Running the Irfan Tahir Challenge

Dedicated to Irfan Tahir

Put yourself in my shoes, running shoes if you may. I caught something in early March in Zagreb of all places just when the world was starting to change forever like it always does. I drew a few worthwhile lessons from it though: Don't travel when a global pandemic is emerging big time, which fortunately doesn't happen all that often, and if you do have to travel, avoid Zagreb if you are going to have to get sick. Well, I can carve out a few blog posts about that farcical experience in Croatia but I fear my first ever blog post has accumulated enough racist undertone already so I should really skip to the point where I explain what Irfan Tahir Challenge is. Just a heads up, I spent the the following couple of weeks bedridden and the following couple of months coughing, with a lingering pain in the chest and nevertheless did I test negative for Covid-19 any of the many times I tested. I got better however, thanks to a traveling doctor that left some of his stash of medicine in my kitchen drawer. Now you may ask who travels with a bag full of paracetamol, ibuprofen and antibiotics. A bunch of surgical masks too. Luckily this friend of mine did. Eating those antibiotics has arguably been the best decision I made this year so far. In a week's time, I was already rid of the chest pain and my cough waned to a minor nuisance. I was finally on the wax. The timing was right, summer was coming after all and as a person that has seen a Swedish summer or two (considering random strangers would walk up to me in the summer of 2018, drenched in sweat and their tongues on fire, they would say how this summer, now remembered for its heatwaves and broken records since measurements have begun to be taken, was not a typisk sommar) I would hate to miss out on another one.

I would have to get back in shape though if this summer would resemble anything I had in mind when I dreaded how the summer came and went so fast last time around. I would need to visit Källtorpssjön, the lake colloquially known as Hellasgården (even Hellas with finer brevity) that also happens to be my smultronställe or simply happy place, swim as much as I can, read as much as I can so long as the weather permitted and the sun shone. So I finally did start cycling around, ran a few times and even swam in the lake as early as late May. I would fare better in terms of cardio, far better than the few botched attempts of going for runs in April while I still coughed and had to break down with pain in the chest after a couple of kilometers. Not a good idea to exercise while still in recovery, another worthwhile lesson. But this time around, when my lungs had catched up, it was my legs that had a hard time catching up. On a fine May day, after cycling fortysomething kilometers in suburban Stockholm I was feeling full of energy as ever. Restless when I came home, I deemed it a great idea to undon my cycling outfit and don my running outfit and break sweat again before hitting the shower, good for the environment. A half-hour and a kilometer later, my legs made it clear it was not a great idea to toil so hard. They needed to take it slowly and catch up at their own pace. I would focus on swimming instead, which I would have to do anyhow if I were to get fit enough to swim three kilometers in one go and finish Vansbrosimningen Home Edition as part of my Swedish Classic. The foolhardy thirty-kilometer run on rough terrain, Lidingöloppet, would not take place until late September if it were to take place at all, perhaps its format molded into another home edition. I would spend June pretty much lax on my legs and rather harsh on my upper body but I still ran shorter distances a handful of times and I also started going to work which meant at least five miles of cycling every working day. Towards the end of June, I would run to Hellas, take the much obliged skinny dip in the cool water and bathe in the sun before running back home. That would be eleven kilometers or so, and I was finally feeling like my old strong self before getting sick. But there was one problem, my smartwatch kept on degrading my fitness performance score, Vo2 Max. as is referred to on the Garmin software. My score would dip to 44 at its lowest on the very day I skinny dipped in the lake between the runs. Mind you, plummeting from 50, I had already gotten used to losing a point at every bungled attempt or two at running before fully recovering, but the latest drop was a bitter blow to my hopes that I was finally back on track. That is how I felt when July was at the door.

My running outfit drying on Hellas' rocks

The day I ran to the lake, clothes trying to dry on the rocks while my naked shadow wouldn't help them.

