Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pumping Iron

A short history. For most of my working life, I've been either cycling or walking to office; getting a bit of daily exercise, consequently. And then a change in job meant a commute to an office pretty far from home. This ruled out cycling for 2 reasons. One, my colleagues may not appreciate sitting next to a guy drowning in a pool of sweat. Two, given Pune traffic and that the route to office is fairly busy, the odds are that someone would be scraping me off the road with a spoon, if I were to cycle to office for any substantial period of time. There's a "three", too, if I were to be really honest - I am lazy.

And so it was that I signed up at a nearby gym. The first day wasn't bad. But then, I didn't work out on the first day. I just talked to the trainers, made a list of the things I needed to buy, had a look at the equipment, checked out the girls who were members there, etc. All in all, good fun. I even felt a little fitter, as I was going home.

Day two. The rosy outlook starts to fade. The trainer sets me up on various weird contraptions all seemingly designed to hurt as much as possible. It's supposed to be a one-hour session. It feels like half the day has passed. Check time. Only 15 minutes up. I resign myself to more. Most of the exercises seem to be aimed at the arms. I discover that there are a hell of a lot more muscles on my arms than I'd previously assumed. And the trainer seems set on giving each of them a thorough work out. An irresistible urge to throw up. Drink water. Feel better now. Trainer asks me to get back to work. Don't feel as good now. He asks me to do push ups. I fall flat on my face after the first one. A giggle somewhere from the left. Pretty girl very amused. Pride a bit hurt, but I'm too worn out to care. Besides, I reason, she isn't the only woman on earth. So what if she's less than impressed? There are others. I remain on the floor.

Check time again. Half an hour up. Glass is definitely half empty. But I'm through. No more for today. I tell so to the trainer. He is very understanding. Go home, he says. The time is about one in the afternoon. I feel much better now that I'm out of the gym. I shower and have a hearty lunch. Except for a bit of an ache in my arms and shoulders, I am perfectly fine. None of those dreadful aches and pains people complain about after their first gym session. I must be a natural, I think. Pure Schwarzenegger. Maybe even better. I'm made for this sort of thing. Already the memories of the actual events at the gym are starting to fade. They're being replaced by an idealized version. A version where I attacked every instrument there with the same gusto and passion with which Pedro Almodovar makes his movies.

Day two, night. I go to bed, at peace with myself and the world. I fall asleep almost instantly. I wake up at 4 in the morning. Searing pain in my right arm. What's the matter, I wonder. An earthquake that deposited the wardrobe on top of me, maybe? I check. Nope, no wardrobe. Further inspections reveal that my left arm and several other parts of my upper body also suffer from the same "searing pain" syndrome. I try to put it out of my mind, and go back to sleep. Not so easy. You see, I'm one of those who cannot sleep on their backs. Has to be on my chest, or sideways, for me. And the trouble with sleeping like that is that one or the other arm is usually under you. You also have to bend your arms a bit. The bent arm hurts a lot now. But the arm under me, that's something else - it's about to explode, I feel. I wake up every 15 minutes, and try to shift position when the pain becomes unbearable. Every shift in position brings with it fresh waves of shooting pain.

Day three, morning. It gets worse. I don't want to get out of bed. Half an hour of effort sees me sitting upright on the bed. Not too easy to push yourself up when even the lightest of pressure on your arms rewards you with the agonies of hell. Now, on my feet. This part is not too difficult, as my cycling in the past had toughened up my lower body enough for my adventures in the gym. I brush my teeth by sticking the toothbrush in one of those electric sockets, and trying to move my mouth around the brush. Hard work, but you get the hang of it after a while. Bathing is not too easy. I find it virtually impossible to bring my hands up to wash my face, soap my shoulders, etc. But I manage. Towelling is another novella by itself. No formals for me today, I decide. I have no choice, actually. I've forgotten to send my formals on their fortnightly visit to the chap who irons. I put on a T-shirt. At least, I try to. Not working. You need to raise your arms to put on a T-shirt. I consider paying a visit to the tailor, and asking him to stitch a shirt around me. I try, and try again. Finally, it's on! But it's the wrong way, darn it! Much muffled cursing and profanity as I now try to take it off. By 12 noon, or so, I'm all dressed and ready to tackle a new day.

