“ PERFECTION IS MAKING THE BEST OF WHAT YOU HAVE’’

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Anjali Saraogi took up running earnestly in 2016. Less than four years later, she had made it to the Indian team, set a national record in the 100K and been chosen AFI’s woman ultrarunner of the year for 2018-2019.

The 2016 edition of the Mumbai Marathon was special for featuring both the Kipketer siblings on the podium.  Hailing from Kenya, Gideon Kipketer won the men’s elite marathon in a course record of 2:08:35. His sister, Valentine, who had three years earlier set the course record of 2:24:33 (still standing as of 2020), placed third among elite women with timing of 2:34:07. Held on January 17, the 2016 Mumbai Marathon saw 40,285 registrations overall, at that time the highest in the event’s history. Somewhere among the thousands who ran that day in Mumbai, was a woman from Kolkata, roughly a year into running at events and who secured a second place finish in her age category (40-45 years) in the half marathon. That modest distance covered in 1:44:07, betrayed little of her future; she would become one of the finest ultra-runners from India.

Born into a business family, Anjali Saraogi didn’t pursue sports at school. “ I was on the heavy side and I had developed a psychological complex around it too,’’ she said. Away from her school – La Martiniere, Kolkata – she practised yoga and swam. The habit was naturally acquired; her parents were into yoga and physical fitness. “ I grew up in that environment. So I picked it up,’’ Anjali said. Upon reaching college, she studied commerce, attending classes early in the morning and CFA (chartered financial analyst) training sessions later in the day. In the middle of this, she also got married. For a brief while after marriage, Anjali ran her own leather export business. West Bengal (of which, Kolkata is capital) is not far from the eastern sweep of the Himalaya. Between the Himalaya and the plains of India is an intermediate zone of fertile flood plains. In northern India and southern Nepal, this zone is called Terai. In north east India including the northern part of Bengal, close to the Himalayan foothills, this region goes by the name – Dooars. A major crop here is tea. Anjali’s husband owned tea gardens in the Dooars. In the years following Anjali’s marriage, a phase of downturn hit the Indian tea business. Estates in the Dooars were badly impacted. The couple decided to foray in a different direction. Anjali exited the leather business she had and together with her husband, commenced a healthcare enterprise.

From the 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Kolkata Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

“ It was a busy period. There was no time for myself,’’ she said. However she continued doing yoga; she also walked (it was a mix of walking and jogging) five kilometers every day. The combination delivered results. “ My daughter was born in 1998. Within a year after that, I shed most of the weight I had carried since childhood,’’ Anjali said. She also acknowledges that there may have been something smoldering underneath, which kept her determined to become fit. “ During my school days, we used to get television signals from Bangladesh in Kolkata. On one such occasion, the program was about the Olympic Games and it showed long distance running. Those visuals may have impressed me a lot and stayed in my head,’’ Anjali said. Room for women to pursue whatever they wanted wasn’t much those days. In endurance sports in the India, the major centers of growth have traditionally been in and around an arc from south east India to the north via the west. In its span are cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi with other cities partaking in the phenomenon (like Kochi, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad), located in the neighborhood. Kolkata was away from all this. “ In the early 2000s, women wearing shorts and going out for a run or workout was still a matter of debate in our generally conservative society. It was alright in parks but even there you got looked at like an oddity,’’ Anjali recalled.

At Tata Steel 25K, Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

In 2015, the local arm of Round Table India organized a half marathon in Kolkata. Anjali was at that time a member of the women’s wing of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI). A team of women from FICCI were due to participate in the 10 kilometer-run that was a part of the event.  Anjali weighed her options. She had been systematic on the yoga and walking front. She decided to register for the half marathon. She had no idea of running attire; she turned up for the event in a T-shirt meant for golf and leggings borrowed from her daughter. This was the start of her career in running. She covered the 21 kilometer-distance in an hour and 55 minutes; pretty good timing for a debutante. “ That first run at an event, I didn’t suffer. I enjoyed the experience,’’ Anjali said. She followed the half marathon with another, this time at the Goa River Marathon of 2015, where again she completed the course in similar time. Some months later, she was part of the thousands running the half marathon at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, where she secured a podium finish in her age category improving her timing from previous half marathons run by almost ten minutes. “ I don’t know how that happened. I didn’t know a thing about training. All I was doing was yoga and that regular walk-run of five kilometers,’’ she said. Post this 2016 event, Anjali decided to train properly. Her husband was supportive of her decision. There was one problem. Runners who are committed to the sport typically align themselves with a good coach. Located far off to the east from the busy arc of endurance sports in India, Kolkata had neither robust distance-running culture nor coaches reputed in the sport. “ I looked up the Internet for training inputs,’’ Anjali said. It wasn’t a perfect solution by any yardstick. Proper training is real life and dynamic. The coach sees his / her ward; feedback is comprehensive and realistic. The Internet on the other hand, is rich in data. “ Just data is not good enough,’’ Anjali said. But that would be her predicament for the journey ahead. Aside from the Internet and training inputs occasionally received from fellow runners, she hasn’t had a formal coach. “ It wasn’t my choice. That’s how things turned out. If there was a good coach in Kolkata I would have joined,’’ she said.

