Friday, September 28, 2007

Running after Budhia

In my today’s blog entry, I really wanted to focus on the idea which I had not discussed last week. However, I think I’ll postpone that for a little later because of the time pressure I’m currently in. Abstract ideas anyway are difficult to articulate and I don’t have the time right now to luxuriate on elaborating recondite matters. So I’m redirecting my focus on something more concrete, i.e., running or to be more precise long distance running. In a way I'm being selfish focusing my attention on running, because tomorrow I have 15 miles to run, towards my training for the upcoming Indianapolis marathon. Thinking about running makes running more salient to me. It makes me mentally better prepared to deal with the challenge of running alone over long distances. For some reason, it was pretty painful running just 3 miles yesterday. So I am not sure if I’ll be able to complete my targeted 15 miles tomorrow, but I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic because I have succeeded in meeting many tough targets before. In addition, I just read an article on the New York Times which gave me a real boost of confidence. It is about how different body sizes have specific advantages in different kinds of sports. For instance, people with small and lean body sizes have advantages over bigger people in long distance running. I’m a small man at 5ft 8in and 135 lbs (approximately 62kgs), so no wonder I was happy.

We have all seen elite marathon runners who are very skinny. We have probably thought that the long distance running made them so skinny. However, laws of physics suggest that it is the skinny body of these runners that gave them an edge over taller and bigger runners, because it is easier to carry a light load (body weight) over long distances. It may seem like taller people will have an advantage in long distance running because of their long strides; however, long legs also translate into heavier legs which nullify the advantage coming out of long strides. Similarly, elite sprinters, swimmers, and rowers are big and muscular, because their big body gives them extra advantage in these sports. While running involves carrying ones’ body weight around, for a sprinter the big muscles, despite their heavy weight, give a huge advantage, i.e., power. Big and strong muscles also provide advantage in swimming and rowing. That’s because the buoyancy of the water makes body weight almost a non-issue. That is the reason even long distance swimmers are typically tall and big. I encourage my readers to look up the original article on New York Times to know more details about how weight affects performance in different sports.

From the above discussion one realizes that body shapes and sizes are important factors which need to be taken into consideration while choosing a sport. Of course, body size is not everything. Personal interest, motivation, right training and a host of other factors come into play. Many people run or swim just for pleasure. I'm not a professional runner either. I too run for pleasure, and the fact that it challenges me. There are enormous physiological and psychological benefits of doing a sport, and that's enough for an amateur. It is not enough to just enjoy your sport to be a professional sportsman, however, it is almost always true that professionals love the sports they are involved in. Probably that is the reason we have few exceptions in the history of sports that don’t fit the rule of physics in sports: big people who have won marathons and smaller ones who have won in swimming or rowing competitions. However, it still does not negate the importance of body’s shape and size in competitive sports. The few extra minutes or seconds of advantage a professional athlete may get out of his body size matters a lot. It determines who gets the gold and who does not.

Let me now shift my attention to Budhia Singh, the five year old boy from my home state (Orissa) in India, who has already run marathons and ultra-marathons. It is really amazing how this little kid finished a 65 kilometers run from Puri to Bhubaneswar in about 6 and half hours in the hot and humid climate of coastal Orissa. Budhia was recently admitted into a government sports hostel in Orissa. In a recent television interview Budhia said his aim is to win gold medals in Olympics’ marathon. While I appreciate the boy’s goal, I wonder if his goal is not influenced by the hopes of millions of people, and the adulation he got. Childhood prodigies often fizzle out by the time they reach their adulthood. They fail to achieve any of the big things they were hoped to achieve. There are many reasons for this and there is a whole set of scientific literature on the subject matter. I don’t intend to elaborate on this scientific literature now. The only point I want to make is that we don't know how big or small Budhia will be when he grows older. So we can never be sure of his winning Olympic gold medal in marathon, because he may just grow up to be a big man which might nullify the extra advantages he has in terms of innate endurance. I realize some people may criticize my argument. They will cite how Russians and Chinese got a competitive edge over others in sports by starting systematic training of their kids at a very early age. I don’t deny the advantages of such early training. My point is only that one should not lock a child into a particular sport through parental or societal pressure, because it may turn out that he/she is much better in another sport as he grows up. Hence, while I’m very happy about Budhia getting good coaching, I’m worried that he may through societal pressure get locked into long distance running even when he starts showing better prospects for other sporting events. I hope Budhia’s coaches are giving him an all round training and not completely restricting him to long distance running.

Coming back to my running, I know I’ll finish my 15 miles of run tomorrow because I am made for it: small body with big determination. The laws of physics and psychology are both on my side.

PS: I did complete my target today, in fact exceeded it by running 17.3 miles (27.8 kms). This is my longest run till date.

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