanskaras that choose to come up this time are very different form the ones that came up last time around. WE are not in control of what will surface, but we are only in control of how we react to them. Even the same person’s experience does not stay similar or predictable through the same day. One day I get up dull and hopeless but by the end of the day I am all cheerful or vice-versa. So please read this as an indicative narration of my personal experience only and not a typical experience of all Vipassana students there may be a broader general pattern of experiences if researched over a large population, but that is beyond scope of this blog.

Day 1: Monkey of a mind: the first 3 days of the practice is called ‘aana-paana’ referring to the breath moving in and out. Observing the breath is the preparatory stage for Vipassana. First 3 days we have to simply observe the breath.

We all know idle mind is devil’s workshop. One has to sit idle for 10 hours a day to experience it in full force. Day 1 we are supposed to simply observe the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. While the new students (who are doing the course for the first time) have the luxury of observing the breath’s movement all over the larger triangle covering the nostrils lined by the upper lip as its base, we the new students (who have done at least one 10 day course) have to focus only in the restricted area above the upper lip and below the rim of the nostrils – the moustache area. While one part of the mind knows that I’m supposed to observe the breath, most part of the mind keeps jumping from one thought to the other, nonstop. Initially I was irritated, then got restless, slowly became impatient, at one point became hopeless. Then I reminded myself that I’m supposed to simply observe and not to attach any value towards whatever is emerging. So by the end of the day felt amused. Overall it was a not so bad beginning. I could keep my attention unwavering continuously at least for a minute. Great accomplishment! If you don’t believe how hard it is, try it.

Day 2: Fear and pain: Day 2 was supposed to be the most difficult day followed by day 6. Day 2 started with a spurt of gripping fear, from an unknown source within me. Slowly one by one event and incidents that triggered fear, big and small, surfaced one after the other. As the day progressed, fear was accompanied by pain in the limbs. Legs would go numb in about 20 minutes and after that start paining like hell. Pain and fear is a deadly combination. I started wondering why I want to do this and if I would want to endure this for 8 more days. The thought to leave surfaced couple of times but never strong enough to take it seriously. I was told in the evening discourse that this was the day many people would like to quit. I endured as I knew from my previous experience that no 2 days would be the same. I knew this ordeal will also pass and it did. The end of day 2 was much calmer that the way it started. I guess all the fears manifested as sensations and the gestalts were closed since I was simply observing them and not trying to push them away or run away from them.

Day 3: Breath to sensation: Today the focus shifted from observing the breath to observing the sensations arising in the triangular area under the nostrils. Sensation includes anything in the wide spectrum from gross pain or touch of the breath or air flowing over the skin to much subtler sensations of tickling, tingling, itching, heat, cold, pulsation, vibration, expansion, contraction, pressure, lightness, heaviness, stress, numbness… whatever it is. Sometimes it could even be no sensation. The trick is to stay equanimous irrespective of what the sensation was. The technique is to sharpen the mind by focusing attention to a small area. Smaller the area the sharper the mind will become. Stream of thoughts never stopped, but there was now some order and much of the thought was about the technique. The monkey stopped jumping on and off and instead now stayed on one branch for a while before jumping to another. By end of the day mind learned the trick of being sensitive to the milder subtle sensations.

Day 4: Vipassana day: This is a significant day since Vipassana was taught on this day after 3 days of aana-paana. By the afternoon on day 4, the attention shifts from observing the sensations of the restricted triangular area to the whole body starting from the crown of the head, moving part by part, piece by piece, throughout the body, though all the parts of the body till we reach the tip of the toes. The idea is to keep moving from part to part as soon as a sensation is sensed and not spend too much time in one place, even if there is no sensation felt. Added to this is yet another condition – adhittana – meaning self-determination – where we resolve to sit for an hour without moving the posture. That’s the pinnacle of this technique. I was able to manage up to 40 minutes beyond that I just could not bear the severity of the pain in the legs and back. Any pain or unpleasant sensation is indication of a negative sanskara coming out while a pleasant sensation is indicative of a positive sanskara revealing itself. Either case we are not supposed to react to them with craving or aversion and that’s the hardest bit. If we develop longing for pleasant sensation or want to get rid of the unpleasant sensation, we are only adding more sanskara which defeats the whole purpose of Vipassana. The secret is in remaining equanimous so that maximum amount of our old sanskaras in stock could be spent away.