Well, that is when I saw long-lost friend Irfan Tahir's blog post (oh boy, now I am hyperlinked to the greater blogsphere!) about how he ran five miles every day for a month. The odd thing is that I would occasionally see his runs on Strava, named Day 18 or something, so I knew he was up to something. But to run five miles every day for a month, he was up to no good. But pretty soon I found myself in front of the mirror, taking a full-body photo. My before picture before my manboobs would melt away for I would be doing the Irfan Tahir Challenge in July. I dubbed it Irfan Tahir Challenge without much consideration or even checking with Irfan but he eventually found out too and did not protest. Just to make things clear, it's not him that so narcissistically named or suggested to name the concept after himself, it was simply me judging naming my first run "Day 1" was too inspecific. Hell, I was supposed to run over 150 miles for the thing, I ought to be glorifying it as best as I could. The first day of July took me to Djurgården, an island in central Stockholm where museums are abound, the city's famed tivoli, Gröna Lund, is found and the nature, too, is unexpectedly cherished as you can get lost in the woods and stumble upon a roe deer as close as three kilometers from the city's central station. I had very few summer memories there, some blotted by a vitriolic person that I am glad to have let slide out of my life. Well, a rough drawing of a path around the island on Google Earth revealed there was little shy of ten kilometers of coastline to run on the island, I was pretty sure not the entirety coast was paved and that some parts would be off limits where rich folks and their houses would stand but I decided to see how it goes. Besides, overwriting the old and stinky summer memories with brand new fragrant ones was just too appetizing a thought. The weather was also back to what you might expect from a normal Swedish summer so I put on my long sleeve shirt and running shorts, loosely tied my shoes, grabbed a Granny Smith, a small bottle of Ramlösa, which I would refill for every run to come, my phone, headphones and keys and went off to cycle to Djurgården! Over an hour later, I was done with the first day and the first five miles (0.02 short of five miles actually as I surmised a mile equaled 1.6009 kilometers, I would make it up for it in the coming days nonetheless). It was not as fast (5:36/km) as I hoped I would be (5:10/km maybe?), especially bearing in mind that my route was almost flat. Well, you gotta take it on the chin sometimes. At least I had finished it. Plus, I happened to put on an episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, a show that I had already listened to one time around and have picked up again in May for my daily walks that I started going on to get fit by tiny bits. I was tired, sweaty and dreading the ride back home but one thing I wasn't was sleepy, which was the subject of the episode. I would go on listening to Theme Time Radio Hour at each run, save July 15, which had turned out to be my fastest 5 miles on record at that time. I, without substantial evidence, pondered if music made me run slower (maybe my headphones ramped up the air resistance and maybe they were simply too heavy too). I called that run 15 Temmuz Demokrasiyi Anma Koşusu.

I was not sure about running two consecutive days. Not something I have ever done. Geez I even ran my first 10K last year August, my first 5K wouldn't be that antique either. When I used to run, I would always give myself an extended break period to recover before galloping again. But there I was again, this time listening to the Food episode, astonished by my tired old legs actually taking me around the island even faster this time. Perhaps all the gourmet songs made me realize the faster I run the faster I would get to get home and eat a late night snack. Embarrassingly enough, I heard the name Charles Mingus for the first time on the show (not to mention this was my second round of listening to the show), I would listen quite a lot of him in the days to come, Haitian Fight Song being my favorite record of his. I guess Irfan Tahir wasn't a charlatan after all when he said you can do this thirty days in a row. I got happy news at the end of this run. My Vo2 Max. has increased for the first time in ages, a lacklustre climb by one point! I felt like a Turkish foot soldier in the aftermath of Sakarya Meydan Muharebesi:

The wee comeback
13 Eylül 1683 günü Viyana'da başlayan çekilme, 238 sene sonra Sakarya'da durdurulmuştur.