From the 2019 Boston Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

After the half marathon at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, she ran in the 25 kilometer-category at BNP Endurathon in Mumbai.  Then, things started to gather pace. For next event, she chose the full marathon; she picked the 2016 Chicago Marathon. Having studied in Massachusetts, her husband had friends who lived in the US. On visits to Kolkata, they had spoken of the great race in Chicago. In 2016, when the group planned a reunion in the US, Anjali decided to attempt the race for her debut in the marathon. There was also a pattern seeping into the madness. As with many runners, Anjali wished to run the iconic Boston Marathon. The qualifying time for Boston that year was 3:45 hours for her age category. It became a goal to chase and Chicago seemed ideal venue to do that. She completed the marathon in Chicago – her first formal full marathon – in 3:32. The marathon debut was followed by the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and the Tata Steel Half Marathon in Kolkata. Her Personal Best (PB) in the half marathon was by now 1:33 hours. For comparison try this: in 2017 Anjali would have been around 43 years old. That year she won in her age category in the Mumbai Marathon, covering the 42 kilometer distance in 3:29:12. It additionally placed her second overall among amateur women; the overall winner from amateur women registered timing of 3:17:15. At the same event, the winner among women in the open category of the half marathon finished in 1:32:02, not far from Anjali’s PB of 1:33. For the lady from Kolkata who came late to running, further shifts were underway.

On the Internet, the synopsis of the book, Dare to Run, describes it as the inspiring story of Amit and Neepa Sheth, a husband-wife duo who took up running as a sport in their late thirties. In a collection of essays written over five years, Amit takes the reader along on “ a journey of determination, discovery, courage, self-awareness and self-belief. He takes us with him from his first, almost fatal, 200 meter jog on a beach in Mumbai, to the finish line of The Ultimate Human Race: the 89 km Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. Along the way, Amit uses a combination of poetry, philosophy and scriptures to explain his unique perspective on life, religion, spirituality and running. This is a book not just about running but about the need to relentlessly follow your dreams and passions, no matter what they may be, ‘’ the synopsis said.

In South Africa, for Comrades (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

It was a colleague from FICCI who told Anjali about this book and sent it to her. By the time it arrived, Anjali was down with an injury picked up in the gym. She read Dare to Run while recovering. It became her window to contemplate the ultramarathon. “ Amith Sheth’s book showed me a world I didn’t know existed. His book made me fall in love with Comrades,’’ she said. One more factor inspired her to attempt the ultramarathon. In the days spanning October 21, 2015 to May 1, 2016, Michelle Kakade from Pune had run 5968.4 kilometers along the Golden Quadrilateral, a set of major highways linking India’s major metros. Kolkata was among cities she passed through. A group of Kolkata runners crewed for her at this stage and Anjali was one among them. She was impressed by Michelle and the mission she had embarked upon. It set her thinking about the prospect of distances longer than the marathon. “ There is no point in being afraid. Hard work pays and I am a workhorse. I am not scared of failure. I have no expectations to live up to except my own,’’ Anjali said. She took the plunge. In June 2017, she ran and completed the famous 89 kilometer-ultramarathon in South Africa, Amit Sheth had mentioned in his book. At the time of writing, the time she took to complete Comrades – 8:38:23 – was still the fastest time at the event by a woman from India. Her Comrades result would become a game changer for Anjali.

