Panchkula Half Marathon 2011: The Panchkula mystery race

When I first conceived this trip to India, my plan was to explore the burgeoning running scene in India. Today’s runners are at the crest of a wave. There will be more runners and more races on India. It’s coming. These are the pioneers, and I had to meet them.

Let me admit my conceits at the start. I nurtured a notion that maybe–just a tiny, tiny chance–I could sneak into the winner’s circle at the first race, the Panchkula Half Marathon. These Indians just learned how to run, right?

The weather on the morning of the race was better suited for staying in bed under a pile of blankets. That’s what the staff of my hotel in Sector 17 of Chandigarh was doing in the lobby. One, under a blanket, sitting in a chair against the wall, lolled his head to the side groggily as I walked by. I wonder if he recognized me. Perhaps he has heard the legend of the White Guy in the Mist.

The mist. The Mist. The mist rolled through the shops of the Sector 17 market. The mist was a canvas for sinister backlit silhouettes as I walked to the bus stand. The mist mocked even the idea of warmth as I jumped down from the still-moving bus–Bus 30, Sector 17 ISBT to Nada Sahib Gurudwara–down the road from North Park Hotel. (If you haven’t jumped from a moving bus, you’re missing out.) Two-thirds of my time during previous trips to India has been dedicated to sweating. Cold is something new to me here. Ah, but I come from the land of winter snow, so these guys must be suffering, right? Advantage: pale guy.

And then the Army rolled in.

I mean it: the Army rolled into the hotel, twenty of them in matching black track suits with red trim, some with ” X-Country 2011″ on the back, some with the still-mysterious-to-me “Fourteen.” They were strictly business, as Army men should be: clipped hair and mustaches, straight posture, granite composition. In short: lean, mean, running machines.

Hey, winning isn’t everything, right?

Now freed from the burden of being the Great White Hope, I settled into my natural role as the Great White Dope. I milled around the start line, saying hello, meeting the runners, finding the good and the not-so-good English speakers. (Oh, my Hindi? Terrible, terrible…)

Yes, OK, so many words and no mention of the race itself… But what the hell? Does anyone but the uppermost tier run for the race itself? Don’t we runners–we few, we sweaty few–go out there to suffer our personal challenges in the company of others? Indeed.

So, my American running friends, I am pleased to introduce you to your brothers and sisters over here in India–a wonderful community of runners.

That’s what I think Rahul Varghese and the Running and Living crew have done so remarkably, if the Panchkula Half Marathon is any indication. It is one thing to set up a course, time the runners, and give some trinkets to all of the participants, thanks for coming, etc. It is another, in my opinion more difficult, thing to build a community. Congratulations and thanks to the organizers for doing it so well.

The half marathon started exactly on time at 9am. Already I was confused. I was looking for something distinctly Indian about this race–something 180-degrees different than what we do at home. I had expected this race to respect the conventions of IST, i.e., Indian Standard Time, a.k.a., Indian Stretchable time, i.e., late.

No matter. The clock started, and we were off.

The mist refused to quit. The Shivalik Hills were mere meters to our right, but they were an abstract idea, a dark patch only. The sun appeared for a few seconds as a cold, impotent white disk behind the clouds, but then retired until Monday afternoon. I was secretly hoping to be the only white guy in the race but I was more of a purplish color.

(All photos are from Rahul Varghese of Running and Living.)

Two kilometers down the tarmac, and the runners began to separate. From there it was off the proper road and onto a series of jeep tracks and streambed crossings, past a few small settlements, through a stretch of fist-sized rocks, and puffing down a sandy trail. The rocks were challenging–known as “ankle-breakers” to hikers–but the trail was nice, with plenty of soft stuff. I could hear my knees and ankles say, “Ahhhh.”

On we marched through the non-landscape, nothing but a few bushes visible in front of the white curtains, nothing but the occasional buzzing powerlines overhead. Nothing looked different. What gives? The race was organized crisply like a (good) American race. The runners ran like Americans run. Shouldn’t something be wildly different? An elephant wandering by? Someone hassling me for a rickshaw?

On and on. The military men in the lead were doubling back on the twice-repeated out-and-back course. I was even getting whipped like this was an American race. 5 km, 6 km, 7 km–now I was feeling better. My skin was less purple, more pink. My legs were finally uncoiling from two weeks without running. Now that I was doubling back on the other runners, I got to see everyone face-to-face. And my impression of the race was sealed: the runners were wonderfully nice.

I was having a hell of a good time–I was running in India, how strange!–and I wasn’t alone. Runners called out encouragement to each other. “Good job!” “Awesome, awesome!” “Cool, cool!” “Keep running!” Clapping. Waving hands. Smiling. (And yes, grimaces, but that’s running.) So much warmth on a cold day.

Back to North Park Hotel, the halfway mark–51 minutes and some seconds. There were nine runners in front of me, five of them out of reach. The others? Hmm… tempting, tempting, but I’m here for the experience so no need to chase.

Off for the second loop, past the returning runners to the final turnaround–more pain but also more smiles and more encouragement–and still I had not seen anything demonstrably Indian. A man at one of the water stations asked if I was on my final lap. I told him, “I hope so.”

At the final turnaround, the three-quarter mark, I stepped off the course for a moment to inspect some bushes. Returning to the course, I heard some twigs crack behind me. What, hey? I hoped I didn’t disturb anyone. But there it was, what I was looking for, that Indian touch to the race emerging from the mist and onto the course like an errant river barge: a water buffalo.

