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Running in the Land of a Thousand Hills

During my just concluded visit to India, I went running in the land of a thousand hills, Kodagu.

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Running in Prague

Almost exactly three years after my first visit to Prague, I found myself back in the Paris of Eastern Europe, attending the same conference that I attended the last time, staying at the same hotel as the previous time. But, I was here without Shanthala and the weather was spring. “Spring in Prague” was a damp squib the last time. But this time, it was the magic the words conjured. A historical aside. Prague Spring refers to the events of the spring of 1968, when the newly elected Communist Party President, Alexander Dubcek, instituted a series of reforms to turn Czechoslovakia into a socialist democracy. The euphoria ended in the summer when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and put an end to the whole thing. Back to the spring of 2011, the temperatures were mild during the day and skies were azure. I had to run outside. The cobblestones beckoned.

The jetlag had me out of bed by 3.30 or 4 in the morning. After some fitful attempts to fall back asleep, I’d awake and go down to the 24 hour bistro for my morning jolt of caffeine. After some googling and talking to the concierge, I thought of running along the Vlatva river bank, along the path that seemed to hug it. The morning still had a bite of bitter winter left in it. I had forgotten my long pants, but decided to go for a run anyway, thinking that I’d feel warm once I was a few minutes into the run.

The track started off looking serene in the early morning light. My heart warmed to the prospect of running along the river for 4 miles.

Running Along Vltava, Away From Old City

But pretty quickly, the track veered off the river and into a jumble of derelict and dilapidated buildings. It was like running in some industrial wasteland. I read that Czechoslovakia was an industrial powerhouse, starting in the early days of the 20th century as a vassal of tthe Austro-Hungarian empire and continuing on to the post-WWII era. Many industries located themselves along the river for easy access to transport. This lead to a heavily polluted river that has started to recover only after the Velvet Revolution, when the heavy industries made way for a lighter service sector. That explained the buildings and their location.

Dilapidated Buildings Along The Track

But the history and the scenery didn’t help the chill eating through my thin shirt and exposed legs. My legs and chest were warm, but my fingers and toes were becoming numb rather quickly. I saw two other runners, both of whom were suitable covered in warm clothing. I hit the main road in about 10 minutes or so and rather than continue, I decided to head back.

I was disappointed. Was this the beautiful track that some of the sites described ? Why didn’t the concierge say anything ? At breakfast, I ran into one of the two runners I had seen in the morning. She was attending the same conference. She said that she had gotten scared looking at the decrepit buildings, fearful that she may be dragged into one of them and assaulted. Her fears may have been misplaced. Prague is a city with almost zero violent crime according to the residents and tourist books. One of the locals told me that the Czech are fairly peaceful, as evinced by the overthrow of Communism, dubbed the Velvet Revolution for the smooth transition, and the peaceful split with Slovakia, dubbed the Velvet Divorce. According to the Prague Monitor, a newspaper, while violent crime in all of the Czech Republic rose by 7 percent in 2010, the overall crime rate is the lowest in the past ten years and especially low in Prague. But, what seems non-threatening to a man can be a fairly threatening place for a lone woman.

The woman told me that running in the opposite direction from the one I had chosen to go that morning would be more promising. You can even get to the Charles Bridge running that way, she said. I resolved to run the next day, but much later in the day, when the temperatures were far more suitable.

That evening, eschewing the conference social event, I took a tram, number 3, and headed to the outskirts of the city. I wanted to see what the city was like outside the historical and tourist-filled quarters. The tram crosses Wenceslas Square, the square where the Velvet Revolution began, and soon travels along the river Vlatva, the river that bisects the city. I saw a walkway that paralleled the river, for quite a distance. I saw people jogging, walking home from work, parents strolling with their infants and roller skating. Bikers shared the path with the pedestrians and it was a peaceful sight.

The next day, I set off on my run around noon, headed in the opposite direction from the one I had taken the previous morning. The weather was perfect, not too hot and not too cold. The skies were clear. From the very start, the walkway was set in much more pleasing surroundings. It paralleled the river on one side and a modestly busy boulevard on the other.

