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:

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Running in Tiruchchirappalli

After two weeks in Chennai, India, our group has embarked on a two-week road trip, starting with a train ride to Tiruchchirappalli, also known as "Trichy." But why use a boring 6-letter name when you can use the grand, official, 17-letter name of Tiruchchirappalli? Yep, that's a double-ch you see there. Some people spell it with only a single ch, but I say that's pure laziness, especially given the coolness and oddity of a string of 4 consonants in a row!

One nice thing about Trichy is that it is a touch cooler and considerably less humid than Chennai in the mornings. So after sweating through "feels like" 105-degree runs in 80 degrees and 95 percent humidity, my two runs here have started at around 78 degrees and 70% humidity. Don't get me wrong, this would still be oppressively hot for a summer morning run back home, but it's been a welcome change from Chennai. Even at 9 am this morning as I finished my long run, the temperature was a quite-bearable 84 (feels like 90).

We're staying on a small college campus (Bishop Heber College), which, unlike Madras Christian College, where I stayed in Chennai, only has a half-mile or so of runnable roads. So yesterday I decided to venture outside to the busy city streets. Trichy is perhaps a quarter the size of Chennai, but it still is a bustling city with over 2 million inhabitants, so traffic was a major concern. But I had spotted a river on the map less than a mile away and thought maybe the road next to the river would be relatively quiet. It turned out I was right! After about a kilometer dodging traffic I found myself on a levee next to the river, enjoying minimal traffic. There was even a cute little temple on a rock next to the river:

Nice spot for a temple!
From campus to the end of the levee and back was about 5 miles (8k -- I'm trying to use kilometers here in India since that's how my marathon will be marked). So today for my 28k (17.4-mile) run I decided to do three out-and-backs plus an extra 4k along the levee. My goal pace was about 6:30/k, roughly 10:30 miles. I think in better conditions I'd be considerably faster than that, but given the temperatures, the rough road, and dodging traffic to and from the levee, that would be just fine. The main point is just to get time on my feet in preparation for my marathon in five weeks. I was carrying a 500 ml water bottle and would refill it each time I returned to the college.

I started in the dark at 5:45 a.m. I figured the campus would be well-lit but it turns out I was wrong, so I sort of felt my way to the campus gate in the dark, getting annoying jolts at two speed bumps along the way. Out on the road, I was surprised to see considerable traffic at this hour. Like most major roads I've seen so far in India, this road had a dirt shoulder, but pedestrians typically walk along the pavement, trusting that the scooters, buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, cars, and oxcarts will move out of their way when they pass. I ran on the pavement on the right (facing the oncoming traffic, which stays to the left in India) but hopped onto the shoulder whenever I passed a pedestrian or when a vehicle seemed to be dangerously close. It was unnerving seeing the scooters' headlights rushing in my direction, but somehow I made it to the levee and could get a little breathing room.

I got to watch the sunrise as I ran along the river, and it really did make for a beautiful scene:

Haven't seen many sunrises like this anywhere in the world!

There was a peacock and several peahens on the trail, and numerous birds were perched on bushes or flapped nearby catching bugs. Some larger waterbirds were in the river, and some people were down in the river doing their laundry.

As I ran along the river I began to get familiar with a few spots along the way. There was the house with the mean dog, the house with the yappy little dog, the church, the little temple on the rock, the larger temple, and even a snack stand. I decided to do the extra 4k along the river on my first out-and-back, figuring I'd be less interested in such nonsense later on. Soon, I was back on the main road dodging traffic and headed towards the college. 12k done, I fueled up, refilled my water, and headed back out. I had kept a solid 6:30/k pace for the first 12k.

Now traffic was really starting to get bad and I found myself slowing considerably as I dodged people and vehicles. Once I had to stop completely to avoid running into a bicycle, who didn't expect to see a runner on the road! Finally I made it back to the levee and my familiar route. This time a group of women was sitting near the snack stand and giggled as I ran by. Some boys were playing by the big temple and also gave me a grin. I even noticed a couple of different men who looked like they, like me, were out on the levee for fitness (though they were walking rather than running). Again I made it to the turnaround and headed back home, but my pace was now a little slower as the day heated up and the traffic became more difficult to dodge. As I ran through the gate of the college, the security guard asked if I was finished. "Nope, I've got one more!" I said. 20k was done, and I refilled one last time before heading back out.

Traffic was even worse this time as folks were crowded around market stalls or at bus stops, but again I made it to the levee without incident. The same group of women was at the snack stand and one of them shouted at me with a smile: "How are you doing? Are you fine?"

"Doing great!" I replied. Actually I was getting worn out. It's been a long time since I have done this kind of distance on a run. I did do one trail run that was longer a few months ago, but that involved just as much hiking as running. The turnaround couldn't come soon enough. Most people seemed to either ignore me or give me a stare that seemed to say "we don't see much of your kind around here," but others were friendlier. One man said "You've run here two times, right?" "Actually, three!" I replied. But my pace was definitely slowing, and it was a struggle to even run 7:00/k, slower than an 11-minute mile!

Finally I was back on the yet-busier main road, less than 2k from home. I was going slower still, but still running unless I had to walk to avoid running into someone or something. I stumbled through the college gate and ran towards the Guest House, just in time to see Greta and her students walking to class. "Go Dave!" they all cheered. Another 100 meters and I was done; my longest steady run since my injury last February.

It was too late for breakfast, so I ate leftover cake from last night's birthday party for one of our students. I'd have to say, it's not a bad recovery meal!

My average pace for the was a plodding 10:55 per mile, or 6:46/k. Hopefully I can be a little faster than that during my actual marathon. It should be considerably cooler, perhaps 70 degrees, so maybe I'll be able to pull out a 6:00/k pace for the race. That would be about a 4:13 marathon...not one of my best efforts, but still in the realm of respectable. Details of today's run are below.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bengaluru Marathon Route

This is mainly a note to myself: Here is the Bengaluru Marathon route, assuming they don't change the course from last year.

Doesn't look too bad; about 750 feet of vertical gain. Unfortunately where I'm training right now has absolutely no hills, so some of those hills may seem rather daunting on race day.