(Now please, all of my American friends, don’t mention to my Indian friends here that I grew up in farmland USA, and that I’ve probably run by more cows than people. That would ruin my point here.)

5 km to go. All of the runners that I could possibly catch are within striking distance. I pass one of them, and then I am passed by someone else. That wasn’t in the script. There he went, pulling away, disappearing occasionally in the fog, an apparition on the trail.

What the hell? What kind of experience is it to get beat? Maybe this was the Indian race and the Indian runner that I sought. Maybe the difference didn’t need to erupt from the sidelines in a choreographed song-and-dance routine. (I have seen the movies. I know how this works.) Maybe I was looking for something more basic, simply: a race in India.

So I raced in India.

3 km–I reeled him in closer, closer. Four of his friends came in from the side of the road to help pace him home. Indian hip hop music played out loud from their cell phones as I caught the group, which now included one of the runners in front of us.

2km–The roving course ambulance trundled by, threatening to give its driver some extra work to do, pinching us to the left side of the road. As it went by I made a move. The runner in the white shirt followed and led and followed, back-and-forth. 1 km–We passed another runner, the pace accelerating with no end in sight in the mist. How long? How long?

The turnoff emerged from the fog like a water buffalo. Just a few hundred meters to go, and I made a move. This quick move dropped the runner that was going with me but, as I made the turn, the runner that had passed me 5 km ago, came in on the right and left me a few meters behind in the final stretch. Grinning like a fool, I crossed the line after him.

In India, they know how to race.

Final time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Kolkata: Down the Maidan

Monuments are the highlight of tourism. Like an entire sporting match condensed to a series of big plays for television shows, monuments draw the casual viewer’s eyes to the most striking sights.

Before we get too far: I’m not going to attempt irony here. I like monuments and distilled tourism myself. It gives the wandering ignorant (me) something to grasp. Here in Kolkata I need all the help I can get grasping anything. Even I have visited the Victoria Memorial, one of the city’s chief monuments, twice now; my first was 2006. It is an impressive play and I am not above taking cues from the guidebook. (Beware anyone who says “real India.”)

I like to walk–not out of a perverse sense of cheapness, but just because I like to walk. I walk at home and I walk here. I like to see and feel–and, for good or ill, smell and breathe–the scene from the ground. Walking shows the connective tissue between monuments. Walking gives dimension to the place that would otherwise be glossed over.

In Kolkata one of those dimensions is honking–cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, even ting-a-linging bicycles. They honk when passing or turning to say, “I am here! I am here!” They erupt in a tremendous peal of honking when the traffic light changes from red to green. They honk in that good old fashioned American way to inform an offending driver what will be performed on his mother tonight.

The sum of all this honking and vrooming, of all of this exhaust inhalation and harrowing street crossing, is a stressful experience. I enjoy it, in a way, because it is culturally strange and thus a Valuable Experience, but I am sure this noise will be the soundtrack in my cubicle in hell.

One day, quite by accident, I discovered the Maidan. Everybody breathe in; hold it. Now breathe out; say, “Ah.” You’ve just shared my experience of the Maidan.

The Maidan is a huge open green area stretching several kilometers between the city center and the Hooghly River. It is a wonderful and literal breath of fresh air that I was lucky to find. After grabbing another kati roll for lunch I was trying to find the Park Street metro station, but I got sidetracked and lost crossing Jawaharlal Nehru Road. (I will explain later: the Sikhs distracted me.)

Instead of the metro station, I found a park and a game of cricket–a fair substitute, if a bit short on transportation opportunities. I am fascinated by the sport, not because I find it terribly exciting–it’s like baseball, except the guy who throws the ball is an athlete–but because I’ve lived so long without encountering a sport that a third of the world plays. In this little bit of heaven–the northern tip of the Maidan is even called Eden Gardens–the traffic noise was somewhat filtered by the trees and the members of the tourist support industry (read: beggars, vendors, and drivers) were no nowhere to be found. And there, with no monuments bigger than the wickets, I spent a good hour watching a game.

The next day I walked across JN Road, purposefully this time, with another kati roll–single egg double chicken, excellent, excellent–and watched the cricket players, this time performing drills, batting practice, sprints, fielding, etc. Walking south down the Maidan, toward the Victoria Memorial looming through the hazy sun, I found more of the same: cricket as far as I could see, ranging in skill and professionalism from the games with spectators on the north side to kids with tennis balls in overlapping fields on the south side.

I watched there on the north end, which also had the benefit of shade trees, before wandering down the Maidan, past the cricket matches, ponies, kites, goats, and snack vendors, until I made it to Queen’s Way, the street in front of the Victoria Memorial, where the world again lapsed into monumental sights and cacophony.

[Photos, of course are forthcoming.]

Indian itinerary, take two

Thanks to all who helped me with the previous itinerary: Kriti, Supriya, Palash, Abhishek, Pradeep, Anmol, etc. We’re supposed to call things like this crowdsourcing, right? To hell with that–I like to deal in individuals, not crowds.

Whatever the case, the deal has changed since last time; I did mention that all plans were flexible. Supriya notified me of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I’m there. I’m so there. I was going to skip Rajasthan on this trip because I thought that the place merited its own separate vacation, but I’m going there now. How long? I’m not sure. I could use your help there–see phase 4 below.

Here is the newer version of the itinerary. If you prefer maps–I prefer maps–see 2011 India (looks better in Google Earth: 2011_India.kmz).

Phase 1: Kolkata

  • 29 Dec-1 Jan: New Delhi. This will be my second New Years in New Delhi, or third if you count this.
  • 1-4 Jan: Kolkata. Supriya advised me of the open-air book market on College Street. Palash wants to go up to Shantiniketan.