Running On The Walkway By Vlatva Towards Old City

Prague has some 20 odd bridges across the river, connecting the old city with the new, the east with the west. Across one of them, called Cechuv Most (or Cech Bridge), I crossed over the river, heading up a stairway and path towards the Prague castle, Hradcany.

The path up led to glorious views of the city, looking south and north.

Bridges Across Vlatva, Looking South From Letenske Sady

Prague Bridges, Looking North from Letenske Sady

Bridges of Prague, Panoramic View from Letenske Sady

The track meandered amongst the hillocks above the city, weaving its way up and down towards Hradcany. Along the way, I decided to also head down and touch the famous Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) and maybe head back to the hotel from there. The day was beautiful and I stopped to take many pictures. It was unfortunate that I only had an iPhone to capture most of the pictures.

Monument of the German Occupation of WWII

Prague Street, Malostranska Metro

Instead of crossing the Charles Bridge which was crowded as always, I ran back up the way I came and continued north on the hill paralleling the river, going towards Stefanikuv Most, another of the bridges across the Vlatva. People were relaxing in the post lunch hour along the myriad benches.

Letenske Sady (Letna Park), Prague

Relaxing Along The Benches of Letenske Sady

The run was over sooner than I wanted. I had a meeting that I wanted to go to, a meeting that was already half over by the time I finished my run. As I sat through the latter part of the meeting, I regretted not going on. I don’t know when I’ll be back and if I’m back, I’ll have the time to run and explore the city as much detail as I could have.

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After the Storms

We were socked with two big storms over the past two weeks. On the tail end of the first storm, we celebrated Maya’s birthday for the first time in the US. We hosted the largest party we’ve ever held at our house. Some 20 odd people including kids showed up. Overall, the party was a success I’d like to think.

The next day we went for a hike. The air was crisp and fresh after the almost four days of continuous rain. Maya had been demanding that we take her to climb a hill and so we eventually did. Gray rain clouds still clung to the sky, but co-mingled with snow white clouds and great patches of blue sky. The whole thing was quite atmospheric (pun intended).

After I got the iPhone, I hardly take the regular camera any more. The iPhone does a pretty good job most of the time. It is only in really low light conditions that I have difficulty getting a good picture (the picture is too grainy). I purchased a couple of apps a few months back and that coupled with a free app enhance the photographs taken with an iPhone quite well.

The first one is called Pro HDR. It simplifies the technique of taking HDR pictures. HDR (high dynamic range) is a technique whereby you combine two photos taken with different exposures to obtain a single photo that uniformly lights all the subjects. For example, if you’re shooting against the sun, the foreground is quite dark while the background is quite well lit. If you place the focus on making the foreground bright in such a condition, the background is too bright, a complete washout. But our eye can see both the background and the foreground quite well. To affect the same illusion, a HDR image is one that is created by combining two such images, one with the foreground dark and the background correctly lit and another with the foreground properly lit and the background a complete washout, to produce a single image that has a high dynamic range of illumination.

Pro HDR is one of the several HDR programs available for the iPhone. I picked it up on sale and because it was one of the higher rated HDR apps. With it I’ve captured several gorgeous pictures. Here is one taken on the hike with Maya up Rancho San Antonio County Park. Compare it with a similar photo taken without the HDR program.

Here is another good looking picture taken with the HDR program.

Notice the ghost at the far left, caused by an object that moved between the two differently exposed pictures.

Another program that I purchased is called 360 Panorama. This allows you to shoot panoramic pictures quite easily with an iPhone. When I had gone to my sister’s graduation, I was impressed by a camera that my cousin had, the Sony Nex 5. He just pressed the shutter and fired away as he swung the camera in an arc across the auditorium. The camera automatically composed a panorama out of these pictures. Compare that to the panorama mode in most cameras that I had seen till then with the panorama stitch assist mode. A few days later I ran into the 360 Panorama app which does pretty much what the Nex did, except that it ran on my iPhone and cost $1.99 (yes, less than $2).

Here is a panoramic picture taken with this program.

As you can see, the picture is not that great because of the poor light conditions. I’ve come to realize that the more professional cameras are more forgiving of adverse light conditions and poor photographers while the cheaper ones or like the one with the iPhone produce great pictures under a limited range of lighting conditions.