My body was finally on the offensive. I made a wee comeback. Things have kept getting better in the following days. Things got better at getting better. My legs would simply take me from the starting point to the finish line on autopilot. What my legs did running was like what a runaway superintelligence would do to get smarter. My legs were setting up solar panels on large swathes of arid land. That is not to say I ran each day faster than the day before but I thought each new day was easier albeit some being only slightly so. Of course every now and then I would try to bring home the bacon, push myself to the utmost and I would feel it in my legs during the run on the day that followed. However, at the end of the whole thing, spoilers maybe, my feeling was that each day was easier than before though I must admit to having eaten a stately dinner once (or twice) and dreaded the fact that I would still have to run the five miles with a stomach full up to the brim. Those days are excluded. I guess those were the only times that it felt like a chore. That and the last few miles of the half-marathon I ran on the grand finale. However, I suspect even breathing in might have felt like a chore if I were running the last few miles of a marathon. Well, all talk and no numbers, I better rustle up an old school HTML table and show the stats lest I gas. Keep your eyes open for I'm marking each day I broke a record.

Day & Time (Theme Time Radio Hour episode) Distance (miles) Pace per mile (mm:ss) Pace per kilometer (mm:ss) Time (h[h{opefully not}]:mm:ss) Average heart rate (bpm)
1, 21:31 (Sleep) 4.98 9:00 5:36 44:48 167
*2, 22:17 (Food) 5.01 8:44 5:25 43:43 167
*3, 22:13 (Thanksgiving Leftovers) 5.01 8:31 5:18 42:42 169
4, 20:52 (Tennessee) 5.01 8:46 5:27 43:54 161
5, 19:17 (Moon) 5.02 8:49 5:29 44:19 167
6, 17:24 (Countdown) 5.00 8:32 5:17 42:40 160
7, 12:45 (Christmas & New Year's) 5.00 8:42 5:25 43:33 163
8, 17:51 (Christmas & New Year's ctd.) 5.01 8:53 5:31 44:29 157
*9, 18:09 (Christmas & New Year's ctd. [boy was it a long episode]) 5.01 8:28 5:16 42:26 162
10, 20:23 (Women's Names [not all of it, I was drunk]) 5.01 8:56 5:33 44:44 159
*11, 22:45 (Hair) 5.00 7:58 4:57 39:53 168
12, 22:53 (Musical Instruments) 5.00 8:52 5:30 44:21 160
13, 18:51 (Luck) 5.00 9:41 6:01 48:24 148
14, 16:16 (Tears) 5.00 8:54 5:32 44:32 162
*15, 22:46 [forgot headphones] 5.00 7:33 4:41 37:46 174
16, 22:54 (Laughter) 5.00 8:56 5:33 44:44 157
17, 22:56 (Heart) 5.00 8:54 5:30 44:30 160
18, 23:10 (Shoes) 5.01 8:52 5:31 44:23 157
19, 22:57 (Colors) 5.08 10:16 6:21 52:07 146
20, 22:54 (Texas) 5.01 8:27 5:15 42:15 157
21, 22:05 (Trains) 5.01 10:56 6:48 54:45 139
22, 22:08 (More Trains) 5.00 7:47 4:50 38:57 163
23, 23:03 (Fools) 5.00 8:37 5:21 43:08 158
24, 21:08 (New York) 5.00 7:47 4:50 38:57 166
25, 20:33 (Death & Taxes) 5.00 8:23 5:13 41:57 164
26, 20:49 (Spring Cleaning) 5.21 8:55 5:33 46:28 159
*27, 20:48 (Hello) 5.01 7:19 4:33 36:39 175
28, 14:09 (Young & Old) 5.00 9:58 6:12 49:55 151
29, 20:49 (Days of the Week) 5.00 9:55 6:10 49:37 148
30 [hard rain all day long & watched the Sopranos at home] zero zip zilch bupkis bugger all
31, 20:54 (California) (Classic Rock) 13.11 9:06 5:39 1:59:13 161