Day 5: The ordeal of adhittana continued, while scanning the body for sensation on the surface of the skin goes on. Today we can start scanning head to toe and also in reverse direction – toe to head. We are supposed to sit in adhittana for 3 one hour slots through the day. I could not sit still for more than 35 minutes which gradually increased to 45 minutes on day 8 but not beyond that. Meanwhile the fears almost vanished and brought up sadness and guilt. I realised as days passed deeper repressions that have their roots in early childhood started to surface. The best part was I was able to sit still and observe them as they came up as thoughts and also body sensations without any aversion or the need to push them away. Psychologically it was beneficial to me to identify the major issues still remaining unresolved in my life. I don’t think that is an intended benefit of Vipassana but I found it valuable to identify those issues. Some of them even got resolved by themselves at the end of day 10, but I’m sure some of them still stayed even though with much lesser intensity.

Day 6: Frustration at its peak: I felt frustration at its peak today as I was not able to sit in adhittana beyond 30 or 40 minutes; my back started aching madly; the legs were almost becoming heavy like lead and sharp excruciating pain running though the surface of the legs every now and then. Adding to this deadly concoction was thoughts of experiences that triggered anger and resentment. I realised first hand why Acharya Goenka says day 6 is a crucial day testing the utmost patience of the students. The thought to give up surfaced a few times but thankfully never too seriously. So I got through this day as well.

I asked the teacher what to do since I was not able to sit in adhittana for the whole hour due to excruciating pain. I was told that pain is an indication that I’m practicing the technique in the right way. I found that initially annoying and did not believe it, but slowly it dawned on me that whenever my thoughts are around matters out there I did not experience any pain. The moment I start bringing my mind to the sensations, I start feeling the pain. This means the pain was always there, but by diverting the mind, I was only running away from or denying the existence of the pain and so it wold only get repressed and not resolved.  Once this realisation dawned on me, I was able to sit and observe the pain much more dispassionately than before. I believed then that pain is an indication of the technique being practiced correctly, whereby the sanskaras are surfacing. I was reminded of what a doctor said to a friend of mine after his surgery when he complained of pain – ‘pain is a symptom of healing’. I concluded it is true not only in case of the body but also for the mind.

By that time, a strange phenomenon I noticed was that the dreams while sleeping at night were crazy. People, places and incidences that I have never dreamt before came up. Some were pleasant while others were mainly ghory and repulsive. I think these are also ways in which old sanskaras find expression and resolution. Best part was in spite of all these dreams I could sleep peacefully every night – from 9 at night to 4 in the morning. Even though there is no physical labour, end of the day when I hit the bed it feels like a full hard day and I sleep off within few minutes, which is very unusual of me. Normally I take longer to sleep. Doing nothing is the most tiring job! The paradox is it is also the most rejuvenating task. I invariably woke up fresh and without any grogginess at 4 every morning.

Days 7-9: Rhythmic flow: Once the rhythm set in on day 6, the next 3 days passed on effortlessly, even though the mind kept chatting all the time whenever it found a recess. Interestingly much of the thought generated creative solutions to some of the long pending unresolved issues I was holding on to. I suppose these are unintentional by products of the process. A bonus I liked.

By now I found myself getting comfortable with sitting long hours and also realised I developed a clearer understanding of how the technique works. That was not the case during the first time. I also developed a sense of conviction over the technique and resolved to practice as often as possible even after going home.

