Monday, March 25, 2013

Conquering Heart Break Hill

Running hills is a necessary part of endurance training. You just have to run hills if you want to run long distances. And like a lot of things in the activity itself, running hills is much more of a mental exercise. A runner has to instruct their body to propel themselves up a hill. I had read all the material on ‘attacking hills’. There is enough literature to suggest that a hill runner must look ahead 50 metres at least, that they must try and shorten their stride, manage their centre of gravity, activate their core muscles and lean into the hill. A friend of mine who loves running hills told me to continuously say to myself ‘I love you hill’ rather than moaning or saying ‘Damn you hill, this is hard work’ as I ran. I knew the theory, but failed in putting all of this into practice. As with most of my running itself, I learned this lesson the hard way on Heart Break Hill.

Running has been my religion for a long time, and nothing could stop me from engaging in it every day. Not the heat, dust, stench, the pain or my own inabilities; I just have to run. Every morning.

I am normally up every day at 4.45am – even on Sundays – and am out pounding the pavements soon after. I hate treadmills these days. I used to run on them almost always when I lived overseas, where I began my love affair with running. Not anymore, since my move to Mumbai. Counter intuitive, if you actually thought about it. First, the air quality is significantly worse in Mumbai than almost any other city in the world I have run in. Moreover, there are few pavements in Mumbai to run on; pavements are to runners what water is to swimmers. Most Mumbai roads come with potholes and debris, which is not at all good for runners. And if all of this wasn’t enough to make life hell for a runner, there are the smoke-billowing vehicles that vie with the other two hazards on Mumbai roads. Yet, I love running the roads of Mumbai. 

After my move to Mumbai, I identified and carefully mapped out several tracks around my home. I can be quite boringly meticulous. ‘You are definitely a four-letter word contained in analytical,’ my friends often tease me. I mapped out a three-km route, a five-km route, a six-km route, a seven-km route and a 10km route. Sometimes, especially on a Sunday, I would run the same route twice or add a few of the routes together to make up a longer run. Many of these routes would take in the smoke, the dust, the stench and the exciting life of Mumbai, a city that is interesting even at 5am. Occasionally, I would run past a park with the fresh morning wind blowing in my face. And sometimes I would run past pavement dwellers too. Many of them would be fitfully asleep, completely oblivious to the sound of traffic around them. Most had a simple, thin cloth protecting them from the dust, cold, rain and vehicle smoke. Some of them would be stirring and a few would just look and smile at the walkers and joggers who walked or ran past. Those who were up would often be laughing and joking amongst themselves as they ushered in a new day. 

I often ran with either Neha or Kapil, sometimes both of them. We are a good running group. I have always believed in running at a talking pace; not that the three of us talked a lot. For us, running was a time for either introspection or meditation, for focusing on the self, and for reflection.

As I ran, I would often reflect on the unresolved arguments I had left behind me (or run away from) or the challenges ahead of me. I would often ask myself difficult questions about my behaviours and responses. Was it right to be that intense? Should I have let go? Should I have argued as passionately as I did? Was I being too selfish? Did I understand fully at all? Did I understand enough? Should I be more accepting of people? Should I be less judgemental ? The questions swirled around. I did not have an agenda or a list of questions; they just arrived in my head as I ran and I confronted them without fear and mostly, with honesty. Or so, I thought. And although I ran with Neha and Kapil, this was exclusively my time.

Each of us would have only one ear plugged for music. The other ear was open to the occasional question or comment from the other two. Every now and then, one of us would say something and the others would contribute to a quick conversation. But mostly, we focused, introspected, listened to each other’s breathing and ran in silence.

Most of our conversations, when we did talk, revolved around pain. I had accepted pain as a way of life and loved the challenge of overcoming this pain. To my fellow running mates, I understand pain. Running has taught me that. Ten years ago, I would barely run 100 metres before collapsing in a heap from pain in my shins, or my calf muscles or in my lower back; sometimes, all three. On those days, I thought I would never be able to run again. I always wanted to. Badly.