Well, now that the numbers are out of the way I can get back to focusing on the letters. I noticed during the first few days how pretty Djurgården was. After tinkering and tweaking my route in these first days, I'd finally settle on a route that would pretty much envelop the island. I would enjoy a nice view of Södermalm in the distance or the Baltic sea on the eastern tip of the island or sprint along the channel, Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen. This year's July has had a rather cold start, something I could not have foreseen judging by June, especially considering it did not rain on Midsummer. This was an aberration from the last couple of years' trend where heatwaves came and went in July. Well, this has been a very cool July indeed, all things considered. Perhaps a mild divine intervention to not to burden me with the heat while I ran. Still, most days I ran soon before nightfall when it was milder. Running daytime made things a little spicier, hotter I mean. And the island's dirt road would teem with huddled masses, so many so that it'd be close to playing Frogger in real life. Nothing can make homebodies the Swedes on a nice, warm and sunny day. Perhaps that's why the country did not impose a lockdown whilst the rest of the world so harshly did. I wonder if the pandemic broke out in, say October, with a long winter ahead, Sweden's response would be the same.

Geez I can't find my geese

Geese I can't feel my knees

For a week or so, I would smell a pungent odor while I was circling the east tip of the island. Very unpleasant, yet very much reminding me of soy sauce, as if I snorted soy sauce that had gone bad a decade ago. At least the many seabirds that frequent the many rocks scattered around the island did not seem to mind. These docile creatures would hardly mind when I breezed past them. Maybe it's all the plastic they are chumping on dumbs them out in the end. It hit me so sharp on Day 10 that I thought it must rather be all the alcohol I've been imbibing earlier that day that was playing tricks on my mind. And a quick side note here: Like so many other things, running is not a good idea when follows drinking soon after. However, in my defense, it was my colleague Hazim's last day at work and a Friday. My greatest regret that day I butchered the Theme Time Radio Hour episode of the day, Women's Names, which has been a long-standing favorite episode of mine. Whence else one might hope to find out that the old American classic Peggy Sue has her origins in Greece, effectively meaning a pearl or that if you throw an electric guitar down the stairs, there is a pretty good chance that it will play the tune to Gloria during the trip. And of course, the meandering shoreline of eastern Djurgården would, from there on out, remind me of Annabel Lee.

It was many and many a year ago,
 In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
 By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
 Than to love and be loved by me.

Oh, this is a long poem. Well, luckily I cleared out Day 10 without suddenly finding myself in the shallows of the Baltic Sea or letting my reflexes down so as to let an e-Scooter crash into me, which would take another two weeks to happen, and finished the run under 45 minutes again, which would be my unwritten threshold to feel good about myself afterwards. I had a few unhappy days apparently, but Day 11 that followed was not one. I broke a personal record once again on Day 11 but instead it was the Johnny Cash song I heard on the Hair episode at the end of the run that made things memorable that day, the song starting out with the lines

Hey I love that hair, long and black
Hanging down in the middle of your back
Don't you cut it off, whatever you do
'cause I need it to run my fingers through

I loved the song so much I would play it through my phone's speakers in my bicycle's basket on the way back home and then on my home stereo during the ensuing shower and I would learn the song in the following morning and record my own version. I guess a three-chord rockabilly with simple lines that rhyme hits the spot so fine every now and then.

On Day 13, where the episode was Luck, I had a strange experience. I started my run on the usual spot past Nordiska Museet and before ABBA The Museum, but when I was seeing the waterfront for the first time I ran nowhere near a kilometer according to my smartwatch, as I normally would have been about one-eighth done with the day's challenge on a normal day. My pace was about a good five minutes per kilometer, just about five minutes had elapsed but the distance I covered was seemingly stuck at about over half a kilometer. My mind, boggled as it was, my legs were not yet discouraged and I ran the next kilometer at a good pace only to get more confused. By the time I arrived at the eastern tip of the island, where I would be halfway finished with the run, my watch would assure me that I had only ran two and a half kilometers. It only dawned on me six kilometers later that it all must be because I had switched to statute units of measurement on the Garmin app on my phone, which accompanies my smartwatch and that must have somehow told the smartwatch to switch to miles too, only half-assedly so that the pace measurement on the watch would still display in kilometers, making it harder for me to snap out of it. I did eventually confirm that I truly ran 5 miles that day, the first four of which I ran frustrated, not fathoming how all that time I ran it only added up to four kilometers. I ended up despair getting the best of me, convincing myself something must be wrong with me, terribly so and I ought to slow down and take it easy. That day was my first non-sub-45-minute run. Tough luck.