Once in office, I make a beeline for the coffee and the biscuits. Trying to have my first sip of the beverage, I find out that I cannot bring the cup any closer than 5 inches from my face. My arm refuses to go any higher. I put the cup down on the table, and bend down to drink from it. I manage one sip. With this technique, the coffee has to be almost up to the brim to have a sip. It is no longer up to the brim. So, no more sips. Not unless I spill the coffee on the table, and lick it off it. Too undignified. I give up. One sip of coffee is good enough, I decide. I buttonhole passing colleagues and unburden my soul. They try to act sympathetic. And so the long day wears on.

Day three, evening. I have much discussions with friends on working out. Typical conversation:-

"Don't worry, mate. This pain is only for a couple of days. The important thing is not to give up. This is really good for you. It's especially important not to skip the gym today, no matter what the pain. You simply have to go."
"How do you know? Do you work out?"
"Err, no."

Anyway, I do end up at the gym after office. I complain loudly for 5 minutes. I talk of the pain. I say that this is not what I signed up for. "Don't worry," says the trainer, used to all this, "your problem is that your muscles aren't stretched enough. Here, let me stretch them out." So saying, he grabs both my arms and pulls them right back. Residents of Kanyakumari report hearing a loud, shrill shriek. The actual work-out, though, is a lot better today. 45 minutes. Up 15 minutes. It doesn't seem quite as long, either. But the night is just as bad as the previous one.

Day four. Parts of my upper body not wracked with pain the previous day are now officially on that list. I find it difficult to breathe. More unburdening of soul in office. Colleagues now take a noticeable detour around me when about to cross paths with me. To borrow from Raymond Chandler, I move with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis. Evening finds me at the gym again. Instead of complaining loudly, I take a different approach. I borrow from the heartbroken heroes of old Malayalam movies. I speak in a low, strained tone. A tear seems to be on the verge of breaking free from the corner of my eyes. I tell them I cannot live like this much longer. The trainer sighs. He gives me some warm up exercises, a couple of minutes on some machine, and teaches me some gentler stretching exercises than the ones from the previous day. He sends me home. I feel a lot better.

Day five. I wake up for the first time in what seems like years with no major excruciating pains. Relatively speaking, of course. I can brush my teeth with no fear of electrocution. My arms can be almost straightened now. Even raised a bit. I am able to towel my head now, and no longer have to go to office with wet hair. Putting on a T-shirt takes only 20-25 minutes, tops. While driving, I can now steer left and right, and no longer have to attempt to plough through fields or vegetable markets just so that I wouldn't have to turn the wheel. See, I am even typing this little account without pulling too many muscles. Move over, Arnie!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kimi Räikkönen - World Champion, 2007

I'm not what you would call a petrol head. In fact, I'm not even sure what the term means. Despite that, I kind of enjoy watching things on 4 wheels go around in circles at great speed. Especially when it's called F1. Don't know why. In 2004, for instance, I spent every other weekend trudging to the flat of some guys who happened to have Star Sports to suffer their taunts on yet another Michael Schumacher win, and yet another Mercedes blow up for poor Kimi.

The long and short of it is that, I've been a long-time fan of the guy, and I wanted a post - even a much delayed one - to commemorate his triumph last year. The trouble is, I cannot write one of those well-thought-out, insightful posts, full of impressive technical jargon ("a perfect manipulator of a car's dynamic weight", to quote Peter Windsor, for instance - no clue what that means), on Kimi Raikkonen. So, I'll do the next best thing. Cannibalize other people's posts shamelessly, and refer you to articles like this one, or this one.

My first memory of becoming aware that such a thing as F1 existed was as a young boy, hearing on the news that someone named Ayrton Senna had been killed in a race. My first memory of watching a race is of Schumacher punting Damon Hill off the track later that same year to win his first championship. Needless to say, I've been a Schumacher hater ever since, and Hill was my first F1 hero. Over the years, I ended up supporting anyone who was the chief challenger to the German. Jacques Villenueve, Mika Hakkinen, until, starting about 2000, the combination of an unparalleled Ferrari domination and an inability to gain control of the TV remote on Sunday evenings forced me to give F1 a miss.