Phase 2: Chandigarh

  • 5-6 Jan: Haridwar. Haridwar is an unnecessary side trip between Delhi and Chandigarh, but I was interested in visiting it after reading Eric Newby’s Slowly Down the Ganges. Haridwar was his starting point [1].
  • 7-10 Jan: Chandigarh

Phase 3: Mumbai

  • 11 Jan: Chandigarh to Mumbai (by plane)
  • 11-19 Jan: Mumbai

Phase 4: Jaipur

28 January through 5 February is wide open. Kriti suggested a few places: Sariska Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore National Park, Pushkar. Also, I saw some photos of a ghost town 80 km away: Bhangarh. (Excuse the mentions of “actual” ghosts in the linked article–I’m not looking for ghosts in ghost towns in India anymore than I was looking for ghosts in Panamint City, California.)

I see Anmol has sent me some advice about Jaipur. Perhaps you also have some ideas on what I can do in the area–where area can be defined as whatever distance I can cover and get to Delhi a major airport on 5 or 6 February.

Update 2010-12-10: I have been directed, quite persistently, to go to Jaisalmer. I am an American desert rat myself so: OK. In fact, had I only been laid off a few months later, when the snow would have mostly been gone from the Panamint Range, I’d be bumming around that desiccated stretch from Mojave Desert in California to the Canyonlands of Utah. Yeah, tough choices. 

  • 20-26 Jan: Jaipur
  • 27-30 Jan: Jaisalmer
  • 31 Jan-1 Feb: Jodhpur
  • 2-3 Feb: Kumbhalgarh
  • 4-5 Feb: Udaipur
  • 6 Feb: Delhi Ahmedabad

Phase 5: Bangalore and Pondicherry

I have spent less than 24 hours in Bangalore on my previous trip to India–really, just a stop on the way to Vellore. Supriya suggested that the Blossom Book House is legendary. OK, sounds good. What else? I don’t know.

  • 7-10 Feb: Bangalore
  • 11 Feb: Bangalore to Pondicherry (by train)
  • 12 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 13 Feb: Auroville Marathon
  • 14-16 Feb: Pondicherry
    • Gingi Fort
  • 17-18 Feb: Bangalore

Phase 6: Bangalore to Mumbai

I have now completely left out southern India from my itinerary. No offense is intended to my South Indian friends. I’m not skipping it entirely, I just think the region deserves more attention–its own completely separate vacation–and I don’t want to blow through it too quickly.

  • 20-21 Feb: Hampi
  • 22-23 Feb: Badami or Bijapur
  • 25-26 Feb: Mumbai

Alternatively, instead of going to Badami or Bijapur, and then going from there to Mumbai via Solapur, I could go west from Hampi to Goa and then north to Mumbai. This is an alternative instead of primary choice because something seems fundamentally sad about hanging out in a beach community by myself. Or I could hack out any intermediate stops and go to Mumbai earlier, or spend more time in Bangalore on the front end of this segment. Whatever’s Right.

Phase 7: Mumbai to Delhi

I have three locations listed here between Mumbai and Delhi. The only one I’m settled on is Ahmednagar; I met a photographer on Flickr based in Ahmednagar who posted quite a few images of his hometown, so I’ll try to meet him there.

The other two? Aurangabad appears to be a well-traveled stop for tourists: Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Daulatabad, etc., are in the vicinity. My heart is not set on Aurangabad, so I could skip it.

However, Burhanpur is the city that catches my eye. Check out this fort: Asirgarh Fort. That is a capital-F Fort. I have… no idea how I’m going to get there. I can figure out how to get in and out of Burhanpur because it is on the main Mumbai-Delhi line. But I haven’t figured out (a) where to find a place in Burhanpur or (b) how to get to Asirgarh, which is 20 km north. Hmm. On one hand: perhaps there is a reason no one goes there. On the other hand: I smell a challenge.

  • 28 Feb: Ahmednagar
  • 2-4 Mar: Aurangabad
  • 6-7 Mar: Burhanpur

Phase 8: Delhi

  • 8-11 Mar: Delhi
    • 9 Mar: Delhi, Cricket World Cup, India vs. Netherlands
  • 12-15 Mar: Farther north India (Amritsar, etc.)
  • 16-19 Mar: Khajuraho
  • 20-22 Mar: Delhi
  • 23 Mar: Delhi to Chicago to St. Louis

OK–if you have any advice, please leave a comment, let me know what you think.

  1. Two hundred yards below the bridge and some twelve hundred miles from the Bay of Bengal the boat grounded in sixteen inches of water… I looked upstream to the bridge but all those who had been waving and weeping had studiously turned their backs. The boatmen uttered despairing cries for assistance but the men at the bridge bent to their tasks with unwonted diligence. As far as they were concerned we had passed out of their lives. We might never have existed.

    [back to text]

85 days in India; or, Peculiar travel suggestions

(2010-12-08: Updated.)

On 27 December I will depart the States for India. On 23 March I will return. The chronologically curious will note: that’s 87 days. (Subtract one day in a plane on each end for 85 days.) It’s not quite a geologic age, but it is a long time.

For the purposes of this post, I will leave out the why [1]. Instead I will outline the trip, and ask for your advice. Some dates and places, e.g., the Mumbai Marathon, are firmly fixed; those items are noted in bold. However, all other items are quite flexible and represent only a notional itinerary that can be abandoned for better notions.