Getting better all the time

Getting better all the time (sunny Day 8)

The State of Mississippi had retired the Confederate Battle Flag from its flag and whilst I ran. On Day 15, I forgot my headphones at home and on this first (and only) day I ran without music I improved my record once more. Dedicating the run of that misty night to the bloody night when the Turkish democracy suffered a fatal blow where it bleeds still. I ran about another 85 miles or so after that. As I neared the end, stronger became my determination to crown the last day with an attempt at running a half-marathon. Considering the farthest I ran up until now was a mere 12 kilometers before I got sick, it would have been a stretch, especially considering my poor legs would have had no chance to fully recover first. Therefore I took it easy a few times in the latter days, running so that I would be running, which was when what I did felt closest to a chore. My smartwatch's assessment of my fitness would climb gradually all the while. By Day 20, I already caught up with where I had been before my affliction emerged and by Day 22 I was beyond what I had been. I would even get a kudos from Irfan Tahir on Strava, the man behind everything, to spice things even further. However, on other fitness apps that cram people into leaderboards based on how much they have run in that week, month or year, I suspected I was becoming a bit of a hassle to stay friends with. Considering I had clocked in over one hundred and fifty miles for the month, there stood over one hundred miles between the closest contender to my month of extravagant sprinting. You might as well say he got caught on the back foot.

So fair and foul a night I have not seen

So fair and foul a night I have not seen

I ran the half-marathon on a Friday, on the last day of July, a hot summer night in Stockholm. I decided against running on the day before the half-marathon for a number of reasons which being the grand finale would already put me ahead by a couple of miles, I would need the much-needed rest on the day before it and cats and dogs never took a break from falling from the sky on that day, so I stayed in that night watched a guilt-free episode of the Sopranos, snug as a bug, my legs inexpressibly grateful for a pause since I don't know when. The day after, the half-marathon turned out to be quite manageable. I would autopilot the thing basically. Would I do it again? Well, begrudgingly so but why not? Twice more even, as I would pretty much like to run a marathon too. Well thrice for I still have Lidingöloppet fast approaching. "The world's largest cross country race", apparently. I wonder how many days to come I'd have to spend with subpar legs walking like a lame duck after that race, bearing in mind the relatively flat half-marathon took its toll for a couple of days. Oy oy oy vey!

The wee comeback

The wee comeback

I did it in the end. Finished the Irfan Tahir Challenge draped in glory. Pulled my fitness rating back to where it was and took it where I imagined was unattainable. I thought I could hardly run again next year all those times in May when I would take walks around Hammarbyskogen by my home. As of writing these words down on 21 August 2020, it's been exactly 3 weeks since I ran that half-marathon and I still haven't run a single step. Blame the good weather that has been taking me to the lake to swim instead. On that note, I noticed, during the course of the Irfan Tahir Challenge, I remarkably cut back on cycling, and was slower when I cycled as my legs were constantly strained I would not push hard. That, I didn't like. So on the way forth, I think I'll get back to running pretty soon, since the weather is finally (I never thought I'd say this in Stockholm) getting cooler next week so as not to risk a stroke during a run under the sun. In any case, the daytime is getting shorter around the clock. I am looking forward to taking my studded-tyre-clad bicycle to Djurgården in the winter, run the same route I ran so often in July and be mesmerized by how strange it looks in the winter and try to make it back for lunch before it gets dark.

21 August 2020, Friday. Stockholm, Sweden.