Hardly had the first storm abated than the second storm hit. This one came with far greater expectations than the first. A cold front from Alaska was bringing brrrr! temperatures. Snow was expected, snow so rarely seen in this part of the world. The excitement built up so much that a website called  IsItSnowingInSFYet.com sprang up. The local paper carried the headlines:
“‘Coldest storm of season’ hits Bay Area; snowball fights in San Jose
still possible”.

Sure enough, the temperatures dropped to record busting lows. Oakland and San Francisco Airport had their lowest temperatures recorded for the month (34 and 35 degrees Farenheit, I know nothing Arctic, but hey, this is Silicon Valley). Nearby Mountain View and San Francisco had temperatures that tied with the existing record. But no snow came. The local paper this time said: “The much-ballyhooed Great Blizzard of 2011 was more like the Great Fizzle.”

But catching a break in the rain on a slow work day, I went for a trot on Friday morning. It was quite cold, but after a mile or so, I had warmed up enough to not notice it. I wanted to see Stevens Creek in spate.

The creek was a roar compared to its usual silent flow. In places where the path descended to the level of the creek, the creek looked like it’d overflow. The creek was a rich, chocolate milkshake brown, frothing white as it tumbled over rocks and sudden changes in gradient.

The second picture above is another image shot with the HDR app.

As I ran down the trail, my mind raced over some news that I had been browsing in the past few days. The East Coast of the US had been hit with one of the worst storms in its recorded history, Australia had suffered devastating floods. I remembered that my friend at the non-profit that I work with had titled an essay on how weather is affected by global warming as: “How the 100 Year Flood Became An Annual Event”. If that sounds too dramatic, NYT blogged back in 2007 that:
Floods that happen every 100 years could come as often as every 10 years by the end of this century, Long Island lobsters will disappear and New York apples will be just a memory if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest year in recorded history (since record keeping began in 1887). The weather all of last year was quite irregular. So what, you say ? Here is a chart put out by the BBC on world food prices:

According to the article, titled “Q&A: Why food prices and fuel costs are going up“:
… in 2010, severe weather in some of the world’s biggest food exporting countries damaged supplies.

That has helped to push food prices almost 20% higher than a year earlier, according to the FAO. (The 2010 figure was slightly below the annual measure  for 2008 as a whole.)

Flooding hit the planting season in Canada, and destroyed crops of wheat and sugar cane in Australia.

In addition, drought and fires devastated harvests of wheat and other grains in Russia and the surrounding region during the summer, prompting Russia to ban exports.

As a result, wheat production is expected to be lower this year than in the last two years, according to US government estimates.

Meanwhile, in the US, we voted Tea Party led Republicans to power and what have they started ? Attacking EPA and climate change regulations that they claim hurts business. Yahoo had an article titled “Congress Begins Assault on EPA’s Climate Change Regulations“. In Montana, there’s talk of passing a bill that would declare that global warming is good for business! Discover, the popular US-based science magazine, said that the number 4 science story of 2010 was: “Climate Science Wins a Round, But the Campaign Goes Poorly“. This was after the so-called climategate scandal, in which some conservative hackers hacked into University of East Anglia and retrieved more than 1000 emails that they said showed how scientists were distorting the evidence and that there was no scientific consensus on global warming. There was no evidence of distorting evidence, of course, but that didn’t help the cause, especially in the US. Pew Research found that the percentage of Americans who believe that human activity is causing global warming fell sharply to 34% in 2010 from 50% in 2006. Only 13% of conservatives believe human activity as the cause for global warming.

As I ran, I wondered how we would come together on such a divisive issue. The US especially is so deeply anti-science and anti-global warming that I find it alarming. Even friends who seem to accept the problem, do little to change their lives to act in a way that reduces their carbon footprint. Of course, I’m no saint when it comes to reacting to global warming either. I may do a little, but there is not as much integrity or depth to my responses.

Last year, Time magazine carried an article titled: “Climate-Change Strategy: Be Afraid — but Only a Little”. The article said that research by two Berkeley psychologists showed that: “when people are shown scientific evidence or news stories on climate change that emphasize the most negative aspects of warming — extinguished species, melting ice caps, serial natural disasters — they are actually more likely to dismiss or deny what they’re seeing. Far from scaring people into taking action on climate change, such messages seem to scare them straight into denial. … The results, Willer and Feinberg wrote, “demonstrate how dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire … by contradicting individuals’ deeply held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just.” (WEIRD warning alert, of course).