Like any first draft, there will be a number of mistakes, I’m sure, so don’t be bashful about saying that something is stupid. Ready, aim…

Phase 1: Kolkata

  • 29-30 Dec: New Delhi
  • 31 Dec-3 Jan: Kolkata

Phase 2: Chandigarh

Here I could use some advice on places to stay in Chandigarh or Delhi.

  • 4 Jan: Kolkata to Delhi (by plane)
  • 5-6 Jan: Haridwar? Or Delhi?
  • 7-10 Jan: Chandigarh

Phase 3: Mumbai

The basic idea here: spend some time in Mumbai, then go on a loop through Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, then return to Mumbai.

  • 11 Jan: Chandigarh to Mumbai (by plane)
  • 11-19 Jan: Mumbai
  • 20-28 Jan: Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Burhanpur
  • 29-31 Jan: Mumbai

Phase 4: Mumbai to Pondicherry

At the least, I want to stop at Hampi, as one of my Kannadiga friends says I must. Anything else via buses and trains on the way to Bangalore is a bonus.

  • 31 Jan-9 Feb: Bijapur, Badami, Hampi
  • 10 Feb: Bangalore
  • 11 Feb: Bangalore to Pondicherry (by train)
  • 12 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 13 Feb: Auroville Marathon

Phase 5: Tamil Nadu

After the marathon on 13 Feb and until the India vs. Netherlands cricket match on 9 Mar, all plans can be changed. I can go anywhere and can do anything with anyone and anytime. It doesn’t have to be in the south,–I could fly to Ahmedabad and cruise around Gujarat, what the hell?–it’s just a first go at an itinerary.

  • 14-16 Feb: Pondicherry
  • 17-23 Feb: Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, Rameswaram
  • 24-26 Feb: Chennai
  • 27 Feb-1 Mar: Bangalore
  • 1 Mar: Bangalore to Delhi (by plane)

Phase 6: Delhi

  • 2-7 Mar: North India?
  • 8-11 Mar: Delhi
    • 9 Mar: Delhi, Cricket World Cup, India vs. Netherlands
  • 12-14 Mar: Khajuraho
  • 15-18 Mar: Agra
  • 19-22 Mar: Delhi
  • 23 Mar: Delhi to Chicago to St. Louis

To get a flavor of what that looks like on a map, go here: India 2011.

I have left out the timing of various bus and train journeys–it made the itinerary above, which is already jumbled, look like something that could only be understood with the help of heavy pharmaceuticals. Let’s just say that I know that it will take the better part of a day to travel, for example, from Delhi to Khajuraho, and I have accounted for that in each trip. Probably.


When it comes to travel, the best places I’ve ever visited have been recommended by friends. This takes a variety of forms. For example, in 2006 it led to me going to dinner at [we drank a lot of wine and I don’t remember] in Cadaques, Spain, with Alvin and Jorge. And Jorge pointed me to Turronería Sirvent in Barcelona for ice cream. Both were fabulous–the former, especially.

The point is: although I will mention some things below that are interesting to me, my first priority is to meet friends that I know and friends that I don’t yet know, and try the things they like. I don’t have a bucket list or 1001 things to see before I die; I’m here for the ride.

What would I like to see?

  • I like books–especially libraries and secondhand bookstores. (Via email I just received some absolutely and outstandingly thoughtful advice on bookstores to visit in Mumbai.)
  • I like sports. When I’m not running one of the two-and-a-half marathons I’ve signed up for, I’d run with anyone from a Delhi or Bangalore or wherever running club that wants to go for a run. Also, I know nothing about cricket–there is a bat and a ball, but apparently it is different than baseball?–and I’d like to learn to play, or watch a real game, whichever.
  • I like music–especially music that isn’t popular music. First person to take me to an Indian version of Morphine or the Dismemberment Plan wins.
  • I like history–which is to say I could amuse myself for days walking in and around old things. It is no accident that I live in a museum in a National Historical Park.
  • I like wandering in hills and mountains–but this is not something I will allow to be rushed, so I’ll save it for another trip.

What do you think? Where should I go?

You don’t need to suggest something grand. I don’t need 85 days of Taj Mahals. Listen: if you came from India to Illinois, I could take you to Chicago to the top of the Sears Tower–I guess they call it the Willis Tower now, don’t they? Ridiculous.–but I’d rather take you to Fulton County, to the Cedar Creek. Never heard of it? It’s a secret, and it’s not great by any absolute measure, but let me tell you: my enthusiasm would infect you, and it would be the best damned stream you’ve ever seen.

  1. I am tempted, here, to say something faux-clever as my reason, perhaps I’ll lift a line from Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:

    To be
    the eyes
    and ears
    and conscience
    of the Creator of the Universe,
    you fool.

    I could pretty much steal lines from Kurt Vonnegut all day long. Bonus points if you can identify the second half of the title. [back to text]

In spite of itself, Wrigley Field hosts a brilliant evening of football

I am not a Cubs fan. I have nothing against the Cubs, but growing up in Central Illinois meant that all of the locals were either Chicago Cubs fans or St. Louis Cardinals fans. If you’ve ever had the urge to plumb the depths of human stupidity, ask a Cubs fan what they think about the Cardinals, or a Cardinals fan about the Cubs–but not until you’ve got your riot gear firmly attached.

When I think of the Cubs, I have mostly pleasant thoughts: Andre Dawson, Harry Caray, etc. Then I remember going to the University of Illinois, where the population was, as would be statistically expected, from the city and suburbs of Chicago. So, after having one too many of these urban–ah–people ask me to talk faster, I took an interest in watching their precious Cubs lose like… the Cubs.

