Sunday, September 27, 2015

Running long and hot in Chennai

It's 4:20 a.m. on Sunday morning.

I'm standing in the darkness on the side of the Grand Southern Trunk Road in Chromepet, south of Chennai, India.

Despite the early hour, there's quite a lot of activity. I've been told to meet here with the Chromepet chapter of the Chennai Running Club for our Sunday long run. Some men have set up an improvised water distribution depot next to the road. The road itself is also quite busy for this time of day, with fully loaded buses, trucks, scooters, and cars whizzing by with dramatic regularity.

Not a great place for a run...

But there are no runners here. There aren't a lot of places to run in Chennai; most of the roads are simply too busy to run on, even early in the morning, so the running club arranges meetups throughout the city, and runners then carpool to the start of their run. My meetup isn't till 4:45, and I've run with the Chromepet guys before, so I'm not especially worried. But last time, they picked me up at Madras Christian College, where I'm staying. This time, the college is out of the way compared to where the run starts, so I had to get myself to the meetup.

This involved setting an alarm for 3:55 a.m., walking the half-mile from the guest house to the college gate, waking up the guard so he could open the gate, then getting opinions from three different auto-rickshaw drivers about how to get to the location I specified. They were quite baffled as to why someone would want a ride to Ambika Wood Industries (the location of our meetup) at 4:10 a.m. During the drive, the driver kept asking if he was going the right way, despite the fact that I had already told him it was right on the main road. Finally he would go no further, saying we were at the edge of Chromepet. I could see from the map on my phone that the location was close, so I paid him and walked the rest of the way there. Ambika Wood Industries is indeed closed at this hour.

At 4:30 I text Ramachandran to make sure I'm at the right spot. He replies right away saying I am and he'll be there in 10 minutes. At 4:55 I text again to see if he's still on the way. He say's yes, sorry, he'll be there in 5 minutes. Finally at 5 a.m. the runners show up and we head south towards the Officers' Training Academy where we'll be running. Immediately, amazingly to me, we run into a traffic jam:

Yep, this is 5:07 on a Sunday morning.

Finally, we arrive. The place where we're running turns out to be more than just an academy, it's a military complex with a naval air station, a coast guard air station, and also a shrine to St. Thomas (who, legend has it, was martyred at this spot). We will be running on the access roads connecting all these places. Even at 5:20, in the darkness, I can see that lots of people have figured out this is a good place to exercise. There are walkers, runners, and a few cyclists, though there are only about 4k worth of runnable roads that aren't behind security checkpoints. We'll be doing a double-out-and-back to make a 6k loop. My plan is to run 32k, or 20 miles, my one 20-miler of this marathon training cycle (my marathon, Bangalore, is just 3 weeks away).

Ramachandran (who goes by "Ram") had told me that several runners would be doing 28k, so I figured I'd have company for most of my run. As it turned out, they had changed this plan, doing their 32k run last week and taking it easy this week because they are running a half-marathon two weeks out(!) from the Bangalore Marathon.

Two runners accompany me for the first loop, sprinting to the top of the hill where St. Thomas is buried. I plug along at a more methodical pace of 6:30/k, about 10:30 per mile, which seems reasonable in the 81-degree, 100% humidity morning. Another group of runners is doing repeats on the hill, and there also seems to be a school track team or club working out here.

After lap 1, 6k in, I feel like this might be doable. I'm wearing a hydration pack and taking frequent sips, and I have a plan to eat a gel every 7k. There is a security station at the end of the first out-and-back, 2k into the loop, and the guards stand and salute as I pass.

The route is flat except for the one big hill where the St. Thomas Shrine sits. I take a blurry selfie on the flat part:

So far, so good!

Up to now I've been keeping quite close to my planned 6:30 pace, but I can feel the day start to warm up as the sun rises in the eastern sky. Still, I maintain my 6:30 pace, even up the 140-foot climb of St. Thomas Mount.

Back at the cars, it looks like some of the other runners are already wrapping things up, and I still have 20k to go. I turn and head out for another loop. I figure out that I'll need to do a total of 5 loops plus an additional 2k to get to 32. I'm starting to recognize familiar faces among the walkers, runners, and cyclists on my route. I wave at the saluting guards again. Climbing the hill again, I find myself unable to maintain that 6:30 pace. I slow to 6:58, then 7:05. At the bottom of the hill, I pick it up a bit, but only to 6:45. This is going to be a long day.

18k done, back at the cars, I begin to wonder whether I can do this. The other runners all seem to be done, and it seems unfair to ask them to wait for me. I head out for another loop, with a new goal of just keeping the pace faster than 7:00 per mile. This works until I get to the hill. I tell myself I can walk when I get to the steep part at the top.

Finally I make it back to the cars: 24k done, 8k to go. I'm out of water in my hydration pack, but I have a couple water bottles in my bag, so I refill. I tell Ram that maybe they should just leave without me -- everyone is definitely finished. He tells me they will stay close by and can pick me up when I finish.

The heat is now stifling. Though there are some places with shade, a lot of the route is exposed. I decide I'm definitely not running up the hill again; I can just complete a shorter loop and tack on a little extra at the end.

By the time I reach the security guards 2k into the loop, I decide that I've had enough. I will just head back to the starting area, 28k complete, and call it a day. I've been run-walking for the past few kilometers anyways, and it's not clear I'm really getting any benefit from the workout. My times for the last 4k: 7:52, 7:16, 8:47, 7:45. Average pace for the whole run: 6:51/k, or 11:08 per mile. Here I am at the end of the run, totally spent:

That was hard!

On the drive home, the runners tell me that typically when they train in Chennai and race in cooler climates, their times improve by 20-30 minutes. I hope so! Bangalore is usually 10-15 degrees cooler than Chennai and much less humid, so if I want to be out there less than 5 hours or so, I'll need to go considerably faster than I did today. My goal is to run the race at a 6:00/k pace, which would have me finishing in 4:13. Given my recent struggles with injury and my general pattern of not running well in the heat, I'll take it!

Details of today's run are below:

1 comment:

  1. It was nice Meeting you Dave, Hope to meet u at Bengaluru Marathon!