I have gazed at runners with a mix of awe and respect. I loved and simultaneously envied the way runners could effortlessly glide across running tracks and cut through hard pavements. I loved to hear the sound of running shoe scratching bitumen. I loved the grace and the gait of a runner. But mostly, I enjoyed seeing runners tell the story of their running through their repeated and, perhaps, monotonous motion. Back in the day, when I could not run, I looked for that story in every runner. The story of the runner coping with their fatigue, or pain; of focusing on the process and not the destination; of the runner spraying water all over themselves to cope with heat; of the runner plugging away despite the exhaustion, or simply enjoying their run. I wanted to embrace the trail. To me, this was an unrealized dream. So I taught myself to accept and, slowly, overcome the pain of running. And slowly, I taught myself to run. Small distances at first, and then the longer distances invited me. Even today, I am not free from pain. My pain would always start in my shins in the first kilometre of my daily run and this pain would soon travel up to my glutes by the time I had clocked three kilometres. And that pain would often remain with me right through my run. I would merely block it.

Paddy, a running mentor of mine had once told me about the mind-body-intellect framework and I used that framework to overcome and block out my everyday pain. The physical pain is transmitted by the body, the vehicle. The mind would feel the pain immediately. But I had been taught to work on my rational intellect – in this mind-body-intellect nexus – and had taught it to be independent of the mind. I had conditioned the intellect to quietly observe, moderate, regulate and counsel the mind. The intellect won... mostly.

I woke up that particular morning; getting up was always the tough part. That day, it was made tougher because the previous day was a bad one for me. I had had a few unpleasant, hurtful, testy and unhelpfully fractious arguments. I felt the need to introspect deeply. I had to learn more about myself, my reactions, insecurities, discomfort, judgemental behaviours and my own needs. I was in a dark and somewhat uncomfortably unfamiliar space. And as I stretched in preparation for the run, I knew I had to run hard that morning. I knew that this would not be like any of my other runs.

I secretly hoped that Neha and Kapil would not run that day. Although they ran ‘alone’ even when we ran together, I wanted to be totally on my own that day. As if by magic, Neha and Kapil had both informed the watchman that they would not be running; one had a dodgy knee and the other had a cold. ‘This is perfect,’ I thought to myself as I stepped out into the cool morning.

I decided I would run 10 kilometres that morning and would also set off at a faster pace. I discarded all my carefully mapped out routes and, instead, ran towards the hill. The hill formed a picturesque backdrop to our apartment complex, dwarfing the tall, majestic buildings, giving them a sense of their own fragility. A few months earlier, I had driven towards the hill and mapped out a course on this reconnaissance drive. I wanted to accept the challenges the hill posed. But the path that I mapped out during my earlier reconnaissance was discarded by my running group. But things were different this particular morning. I was on my own.

So, this particular morning, I ran towards the hill at pace. I did not know what it was called. So, I named it Heart Break Hill. The Boston Marathon has a Heart Break Hill, a rise of approximately 30 metres over a 600 metre stretch; a gradient of about 5%. I had run ‘The Tan’ (short for Botanical Gardens) in Melbourne regularly. This track includes a killer stretch along Anderson Street; an incline of 27 metres over a 75 metre stretch. My own Heart Break Hill was an incline of 120m over a one and a half kilometre stretch; a gradient of about 8%. It was reasonably hard and I hadn’t run that hill before. That day, I was presented with the perfect opportunity.

As I had different playlists for different days and different moods, I selected a playlist that included Springsteen, Sting, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and U2. The lyrics did not matter. The rhythm did; all of the songs had to be at 80-85 beats per minute. I strapped on my heart rate monitor, pressed the start button on my Garmin and set off purposefully. I had to conquer that hill this morning.

It was three kilometres by the time I reached the bottom of Heart Break Hill. By then, my shin pain had already set in; it struck me a bit earlier on in the run that morning. I tried to block it out, but it was hard. My mind wasn’t entirely under my control that day. I reflected and tortured myself as I ran. I thought of my BMI guru: ‘the intellect always has to be independent’ was the voice that kept ringing in my ears. But the intellect was a slave to the mind that day; a mind that was focused totally on deep introspection in a dark and unfamiliar space. The intellect was no longer independent; it was hardly even present. The mind had taken over, felt the pain and the course and all of this coalesced with the confusions that emanated from an unfamiliar space. To make matters worse, just as I reached the bottom of the hill, my breathing shortened – an indication that my asthma was kicking in. Asthma is something I have been dealing with since I was five years old. I was so terribly unfocussed that morning that I had forgotten to puff on my Ventolin inhaler prior to my run. But I could not throw my hands up in the air and head back home. I focused immediately on regulating my breathing; three short exhalations and one long inhale. This was already tough work, even before I reached the hill that I was determined to conquer.