Nonetheless, even I recognize that Wrigley Field is a shrine–a national treasure.

Wrigley, as part of the cityscape

When Joe called and asked if I wanted a ticket to see Illinois play Northwestern at Wrigley Field, I didn’t bother with my usual no/no/yes pattern [1], I immediately said, “Yes.” Wrigley Field is historical, and since it hadn’t hosted a football game in forty years, this was a truly special event.

On Friday, the day before the game, officials announced that both teams would use the end zone on the left field side of the stadium because the brick walls were too close to the right field end zone to be safe; meaning: every single offensive play would go to the left field end zone. Instantly the national coverage of the game was focused on the goofball rules and not on the special event itself. Only Illinois football could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with such verve.

One way

OK. How could they fit a football field in Wrigley from 1921 to 1970, but not in 2010?

There are a few differences between then and now. For starters, the goal posts were moved from the front of the end zone to the back of the end zone in the 1974 NFL season, i.e., after the Bears vacated Wrigley Field. That’s why the eastern goal post was installed in the wall for the Illinois game.

The big difference was the orientation of the field. On Saturday the field was oriented east-west. When the Bears played at Wrigley Field, the field was oriented north-south. Hmmm. Well. Allow me to put on my rocket scientist cap: so why not orient the field north-south for the Illinois game?

Here I am introducing a dramatic pause because I’m just quivering to give you the answer to this question. My brain exploded in a massive, “Aha!” when I read this. Nothing could convince me more that Wrigley Field exists in some sort of fated-for-failure parallel universe.

Answer: the field never fit.

Lazy web, take it away: Wikipedia: Wrigley Field#Football. The Bears played 365 games at Wrigley Field and the field never fit in the stadium. The south end zone extended into the visitors’ dugout. [2] The end zone was slightly clipped.

Though it was handled poorly in public, it was a good idea to change the rules to accommodate the one-way game. The game was not hampered by the switch. After every change of possession, the referees would carry the football from one side of the field to the other. I was afraid this would be awkward, but it wasn’t noticeable. In every televised football game, there is a commercial break during a possession change anyway. The switch from one side of the field to the other happened cleanly in this break.

And what did it matter anyway? Illinois owned the east end zone, winning 48-27.

In spite of–or perhaps because of–the strange rules, the game was a spectacle. In a place like Wrigley Field, not even the most hapless mistakes can diminish the impact of the game itself. The crowd, mostly wearing Northwestern purple, alternated between roaring for the frequent big plays on the field–a 70-yard run, an 80-yard run for a touchdown, an interception returned 59 yards for a touchdown, a 58-yard punt return–and buzzing in reverence for the chance to watch football in Wrigley. Mikel Leshoure ran for 330 yards–three hundred and thirty yards, an Illinois school record and outstanding feat that under any other circumstances would not be outmuscled for the top headline by a brick wall.

Go Illini!

They played on into the night

Wrigley Field, empty

Hooray for the good guys



  1. “Would you like to go to the game?”
    “Would you like to go to the game?”
    “Would you like to go to the game?”
    “Yes.”[back to text]
  2. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: The SOUTH END ZONE extended into the VISITORS’ DUGOUT. Only in Chicago could something like this happen. [back to text]

Detoxification in the time of doldrums; or, Waiting to be led

Last week was quicksand, each day deeper into dullness by struggling to get out of it. This week–slowly, slowly–I’m crawling out of the hole.

I’m not any closer to getting paid–not yet. I’m trying to approach that problem from the other side. I’m thinking about how I want to spend my time first.

This upcoming week will be my first unpaid week since going to Strasbourg in summer 2006. Before that? Hmm. I think I’ve had some form of constant employment–from different jobs, though I patched them together quite snugly–since the summer after high school, summer 1999 (except for a break in fall 2001 when I was on crutches).

I don’t need income now. Before being laid off I was saving money to quit that job and embark on an Evil Plan. I have the luxury of being able to plant my feet and think. However, when it comes to the money question, for good or for ill, I’ve found that this is like planting my feet in a rushing stream. There is a persistent force pushing me to restore the money flow immediately–as if bowing to that force hadn’t landed me where I was, floating downstream on a raft of dollars and a steadily worsening case of process-induced brain atrophy. (Down, bile, down.)

My engineering background also haunts me. I have been trained rigorously in the art of calculus, meaning that I can optimize variables–in this case, optimizing net worth over time–as naturally as some people drum their fingers. I don’t think about it; I do it.

And then there are the little social pressures. “So where do you work?” “Nowhere, actually.” “Ah. I’m sorry. [eyes begin to glaze]

All of these things are self-perceptions. All of these things are self-perceptions. All of these things are self-perceptions.

This is my new, temporary mantra that I will repeat until I believe it.

These first two weeks out of work have been a period of detoxification: detox from work culture (including detox from the daily corporate propaganda that insisted on telling us what culture we were supposed to have [1]); detox from easy money; detox from having an externally defined schedule; etc.

That was the first phase: work detox. I expected that. I had felt it for months. The body had been rejecting the toxins, but not as fast as I was ingesting them.

The second phase was unexpected: home detox. Where did those toxins come from? Ah, right, I was producing those, and I had to manually detox from those: getting rid of several bags of the glass and plastic for recycling; donating bags of unused clothing to Salvation Army; getting rid of “archival” materials that I had kept from university; returning things that I had borrowed and not returned; selling unused things on eBay and Amazon and Craigslist; returning the cable modem to Comcast [2]; getting some delayed car maintenance done; and so on.

I had been moving and storing many things that were not providing any nourishment. I purged them–some of them. I feel better now. This was, at long last, an accomplishment.