And then came 2003, when this young guy with a funny name and deadpan face took the lead in the drivers' championship. And with great interest I followed the championship that year. I really took to the man they called The Iceman (a nickname like that does pique your curiosity about someone). He was cold and distant in his interviews. He often made do with one word, where a few sentences were expected of him. And when those sentences did come, they came in monotone, no pauses between words or even sentences - just to add one other layer of unintelligibility over the thick accent - and all delivered with the air of a man who would rather be anywhere else. ("Kimi, what are your thoughts on Nescafe (a team sponsor)?" "Idon'tknowIdon'tdrinkcoffee"). In short - used as I am to seeing sportsmen trying to come off like Brother Teresas - a breath of fresh air.

Furthermore, he was leading the reviled Schumacher in the championship! It was not to be that year, though. He would end second in the drivers' championship, just 2 points behind Schumacher in a car - a modified version of their 2002 car, as McLaren's challenger for the year was not deemed good enough to race - that finished third best in the constructors' championship behind Ferrari and Williams.

Perhaps I shouldn't have started off with the 2003 season. Oh, well. The chap was born on October 17th, 1979 in Finland. He grew up and became an F1 driver. His entry into F1 was rather controversial. He had just 23 car races ever prior to his first F1 race - something, I gather, that is rather unprecedented.

Some fellow drivers, the President of the FIA, among others, felt he could be a danger to other drivers, due to his inexperience. Raikkonen put paid to those feelings soon enough, with a drive to 6th and a championship point in his very first race. Well, I don't know too much else about his early career. If you really must know more, you could try this article at Motorsport Ramblings. I've pasted a large part of it below...

...I suspect the story of Kimi's rise to the top of the sport is actually the more interesting of the two. Much has been made of Lewis Hamilton's relatively ordinary background (compare and contrast with current English GP2 front runner Mike Conway, whose father has made a fortune in civil engineering, or best-placed British F3 runner, Stephen Jelley, whose family run a large house-building business) but the truth is, he was picked up very young by the most successful F1 team in the business, who have been instrumental in managing his career ever since. Had Mclaren not shown an interest in Lewis at the age of 13, one wonders whether he would even have got beyond karting.

Kimi Raikkonen, by contrast, had no such early assistance. His father was a construction worker and his mother a clerk in local government. By the standards of some I have dealt with in my working life, he wasn't poor but it can safely be assumed that they were in no position to personally put up the £200k cost of his season in Formula Renault. From early on, he has been managed by the previously relatively unknown father and son duo of Steve and Dave Robertson (Steve was a middling F3 driver, some 20 years back, but to my knowledge, he hadn't previously been involved in driver management) who somehow managed to persuade Peter Sauber to give him a run in one of his cars at a time when he had only a Formula Renault title to his name, at the end of 2000. The Swiss veteran team owner was so impressed by what he saw, that he quickly offered to hire the inexperienced Finn to race for the team in 2001. There was brief concern that he was simply too inexperienced to be in F1, and he was granted only a probationary superlicence at the beginning of the year. These were concerns which largely vanished when he scored points on his debut in Australia.

On closer inspection, one of the interesting things about Kimi's ascent to Formula 1 was that he did it without ever really having access to the best equipment. In Finnish karting, he was narrowly beaten in his debut season by Toni Vilander (last seen pursuing a living in the FIA GT series). This might seem a surprise, given that that Vilander never went on to anything like the same level of success, but on closer inspection, it had an awful lot to do with the fact that Raikkonen was karting on the cheap - unable to service or replace his engines as frequently, and often trying to eke more races out of the tyres than his rivals. There is even a story (which I have been unable to verify) that he turned up to a European karting series event in the rain, couldn't afford treaded tyres, and beat everyone while running slicks!

