Friday, July 18, 2014

The rain is what I miss the most about India

It sure rains in Belgium - don't get me wrong on that - but it hardly ever rains like in India. Indian rains are usually thunderstorms with the showpiece being the light and sound display and rain being the sideshow. Comparatively, there are hardly any thunderstorms in Belgium - maybe one or two a year. Most rains are just water falling from grey skies; heavy rains are not that common too, probably a fourth will get you drenched. The rest are boring mists of rain, which just ensure you will be just a little wet but doesn't really demand a rain jacket.

Those flashes of light lighting up the night sky letting you see all around you for that fraction of a second in white light followed by claps of thunder making the window panes dance and the rooms filled with reverberations for a few seconds - I really miss them.

As I'm writing this I suspect there's a thunderstorm sneaking up on this town and its festivals - it wasn't on the forecast. Rain or not, the lightning is sure reminding me of the rains of India.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cooking Indian dinner for 12 people

After the good word of mouth from friends after the first time around (even though it was, looking back, a poke in the dark because I didn't know what the audience would like), there was a second cooking event. I decided to include chicken this time around because I got a hint that everyone was missing meat the first time around.

This time I made puris, channa masala, chicken curry/gravy, brinjal-potatoes (aloo baingan) and puliyogare (tamarind rice). It took the saturday evening and the sunday afternoon to prepare the stuff.

Puris - 2 pieces of dough for 12 people - approx 40+ puris, 4 for each person. Were kneaded well and one was wrapped in paper - big mistake - and the other in plastic. The paper-wrapped dough had dried out and the plastic one stayed moist. The dryness was cured by adding water and kneading for a further 10-15 minutes to even it out. The puris puffed this time!

Channa masala - the trick is to cook the channa before hand, that's how they're soft and tasty. Standard preparation method. One pack of channa is good enough.

Chicken gravy/curry - this didn't come out as good as I wanted it to, but it was decent. Onions sauteed in oil, ginger-garlic, spices; then the chicken is added. I bought around 1.8 kilos of chicken breast (in two packs) and made two batches of the chicken. So, the chicken is mixed well on a medium to high flame every now and then. Tomatoes optional. Actually, cooking meat is faster and easier than veggies, if you don't count the part of handling and cutting the meat. Care is to be taken as the chicken cooks quickly - so if you leave it in there too long it will overcook. 1.8 kilos for 12 persons was just perfect. The estimate given by Matty was 200gms per person, which too was pretty accurate.

The brinjal-potatoes didn't turn out well because I didn't have that big a vessel and the brinjal cooked faster than the potatoes and it was more of a porridge than anything else.

Tamarind rice was standard method. Cooking and freezing the rice helped too.

I'm writing this to keep a record for next time, the quantities will be useful.

Last time's dessert was not too popular; many didn't like the vermicelli-in-milk-and-sugar-and-nuts dish (payasam), so this time I thought of hot jalebis(conveniently procured from the Indian store) and ice cream, but jalebis too weren't a hit, probably because they were fried. It wasn't as big a hit as I had hoped for.

So, jalebis are out, payasam is out and that means I can't think of any real Indian desserts which Belgians will like. Maybe gulab jamun but seeing the reaction to these two, I wonder if the effort in making jamuns will pay off - particularly because you have to get the jamuns right for them to be tasty.

I'm going to make puris for myself, I'm so happy they came out well :)

For most of those who came it was their first taste of spices, they said they liked it, but, precisely because it was their first time and they didn't know what to expect, they liked the chicken the most with the puris. Note for next time: More meat dishes, less veggie dishes. A vegan/vegitarian in Belgium  is as rare as a retail store open on a Sunday.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My first marathon and all the things that went right

I ran the full marathon of Rotterdam, achieving my sub-4hr target by finishing in 3h58min. I am pretty well satisfied with myself but looking back I did a lot of things right and little was by chance.

A little background first: Before I was still 'fit' - I biked to and from work and played badminton 2-3 times a week(cycling to the courts). I started running in February of 2013 for a 5k for a company event, ran a 10k in May, 15k in July and a half marathon in October of the same year.

Which marathon?
I decided to run a full marathon in September and applied to the lottery of the Berlin marathon, which was roughly a 1:2 chance and didn't get. Then I looked for top courses in Europe and yo-yo-ed between the Stockholm marathon and Rotterdam and decided on Rotterdam because Stockholm would be relatively expensive (flights+accomodation+cost of marathon) and Rotterdam was a much more flat course.