Another interesting stream of thought that went through me was about The Buddha’s take on God (isvara) and soul (atma). Contrary to popular belief he did not shun the notions of God or soul but he just kept them aside as he did not feel the need for them in order to be released from the cycle of misery. He emphasised the need to focus inwards and the only true object of life – the breath. He also emphasised how each one is solely responsible for his or her own emancipation and nobody else, not even any god or God could do that. I found this approach highly revolutionary, secular and scientific for his times, which transcends all forms of social differences and embraces all of humanity and makes salvation universally available and accessible.

Day 10: Balm and buffer: Being the last day, it is kept for the participants to gradually return to the ‘normal’ life. It acts as a cushion to the noise and speed of life out there offering a buffer period to slowly transit from the monk like living to the life of ‘samsara’. We are also taught a different meditation called ‘metta’ meaning compassionate love or loving kindness. While Vipassana is inward-focused and for the benefit of oneself, ‘metta’ is meant for all beings out outside of us. Its noble purpose to share the fruits of Vipassana practice with all beings. For the first time in 10 days we are allowed to shift our focus of themind outside of ourselves and reach out to all whom we know and also all those whom we don’t know. In fact it is to reach out to all of creation with the intention of kindness, compassion and love. We first fill ourselves with peace, harmony, freedom, liberation, fruits of dhamma, merits (punya) and ‘metta’. Then we share these with all. It also acts as a soothing balm after the 9 days of rigorous and often painful Vipassana experience.

Observing the noble silence was effortless this time as I understood clearly the rationale behind it. Last time I followed it as a precept or a rule to be followed blindly. But this time I realised its purpose is to protect us from falling prey to the temptation of lying. If we speak we tend to lie intentionally or unintentionally. Not lying is one of the core necessary discipline to practice Vipassana. Knowing this made the observation of noble silence a pleasant and liberating experience.

After the morning group sitting on day 10 the noble silence comes to an end. That means we can talk. God, people talked as if they were told to compulsorily talk nonstop. For the first time I heard the adventures of my roommate a young lad from Surat who was on a road trip. Each student had his own story whether they were from India or Germany or Sweden. It was amazing to see how people from such diverse cultures are brought together by the thirst for self-realisation. Still we were off using our phones. After the last group sitting that night, at 8.30 pm our phones were returned. Then started another round of chit chat, but this time each one by themselves over their phone.

On reflection I felt amazed how I went through 10 days of such rigorous ordeal for the second time. Part of me revolted that I would not do this again. Then I realised that’s exactly what I said to myself two years back when I did Vipassana in Chennai. So wondering when the next calling would come. A corner in me says it will definitely come and it’s only a matter of time. A that brought a smile on my face J

This is also the day when we can donate any amount we want to, if we want to. The whole Vipassana is offered as ‘dana’ (charity) by those who have already gone through it. One of the precepts of the life of a monk is to live on the charity of others. This helps to keep our ego under check. So we are not charged for the programme. At the end, after receiving the dhamma of Vipassana, we can offer whatever we wish as ‘dana’ so that others can also benefit from receiving dhamma. I found that a noble act. Big or small all contribution is accepted wholeheartedly. Again giving need to be from a space of sharing our selves so that others receive dhamma and not as a compensation for what we received. After all what we receive from the practice of Vipassana is not measurable.

Day 11: After breakfast we were released from the high security prison into the wild and noisy world. Life returned back to normalcy but I experienced a general sense of calm and balance in the way I look at life around. I experienced some tangible change in my way of responding to adversaries. Occasions when I would normally react with disdain or irritation reduced and sometime eliminated.

Tiruvannamalai: I cannot close this piece without writing about the venue itself. I chose to do it in Dhamma Arunachala as I felt it was a privilege to spend 10 days on the land where the holy hill stands supreme. The hill was visible at a distance from the campus and that was a rewarding experience to watch it every day whenever we were out. The lush green paddy fields around and the cool weather made it much more pleasant. The stunning view of the sunrise and sunset every day was surreal. I realised how much we miss these natural luxuries in our daily city lives.