I think like recycling and driving less, some minimal actions that can help the cause is how we shop for food. Buy local produce. Avoid purchasing goods that have been produced and shipped from across the country or worse, from across the world. If you have farmers’ markets, shop there, especially if you can afford it. Run the heater a little less in the house. Do these really help or are they only feel good actions ? I think that once we decide to factor carbon footprint and sustainability into our decisions, even just a little, there is a potential to affect a larger change. I also hear Gandhi’s quotes, “Be the change you want to see in the world” and “My life is my message”.

I finished my run in good time and my legs felt good. I was glad for the lull in the work schedule and the rain that I could go for a run. My mind harked back to the Derrick Jensen quote that I have written about: “We are really fucked. Life is still really good.”

Tower Running

I throw in my running shoes, when we go on just about any trip and so far, I’ve always managed to squeeze a run in. For example, just recently, I paid a surprise visit to my sister on the East Coast to attend her graduation ceremony (she completed her MA in Anthropology). I left early on Saturday morning and was back on Sunday night. I managed to get a run in. But I was more certain of not getting a run in when I recently visited India. Usually, I squeeze runs during my stay in Shanthala’s parents’ house, because of the close proximity of their house to a 400m track. Optimistically, I packed my running shoes anyway.

I was travelling alone with Maya to India and based on her behavior the previous times we were there, I didn’t think there would be any way I could go running. Being optimistic, I packed my running shoes. But, before I left, I spoke to a friend about some way to get some aerobic workout that didn’t require me to leave Maya. He suggested something he called box steps. You can do it just about anywhere, he said. Pick a stool or find a pair of stairs. Climb up the step with one foot first, then bring the next foot up, then step down with the first foot and then the second one. Find a good rhythm and do as many repeats as you can, he said, and switch which leg you go first with every so often.

The first day I tried it at my friend’s house, using two steps of their stairway, I was done in about 15 minutes or so. The next two days, my legs felt sore around my ankles and my calf. Over the course of my stay in India, I quickly worked my way to doing 1000 steps in about 27 minutes. I’d try and do this at least twice a week, if not more. I managed to slip a workout wherever I stayed, thanks to the ubiquity of stairways. I couldn’t unpack my running shoes at all.

Yesterday, I ran across an article in NYT called “Glory at the Top Flight for Runners“. The article covered a new and upcoming sport called tower running in which people dash up the stairs of really tall buildings. Buildings such as Chicago’s Hancock Tower or NY’s Empire State. The sport is called tower running. The article states that there are over 160 races all over the world that involve climbing up large buildings. The longest single staircase climb is in Switzerland, a heart-stopping, quad screaming 11,674 steps.

How does my 1000 steps in 27 minutes (it’s really 1000 up and 1000 down the way I did it) compare with the competitors in these races ? 9 minutes and 33 seconds is the record for running up the 1576 steps.

References:

  • List of all Tower Running races, sorted by the number of stairs

Getting High

I woke up just before 5:30 am yesterday. I had coffee, checked the news and email and was ready to get out for a long run. This has been a pale summer, a summer that has yet to get over the hangover of spring and it is already fast approaching its fall. The early morning was gloomy, the sun deciding to hide itself rather than light up such a sorry looking day. There were not many people on the streets and once I hit Stevens Creek Trail, I passed but a handful of early morning walkaholics and jogaholics. The creek itself is dry almost till you get to the bay. I saw a crane and a few pelicans. A flock of geese silently flew in formation. The tide was out, exposing the salts and there was a marshy smell as I ran by the waters of the bay at Shoreline Park. By the time I returned, an hour and 20 minutes later, Shanthala and Maya were up. Finally, after over almost 3 years, I did an early morning run.

Till about three years back, every Sunday morning, I got out for a long run, usually a half marathon. I’d leave early enough so that I’d be back just as Shanthala was waking. That way, I had exercise out of the way before our day together began and we could spend time together without brooding over when I could get a run in. My legs had gotten used to running a half marathon distance without feeling exhausted the rest of the day. My early morning runs got into endangered state after Maya was born when caring for her became the primary goal. Maya was not a happy camper if she awoke in the middle of her sleep and didn’t find me there. By the time she was consoled, Shanthala would have lost her sleep, making her even more sleep deprived. So, I gave up my early runs.