Training plan
By a stroke of luck, by using '14 week marathon training plan' as a search term instead of 15 weeks and 16 weeks, I found the page on Lucozade's website for running and marathons. The beauty of this training plan, in my opinion, is that it measures in time and not distance. For someone who doesn't have an accurate distance measuring device (the GPS on my phone is not always accurate and I don't run on a fixed measured track), running by time was perfect. All the better, the High Intensity Interval Training plans (HIIT) where you run slow and fast were spelt out clearly unlike other plans.

Actually training
Now was the tough part - going out and running. Counting backwards from marathon date comes to January, which is the beginning of winter in Europe. But lucky me, apart from a few cold days in January, it wasn't really cold at all (meaning it stayed above freezing, going down to only about -4C with windchill).

Running Gear
I had a set of orange-green shoes ordered from which had the model of I was looking for - at the lowest price because it was a model going out of circulation (That site always has great deals, the lowest price anywhere in Europe, free shipping on orders greater than €40) which treated my feet well.
I used a Buff which I had gotten free at the Brussels half-marathon which was good as ear and forehead protection and to wick away sweat. I used to wear a neck scarf but abandoned it because I was warm within a few minutes. I also ran in just a full-sleeved running shirt and a fluorescent jacket(as a wind breaker) because I didn't know which gear to buy without knowing how well it was worth(I don't like to buy stuff to experiment, but I think I will buy a compression shirt after asking a few people in person). I did buy a set of gloves, one inner pair and another with grip and meant for colder weather. They were useful. I'm thinking of buying a set of running/cycling glasses which have interchangeable lens, because in the cold it protects your eyes from watering and in the summer from insects (and while cycling from random debris).

1 week buffer
Even though it was a 14-week plan, I started out 15 weeks ahead, which turned out to be beneficial. During one of my 2+ hour long runs I drank fluids which were cold (it was the first time I was drinking fluids while running and it was also a little cold that day) and came down with the cold for about 10 days. It was during a light 'race week', so it was no problem, but either way, I had the 1 week buffer to fall back on.

Diligently following HIIT
I think these were what really set me up for the marathon. One such plan called for me to run 'fast for 8 minutes, jog for 2 minutes', repeating it 4 times. That was near impossible, but it helped a lot in building up energy levels and confidence. (It is fun to run faster than cyclists sometimes!)

Carbo loading
It is described as eating loads of carbohydrates 2-3 days before a marathon, to store 'easy-to-access' glycogen in the muscles. I think I did it perfectly. I consumed, in the 2 days before the marathon, 1 and a half loaves of bread along with a massive brownie, a croissant, a taco and food at an Indian buffet - over and above what I would have normally ate. Additionally, 2 weeks prior I went snowboarding, where for 3 days I was stretched to the limit of my endurance. That too, I think, helped to 'tell my body to replenish my energy levels' to a certain level. (The article also links to a calorie calculator if you want to measure exactly how much to eat)

No activity few days before
Apart from normal things like walking to the bus stop or train station, I did no major strenuous activity for a few days before the race. I took the bus almost everywhere.

Hours before the race
I made sure I had a good night's sleep - so I went early to bed (10.30ish) to wake up before 7 the next day. I had a breakfast of whole-grain brown bread  (5-6 slices) and milk with chocolate and a banana and made sure it was before 2 and a half  to 3 hours before the race. From then on I started sipping on a bottle of sports drink. One hour before the race I had a banana and finally, 10-15 minutes before the start of the race I finished the sports drink with big gulps.

Lots of vaseline + band-aid
I applied lots of vaseline - and I mean lots - 2 to 3 applications - to my crotch to prevent chafing by my shorts and to the front portion of my feet to prevent blisters from the socks and wetness (I wore cotton socks, didn't want to try out a new pair). End result: no blisters anywhere. Smooth racing. Also, my nipples were protected by band-aids (although they were a pain to take off!) from chafing and becoming sore.

