Monday, May 2, 2011

The tea party fundraiser

Along with a few buddies, I am heading over to the Grand Canyon this weekend for a trail run. We start at the South Rim, find our way down to the Canyon floor, and up to the North Rim and back all the way. 48 miles of it. Or as much of it as fun, pleasure and camaraderie will allow. The whole thing should be a fascinating experience, visual treats along with extremes in temperature differing by 70F, and elevation changes in many thousands of feet.

This is a simplistic course profile here, but it looks simply beautiful. When I first saw this profile a month ago, I thought it looked like an old tea cup made of clay or of china whose handle had broken off. That simple imagery continues to be a symbol of pleasant anticipation for our trip to the Canyon. So that's what we're headed out there for - we've had all our little parties here, and now it's time for a grand old tea party at the grand old canyon.

photo courtesy: Maneesh Pandey
I got into running several years ago primarily to raise funds for the wonderful schools run by GSK in Rajasthan, India. That was when they had 65 children in thatched structures for classrooms. Today, they have 300 kids with great infrastructure and all of them enjoy spending time at what increasingly feels like a successful movement to restore the joy of childhood. The school's revolutionary alternative methods that attracted much opposition and criticism a few years back are now bearing some fruit - graduates excelling in public examinations, passionate buy-in from impoverished rural communities and more collaborations with mainstream schools.

There's a long haul ahead still for GSK, and funding continues to lag requirements - the Strides of Hope program from Asha for Education is a critical part of fulfilling this need for several such initiatives. My Grand Canyon run and tea party and a $1000 target are all part of this program. Donations made through this fundraising page go to the Austin chapter of Asha for Education. Asha for Education is a completely volunteer-run organization, and all donations are tax exempt in the US.

Thanks for sharing your time; now all you have to do is pay for your cuppa by 5/15 ;)


  1. Donation page
  2. Grand Canyon National Park
  3. Gramin Shiksha Kendra (GSK)
  4. Austin chapter of Asha for Education
  5. Strides of Hope program

Monday, February 14, 2011

January 2011: Reading List

After the 7-month slog through the Ramayana (Sanskrit) in 2010, 2011 opened up with a clutch of shorter books on my reading list. The epic was truly enjoyable, but it was time to catch up on some volume reading. These are some of the books I selected and read in January 2011.


Man and Superman (Bernard Shaw)
Witty, sarcastic, funny, philosophical and relentlessly intellectual, this is my favorite Bernard Shaw play yet. In uncomplicated language, Shaw tackles complex subjects with timeless wit: romance, religion, politics. The accompanying The Revolutionist's Handbook is a quotation powerhouse; indeed, the most popular Shavian quotes are from the handbook. Some of the lesser known ones:
"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."
"The vilest abortionist is he who attempts to mold a child's character."
"No man is a match for a woman, except with a poker and a pair of hobnailed boots."
Lord Of The Rings (Tolkien)
It's a fantasy classic created by a master linguist and story teller. I first read this trilogy about 12 years back. Since then, I've enjoyed the books and the adapted movie several times. Though the scripts diverge, the books and the movies are both immensely enjoyable and do a great job of transporting you into a fantasy world that's unlikely to stale with the passage of time. Tolkien's Elvish poetry and Hobbit pluck will enthrall generations to come.
"...but the hearts of men are corrupted..."
Silmarillion (Tolkien)
This work is truly epic in the world of characters and tales it throws up. From Gods and creation to the advent of Man, it's a mythological magnum-opus. However, one problem I've had with this book is that it's hard to keep up with so many characters that inevitably end up playing some part in a different tale later in the book. There is a helpful chart, but I think the story could play out a little longer and slower. And that would make Silmarillion an even better epic than The Lord of the Rings.
"From splendour he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless."
The Apple Cart (Bernard Shaw)
A political satire that displays Shaw's keen insights into the various political arrangements in vogue at the time - monarchy, democracy, socialism, capitalism etc and their interplay. Delivered in a tone of intellectual cynicism, The Apple Cart is at once funny and insightful.
"...democracy is humbug..."
A Pelican at Blandings (Wodehouse)
Seldom does a month go by for me when I am not tucking into some Wodehouse. His stories are almost always identical in plot, but his genius lies in the way he constructs sentences - humor abounds in every sentence from creative perspectives, according respect and comic worth to any situation or being. If Shaw's sentences are uncomplicated yet meaningful, Wodehouse's are beautifully constructed yet may convey little worldly wisdom. A perennially favorite author. This is a story featuring Galahad Threepwood, who
"in his bohemian youth, had a nightly custom to attend gatherings at the Pelican Club which seldom broke up till the milkman had begun his rounds - a practice to which he always maintained that he owed the superb health he enjoyed in middle age."