The facility itself was satisfactory providing for all the basic requirements with care and precision. The volunteers served with utmost humility and generosity. The food was wholesome and tasty. The architecture was eco-friendly with open bricks made from the clay soil available in the campus itself. I look forward to going back there whenever I feel the calling from within again!

Postscript:  The effectiveness of sustaining the benefits of these 10 days practice depends on the consistency of regular practice. The ideal recommendation is one hour every morning and evening. But given other preoccupations, I decided to sit for at least one hour every day.

Bhavatu sarva mangalam! May all beings be happy!

Ready, 1, 2, 3, FO…..

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Can one learn a new habit in their late 40’s? That too something one has never attempted before in their life? My answer is an emphatic YES. I started running for fun during the mid-2014, just about 15 months back, and I was 45 then.

I was so euphoric after my first half marathon at the Coimbatore Marathon 2014 that I wanted to write a blog of my experience of running… just 3 months old. I did not do it then partly due to writer’s block and mainly because I wanted to give myself time to see if the euphoria sustains. So I decided then that I will write after a year if I could continue my interest in running long distance. Now with 5 half marathons under my belt and preparing for my first full marathon next month, I am convinced of my resolute on this and hence the birth of this blog.

This is NOT a runner’s guide for dummies. Nor is it an expert treatise on running and its benefits. It’s purely the ramblings of an overly enthusiastic middle aged man, about his new-found love – running!

As I noted down my lessons from my running experience I noticed an interesting pattern emerging. So I decided to list them in the same order.

  1. One at a time: There are several ones that helped me to keep the interest alive and kicking.
    1. One step at a time: ‘Journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.’ To my amazement I realised how the whole thousand mile journey is only made of single steps. We run with our body, but running is principally a mind game through our body. Whatever the distance I run, it helps to keep up the energy and motivation high throughout the run if I focus on the next step.
    2. One goal at a time: It helped me to get up from the bed early morning and put on my gears when I fixed a milestone, which was a marathon in the calendar. Once I have committed myself to the goal, it acted as a pusher-puller every day.
    3. One thank you: I’m lucky to have a body that cooperates with me so beautifully. Even at times when I did not have time to practice sufficiently I was able to run a 25km at the Bangalore Ultra 2014 without any difficulty. I ran the Ajmera Thump Half marathon 2015 in Bangalore with just 3 days of practice the week before since I was grounded for over a month due to a toe surgery. That’s when I realised how blessed I am to have a body that is so understanding and kind. I realised the need to respect it and not take it for granted. I also realised how everyone’s body is unique and so what works for one need not work for the other. That made me more respectful and appreciative of the individual differences as well.
  1. Two to tango: Running is an individual task, but it need not be lonely. Having company, even if it is one other person, helps to keep the spirits high and get me on my feet every morning. There were so many days even today when I just don’t want to get up in spite of the alarm ringing incessantly. But the very thought that my friend will be waiting there for me keeps me going. Even on days when I go to run, I run longer when I have company compared to days when I run alone.

We run with our body. But the mind plays a much more crucial role in running. Both the body and mind need to dance together to have a successful run. Often I’ve found that the body is ready and willing to go the extra mile, but the mind plays tricks and applies the brakes. On the contrary there are days where the mind knows I have to run a specified distance to be in shape for the next marathon, but if I don’t respect the body, I end up grounded for days and even weeks together. Running has increased my respect to listen to not only my mind, but also what my body says. We need both and mind to tango for a successful run.