Certainly, one thing that comes across is that while Hamilton was very carefully prepared and groomed for F1 from a very young age, Kimi Raikkonen is much more an independent operator - a man little used to taking others' advice, and with little desire to be managed. In this, he is much more of a racing driver in the traditional mould. Going back 30 years or so, racing drivers seemed much more their own men. They tended not to be accompanied by their parents to the races, and many saw no need to employ a team manager. After all, in the 1970s, racing was still dangerous to an extent that few parents would actively encourage their offspring into it in the manner of, for instance, your typical tennis father. These days, it feels like it's increasingly hard to tell apart Anthony Hamilton or John Button from Richard Williams or Damir Dokic - save that neither seem quite so, how shall I put it, bonkers.

His F1 record, you can find out by reading some of the articles linked to above, or by using this fascinating site, What I will put down here is why I like him enough to turn on the TV 17 or 18 Sundays (and Saturdays) a year to watch him try to win. It's like this. I hate maths. I hate statistics. (I'm not above using statistics to prove that a particular favourite sportsman of mine is better than someone else, though.) The simple fact is, all these statistics are piled up by people other than me. And I don't get even the tiniest fraction of all the millions they make. Why should some chap from the other end of the world winning some trophy make me happy? Does me no benefit, is my point. To benefit me, I have to have some pleasure from watching them go about their business. Just winning is not enough - in fact, not even necessary. Dazzling skill is the easiest way to win my heart. Unfortunately, as my comments above indicate, I cannot really make out a driver's skills by watching him on TV. All I see is the cars going round and round, and the time sheets.

Which leaves how he competes, and the character of the man revealed through the way he competes. (Not by reading what the tabloids have to say.) As the just concluded Sydney Cricket Test shows,  you can have a record-equalling victory, and yet not only be panned almost universally for the way you got the result, but even have your head called for by your own supporters. Umm, back to Raikkonen. No psychological warfare, no belittling comments about competitors through the press, no whining, no complaining, in fact, as little talking to the press as possible. His battleground is the race track, and the rest, it doesn't matter. And above all, a fair racer, too. No controversies about cheating, or unfair behaviour for him. A sportsman.

More quoting, this time from F1Fanatic...

He’s also incredibly brave - take qualifying in Spa 2002 for example. Back in the days when qualifying was actually exciting, Kimi was starting a fast lap just as a BAR expired in the first sector. The expectation was Raikkonen's lap would be ruined. But no. Despite being able to see nothing at all, despite the fact that he had no idea if a stricken car would be blocking his path, the Finnish driver went faster in the first sector than he ever had before.

Just imagine that for a second, driving through a thick plume of smoke at top speed, with no reference points and only your imagination and memory for guidance. Some people called it madness, I prefer magnificent.

Failing that, take 2005 Nurburgring instead. You often here commentators use the phrase “driving the wheels off the car”, but rarely does a driver do such a thing. Unless your name is Kimi Raikkonen of course. Kimi was nearing the end of the race, but suffering from a flat spotted tyre, his car was in trouble. The front wheel was bouncing so much that fans in the grandstand could hear it ‘thumping’ over the noise of the V10.

The sensible choice would have been to pit and change the offending rubber, but Kimi was leading, and a win was at stake. Driving at almost 290km/h his car gave up before he did, and threw him into the wall.

Would he do the same again? Of course he would.

Someone's comments on the same article...

All that you guys are saying just confirms that the Kimster is a racer through and through - give him an old cardboard box to use as a sled and he’d race it, just like Gilles Villeneuve used to. One of the reasons people love Kimi is because he is there to race and nothing else, no politics, no mind games, no status seeking, just show him the car and he’ll race. To those of us who remember the great racing drivers, he is like an echo of an age long gone, a reminder of a time when drivers raced for love of the sport and not for money, when business was something done by men in suits in dingy offices and not by guys in helmets. Who gives a flying f**k whether he knows how to set the car up - he doesn’t need to, he drives what he’s given and makes it go faster than anyone else alive could do. That’s what a real driver is and it really doesn’t matter whether he ever gets the championship or not - he’s the best and we all know it.

Yup, that just about covers it.