The Hobbit (Tolkien)
It's a nice story, and introduces the reader into a fantasy world consistent with the later works of Tolkien. The story-telling is more simplistic here, like a story-teller narrating fables to a child.
"In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."
Major Barbara (Bernard Shaw)
Shaw cleaves through the extant ideas of republicanism, national exceptionalism and war with this biting satire. Every character starts off representing some impossibly ideal political or religious stance and Shaw brings all of them together into practical wisdom through this story of an estranged family tied to a wealthy weapons manufacturer.
"He knows nothing and he thinks he knows everything. That clearly points to a political career."


Bhagavata Purana (Sanskrit)
After the really wonderful time I had reading the Ramayana, I was looking forward to another, even bigger, epic - this, the story of Krishna. It starts off with a load of ritualistic instruction from old sages like Narada and Suka, but a few dozen pages into it, there was still no entertaining story. I'd had enough by then. Besides, I'd failed to meet the high standards it sets for it's readers:
"Since it is not possible in these times to control the vagaries of the mind, to observe the rules of conduct strictly and to be devoted to a sacred purpose for a long time, this book should be finished in a week"


Bernard Shaw, Chekhov, Ibsen, Laurence Parent, David Sedaris, and um, God.

On Egypt

Is a revolution in Egypt underway?

The US government and media's reactions to and analysis of the uprising in Egypt against Mubarak, and now continuing against the military cohorts, has been both predictable and predictably disappointing. But in the wider world, there are some interesting perspectives.

Huma Yusuf, writing in the Dawn newspaper, implores Egyptians to not follow Pakistan's path. The military in Egypt has controlled power in one form or another since 1952, and she warns of the dangers of allowing the military to now assume a 'savior complex'.
"Allowing the military to take partial credit for Mubarak’s deposition would be a disservice to young Egyptians who risked everything for their freedom.As memories from Tahrir Square fade, Egyptians should remember that the fate of their country lies in their hands, not those of the military."
To make sure this is a revolution and not merely a devolution, Hossam el-Hamalawy, opining in the Guardian, presents possibly biased but nevertheless revealing aspects of the struggle. The uprising in the streets were coordinated on Twitter and Facebook, but once the momentum was on, the workers' strikes broke Mubarak's resolve to stay on. And, in a hopeful vision, Hossam sees these strikes continuing until a truly representative democracy sets in.
"Since Hosni Mubarak fled from Cairo, and even before then, some middle-class activists have been urging Egyptians, in the name of patriotism, to suspend their protests and return to work, singing some of the most ridiculous lullabies: "Let's build a new Egypt", "Let's work harder than ever before". They clearly do not know that Egyptians are already among the hardest working people in the worldThose activists want us to trust Mubarak's generals with the transition to democracy – the same junta that provided the backbone of his dictatorship over the past 30 years."

Friday, December 3, 2010


My high school memories include a daily assembly of all the kids and teachers in the school courtyard, always too early in the morning and always too hot in Chennai. After prayers and what not, you could then see us seated in neat rows of meditating yogis, or snickering teenagers, depending on how far you observed us from. Transcendental Meditation (TM), they called it. After several years of unintentional practice, I got reasonably successful at reaching that state of mind when you feel relaxed and almost trance-like, though I never did get to feel the 'energy from the end of the universe'. (That would come later in life, with Pink Floyd.)


The days leading up to the Wild Hare race were most un-'days-leading-up-to-a-race'-like. I signed up for the 25K so I could show off the shiny medal with the cartoon hare that Joe, the race director, and Alicia, the medal designer, baited everyone with. I wasn't trained, not by a long shot, but I wasn't completely out of shape either. I was in a rather curious stage with my running - when I ran, about once or twice a week, on short 5 mile runs, I ran comfortably well and despite my obvious lack of training, I was running faster than I had ever run before. But 5 miles was the point where not only my speed dropped, my run stopped as well.

A week before the race, I did a 14 mile run with my new training group. Since I had to re-learn how to pace myself, I scanned the group and promptly decided to keep up with Diana H, who knows a thing or two about pacing a long run. That was a good strategy, I completed my 14 miles comfortably. Now all I had to do was replicate that pacing strategy at the race: start slow, then go slower.

The Race

It's November 20, the Wild Hare trail race is on today at the Bluff Creek Ranch, Warda, TX. I've run here before on the soft pine needles and through the cow pastures. Driving into Warda on the race morning with Cris and Savi, I'm relaxed knowing I'd run the miles but not race them with a time goal to achieve. There are 2 loops of 8 and 7.5 miles each, and even with running slow, I expect my time to be around 90 minutes for each loop.

Seeing all my buddies at the race start bucks me up like a tonic and it is nice to see Sha, a fellow Team Asha runner, ready to do her first trail race! Despite my excitement, I remember my resolve to start slow. So I start at the back of the pack, chatty and slow. Warming up through the first half mile, I settle into a rhythm where I am not thinking about my run at all. I am just soaking it all up, all the friends and smiles and trees around me. After another mile, I am running on my own. I am en-trance-d, the feeling is similar to just what I felt with TM all those years back. I am only vaguely aware of what I am doing, there are no thoughts in my head and my body moves on pure instinct through all the rocks, roots and pines. I pass some runners and some others pass me, but I have found my natural rhythm.

The trance is broken as I near the first aid station 4 miles into the race. There's Cris and Henry, and after taking some salt and water, I am off. A few minutes into the long fields here, I get back to my rhythm, and back into my trance. Miles 4-8 go by without making an impression on my mind. As I run through the barn at the end of my first loop, I start getting conscious of the things I need to do: nutrition, hydration, change of shirt etc. I glance at the clock curiously, and I am shocked at the reading: I have done the first 8 miles in 72 minutes, way faster than I expected or sought to achieve.

A couple of minutes at the pit stop for fuel, and I am off. I'd been merely running easy until this point, now I want to race. Is it possible that I might finish in 2:30? How fast should I run? Should I avoid walk breaks entirely and just push through the remaining miles as hard as I can? Starting the second loop, I am sprinting with all my focus on how to make this a great race time-wise. I transcend into no sub-conscious trances no more, I am only too aware of how my legs are moving, how I am breathing hard and so on. From miles 10-12, it's narrow single track and I start getting anxious about passing runners who can't hear me shout at them because they've got headphones on.

I rush through the mid-point aid station in a hurry. Mistake. Saving a few seconds there meant that I did not prepare for a warming sun through the exposed fields. My body is heated up, and the day feels too warm to run, and I am willing myself to push through these last 4 miles. I am slow, I can't keep up with what I've been doing. I can feel the effects of the 6-mile hill workout from a day and a half before, my legs are tired. I am enjoying this no more, this second loop has had a completely different feel to it than my first one. I run in, and the clock says I've taken 78 minutes for my 7.5 miles, and I am not sure whether to be happy or not with my overall time of 2:32.

After a few minutes though, my body recovers and I feel good - not with my time because that doesn't matter, but with having run 15.5 miles and enjoying the post-run moments with my friends. I spend the rest of my excited day chatting, handing out finisher medals, putting up glow sticks and eating veggie burgers. It's been a great day, I've learnt a lot today about my running - about what to do and not do next time, and to just accept whatever happens and allow myself to be en-trance-d.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nueces Trail Marathon

The Nueces 50 Miler and Marathon race was held on March 6 this year at the Camp Eagle park. This was the first year for this race in this form, and it was very exciting to be a part of the launch.

Camp Eagle is a gorgeous park. This is beautiful, rugged Texas hill country, with steep hills and a spring-fed river. I'd visited the park earlier for a few days in fall 2009 when I volunteered to help create, measure and map the trails here for the race. I was so impressed with the park and the facilities there that I felt like I'd stumbled upon a hidden treasure in my backyard! It wasn't the best time to visit the park for me though, as most of the hills are covered with cedar trees, and bush-whacking through the trees just puffed up clouds of pollen that didn't do my cedar allergies any good. It was all good though, I really enjoyed hiking and running on the trails, learning about how Joe Prusaitis, the race director, maps out the race courses and meeting all the friendly folks at Camp Eagle. It was no surprise then that I decided to run the race...

I selected the Nueces marathon as my target race for Team Asha and I pledged to raise $100/mile for the Austin chapter of Asha. At Asha, I have been working with 2 projects for children in Rajasthan (India) for a few years now:
(a) GSK, an education project that provides very high quality education to about 400 kids this year.
(b) RMKM, an education and rehabilitation program for about 375 mentally challenged children.

The race
I hadn't trained specifically for this race, but I had been running and keeping up with my fitness generally. But I'd flared up my hip flexors a couple of days before the race, and I was worried about having to run through pain and having a miserable race. My anxieties lifted though even as I drove into the park the previous night, and met all my running buddies. I decided that I'd have fun at the race - and the attitude change helped with my run the next morning.

It was a wonderful day to run. It was cool, in the 50's, cloudy, and we had challenging trails in beautiful hills to run on. I started very slow and it took me nearly 2 hours to complete the first 9.5 mile loop. And from miles 8 through 14, I struggled through with pain in my right hip flexor. The worst part of having the pain was that I couldn't run all those long delicious downhills! Even as I was starting to contemplate dropping out of the race, the aid station at mile 14 came up and I was supplied with some ibuprofen. That saved my race, and my next 12 miles went much better than my first 14 miles had. Surprisingly, I finished rather strongly and managed to pull in to the finish chute in about 5:50. I was happy with the time I made, especially with all the low expectations I'd set through the previous day and the race.

It was a good race to be a part of - the race organizers, the volunteers, the camp staff and the scenery were all wonderful. I'd definitely go back for this race next year!

My Team Asha fund-raising page
Gramin Shiksha Kendra (GSK)
Rajasthan Mahila Kalyan Mandal (RMKM)
Nueces Trail Marathon (Tejas Trails)
Pictures from my Camp Eagle visits

Monday, October 12, 2009

Catoctin Mountain Park

Date: October 11, 2009
Place: Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland
Trails: Falls Nature, Hog Rock Nature, Blue Ridge Summit, Thurmont Vista, Wolf Rock, Chimney Rock
Distance: 8.5 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate

More fall season hiking, this time at the Catoctin Mountain Park managed by the National Park Service. It's a beautiful drive of about 50 miles from DC leading to the park. The mountains here are part of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the ancient Appalachian Mountains. The park itself is forested thickly with hardwood trees like oaks and maples and also has some interesting rock formations wrought over hundreds of millions of years of geological evolution.

Shankar and I chose the longest round-trip trail, listed as being 8.5 miles with a few strenuous climbing sections. This loop skirts around the edges of the park, from the Cunningham falls in the west to the Chimney Rock in the east.

Falls Nature Trail to the Cunningham Falls
Around 1.5 miles from the visitor center trailhead, and along the Falls Nature Trail, lies the Cunningham Falls viewing point. The hike up is moderate, and the falls are set in a beautiful wooded area.

Hog Rock, Blue Ridge Summit and Thurmont Vista
From the Cunningham Falls, it's a strenuous hike up of around 1.25 miles to the Hog Rock. The Hog Rock is at the center of the park, and is made of metabasalt, a dark greenish-gray igneous rock. It's also called the Catoctin Greenstone. After sunbathing here for a while and taking in the beautiful views, we resumed our hike up to the Blue Ridge Summit about half a mile away.

The view here opens out to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the far west, hence the name. Another half a mile away on the trail led us to the Thurmont Vista overlook. You can see the town of Thurmont in the valley below, the valley itself a geological attraction made by erosion over millions of years.

Wolf Rock
Another moderate hike of 1.5 miles took us to the Wolf Rock formations. The quartzite rocks and the erosion by wind and rain water (through frost wedging) creating spectacular shapes were a treat. We spent considerable time here jumping from rock to rock.

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock, another 0.6 miles away, was the highlight of the entire hike. This is again quartzite rock formed in the shape of chimney. In order to get on the chimney rock though, we had to jump across very deep wedges that had formed cliffs along the rock walls. Dangerous and exciting as the jump was, we were rewarded with the best panoramic views yet. After spending half an hour here, we jumped back onto the main trail and headed back.
A couple of miles more of hiking brought us back to the visitor center just as the sun was setting. The hikes made for a good workout among beautiful wooded and forested sections for the most part, and there are viewing spots all along the trail every mile or so. It is an enjoyable and rewarding hike through some of the best scenery in Maryland.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shenandoah NP: Overall Run Falls

Date: October 4, 2009
Place: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Trails: Overall Run, Beecher Ridge, Trace Trail
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Shenandoah! (Just love saying that word aloud!)

The day was nice for a hike/run - sunny, in the 50s and 60s, fall season. The Shenandoah National Park is about 90 miles from DC, and consists of breathtaking scenery of forested Blue Ridge mountains and meadows. The plan was to hike/run the 11.5 mile round-trip connecting the Overall Run and Beecher Ridge trails. The trails are listed on hiking websites as being strenuous and having an elevation gain of 4000'. Despite all that, Shankar and I started the hike, for various excuses, at 4.45pm. Even as we started, we knew that it was miserably late and that we would finish when the fullish moon was overhead.

We started at the Traces Trail trailhead, and the trail started climbing steeply immediately for a mile or so. On the way we passed a few trail intersections, randomly chose what we took to be the "main" trail, wondering why these extremely well maintained trails were not marked at all. After hiking a mile, we came across another intersection, and we finally figured out then that the funny looking stone pillars had tiny metal plates on the sides that gave out the information on trail directions that we could have used 0.5 miles earlier. This intersection was with the famous Appalachian trail, which we had definitely not planned to meet.

Backtrack. Back to the previous intersection then, a fast downhill run on trails nice, rocky in parts but mostly soft. We finally got back to the Overall Run trail, our initially intended itinerary. We then hiked up steeply and then down steeply for a couple of miles through thickly wooded forests. There are no scenic views here, but the trail itself is colorful with the red, pink, yellow and green leaves from oak and maple trees that herald the arrived fall season. This part of the hike ends at a clearing with fantastic views of mountains and the nearby 93' Overall Run Falls. All the prior steep climbing was forgotten in this vista of meditative beauty. The setting sun added a picturesque background to the valleys of the Blue Ridge mountains.

We continued hiking steeply downward along the trail for some more, though Shankar by this time was plodding on bravely despite ITB issues and foot blisters. It was soon 7pm and darkening rapidly, and we decided to turn back to conquer the trail another day. A surreal night hike in the forest ensued, navigated safely with the help of a flashlight and a headlamp. The trails were empty of any people other than us two, quite reasonably, and that added it's own charm in the night with birds tweeting and creatures strange rustling the leaves on the ground. We got a little lost though and ended up at the Mathews Arms Campground instead of the trailhead, but we knew the way down to the trailhead through the campsites. We finished finally at around 8pm.

If the 7 miles or so that we did on the trail is any indication, this is a strenuous hike with rather steep uphill and downhill sections but well worth the effort for all the beauty there is along the way. Among the wildlife we saw today were white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, vultures and white caterpillars.

The little we saw of the trail and the park was enchanting. Enough to make me want to go there again. Soon.