  1. Three part run: Running is a three part act, just like any drama. It has a beginning, middle and the end. Warm up – running – cool down. Initially I just ran, totally mindless of the importance of warming up and cooling down properly. But it took me some time to realise the significance of the opening and closing parts of running as well. When I do not warm up properly I find the tiredness after the run and soreness on parts of the body used to be bad. Luckily I have not experienced any cramps or other injuries so far. But I realised how I cannot take for granted my body. One way of respecting it is to warm up properly with some basic stretches and pulls that work for me. I do not follow a strict routine, but anything that comes up that day. If I do not cool down properly, I end up with the same heaviness of the body. I do the same warm up routine for cooling down as well. Worse, when I take a bath without sufficient cooling down I end up with a nagging headache throughout the day.
  1. Four check points: Listening to my body, I have found how to know how far to push and when to stop myself. My four check points make it easy to take that call. They are: feet, knees, back and breath.
    1. Feet: A pair of good shoes and soft and absorbent socks to protect the feet is a basic requirement for a happy run. If the foot gets a blister or chaffed, that’s end of game. Taking time to explore options and invest in some good foot gear is a must. It is not about the most expensive or famous brands. What matters is what suits my feet; what feels firm and soft on my feet; what gives me a good comfortable landing position. That is the gear that suits me.
    2. Knees: Listening to the knees is crucial. Running on a proper surface is good on the knees. Even though mud or firm sandy topped surface is my favourite, most of the time I run on tarred city roads, for obvious reasons, living in concrete jungles. Till the knees can be protected by developing the right landing position. Initially I used to land on my heels with a thud and that caused a pain in my knees and ankles due to which I wore a knee grip during my first half marathon. After that I learned to land on the ball of my feet or flat on my feet, which has been a great relief to my knees and my feet. Voila, I discovered another secret about running! Now a friend of mine said I’m landing quite heavy on my feet. Now I have to learn how to land softly. I’m sure I will. If the knee starts to ache, I wear a knee grip. Surprisingly when I shed some flab and learnt the right posture and landing I’m not wearing the grip anymore. My knees feel good. If the knee continues to ache, then best to rest till it recovers and if needed consult a doctor.
    3. Back: Maintaining a straight and upright back posture helps me not have any form of back problem. I have noticed that if I run too slowly or if I slouch leaning forward while running it hurts my back. Running with right shoes and on the right surface is good for the back as well. If the back aches, it’s not advisable to keep running.
    4. Breath: I’m lucky to have learned very early in my running how to know the right pace for long distance running. I used to run fast and then slow down or walk till I recover myself. Thanks to Prasad, my first running partner and whom I consider my fitness guru, taught me how breath is the key to a steady pace. Now I run at a constant and steady pace throughout the run. My compass is my breath… the right pace is the pace at which I could have a normal conversation, where I do not have to gasp for breath to speak. That was a eureka moment for me!
  1. Five benefits: There are plenty of benefits in running regularly. I found these five the most important for me.
    1. Fit body and sound mind: Obviously running helps me maintain a sound mind in a fit body. It does not need any additional facilities… all it needs is a pair of shoes and a ready mind!
    2. Energised day: There is a marked difference in my energy level on days I run and those I do not. On the days I run I feel alert and energised almost throughout the day.
    3. Discipline: Prepping to run helps me to develop a discipline of doing something regularly on a sustained basis. It helps me to structure and manage my time effectively and beneficially.
    4. Networking: Running has gotten me in touch with people whom I would not have come across otherwise, from varied backgrounds. It gives the much needed social group (for real and not virtual) with whom I can share my doubts, successes and failures.
    5. Awesome: if not anything else, running gives me that sense of awe every time I complete a run, be it 2.5 km or 25 km – a sense of accomplishment and often achievement too!