My breathing was short and raspy. My pain had intensified. Freddie Mercury sang ‘I want to break free’. Ironic. ‘Break free from what,’ I thought to myself. I continued to attack the hill mercilessly. One step at a time; one breath at a time. The stride shortened as did my breathing and I slowed down to a painful seven kmph. Half way up the hill I did encourage thoughts of giving up, although giving up was not why I ran. I did not know how to give up. I could not handle failures or disappointments through lack of trying and I had never run away from a battle. I had to know that I gave it my all; that I had tried my hardest to conquer, to understand, to comprehend. It mattered to me that I fought myself and warded off my own demons and limitations in a bid to understand myself better. The hill had to be defeated; it had to be conquered this morning.

The phrase ‘conquer’ rang in my mind constantly as I ran. I was three quarters of the way up the hill when cramps set in – in my calf-muscle. I had slowed down to 6.5 kmph and my heart rate monitor beeped alarmingly. My heart was going at a crazy 182 beats per minute, a good seven points above my suggested/theoretical max heart rate. I had never seen the dial reach 182 beats per min in all my years of running. I considered stopping and walking up the rest of the hill to the peak. But then I wasn’t about to give up. The hill just had to be conquered that morning.

Then, with 250m to go to the peak of that hill I suddenly remembered what Raju Martolia had said. Raju is this incredibly calm, very collected, supremely able and wonderfully fit Garhwali guide who had accompanied us on all of our Himalayan treks and climbing expeditions. Every day, after our trek had concluded, our trekking group would talk, mostly about other trekking and climbing experiences. One day after our day’s trek, as we relaxed around a camp fire, I asked Raju to tell us about the toughest mountain he had ever conquered. Raju’s face immediately registered a mix of shock and hurt. He was taken aback and said, “Sir, we Garhwali people do not conquer mountains. The mountain is a goddess for us. We take her permission to use her for our own benefit. I have never ever conquered any mountain.” He went on to explain this was why Garhwali guides would never place a flag at the very peak. A flag at the peak would suggest that the expedition had ‘conquered’ the mountain. “We always place the flag a few metres short of the peak. If we think we have conquered the mountain, our goddess has a way of teaching us unpleasant lessons on the way back,” he said.

I remembered those very words as I tried my own very unsuccessful hill conquer expedition.

As soon as I recollected Raju’s words, I realized I was doing it all wrong. I slowed down and sought permission from Heart Break Hill instead. I wasn’t angry anymore. I wasn’t confused anymore. My rational intellect was suddenly freed. I had nothing to prove. I wasn’t fighting myself anymore. I could give up if I wanted to. I could let go. This wasn’t a fight to a facile victory. This was me trying to understand myself more, be accepting of my own limitations, boundaries and shortcomings. I knew what I was; who I was and I was comfortable with that. Suddenly, I wasn’t attacking the hill anymore. All of this meant that I immediately felt more relaxed and observed a change in my stride. It was now easier and smoother. Even the breathing appeared more regulated. The asthma vanished too and with it, the pain. Or maybe the pain and the laboured breathing were both made irrelevant. Suddenly, there was clarity too. I cruised up the remainder of Heart Break Hill and reached the top. I hadn’t conquered the hill. Instead, I felt that Heart Break Hill had taught me an important lesson that morning.

And as I ran down the other side of the hill, I looked back at where I had run from. Heart Break Hill still stood where she always was. She wasn’t moving. She wasn't going to move either. But she appeared to bid me good bye benignly and compassionately. She hadn’t been conquered. Forget conquered; I wasn’t close to even understanding the mystery she was. That morning, she had merely provided me with permission to run and enabled me to overcome my own insecurities, anxieties, inadequacies and irrational fears...

-- Mohan (@mohank)