From the IAU 100K World Championships in Croatia (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Post Comrades, she ran the Tata Steel 25K, the 2018 Mumbai Marathon and the 75 kilometer category of Garhwal Runs, where following an incident of losing her way during the race, she placed third. The major race on her agenda that year was supposed to be the 2018 New York City Marathon; it was the goal driving her training. Meanwhile in February 2017, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) had become a member of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU). In July, having heard of Anjali’s performance at Comrades and Garhwal Runs, Lieutenant Commander Abhinav Jha, a naval officer and ultrarunner, contacted her on Facebook.  It was a call from the blue. The 2018 IAU 100 kilometers World Championships were due to take place in Croatia in September 2018. India was planning to send a team. At Abhinav’s suggestion, Anjali applied for a position on the team based on her performance at the 2017 Comrades. However, not long after applying, she withdrew. Her target for the year and the event she had been training for was the New York City Marathon. It was due in November. The call of July and the two events – in Croatia and New York – all seemed too close to each other for comfort. Anjali wasn’t sure she would be able to do justice. Peteremil D’Souza, an air force officer who is on the committee overseeing ultrarunning at AFI, then spoke to her. He convinced her that she would be able to do well at both Croatia and New York. Anjali understood her predicament better – in pursuit of good timing, she had been training intensely for New York; if she reduced the intensity she should be able to pull off the longer distance in Croatia. It put her back on track. Abhinav advised her on how to train. One week into training and with no more than a few weeks left for the event in Croatia, she had a bad attack of dengue. The disease took a toll on her body. She had high fever and eventually needed two instalments of platelet transfer. Time was lost to disease and recovery. It impacted training. That September in Croatia, the 100 kilometer run proved challenging. “ I was still feeling weak. But there was the high of representing the country. When I finished the race I was in a bad shape,’’ she said. At the event, Anjali covered 100 kilometers in 9:40:35. “ It was a lot of hard work. I could do that only because of Abhinav,’’ she said. Ten days before the New York City Marathon, she ran the Changan Ford Ultra Challenge 50 in China, covering the course in 4:22:22, ranking 35 in an overall field of 155. In November she ran the New York City Marathon, finishing it in 3:24:12. In July 2019, the AFI named Anjali their female ultrarunner for 2018-2019.

At Tata Ultra, Lonavala (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

A rather unusual thing about Anjali is her competence across distances. She still runs anything from shorter distances like the 10K and half marathon to the full and the 100K. She has had podium finishes and good timings in most of these disciplines. According to her, she considers the 42 kilometer-marathon as the foundation for her running. If you are good at it you can run the half marathon well. And if you are training systematically for the marathon, you should be able to handle the 100K as well. “ To run a 100K, you have to be good at 42. Anyone can run a 100K. But if you want to excel at 100K, then you should be good at the marathon because that is the base from which, you go longer or shorter,’’ she said. The marathon addresses all training aspects – speed runs, tempo runs, long runs and recovery runs. “ When I train for the marathon, my performance for the half and 10K improves alongside. Same holds true for the ultramarathon. When I train for the ultramarathon, I am getting better for the marathon too. People hit walls usually for a reason – typically, poor or incorrect nutrition. In a marathon, there are no mistakes. You get what you trained for,’’ Anjali said. At the same time, despite the devotion to systematic training and acknowledgement of the marathon as a process that delivers true to what effort was put in; she is not a big fan of technology. There is no great amount of math and measurement in her approach. “ I run by feel. I can only do what my body is doing. I can only run based on how I am feeling,’’ she said. In her heart, she admitted, she leans more to the 100K nowadays. That is what she would like to focus on, going ahead.

From the 2019 IAU Asia and Oceania Championships in Aqaba, Jordan (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

If it was dengue in the run up to Croatia, post-Croatia another nasty surprise awaited. Anjali was diagnosed with lumps on her breast. Given she had undergone platelet transfer not long ago, surgery was ruled out. Medical opinion initially said that she give up running. Luckily the tumor turned out to be benign. “ There is nobody who does not have a problem. I think perfection is making the best of what you have,’’ she said. In the months that followed, she ran the New York City Marathon in 3:24 hours, Boston in 3:14 and Berlin in 3:23. In November 2019, she set a national record in 100 kilometers at the 2019 IAU Asia and Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan, covering the distance in 9:22:03. Meanwhile as India’s amateur running movement penetrates deeper and deeper into the country, competition has been increasing. To remember alongside is also the angle that India has the biggest pool of youth in the world. The classic amateur running movement in India saw people discovering the active life in their working years and middle aged athletes registering sterling performances. In recent times, it has also meant an army of young people taking to the sport and setting new benchmarks. Even in the ultramarathon, a sport traditionally identified with experience and a slightly older crowd, youngsters have been making their presence felt. As of 2020, Anjali was in her late forties. She came late to running and had done much in the years since. But a question any observer would ask is – how much longer? “ I believe my best is yet to come. I feel there is a lot left in me as regards the marathon and the 100K,’’ she said.