* * * * *

I purged during the first half of the week and then, on Thursday, I loaded the car. If only there was a Wal-Mart for disposing of a variety of things just like there is a Wal-Mart for acquiring them–but there isn’t, so I had to make stops in Lowell, Tewksbury, Reading, Wilmington, and Woburn.

I ran all of these errands on Thursday because I had signed up for the “third-party career management service” that was offered as part of our severance package. It was free, so why not? Thursday was the introductory day, and Thursday will be my only day in that service.

Buckle up. The ride gets a little condescending from this point on.

Sitting in that conference room was strange. There I was with thirty other laid-off Raytheon employees–thirty people that were just begging to be led somewhere. In the mirrors of the career management funhouse, we former employees became “candidates” that had to think like “consultants,” companies were “targeted organizations,” and being laid off was to be known only as a “transition.”

It was creepy.

I believe that some people need to find work soon. Families and mortgages must be fed on a regular schedule.

I believe that some people might not have the confidence or savvy to find a job after getting laid off, and that this service would be helpful to them.

I believe that this process-based career service is probably developed on some sort of statistical analysis of what works–that is, where finding employment, any employment, is defined as success.

For me? No thanks.

I might be confused and unsure about What’s Next, but I see it as a stage on the journey. This is what years and years of hiking and traveling have done to me, for good or for ill. I don’t need to be anywhere in particular in my career by age thirty or forty any more than I needed to do the Top Ten Hikes in Southern California or wherever as decided by this or that travel service. I think there is an exceeding amount of creepiness inherent in allowing someone else to define where you should go.

Sure, consult the list for ideas, but by all means deviate immediately. Yes, go see Inspiration Point on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from the comfort of your car with all of the other checklist tourists. It is an inspiring view. But please get out and take the trail toward Washburn Meadow or Sevenmile Hole, somewhere off the pavement and away from the bell curve of statistically significant tourism. Initially it’s an anxious feeling, not knowing what you’re supposed to look at–then, eventually, comes the moment when the entire journey weighs more than the sum of its destinations.

But what the hell? If you take my advice, you deserve what happens to you.



  1. Memo to executive team: you can’t create a culture. With apologies to John Lennon, culture is what your employees do while you’re busy making other plans. [back to text]
  2. I’ll accept only partial responsibility for this one. Comcast’s customer service system is not designed to be friendly to customers calling with an area code that is not native to the service area. That is, I, with my Virginia-area mobile phone number but living in Massachusetts, would be repeatedly routed to the Virginia, get forwarded to the Massachusetts service, then automatically routed back to Virginia, and so on. [back to text]

Happy birthday, Jeff Buckley

Today would be Jeff Buckley’s 44th birthday.

I feel a little artificial saying, “What a tragic loss.” I didn’t know the man. I didn’t know his music until years after his death. I’m not familiar with his full catalog of music. Dwelling on any what-might-have-beens is an unnatural affectation.

But his voice… If that doesn’t move you, what could move you?

What would I give to be able to do anything–not even music, just anything–with the emotional range and crystalline expression of his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Just give me one take to feel what it’s like. This is the top of the mountain. Grace or not, this is ground where not even angels are fit to tread.

Yes, of course, the artist himself might not be defined by a single moment, but in this life-in-death of his, all that exists are these recorded moments. So, in honor of Jeff Buckley’s birthday, celebrate the moment:

Raygrets; or, Adventures in bureaucracy

In my hand I am holding an unopened farewell card from M, dated March 2008. I am going to open it.

Later. I will open it later.

See, anticipation is the best part, and anxiety is the worst. The trick is to balance the anticipation with the anxiety, the promise with the purgatory.

The point I’m not getting at is: I am now a free agent.

Since being laid off from Raytheon last Monday [1], I’ve had plenty of time to… ponder. That’s a funny word. Ponder. Pondering. If I say it often enough, it sounds like I’m doing something deep and meaningful, not just pacing around an apartment, cleaning the kitchen counter for the sixteenth time and trying to avoid the urge to write a vicious screed about my recently concluded Professional Experience. I hope you understand what I’m hinting at, otherwise you might have to sit down with me over a beer or two and let me give you the full theatrical performance, complete with hand gestures and full body spasms and grinding teeth.

Instead, I’ll leave you with an iconic line from one of my managers, and we’ll move on to other things. I believe this is called mentoring:

“When I was your age I used to want to do things my own way, but I had it beaten out of me and I’ll beat it out of you, too.”


And with that, I throw the last nineteen months of my professional life on the pyre and burn the thing to the ground–ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

* * * * *

Do you know what occupies my mind right now? Not much. That’s really why I’m writing these words, not for pity–and the first one of you that says, “I’m sorry,” will be the first against the wall–but for clarity. I follow my instincts, but I also try to edit and salvage the Idea from the Junk.

Did I learn everything I know from working at Boy Scout camp? Maybe. What occurs to me now is the summer of 1999, when I helped teach knot-tying to hyperactive twelve-year-olds. P, an assistant Scoutmaster from Troop 200, taught me how to untie knots. Have you ever tangled a rope or cord so thoroughly that throwing the thing away seemed more fitting than investing the time to untangle it? Some knots will frustrate you. A frustrated human will pull rashly at the rope, tightening the knot, making the problem worse.

The trick is, paradoxically, to make the knot bigger–to “bird’s nest” it, as P said. Leave the free ends of the rope alone and pull the constricted loops out until the result is a pillowy ball of rope, a bird’s nest. Then you have room to trace the ends back through from where they came.

