Sunday, July 2, 2017

Running solo on empty, or how I became a Ramzan Runner

Disclaimer: My name is Madhur Daga. I am almost 45 & a social media introvert, absent on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter etc. I am also not a blogger. However, after bombarding my family, friends, colleagues & well wishers over the past couple of years with countless, lengthy, image filled WhatsApp posts about my life's adventures, I finally saw the wisdom in accepting requests to publish a blog. So here it is, probably a one off attempt at sharing what I think was an(other) interesting experience. The views expressed here are exactly that - MY experience & truths as they unfolded on this month long journey. There is a video log at the end of the written piece which I humbly recommend you watch after reading the blog. Please keep in mind that neither is this blog a 'How To' for anything, nor am I qualified enough to challenge any beliefs, whether related to general health & fitness, running, nutrition, meditation, theology or any other subject matter. Although I have many Muslim friends, several of them so dear that I consider them family, my understanding & appreciation of Ramzan is intentionally limited to fasting & living the month conscientiously, without any religious motivation or implications whatsoever. In fact, I do not consider myself an overly religious person, so do forgive me in case I have inadvertently broken Ramzan rules & / or ignored some minutiae. 
Skip directly to the video log
Ramzan 2017 is over. Eid was celebrated (in India) on 26th June but I added a few additional days of Rozas (fasts) until the 30th. Due to international travel, I started Rozas on 1st June & wanted to make sure I log a month of strict uninterrupted fasting. Yes, this year was unorthodox. But then again, if you know me, that is my middle name.

As a Hindu Vipassana meditator, Ramzan is an interesting time for me. A period of spiritual reflection which wonderfully complements my daily 70 mins meditation practice. Apart from all F&B abstinence (including water) for sometimes upto 20 hours every day (I don't partake in Sehri), it is also a month of intense mental discipline. Despite facing deep hunger and thirst, a tenet during Ramzan is to be kind to those around & not engage in any sort of conflict or irritable behaviour.
WhatsApp DP
My WhatsApp DP
I consider Ramzan representative of the proverbial principle 'see no evil, hear no evil & speak no evil', while embracing the important virtues of forgiveness & gratitude. Most of all, the month for me is about trying to shift as far away as possible from a comfort zone, while still making an attempt to lead a normal life without seeking empathy from others.

Having completed Ramzan every year since 2014, this year I decided to push myself beyond managing hunger and thirst. I believed that Vipassana meditation would help me eliminate cravings better than ever before while possibly giving me added strength to attempt something 'above and beyond' while fasting. 

The practice of Vipassana meditation is rooted in equanimity. I have learnt that during our toughest moments, it is of significant self-help if one learns to be equanimous (through meditation or otherwise) rather than fight anxiety & agitation.
Eliud Kipchoge
The zen of Eliud Kipchoge
Like many running enthusiasts, I followed the live stream of Nike's Breaking2 project at Monza in early May. It was no coincidence that Eliud Kipchoge had an incredibly zen, almost meditative expression about him pretty much through the entire marathon, while running at an unprecedented pace which the majority of amateur runners would find impossible to sustain for even a few minutes. So, I find it a true blessing that my Vipassana & running practice started together & have coexisted since Jan 2016. This has lead to generally more enjoyable runs & specifically more mindful, rhythmic & relaxed breathing while running.

Running Books
Currently my favorite Running titles

Last year during Ramzan (also June), I was a relatively new, enthusiastic & extremely motivated runner. Recovering (without surgery) from a ski fall related torn left knee ACL, June 2016 was the first complete month my physio & knee allowed runs after several weeks of strengthening exercises & brisk walks. In my excitement, I logged 12 runs totalling 135 kms during the month. It felt awesome but exhausting. However, the experience of running while fasting last year stayed with me as a big positive.

So, this year, before starting Rozas, I set myself 6 specific goals. I wanted to:

1. Run more consistently during the month of fasting. I read somewhere that 'being consistently good may not always be possible, but it's always good to be consistent.'  This thought resonated with me. I am, frankly, inconsistent by nature. With the exception of meditating & apologizing for lost arguments to my wife, I constantly fight a boredom brought on by the monotony of a daily routine.

2. Run silently without daily posts & external encouragement. I often find myself doing less while posting more & thought to reverse this trend, at least during Ramzan. Just running. No drama.

3. Hit several new personal bests including most runs in a month (prev best 13), most distance run in a month (prev best 185 kms) &
Note to self: remember this everyday
most consecutive days run (previous best 3). The Nike+ Run Club app stores all my treadmill running data while road runs are automatically imported into NRC from Garmin Connect which is fed data by my Garmin Fenix 3HR wristwatch.

4. Maintain an average pace of no slower than 5.20 mins/km. I'm typically comfortable at 5.10 pace & thought that running slightly slower is reasonable given the tougher fasting conditions. This translates to ~11 kms/hour.