Running, or for that matter any physical game or sport was not a major part in my life script. The only period I was engaged in some sports was during my6th to 8th standards in school. Before that, I kept off the ground due to ill health and after that studies took over. As I got older, I found creative reasons for not taking up anything physical. Oft repeated one was that was it not in my script. Thankfully, the universe has conspired to bring me to a point of rewriting my script in this aspect and I did start running. All excuses which I gave to myself earlier seem silly when I look back at them now. In my TA sessions and consultancy work I tell my clients there is no age bar to change. One can change at any age, provided one feels the need to change. If we are not changing even after knowing that we need to, either the current situation is not painful enough or we are not sincere about the need to change. It is the same in physical task like running too. One can start at any age, if and only if one feels the need strong enough within oneself. The other day a friend called me and laughed aloud uncontrollably saying, ‘Suriya, I could not believe you are running marathons!’ In fact I myself would not have believed if anybody told me 2 years back that I would.

For those who find excuses for not running, of which I was also one couple of years back, I am reminded of a post in FB, ‘It’s not that diabetes runs in your family, it’s that nobody runs in your family!’ Even though fear of getting sick could be a motivator to start running, I think to sustain it we need to start enjoying it. How long I will run is anybody’s guess. I will as long as the urge is on or till I find another interest. But for now, I’m not bothered about that. I’m just beginning to appreciate what an art running is, even though there is loads of science behind it. I’m enjoying it right now and that’s all that matters!

Disclaimer: If anybody told you running helps you lose weight, don’t believe that. If your purpose of running is to shed weight, there are other ways to do that more effectively, as running alone does not cut my flab. I have realised to shed weight along with running I need to manage my stress and diet too. Without regulating my food intake, running alone does not take off the extra fat. So what are my lessons about diet from my experiments with food? That’s for another blog, another day 😉

 

Best of Luck!

Wishing people ‘best of luck’ is a very common practice. I too used to do it as a routine for a long time. One fine morning when awareness dawned on me that we are responsible for our actions I started questioning the purpose of wishing best of ‘luck’. Then it implied to me that I was ascribing the outcome of my actions to an invisible factor called ‘luck.’ In Tamil it is called adhirshtam. I thought then that when I wish ‘best of luck’ I was implying ‘I’m not sure if you will do well, so anyway I wish you achieve what you want through a stroke of many chance factors coming together.’ How silly of me! I thought it was very superstitious and disempowering. Therefore I stopped wishing best of ‘luck’ and instead just wished ‘all the best’ – a very impersonal wish. Now after years I’m back to wishing people ‘best of luck’. What happened to bring this change of mind?Image

While I was reading the Bhagavad Gita I came across the concept karma phala which literally means the fruit of an action. On detailed study I understood there were two types of karma phaladrishta phala and adhrishta phala. The former meaning fruits that are visible and the latter meaning the fruits that are invisible. The real meaning is not ‘visible’ in the sensory sense but in the sense that the fruits that can be ascribed to factors that are known to us are called drishta phala while those factors that are not detectable to our conscious sensory mind are called adrishta phala. Then I got the meaning of adhirshtam in Tamil which is a colloquial adaptation of the Sanskrit a-drishta meaning in-visible which in English is referred as ‘luck’.

The story did not end there. Still luck was some vague ‘chance’ factor which was beyond our actions and not in our realm of ‘control’. So in effect it did not change my attitude towards the notion of luck, beyond helping me understand what a Tamil word for luck meant and what its source was. On further studying the Gita, I think in the second chapter, I tumbled upon the concept called daiva and that explained it all. Things started to fall in place which changed totally my perspective towards ‘luck’.

The Gita says, every karma has a phala. The nature of the phala is determined by two factors – those which are within the person’s control and those beyond the person’s control. Those factors beyond our control that determine the outcome/fruit of our actions are called daiva meaning the ‘invisible hand of God’. Even if one does not believe in the notion of God, we cannot deny the fact that there are umpteen numbers of uncontrollable factors that determine the outcome of our efforts. I believe a huge part of these uncontrollable factors is the effect of our own myriad of past actions. These uncontrollable factors are referred as daiva or adrishta or ‘luck’.