That’s what I tell myself I’m doing. I like that version of the story. It sounds like a parable, that I’m unknotting the rope before starting again. If I told you that I’ve actually been mulling around for eight days in a fog because I haven’t summoned the constitution or the maturity to do exactly what I’ve often threatened to do–to define what I want and to do it my own way–then I’d have to tell you some pathetic, ridiculous, and absolutely true things about myself… that I’d rather not admit to right now. [2]

Anyway, it is a good place to start: untangle, then untie, then… [This space intentionally left blank.]

I never understood the revulsion that some friends had to working for superbureaucracies, but now I get it. To work for a large organization is to trade control for security. Oversimplifying this as a continuum of control versus pay, I’d rather have more control than pay. The pay was handsome, but it wasn’t enough to offset the emptiness. Now, I don’t think money is the root of all evil or that large organizations are bad, but I’ve learned from experience that there are certain environments that I like and others that I do not like.

And who chose the job in the large corporation? Me. I should thank them for cutting the cord because I didn’t have the courage to reach over my wallet and do it myself. I am aware of how sanctimonious this sounds.

I haven’t worked out what’s next yet, except to say that what’s next isn’t a hellbent dash to Get a Job. I have ideas. They don’t belong in this post.

* * * * *

Let’s step backwards for a moment. Let’s touch down briefly at Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. It is March 2008, I am a systems engineer on an actual aerospace system, and I am still invincible. I am leaving to go to Texas for something that will not turn out well. I have a farewell card from M, but since I have not opened it yet, I do not know that it says:

Good luck with taking a new path in life!

Stay positive, confident, and you can achieve anything. Our short conversations were enlightening and entertaining, and I’ll miss the riddles you speak. Take care.

Indeed, M, it was an immense pleasure to work with you, as well. I wish you had packed some of my confidence in that envelope so that I wouldn’t have to take responsibility for creating it myself now.


  1. Erin Allworth, “Raytheon is trimming its workforce,” The Boston Globe, 9 Nov 2010. Now, I’m not angry at all about being laid off, not even a little bit. What makes me angry is that they also laid off A, a college new hire that had been on the job for six weeks. Welcome to the workforce, kid, now get the hell out of here. [back to text]
  2. “I woke up at 3am with the radio on, that Gladys Knight and the Pips song on about she’d rather live in his world with him than live in her own world alone, and I laid there, head spinning, trying to fall asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you but, oh, get a life!‘ ” [back to text]

Chicago Marathon 2010: Postmortem

All training before before the 2010 Chicago Marathon, and every line I’m thinking here to describe the marathon now that it’s over, centers on one thought: three hours and ten minutes. 3:10–that’s the Boston Marathon qualifying standard for my age group.

No suspense: my time was 3:21:46. Eleven minutes and 46 seconds too long. 706 seconds too many. 17 seconds per kilometer over budget.

Well, damn.

Before the race I thought I had 3:10 in the bag. I even entertained some delusions of breaking three hours because training had gone so well. I had the summer distance training in my portfolio, including personal records of 98 km in a week and two consecutive months of over 300 km. I finished a 50 km trail race three weeks before the marathon. (A marathon is 42.195 km). The length of the marathon itself was no longer intimidating. It seemed only a matter of lining up at the start and doing the thing.

So: let’s take it from the start.

From the start, the race progressed beautifully. I started too far back in the pack, about eight minutes off the line. I meant to start farther up, near the 3:00 pace group, but Dad and I had some difficulties parking that morning. I tried to lead us to the parking lot under Millenium Park, but the only entrance to Lower Wacker Drive that I knew–I am not a Chicagoan, no, no–was blocked by construction. We tried to improvise, but with the city streets closing down, block by block, we managed to only trundle through Downtown like rats in a maze. We found a place near Monroe and Desplaines, where I sent him ahead to the start line while I parked the truck–in part because I knew I could get to the line faster than him, but mainly because I didn’t want him to see how far I was going to drive his truck in reverse the wrong way down a one way street to get to the lot entrance. Better that he collapses during the race, not during parking.

Anyway. The first quarter was slow, as expected. It’s a big herd and it takes time to disperse. Keep to the sides where there is room to squirt around the pack. Don’t screw around with weaving through the middle.

At the half marathon mark, I was at 1:37:49. I needed a negative split for the final half, 1:32:11, but I anticipated this and was not worried. Nevermind that my best (only) half marathon time was a 1:43:07. I was in control.

I increased my pace slightly through the third quarter of the race. This is, as I’ve mentioned before, my favorite part of any race, the stretch where a runner’s mind starts to crumble under the combined weight of effort exerted in the first half and the finish line still so far away–an aura of suffering radiates from the plodding crowd.

The inflection point, the crossover from rising to falling, was near 34 km, just 8 km from the finish line. After that my legs began to shatter into pieces. It started as an inconvenience in my left calf muscle, which steadily became a problem–the functional equivalent of running with a slab of meat for a lower left leg instead of the well-tuned machine it had been for the first two-and-a-half hours. I started to fall back from the sub-4:30/km pace I was holding, and then began to punctuate that pace with bouts of hopping in the middle of the street.

Did you see a guy in a white bandana and yellow shirt, jumping up and down on one leg while yelling obscenities at the cramps in the other leg? Yes. Well. Hmm. Nice to meet you.

Later my hamstrings began to howl. I have never experienced that. My pace slackened further. I walked at the Mile 21 aid station, understanding that this would make finishing under 3:10 mathematically more difficult, but hoping that the brief quiet period would let me recuperate for a final attack.

