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 reading it always calms my nerves 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.

Running with Music for my Long Run

Just last week, for the first time in a long time, I completed a long run (one lasting more than an hour). In fact, it the first time in years that I completed one without the Galloway-recommended walk breaks.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Galloway method of taking walk breaks every few minutes of running. It’s probably the thing that kept me running long for so many years relatively injury-free.

But I must say that I missed running without it, something I didn’t know I missed until I tried it again. Because it made me realise how just running felt. How raw. How animalistic.

I felt like I was running for running’s sake, not because I had goals I wanted to reach.

There was one more thing that I did for the first time in a long time: run with music. For this run, I brought my trusty iPod Shuffle along. It wasn’t something I had intended to do, but because I noticed my motivation to run flagging more than Lance Armstrong’s reputation (I kept asking myself, “do I really need to run this? Could I skip rope for a long time and substitute it for the long run?”), I thought it might have been a good idea.

Cutting long runs short wasn’t entirely out of my area of expertise.

I’d previously sworn off listening to music while running, thinking it was (a) distracting and “impure” – “real runners listen to their bodies, not music”; and (b) dangerous – running deaf is almost like running blind. But I thought it was worth experimenting with again (and some people think it’s actually good, so that’s good), and if I kept the volume low and was extra vigilant along vehicular roads I should remain relatively safe.

Besides, this was a gift from the missus. And it was nice to bring a part of her (by association) along for the run (somewhat like why you wouldn’t want to wear a serial killer’s sweater, only in this case I would want to bring along the gift).

Before the run, I did a search for some nice workout songs. You couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I found that there were websites that had the BPMs (beats per minute) of songs and even had the recommended running speeds the songs were good for. If I’d known this was available I might well have had reintroduced music into my runs earlier.

Unfortunately for me, I can’t stand running with my phone so streaming running music was out of the question. But fortunately for me, I’d already had plenty of songs that were of running-music-ready, and so I loaded these up into the Shuffle and made my way out.

I must say that the Jog.fm 5 minutes per kilometre playlist was close to perfect. Other than a couple of songs that had starts that I felt were a little too slow, most of them matched my cadence and attitude and I blew my recent training personal bests out of the water.

If you hadn’t tried it (or like me, gave it up a while back) I say bring it back, and go on out for a personal best.

Three more weeks to my second try at IPPT Gold, and I’m really excited.