How apt then it is to wish someone ‘best of luck’ as anyway the person knows what they are going to do, but it is the grace of the daiva factor that needs to be wished for. Therefore I started again to wish people best of ‘luck’ without having to feel disempowering. So, now when I wish ‘best of luck’ I mean ‘I know you will do your best. I wish the golden hand of God be with you to deliver the best results for you.’

Best of LUCK!

This will also pass…

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For a few moments on the 6th day of my first 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat I got a glimpse of what it is to be the Buddha. I think that is what Samadhi is… it was an exhilarating experience and I said to myself, ‘this works and that is it!’ It was almost like having found the key to life!

This is my first blog and I can’t think of a better experience to write about! I had been wanting to do the Vipassana retreat for many years now. In fact I had registered and made all travel plans twice and had to cancel in the last minute due to personal exigencies. But this time I resolved that come what may I will make it and I did! The most intriguing part for me from the time I heard of Vipassana was that one has to be silent for 10 days. Whoever heard of that said, how is it possible… it’s very difficult. But at the end of the retreat I realised that being silent was the easiest part of the whole process.

As I entered Dhamma Setu, Chennai, on the 19th of December 2012 I had no clue what I was setting myself upto. The registration process went off smoothly and I went to my quarter. I was happy I did not have to share the room with another student. But that joy was shortlived as another student walked in within a few minutes. However, he was so understanding and nonintrusive, I had no problem sharing the quarter with him. The best part was he did not snore! Unfortunately he left on the 5th day due to health reasons and so I had the quarter all to myself the rest of the programme. At the end I realised it did not make much difference though! It’s all in the mind!

The course involved sitting in meditation for 10 ½ hours a day. First three and half days was ‘ana-pana’, which literally means ‘breath in-breath out’, where all that we had to do was to sit and just observe our breath flowing in and out. On day two were asked to observe not just the breath but also the sensations caused in and around the nostrils. On day three the focus was just in the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. Imagine doing just that for full 10 ½ hours a day!! My first thought to run away came on day two. And it was not the last… throughout the course the thought kept coming, ‘why am I subjecting myself to this ordeal?’ I told myself one must be real crazy to voluntarily torture oneself like this. But I resolved to stay put and i got the answer on the 6th day.

On the afternoon of day four Vipassana was taught. The process was simple, the rationale behind it was simple, yet as we all know the simplest are the toughest. Vipassana involved observing the sensations that constantly arise on each part of the body from a position of equanimity. That means not being carried away or wanting more of the pleasant sensations or wanting to run away or get rid of the painful sensations. ‘Awareness’ and ‘equanimity’ are the two cardinal principles or goals of Vipassana, as I understood it. It is akin to ‘sakshi bhava’ and ‘smatva bhava’ as propounded by the Gita. While the Gita extols the significance of and the need for these, Vipassana gives a practical technique to practice them.

The first three days watching the breath and sensation on that small triangular area below the nostrils and above the upper lip was to sharpen the mind to be able to focus on each and every small part of our body so that we could be aware of the minutest sensations, gross and subtle, mild and intense. On day four I was glad at last I was able to know what Vipassana was, that gave me a sense of certainty and clear direction and felt at ease. But then I did not know the toughest part was yet to come.

On day five we were told to follow ‘strong determination’ called ‘adhittana’ hence forth. It meant sitting without moving or changing our posture for one hour three times a day during the group sessions. That was the toughest of the whole process. I just could not do it on day five. On day 6 second session of ‘adhittana’ I told myself I am going to just hold steadfast and see what my limits of tolerance are. I sat with crossed legs and ‘started again’ the Vipassana. Very soon, as usual, my legs went to sleep, quickly went numb, became heavy by the minute and after a while the excruciating pain started all over the legs and my back. I sat with gritted teeth focusing on the sensations telling myself ‘let me see what worst that could happen’. That is when the crazy magic happened all of a sudden. As I was sitting there fully immersed in and aware of the intense pain I was at the same time not feeling that pain at a different plane. I started wondering if it was some sort of trick played by the teachers or something else… it was so uncanny that I started giggling within myself. It felt so unreal that here was my body feeling that terrible pain with my legs and back so heavy like lead yet I was not in pain. While I was sitting there wondering this was not real, something crazier happened – the pain just vanished!! I just could not stop giggling and telling myself ‘this cannot be real’…. that is when it occurred to me what ‘sakshi bhava’ and ‘samatva bhava’ was. Knowing them conceptually was different and experiencing them in our flesh and bones was totally different. That is ‘believing’. That moment I was a Buddha! That was the point I started believing in Vipassana.

Of course that halo around my head did not last for ever… am not sure how long it lasted, but it did last for a while sufficient enough for me get these insights so vividly and when the mind started making all these connections and started craving for this to last, all of a sudden the equanimity was lost and I started experiencing the pains again. I knew it was not going to happen again as long as I wanted to have that experience. But that one experience was enough to deepen and strengthen my resolve to practice Vipassana. It is a blessing to have that experience! It gives me first hand evidence that whatever our scriptures preach, like karma yoga with detached attachment, is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Rest of the course went off well… with no respite from the pain though, but the big difference was I was able to sit in ‘adhittana’ on three more occasions before day 10. It is a testimony to the fact how much I underestimate the capacity of my mind and body. If there is a resolve and the environment is conducive, we can do it!

The evening discourses by Sri Goenka were quite refreshing and throwing light on the theory behind the practice. On the fifth day I had started to realise how what was going on was just a mega reframing process, as we do in NLP. It was also a technique to close all unfinished businesses as we do in Gestalt. The process was so scientific. Sri Goenka’s discourses reinforced that. He said how Buddha emphasised on the importance of body sensations as it was the immediate starting point available for us to work with all our samskaras, from past and present lives. Even if one does not believe in rebirth and past lives, it is still true that most of our experiences, specially the preverbal and deep fixations are stored in our body and under similar circumstances they surface as sensations. If only one is aware of these sensations and is able to see them from a point of equanimity, they do not create any more fixations, or samskaras, and the gestalt is closed. More and more we just sit and observe the sensations that arise (not knowing what they mean), be they pleasant or painful and let them pass by with equanimity without craving for the pleasant or aversion towards the painful, they all pass over and more from the deep unconscious surface to be processed. Thus it is a lifelong cleansing process where we do not add more samskaras which helps the old accumulated ones to surface and be resolved. Reminding ourselves that be it pain or pleasure both have the same common quality that is to arise and pass away – aniccha – and hence both are equally source of misery in life helped me to develop the sense of awareness and equanimity.

Emphasis on ‘right conduct’ (shila), ‘right practice’ (samadhi) and ‘right wisdom’ (panna) and how the three are interconnected and is essential for the success of this technique to work brings a moral and value base to the whole process. People may have differences with the specifics of the theory. For example I do not agree with the notion that one’s goal has to be to burn out all samskaras so that one need not be born again. I think it’s such a beautiful process to be born again even when one attains samadhi so that the whole of humanity could evolve to a higher state of consciousness. But none could have qualms with the relevance of the practice. It is so personal and puts us in charge of our destiny!

What a wonderful scientific process it is…. my biggest wonder is one man found this secret of life enhancement 25 centuries ago without access to any tool or lab or any other resources. He was the researcher and his body and mind were his tools and he came up with this amazing fact of life… a very realistic and practical technique for all, totally egalitarian and absolutely nondogmatic and non-sectarian. Hats off to him… and maybe that’s why he was called the Buddha – the enlightened one. The beauty is he made this universal and did not patent it or cry for copyright. The very fact it stayed intact in its pristine pure form over the centuries stand testimony to its relevance for even the modern times.

I cherish those few moments of Samadhi still and hoping one day I will experience it again, of course without any craving for it… let me see what is in store for me…. who knows! After all this will also pass. Aniccha… aniccha… aniccha…