I did not attack.

I could regale you with more details about pain and cramps and heat and other external factors–external in the sense that I could not control them as they occurred–but I don’t think they were the culprits. The truth cuts closer to the bone: (1) I trained hard, but wrong; (2) I stepped away from The Edge.

All of my long training runs–longer than 15 km–were trail runs. I enjoy running trails better than sidewalks and roads. I worried about combining high mileage with too much pavement–it seemed like a recipe for stress fractures.

The result is that I was trained for distance, but not the right kind of distance. Trail running is slower than road running. I think trail running is more difficult–more elevation change, more accelerating in and out of turns, more high knee running due to obstacles–but it does not prepare one mentally and physically for road running. My hamstrings weren’t trained for roads, and when those muscles began to behave badly–a novel experience for me–my brain responded with panic.

I am still incredulous of the end of the race. I was not exhausted by the marathon. I could have run another 10 or 20 miles–if, of course, I could have bent my cramped, ugly legs, something I couldn’t do with any facility until the next day.

I didn’t do enough fast training runs. I don’t mean track running, 400m and 800m intervals, I did those, but running more 8 km and 10 km and other distances at marathon pace or faster. A related mistake, perhaps, was not competing before the marathon. I ran the Escarpment Trail Run, the Bradford Bruiser, and the Pisgah Mountain Trail Race, but those were competitions versus myself, not against a fixed goal. Completing a distance and the blood instinct of racing the clock are different animals; running versus racing. Racing is running, but it is running with an edge–the conviction to get in the ring with fear and uncertainty and pain and just whale on the bastards until the clock runs out.

The second one, The Edge, is delicate. I don’t know, truly, how much I could have pushed those last 8 km. How uncooperative were my legs, really? Did I panic when the atypical pain arrived? Two days later, and seated in front of an air conditioning vent, I can’t accurately recall. Having survived, I know there was space between where I was and The Edge. How much? How much could I have pushed the preceding 34 km?

That line of questioning will stop now.

A more interesting question is: What’s Next?

Plus twenty

Runners learn — the hard way, naturally — that there is an invisible barrier at the 20-mile mark known as The Wall, the point where you’ve burned off the body’s ready-to-use chemical energy.

You remember the feeling. Your thoughts, once as free and fluid as your running, turn to viscous sludge, like wet concrete. Your legs abruptly submit their resignation. All vital signs, as measured by your sodden brain, point toward system collapse.

The Wall. Bonk.

After you’ve hit the wall once, you wait for it to rear its head on the next 20-miler. If you’re training for a marathon, the whole 26.2-mile marathon, you should run a few 20-milers as part of your training. The Wall… you know it’s out there, lurking — a real, physical, insidious thing out there, stalking you from behind a bush at the 20-mile mark.

If it wasn’t already there waiting for you, chances are you’ve conjured it by worrying about it. Running is more than a physical battle, it is also a psychological battle; running is many psychological battles, and some of them are fought before you even lace your shoes. When you see a 20-mile run coming on your calendar, you grind your teeth and remember what a savage experience that last one was.

But hey, we survived that, and we came back for more.

What I’m enjoying — yes, enjoying — about training for the upcoming Chicago Marathon this year is that I’ve finally whipped The Wall at 20 miles. My last three training runs at that distance have been successes. Compare this to my previous two 20-mile training runs, back in May, were not successes — they were very much a rude reminder that will is only part of the equation in running.

What changed?

Aside from familiarity with the distance — just getting into the ring with the brute — I’d say that the biggest change is adding some nutrition to my body while running. I’ve never eaten much while running — partly from stubbornness (the tough don’t need fuel), partly from curiosity (let’s see what happens when I run the tank completely dry). So even during the Pineland Farms 50 km race in May I ate nothing more than a handful of gummy bears at each aid station. I crashed later in the race, but it was interesting to see what it was like. Then I cranked out the Escarpment Trail Run in July, an evil 30 km race in the Catskill Mountains, with nothing more than a handful of M&Ms at one aid station in the middle, followed by a crash at the end. In training I never ate, never drank — and never prospered at long runs.

So much for the zero nutrition control for the experiment.

Now when I go out for a 20-mile run, I pack three PowerBars — Cookies and Cream flavor, which seem to be (a) slightly moister, i.e., easier to chew and swallow, and (b) the best tasting Power Bar, which is a tallest midget contest if there ever was one — and 24 ounces of water in my Delaney fit Camelbak. (Indulge me this foray into “gear.” I despise talking about “gear.” )


This has worked well for me. On a 20-mile run, I stop and walk at five, ten, and fifteen miles, eat a PowerBar, drink some water, then run again. I feel like this is cheating a little, this walking while running, but what the hell? This routine contributed to a successful 20-mile run, which fed my confidence, which contributed to another successful 20-mile run, fed confidence, contributed to a successful 21-mile run.

Scheduling the calorie breaks at specific distances makes the system work. If I ever stopped on previous long runs, it was due to the feeling that I needed to stop — that my body was pulling the emergency cord on the train, lurching the system to jerking halt. That kind of stop jangles your nerves, and twenty miles offers the runner too much time to consider the causes of the stop over and over and over. Stopping right at five, ten, and fifteen lets the conscious brain think it is in charge. Placate that damned thing and you could probably run forever.

A note to the curious, i.e., if you’re at this edge of this post, I’m likely looking at you and saying: I’ve cross-posted this to My, my, that looks like an evil plan there. I won’t cross-post everything, due to that being an overly self-indulgent thing to do, so I also invite you to subscribe to the feed: