Training for a Marathon

For the past half a year I’ve been in the midst of training for a marathon. The decision to participate this year came after incessant badgering by a colleague. As I remember, when I finally agreed it came when my defences were low following a particularly stressful period at work, during which I couldn’t think straight.

But that’s over now. No time for regrets.

The training has been interesting so far, and getting increasingly intense.  Just a couple of days ago, for the first time in a long time I cut a run short because I was too hungry. Desperately seeking calories, my original goal to run to the end of a park still ten kilometres away turned into a run to a vending machine that was just three. It was funny how when I reached the machine and looked through the nutritional information on the label I was disappointed it contained as little energy as it had – 98kcal  – the first time in my life I was looking for the highest caloric option my money could buy (which was $2).

When it dawned on me what I had just done, my mind was blown. What a different lens to see life by.

The absurdity of running

I’ve clocked 80.76km so far in runs this month. That’s almost 80.76km more than what I ran last month.

The reason, I tell myself, that I have run so much is because there’s quite a bit of a competition in the office. We’ve signed up for a marathon; we’re tracking our runs; and being competitive bastards we all want to outdo each other.

But, hand-on-heart, the real reason I run is… just because.


“Tell me, what is that hole for?” I ask the Colonel.

“Nothing at all,” he says, guiding a spoonful of soup to his mouth. “They dig for the sake of digging. So in that sense, it is a very pure hole.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It is simple enough. They dig their hole because they want to dig. Nothing more or less.”

I think about the pure hole and all it might mean.

“They dig holes from time to time,” the Colonel explains. “It is probably for them what chess is for me. It has no special meaning, does not transport them anywhere. All of us dig at our own pure holes. We have nothing to achieve by our activities, nowhere to get to. Is there not something marvellous about this? We hurt no one and no one gets hurt. No victory, no defeat.”

Above taken from the wonderful book Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, incidentally by an author who runs.


As an aside, I’d always been one who sought meaning in things (well, like pretty much 99% of the rest of the world).

But of late I’ve been doing some readings on evolution; physics; cosmology; and the nature of our mind, and these have given me… how do I put it… a different perspective on life.

A perspective devoid of meaning.

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not in a bad way; but not in a good way either.

It just is.

And you know what? This acceptance of life’s meaninglessness has made me far more accepting of running’s meaninglessness, giving myself permission to embrace the, let’s face it, absurd act of running.

0445club

Read Tim Ferriss’ Tool of Titans on the train yesterday evening on Jocko Willink.

There was this thing about the #0445club, which after a late night of drinks seemed to me like an incredible idea I had to try.

So this morning… #0445club

0445clubA pity about the rain though. Had gotten my gear all readied for a run.

Still, managed to get some work done; have breakfast; practice a little mandarin (Duolingo!); and do a few push-ups and pull-ups.

And whaddya know, it’s not even 0730 yet. Probably going to feel awful in the afternoon but still, what an interesting concept.

If I keep this up, though fourth place in May I could well get to first place in June on Nike Run Club. Watch out John, Lorna, and Neil.

The Run

We act very much as if we were on a voyage. What can I do? I can choose out the helmsman, the sailors, the day, the moment. Then a storm arises. What do I care? I have fulfilled my task: another has now to act, the helmsman.

If the weather is bad for sailing, we sit distracted and keep looking continually and ask, “What wind is blowing?” “The north wind.” What have we do to with that? “When will the west wind blow?” When it so chooses, good sir.

– Epictetus

I went out for what was supposed to be a short run today.

Didn’t feel like it. It was a long day; I was tired.

But the run was scheduled. “Not my problem,” the schedule seemed to say.

You don’t fight schedules. They don’t listen.

*****

Shoes on, I walked out the door.

Took a step; then another; then another.

A slow trot. Then quicker.

It’d rained earlier; the air felt fresh and cool.

*****

Reached a fork in the road.

Turn left as planned and in 30 minutes I’d be home.

Turn right and in 30 minutes… in 30 minutes I’d be 30 minutes from home.

I looked left. Turned right.

*****

29 minutes in and my legs were feeling good.

One-two-inhale; one-two-exhale. The rhythm felt like poetry.

But my mind — it disagreed.  “You can’t keep this pace,” it said. “Slow down.”

I feared it was right. Last time I ran this quick I fizzled out at 30. Which was… now.

*****

Then I remembered Epictetus.

My mind chose this route; this pace; this moment. It’s job was done.

My legs didn’t think there was a problem and neither did my lungs. They were fine; they were strong.

“Trust them,” I told my mind. “Trust them to do their job. If I collapse, I collapse.”

*****

Until then, I run.

Thinking About Life

Maybe it’s do with the weather of late – cool, dreary, wet; or maybe it’s to do  the long runs I’ve been doing – lonely, peaceful, contemplative.

Whatever it was, I’ve been thinking about life – about how it has been; about how it is now; and about how it is going to be.


I first came across this beautiful poem called Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy more than ten years ago. I was about 17 or 18 then, and I must admit that I didn’t fully appreciate it. I had, in fact, actually thought that it had to be mistaken: what is life but the destination?

Now I’m almost twice as old, and its reading has a profound new meaning to me. And I don’t know why, but reading it always calms my nerves, especially when I start worrying about possible life-changing decisions (which, experience tells me, is truly life-changing in only 1% of the cases).

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(An aside: I’d come across the poem in Robert Fulghum‘s Words I Wish I Wrote, a book I first loaned from the library and which I later procured second-hand through a charity event. It was perhaps the most influential book in my life, introducing me to some of my favourite pieces of literature and authors, including the book Catch-22, which made me realise I could actually like fiction; and Albert Camus, who introduced me into the rather dark world of existential philosophy.)


An added bonus here. I was just re-reading Words I Wish I Wrote and came across this gem from Franz Kafka, which is another magnificent calm-your-nerves piece:

If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair. But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will not be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hopes remains an always unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.

Falling to the level of our training

I first saw the following wonderful quote in a book by Joshua Medcalf (called Hustle),  attributed to  an anonymous Navy SEAL:

Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.

What a beautiful principle to live your life by. (I was particularly inspired because I have been doing quite a bit of training for my upcoming IPPT – haven’t had an IPPT gold in ages!)

PS: A little research brought me to Quora where I learned that the origin of that quote could probably be attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus:

We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of the training.

Going beyond economics

“So,” he asked, “what should he do?”

Straightforward as the question may seem, it was anything but. There were two tracks I could take: (1) the economic, rational track; or (2) the moral, slightly irrational track.

I can’t quite share with you what the exact nature of the discussion was, but the question would be somewhat analogous to the following:

Imagine that you and another person are participants of a social experiment, which pays both of you $5 each for participating. As part of the experiment, the experimenter passes you $10 and says that it’s to be shared with the other participant but with a catch: you decide how much you want to share. If you don’t want to share any of it, you don’t have to.

And, the other participant won’t know anything about this additional $10 that has been handed over to you. What do you do?

The economic track (that’s option 1) says that you keep the full amount. The other participant, not knowing that you have received this $10, will not be in any way worse off if he or she wasn’t offered anything.

The moral track (that’s option 2) says that you should split it 50/50: both of you did pretty much the same thing (turning up for the experiment), and there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be split equally.

Now, that was pretty much the question that was asked of me: “What should he do?”

Take the full amount, or share it?

I chose to answer option 1, and was agreed with an attaboy smile. It was, after all, in the business’ best interest.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little peeved that there wasn’t so much as a hint that option 2 was just as viable an answer. I’d answered option 1 for the sake of argument, half-thinking that it was the wrong answer, hoping to be refuted and then having a good laugh about it. That I was so heartily agreed with… that was unexpected.

It is during times likes these, because of times like these, that I seek out disciplines beyond cold economics. It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the importance of having different perspectives, perspectives gained from activities like reading poetry, studying philosophy, and running.

Running especially. Because of the pure irrationality of it. It’s a constant reminder that it’s OK to be irrational. That it’s OK to be nice.

Running “barefoot” with shoes isn’t as silly as it sounds

It’s been more than a year since I started running “barefoot” (and yes, I have to admit it was due to the book Born to Run — one of my first of many, and still my favourite, book on running). I do not quite run “without shoes”, but wear either my New Balance Nimbus or my Skechers Go Run 2.

The New Balance was my first barefoot shoe, and it took a while for me to get used to it (my calves would kill me after each >5km run). I still haven’t fully gotten used to it, and have never gone more than 8km in them.

The Skechers, on the other hand, has a bit more padding, and feels more like a racing flat — wonderful light, responsive, and yet with a  subtle bounce. I’d gotten it after giving up on the New Balance as a long-distance shoe, because my legs just wouldn’t adapt.

I fell back to my trusty Ascics GT-2170. Though calf pain was no longer an issue, and running long distance in the Ascics brought no problem, I craved the minimalist feel that the New Balance gave me.

One day, I received a flyer on the GoRun2 by Skechers and was immediately intrigued. But it was only after reading some pretty good reviews in Runner’s World that I was persuaded to see the shoes for myself in the shops. And boy did I fall in love with it. It was really light (much lighter than I’d expected), and really flexible.

Having just changed shoes, I didn’t quite have the change available to spend on new ones, so I decided to wait till my old pair wore out. But after a few months, I couldn’t resist and I got myself a pair. Though the first couple of times I did feel a little calf pain (always an issue when I transition to the more minimalist shoes), by the third time I had gotten so used to it I had to park my much more costly (and padded!)  Asics aside because it felt more like running in padded bricks.

I’ve since gotten myself a second pair of GoRun2, and have not been disappointed.

The only issue that I’ve faced running with these more minimalist shoes (as opposed to the padded bricks) are the comments that my family of non-runners give me. “Why do you buy barefoot shoes? It’s such a stupid idea. Just go run without shoes!”

I never really had a good rebuttal, could never really articulate the feeling running in those shoes gave me.

Then I came across this from the book Running with Kenyans (by Adharanand Finn):

The barefoot style of running is less about actually being barefoot and more about the way you run.

And that, I must say, is the perfect response.

Push On

I just realised that I haven¹t announced that I achieved my IPPT Gold last Saturday. Third one in three years. Full points for all three too.

I almost make it seem easy.

But the fact is, it was anything but.

For the past couple of months I’ve been training really hard for this and the half-marathon  coming up this Sunday (the “army half marathon”). I’ve amazed myself with disciplined long runs and early-morning interval sprints, mixed with properly executed HIIT, towel-pull-ups, rope jumping, box jumps, and other classic strength training devices.

Still, I almost didn’t make it. Despite all I’d done, despite how much I prepared for this, I almost gave up on the Gold after the first lap of the 2.4km run. I just didn’t feel comfortable.

Too hot.

Too sleepy.

Too much water moving about in tummy.

It was just all too much.

This has got to be at least my 20th “all-out” 2.4 run (the others are just for fun or training or nothing serious). And yet I’ve never really gotten used to really running the 2.4.

No matter how much I’ve prepared for it, the run itself is always gut-wrenching; stomach-turning; bloodcurdling; and prone to thoughts of giving up.

I guess it’s useful for people who look on in awe at people who do get the Gold to think, sure, it’s easy for them. But it’s not. At least not for me. Thoughts of how much pain I’m going through and of giving up hardly leave my mind at all.

Perhaps the difference, then, is that even with all my fear and thoughts of failure, I push on.