With Sachin Tendulkar at the 2019 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Kolkata Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

In the run up to every edition of the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), the question on runners’ minds is how the weather may be on race day. In 2018 and 2019, the pleasantness of late December-early January had suddenly transformed to heat and humidity. Two days before 2020 TMM, not only was it still pleasant in Mumbai but there was also a nip in the air that evening, at the café on Marine Drive. Coffee and conversation done, Anjali left to attend a wedding reception at Trident Hotel, a short walk away. Two days later, she won in her age category of 45-49 years at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon, covering the distance in 3:24:53. Among amateur woman runners of all age categories running the marathon (the fastest of the lot was clocked at 3:16:26), she placed fourth. Roughly two months later, the running scene in India ground to a halt as COVID-19 zoomed to pandemic. The situation affected Anjali too. Hemmed in by lockdown, the need to protect her family and with her own house bordered by containment zones, she decided it would be wise to pause her running till things improved. Yoga and strength training continued. Early August, this blog asked her what the impasse – complemented by the irreversible nature of time – meant to her. “ The question is meaningless to me. I don’t run for a podium finish. I run because I like to run. It is alright if right now, I must temporarily stay off running. That is a conscious decision made in view of the prevailing times of viral disease and my desire to protect my family,’’ she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This article is based on two rounds of conversation with Anjali, one in January 2020 and the other in August.)        

2020 LONDON MARATHON TO BE ELITES-ONLY

This image is from the 2019 London Marathon. It was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

This year’s London Marathon, scheduled for October 4, will bring us the much awaited contest between marathon greats Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) and Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia). But the 2020 edition of the race will be an elites-only affair.

“ After months of intensive work and consultation with London’s authorities, organisers today confirmed the plans for The 40th Race on Sunday 4 October 2020. Elite races for men, women and wheelchair athletes will take place on an enclosed looped course in St James’s Park in a secure biosphere (a contained safe environment like that of Formula 1 and England cricket) and times will be eligible for Olympic qualification.

“ The long-awaited head-to-head between Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) and Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia) will headline the men’s race and world record holder Brigid Kosgei (Kenya) heads the women’s field. Manuela Schär (Switzerland) and David Weir lead the wheelchair fields. There will be no spectator access to maintain the biosphere but BBC Sport plans to broadcast eight hours of coverage during the day. (Please note: access to most of St James’s Park will be maintained for local residents and park users.),’’ an official statement dated August 6, 2020, available on the website of the London Marathon, said.

It added, “ Everyone with a place in the 2020 event will still have the chance to take part in The 40th Race by running the famous 26.2 mile marathon distance from home or anywhere in the world on the course of their choice. All finishers will receive the coveted finisher medal and New Balance finisher T-shirt. In addition, all runners and charities will also be able to defer their place to a future London Marathon – in 2021, 2022 or 2023.’’

Earlier this year in March, the 2020 edition of the Tokyo Marathon was run as an elites-only affair. That event – the first major running event to embrace the elites-only option since COVID-19 began to spread – happened some days before the disease was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Thereafter, the issue of going elites-only for 2020 has been among formats studied by major marathons. While many chose to cancel and wait for better times, some indication of the direction London may take was available in a July 28 statement from World Athletics, wherein the apex body for athletics worldwide said that the London Marathon would be among races, athletes wishing to run the marathon at the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (now set for the summer of 2021) can participate in and hope to qualify.

Thursday’s statement from London Marathon quoted Hugh Brasher, Event Director as saying, “ We have been working for months on a number of different scenarios with the health and safety of our runners, our charities, our sponsors, our volunteers, our medics, our communities and our city always our priority. We had detailed plans to deliver a socially distanced mass participation event – either a run or a walk – and we were planning to utilise new technology to do this. We were looking to use a revolutionary technology using Bluetooth and ultra wideband ranging, which is about to be launched worldwide. This would have enabled us to accurately monitor every participant’s distance from each other, work out if the participant spent more than 15 minutes within 1.5 metres (or any distance we set) of anyone else and then contact them post-event if anyone had informed us that they had contracted Covid-19 in the two weeks after the event. Despite all our efforts, the fantastic support from all of our partners and the progress that has been made on planning for the return of smaller mass participation events that are not on the roads, it has not been possible to go ahead with a mass socially distanced walk or run.

“ In parallel with the work on the plans for the socially distanced mass event, we had a team working on planning the elite races for men, women and wheelchair athletes in a biosphere environment in St James’s Park and another team creating a truly inspiring Virgin Money London Marathon which means participants across the UK and abroad can still be part of The 40th Race from their home or wherever they might be on 4 October.’’

Participants in the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon will have 24 hours to complete the 26.2 miles, from 00:00 to 23:59 on Sunday 4 October. They can run, walk, take breaks and log their race on a new London Marathon app being developed by event partner TCS. Runners can also use their time, with appropriate supporting evidence, to apply for a Good for Age or Championship place in 2021.

