We have spent almost 15% of the year locked inside our homes. For those who preferred outdoors for their daily workouts this has been a huge blow. Moreover, March to May also are peak months for marathons, cycle rides and other outdoor events in most parts of the world. With the year’s plans thrown off the calendar many of us have lived this abrupt halt in our own ways. It has been easy for some to switch to treadmills, staircase runs and home based workouts. I put together a routine of cardio and yoga too. That didn’t seem to come anywhere near the satisfaction of a morning run in Cubbon Park or on GKVK’s trails. Confinement is hard to live where previously life held unlimited potential of trails and parks.
In February this year, I ran the Deccan Ultra 115 K in Maharashtra. The trail was a traverse of Alang, Madangad and Kulang forts with Ratangad, Kalsubai, Pabargad and Katrabai added to it. That made seven forts over hilltops over a course of 87 KM. The remaining 28 KM had a repeat section and then to the finish line. This trail run broke me. It broke me. It drew the best out of me in those 87 kilometers when I didn’t know that such a potential for endurance existed within. The run reestablished my faith in the deliverance of trails. It was a super-moon that night. As we day plunged into darkness that night, a brilliant red moon lit up the trail like a studio. But this wasn’t enough. As we ran through the fringe of a national park watching our steps over a thick bed of dried grass that hid rocks underneath it, we worried about the trail markings and with over five high powered headlamps looked out for them in all directions at several points. From this point onward, I tripped over rocks three times. Two of those led to bad ankle twists. It had been a long day. From that section around in the 70s to the next checkpoint I discovered my pain threshold. I ran over fifteen kilometers that night, in pain and with a state of mind that had blurred everything except the visions of the aid station. That night broke me physically. I didn’t make it to the 11 PM cutoff at 87th KM. In these months I have returned to the memory of this run. With an image of the elevation profile of that run I tried recollecting what I felt through the stages of the trail. My immersion and performance can not be remade without the trail. If I was working out on a treadmill at home I do not think I would have developed the confidence to run that trail. Nearly seventeen hours on a relentless mountain series and it never felt more alive despite the busted ankles and pain.
Certainly, one can train and clock the necessary quantum of training at home and be ready for the effort that it might take to be there. How does one know how to respond to the sudden onset of cold or the crosswinds on the ridge line. Will these have an effect on the run? These are the other notes of the symphony that an outdoor run is, that we have not yet managed to simulate indoors. Can home based workouts or VR led cycling ever come close to the actual experience of being out in the real environment? Tech tries hard and perhaps it does develop very competent solutions like Zwift and similar services. But there’s something that remains unrecognized. It is about our potential as athletes. Our potential and our performance is also connected to the environments that we are in. It is a multiple bond with varying degrees of strength that binds us to nature and the other elements of the environment that we go through using our chosen sports. That makes it whole. To this whole, a VR environment is a poor substitute. It is an incomplete one.I am not sure if I would ever care for that.
Even the routine runs inside the city are rich sensory experiences that I believe have significant bearing on fitness and performance over time. To the least, they are highly effective mood boosters. A crap day can be salvaged with a walk, run or cycle ride in a park. The colours, changing light and seasons as they hit the city and show their presence on trails lifts up body and spirit in subtle ways. The vitality and nourishment that comes from these is best felt in these lockdown days. We have been wrapped into four walls and exposed to bits of sunshine and air that streams into it. Are the workouts the same? No.
We are mistaken if we feel performance is only equipment. It is also an immersion into real environments. Nature and outdoor environment is necessary not only for building VO2 levels but also to keep a healthy mind. Sports is psycho-physical. The confinement during the pandemic should drive this learning home.