5. Overcome my guilt of missing Mukteshwar Half Marathon (last minute WD due to work) & not being able to train for and participate in the Simla Tuffman Ultra Run held on 10th June, smack in the middle of Ramzan. Had I not been fasting, I may have given strong consideration to participate in the 80 kms Ultra category. Simla was an especially disappointing miss for me.

6. Beat a general lack of enthusiasm for running, which honestly was a condition I had been sensing since training for and completing the New Delhi IDBI Full Marathon earlier this year. Recently, there was an added run related complication of an often pinched / irritated sciatic nerve in my right gluteus which also led to some pain led demotivation. Nerve pains have a way of getting on your nerves. Especially a pain in the ass 🙈

Now that Rozas are over, lets review my running report card. 
This is the 'Ramzan Running Month' summary:

Source: Nike+ Run Club

Some more details:

Daily Run Log

a. I ran daily except Thurs, 1st June. I ran twice on Sun, 18th June. This totaled 30 runs over 29 consecutive running days while fasting, split between 22 treadmill (73%) & 8 desperately humid road runs (27%).

b. For a total of 360 kms. Shortest run 11 kms & longest 14 kms.

c. At an average pace of 5.14 mins/km or 11.7 kms/hr. Slowest 12k was 5.36 mins/km & fastest 4.40 mins/km.

d. Nobody (I believe) knew of this Ramzan run plan except my wife. Thank you Monisha for keeping this tightly under wraps.

e. I foam rolled and stretched diligently post most runs and although struggled with a progressively more painful right gluteus / hip, this condition wasn't allowed to magnify into a deal breaker. I think I understood & absorbed Murakami san's quote mentioned in the blog header.

f. While definitely exhausted on a daily basis, I did my very best to not allow these runs to disrupt my life. Work (including local travel) & the majority of personal commitments continued as planned.
I am infinitely grateful & feel absolutely blessed to have hit every goal.
As you can imagine, there were times when my tank was as empty as most of The Donald's promises. With near total depletion of mental & physical resources through fasting days & nights, even the thought of attempting a run was often exhausting.
Never Give Up
Never Give Up
During some of those seriously challenging days, especially past mid-month, I give credit to & recognize my friend 'Ironman' Yashish Dahiya. Apart from being an elite triathlete, he is such an inspiration by way of his relentless training consistency. Thank you YD for setting such a stellar example. You were in my thoughts during some exceptionally tough 'why am I doing this?' moments.

On several days, the challenge seemed too daunting & I would want to stop pretty much immediately after starting the run. Running through severe inertia, a lost toe nail, sole blisters, chafed / bleeding nipples & intermittent cramps (some probably imaginary and others definitely real), my carb & sodium reserves were usually in the deep red & my mind often a second away from switching off. At that time, the thought of my friends completing the brutally challenging Simla Tuffman Ultra Run & specifically Pankaj / Vishal standing on the 80 / 50 kms podium gave me strength. I immediately felt my shorter runs should be a jalebi walk. How could I continue to entertain thoughts of quitting? Thank you to all the incredible Tuffmen.

A bow of gratitude to Kabeer Lal, my 1st running partner with whom I lost my road run virginity over 16 tough kms, just over a year ago. Neither of us knew then, but his inspirational 10 kms x 40 days run program in June 2016 subconsciously seeded the thought of Ramzan Running Month.

During the month of fasting, early morning runs are an impossibility. A few of my runs started at ~1900 hrs & I would break fast after ~3 kms with a banana and blueberry glutamine (DJ, thanks for the flavour intro).
Typical pre-run Iftar: Oats with Milk, Banana, Honey & Dates
The majority of runs started ~60 mins post Iftar so ~2030 hrs. Faced with
 intense thirst & hunger, it was a constant battle to break 
fast sensibly knowing there will be a run shortly & I should be consuming just enough quantity of the correct food groups. Completely succumbing to Iftar, even with hydration, meant a full / heavy tummy & an almost impossible run. Did someone say conflict of interest..? Interestingly, on 18th June, the day I ran twice,  my 1st run (10 kms) was pre-Iftar. What an experience to run on empty & then a test of patience to wait 25 mins post the run to drink / eat. My 2nd pre-Iftar run was on Sun 25th June. Our mind & body are indeed miracles of engineering. Either that or I have some camel DNA which sneaked in from a past life.

I think my most memorable runs were past midnight, 3-4 hours post dinner. These were evenings when there was no option to run earlier due to delays at work, social commitments, early (Sunday) gym hours etc. Long live Amrita Shergil Marg & God bless the loud local street dogs I annoyed during several late night runs ðŸ™ˆ Despite the elevated humidity & depressed end of day energy levels, these killer late night runs somehow felt the most humbling yet liberating. Especially the topless & wet ones.

This Ramzan has also passed & time flew (or should I say ran) by as it always does. Although I am lighter by almost 4.5 kgs, I feel stronger than ever before & have reaffirmed my love for running. I am not a technical runner. I am definitely not a fast runner. Maybe
Joyful Running
That would be me
due to the effects of Vipassana meditation, I am also not a runner motivated by timed competitive events. I guess I'm just a plain vanilla joyful runner who loves running for the sake of running.
Joy beats pace. Joy beats distance. Joy beats competition. There just has to be joy. Joy in the journey of movement which I think, for me, is the most appropriate complement to the joy I experience in the stillness of Vipassana meditation.

And maybe what gave me most joy were those middle of the night Amrita Shergil Marg moments when the 'Above & Beyond Group Therapy' podcast was hitting my ear drums, strides as heavy as lead pounding the road trying to outrun street dogs & my inner voice coaxing the mind, grinding through calorie deficit exhaustion whispering 'baby.. lets_earn_the biryani'.

Although there is a long way to go, I am way fitter in my mid 40s than I was in my mid 20s. For this, apart from the extraordinary fitness related WhatsApp groups #telomeres & #finishstrong of which I am privileged to be a part, significant credit & gratitude goes to my trainer, dear friend & certified 'Tuffman' Pankaj Dhiman (mentioned above). I believe the foundation & muscle memory for what I did this month was laid during our rigorous full marathon training earlier this year, including gym work & long tough runs on the Greater Noida Expressway. Therefore, I thought 'Ramzan Running Month' would be my perfect acknowledgment of his contribution to making me a stronger being. So, Pankaj, as you transition from the fitness industry to embark on an entirely different professional path, I send you my love, respect & gratitude. Best wishes for a wonderful journey ahead. Oh, & given that Pankaj is 20 10 years my junior, his 'old man' joke attempts aimed at me will probably be slightly harder to deliver post this Ramzan.. 😊

Another essential contributor to my new found fitness is Monisha, who has turned her own health 180° around over the past few years. My wife's relentless discipline, limitless energy and infinite positivity is an inspirational example for those around her. And before any of you start thinking 'Madhur you're so lucky to have her..', calm down, take a couple of deep breaths & remember, we always get what is deserved ðŸ˜¬ (™Karma ©Dhamma)

I will watch me
Aand Inshallah, I did. Video log below 
This Ramzan, the goal that I am most proud of achieving is 30 consecutive runs over 29 running days, while maintaining strict Rozas & (I believe) compassionate behavior. June 2017 was one of my life's most intense months, both physically & emotionally. Running solo everyday on an empty tank was exceptionally draining on the mind & body & Delhi's humid summer didn't help the cause. I remember tears roll down my face during the end of some very humbling runs, possibly due to the intense emotion of feeling blessed by a power I can probably never fully comprehend. I'm glad I had Monisha to share my trials & tribulations; thank you Moni for giving me patient hearing this month, despite zero conversations about Access Consciousness or The Angels Network.. 💖💖

Although I almost gave up several times, ultimately I let nothing get in the way of my Ramzan Running Month goals. In hindsight, while doing nothing spectacular on any single day, the collective monthly effort is what made the journey so gratifying. I've now understood that consistency is a grossly under rated quality & a far greater virtue than talent. 
It is exceptionally tough to do anything worthwhile, consistently. 
A massive shout out to all the consistent folks in my WhatsApp fitness groups 🙏🏽 I shall attempt to be more like you.

What follows is a video log of 'My Ramzan Running Month'. Invaluable memories over 30 days, captured in 19 mins.. shot on iPhone & edited in iMovie. The soundtrack is a compilation of some of my favorite songs. All rights reserved & copyrights owned by the original artists / owners. No copyright infringement is intended.

I end with one of my favorite stanzas by the Spanish poet Antonia Machado:

Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace el camino al andar 
Traveler, there is no path
You forge the path with your footsteps

Thank you for reading & watching. Stay healthy & God bless ðŸ™ðŸ½


The Ramzan Runner formerly known as Madhur


  1. Dats commendable effort Bro....N m seriously inspired by ur dedication n determination,u r a pure genius....luv to run with u someday.....Cheers

    1. Thanks Goldie. I look forward to our run together & inshallah my return to the pool :)

  2. Im so incredibly proud of you and all that you do.. thank you for inspiring me to be better, more committed and consistent.. and for showing us all that anything is possible!

  3. Zabardast!!! Deep respect for your thought process and your grit! Way to go!

  4. MD, stunning achievement. Enormously inspiring. We are so proud of you!You have gone and found Zen where none knew that it could exist. Cheers to your celebrations.

    1. Thank you TB. You are Mr. Consistent & lot of respect your way for that virtue 🙏🏽

  5. Inspiring, impactful and emulate worthy. Thank you for sharing your experience which has inspired me to dig deeper to push my limits and discover my soul. Looking forward to reading more.

  6. Madhur, inspiring story ! So proud to see. What next bro?

    1. Thank you 🙏🏽 Vipassana at Sikkim was next 😊

  7. Thank You Madhur for sharing your Ramzan Month experience!! You are commendable & hats off to your dedication..You have always been an inspiration for us. Look forward for reading more of your blogs..

  8. Appreciable efforts!!!! U have became an example of great line which is "Impossible itself says I-M-POCBLE" !!! great soul!!!

  9. Hats off to your determination sir. You are a true inspiration ....thanks for the motivation....