During the race
I ran behind the 4:00 pacing team, so I wouldn't run too fast or slow. At every drink station, which was present at every 5km interval, I drank 2 cups of half-full sports drink. Not much water itself for the first 30km. The first hour was completely normal, it was like an everyday run. From 15k till about 25k, I got the 'why-am-I-running-I-should-stop-and-rest' feeling. But, from then on, i.e. 25k till the finish, I was 'in a zone' and kept running and running and running. Around 30k we got energy gels, which I had with a cup of water. I had more water and energy gel at the 35k mark and just kept running.

Beautiful weather
It was a pleasant 13C, sunny with a little cloud and little to no wind. That perfect temperature where you don't feel hot but don't feel cold but don't sweat much either.

Didn't hit the wall
I think it was a combination of several factors - carbo loading, energy gels, HIIT - which made sure I didn't hit the wall. I think the biggest one was the carbo loading.

The ever decreasing number of kilometers to run was also influential, more prominently after the 35km mark. I overtook the pacing team and the last kilometer or so was at a faster pace with the last stretch being a sprint. That I had energy even at that stage of the race to run faster than the rest of the race is testament to all the things that went right.

That being said, I think it would be fair to argue that I could have finished much faster, maybe 3:55 or even 3:50. But it being my first race, I didn't want to stretch things too much.

Where I can improve
I don't know if I will run another marathon again, because 16 weeks of training upends a lot of schedules, especially if you do it alone. I will however try to run Berlin if I can get through the lottery. Another area is 'investing' in running glasses, proper winter running gear and proper running shorts. And, as I said, I think I can gun for 3:50 if I am much more focused.

What I did wrong:
I did do a few stupid things. One (while training) was trying to drink cold fluids suddenly, in cold weather. Now I will carry warmer fluids or drink warm fluids immediately after the run and rest instead of exposing myself to the cold again. Another was trying to play super-sprinter and accelerate suddenly. I ended up spraining my foot (it would pain if I flexed my foot while on the ball of my foot). Thankfully it healed in a week or so (the binding boots on the snowboard also helped) but it scared me good. Never again will I run on the ball of my feet suddenly and with long strides.

Near even splits with a spurt at the end. I still can't believe I did it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Have you ever heard the sounds of silence?

Back home from college, one morning, when the pre-noon activities were all done and the house had settled down, I heard it anew for the first time. Silence. Without the regular air whizzing from a fan or the bustle of a hostel or vehicles, I entered my room and heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. No sounds from outside the house. No fan. No vehicular activity. Just a distant whirr of the refrigerator. And then that stopped too. It was completely silent.

I laid down on my bed for a quick nap. That was when the silence could really be heard.

I relaxed my head against the pillow. My head sinks in and I can hear the fibres in the pillow compressing and conforming to the shape of my head. At the same time I hear the soft rustles of the hair on my head adjusting against the pillow, many at first, then dying down as I stopped moving. I adjusted myself. Purposely. The same: Hairs against the cloth, the sound decreasing as they all stopped dancing against the cool cloth of the pillow.

Now it was the turn of my pulse to entertain me. With every heartbeat, the finer hairs on my ears and neck moved ever so slightly, waltzing with the up-and-down of blood rushing through my veins. I could now hear a faint hum emitted by my cellphone charger (I've now discovered they emit different sounds which charging and not charging) and unplugged it. Silence. Far far away, confirmed only by its periodic movement, the second had of the clock in the adjoining room. Suddenly a gust of wind and the leaves on the trees outside graze each other. A few leaves on the ground drag themselves a short distance. The dog's soft paws on the mud approaching and disappearing into the distance. And then, when all is silent again, my ears fill with a soft, low pitch buzz as if compensating for the lack of sound.

I don't know what to think of silence like this. On the one hand some people treasure it, immensely, to the extent of building houses in the middle of nowhere, and on the other, it makes you question if you're in a dream or if you have lost control of your sense for that split second.

Back to silence. I've experienced loudness-to-silence on a few other occasions and they've all been special, always bringing that content smile to my face, allowing me to appreciate the moment for longer than expected.

One is after a snowstorm and everything is blanketed in white powder. The snow absorbs all the noises from around, so in effect you hear nothing. Add to that the lack of movement during a snowstorm and voila, perfect silence.

Another is after a thunderstorm, one where the skies are so clear the only evidence of rain in the previous few minutes is the wet clothes in the shade. I think the lack of sound after the rain is what makes it unique - no one's moving, sometimes the power is down so no electronics and all the wind has been whisked away by the rain.

Have you ever heard the sounds of silence?