When I first started running long – greater than 8 miles – I encountered unfamiliar sensations. My nipples would be chafed to the point that they were sore and hurt if I wore loose shirts or the spray from the shower hit my chest. I started taping my chest with cotton and band aid to avoid the problem. My toes would be calloused and discolored, like the finger tips of a guitarist, despite wearing shoes that were relatively loose-fitting. Running long without having pooped first upset my stomach and bowels for the rest of the day. But nothing compared to the high that I got at the end of the run. I felt my face was aglow and I felt kind, loving and willing to be of service. I felt incredibly relaxed, especially if I hadn’t run hard.

Runners high is a well known phenomenon. The popular hypothesis for this euphoric feeling was that endurance exercise released endorphins, a neurotransmitter. Discovered by Solomon Snyder and Rabi Simantov in calves in 1974 and named by Eric Simon, endorphin means “morphine produced naturally in the body”. Just like morphine, they’re able to suppress pain, act as an analgesic and produce feelings of well-being.

Runners’ high may have evolved because of possibly adaptive benefits. According to a blogger, NeuroKuz: “A possible explanation for the “runner’s high,” a feeling of intense euphoria associated with going on a long run, is that our brains are stuck thinking that lots of exercise should be accompanied by a reward. Perhaps our ancestors who were able to achieve the runner’s high while hunting for food ran more often than those who could not achieve the high. These ‘high-achievers’ (no pun intended) would gather more food as a result of their enhanced motivation, and would be more fit to pass on their genes to the next generation.”

But runner’s high was also considered a myth, hard to prove. As the authors of a paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, titled “Endocannabinoids and exercise” put it: “As is the case with all phenomena related to consciousness and its alterations, the runner’s high is a private experience, and the evidence for its existence rests predominantly on verbal report. Scientific inquiry into the phenomenon has been restricted even further because of its ephemeral nature. For example, the runner’s high is not experienced by all runners, and this experience does not occur consistently in runners who have experienced it previously. These observations have left laymen and scientists wondering why and under which conditions the runner’s high occurs, or whether or not it exists at all.”

Furthermore, they wrote: “In recent years, several prominent endorphin researchers—for example, Dr Huda Akil and Dr Solomon Snyder—have publicly criticised the hypothesis as being ‘‘overly simplistic’’, being ‘‘poorly supported by scientific evidence’’, and a ‘‘myth perpetrated by pop culture.’’

In that paper, the authors speculated that endurance exercise stimulated the endocannabinoid system that was responsible for the runners’ high, not endorphins. Using male student volunteers running on a treadmill or cycling for 50 minutes at 70-80% of maximum heart rate, they found dramatic increases in a neurotransmitter called anandamide in the blood plasma. This was back in 2004.

Then in 2008, German researchers at the University of Bonn led by a Dr. Henning Boecker had used PET scans on 10 runners before and after a run to show that indeed endorphins were very likely produced during running and that they were attaching themselves to areas of the brain such as the limbic and prefrontal areas. According to the NYT article that reported the news: “The limbic and prefrontal areas, Dr. Boecker said, are activated when people are involved in romantic love affairs or, he said, ‘when you hear music that gives you a chill of euphoria, like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.’ The greater the euphoria the runners reported, the more endorphins in their brain.”

The NYT article includes quotes the same two researchers, Dr. Huda Akil and Dr. Solomon Snyder, quoted in the British paper. According to NYT:
“Impressive,” said Dr. Solomon Snyder, a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins and a discoverer of endorphins in the 1970’s.

“I like it,” said Huda Akil, a professor of neurosciences at the University of Michigan. “This is the first time someone took this head on. It wasn’t that the idea was not the right idea. It was that the evidence was not there.”

Naturally produced morphine or cannabis, I can attest to experiencing what I thought of as runners’ high several times during my running life. Today morning was no exception.

P.S: All this study was triggered by an entry last week at the blog, Addiction Inbox, titled ‘Cannabis Receptors and the “Runners High”‘.