In 2021, the event will move from its usual April date to Sunday 3 October to give the best chance for the mass race to return in 2021, the official statement said.

More details are available on the event website.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

TWO REALITIES: KHARGHAR AND KAUSANI

Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Located in Bageshwar district, Kausani is popular for its tea gardens.

Although tea plantation was introduced many decades ago in Uttarakhand, it didn’t catch on. According to a September 2014 article in the Hindustan Times about the erstwhile standing of teas from Uttarakhand and how they languished later, tea cultivation was introduced in these parts by the British in 1835. They chose the hills of Kausani, Dehradun and Berinag to start the process. Initially, the teas of Uttarakhand did well. Subsequently, even as plantations became big business in North East India and South India, tea production in Uttarakhand plummeted. In recent times, according to media reports, efforts have been made to encourage tea growing and restore the market profile of teas from the state.

Kausani remains a small hub of tea gardens. As you come in from the Ranikhet side, the road ascends to the town, runs a bit on the ridge of the hill and then descends to the other side, which is when the tea gardens and their adjoining clutch of restaurants emerge to view. It is a popular halt for tourists, rewarding anyone making it to the spot at the right time on a clear day with great pictures of select Himalayan peaks. Kumaon is known for its panoramic view of the Himalaya. From the cafes near Kausani’s tea gardens, you see the peaks of western Kumaon. Late July, 2020 it was the season of rain in Kausani. It rained intermittently. The weather was pleasant; perfect for running. Some kilometers away from Kausani, is the village of Shauli. Early mornings and sometimes in the evening, a runner from here would take a route not normally taken by others around. While the general grain of economic development in the hills has been the tendency to trade walking trails for roads, this person – recently returned from big city – did the opposite. He traded Kausani’s roads for its quiet, forgotten trails. They wind their way along hill slopes sporting pine trees.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Until some months ago, Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Chan) was among those running regularly at Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. Navi Mumbai is a satellite city of Mumbai; it along with Thane is part of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). MMR is one of the biggest urban agglomerations on the planet. An important node of Navi Mumbai, Kharghar evolved on flat land set against a backdrop of hills. The flats, roads therein and connections thereof to more roads in nearby Belapur offer adequate mileage for daily running. A five kilometer-long road leading up into the hills serves as additional tool for training. Every year as the annual Mumbai Marathon approaches, this hill road sees local runners and those from other parts of MMR, come to train. Indeed Navi Mumbai is one of the better places in MMR for a runner to be in. However, it is a bustling urban center and has been gaining vehicles and traffic by the day. The overall ambiance of your daily run is thus very much that of city.

Chan hails from Kausani. After a few years of growing up there, his family moved out to ensure better education for the children. Besides, his father worked in the Indian Navy and with any job in the defence sector, transfer is an integral part of life. Eventually, Chan found himself in MMR (at Kharghar), where as an employed adult, he worked with Star Sports. As of 2020, it was around seven years since Chan took up running. The bug got to him in Mumbai. In the initial years, he did what he could, sensing his way around in the sport and keeping an annual appointment with the Mumbai Marathon. By 2015, he was training seriously and by the following year, had graduated to attempting the ultramarathon. In 2016, he won a 50 kilometer-night run, a 75 kilometer ultramarathon in Pune and covered 96 kilometers at the annual 12-hour Mumbai Ultra. In 2017, he won the 101 kilometers category at Run the Rann, an ultramarathon organized in the Rann of Kutch in western India. That year he also won the IDBI Federal Life Insurance 12hrs stadium run in Mumbai covering a distance of 105.2 kilometers in the stipulated time; he also participated in and finished the 111 kilometer-segment of La Ultra The High in Ladakh. In 2018, he won the 50 kilometers category at BNP Ultra in Mumbai but later suffered injury while training for the Annapurna 100 in Nepal. “ As a comeback run in 2020, I bettered my course record at BNP 50 by two minutes, finishing the race with a PB of 3:56:01,’’ Chan said.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

After his father retired, Chan’s parents shifted back to Kausani. The move isn’t permanent for them yet; at the time of writing his father was still undecided on whether it should be a shift for good or not. In March 2020, Chan was due to attend his Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarkashi. By then he had also put in his papers at Star Sports and was looking forward to commencing something on his own in sports nutrition.  Against this backdrop, it made sense to blend his NIM trip with a visit home after the mountaineering course. After all, Uttarkashi is in Uttarakhand and Garhwal (where NIM is) and Kumaon (where Kausani is) are adjacent regions. However, the entire plan had to be cancelled following the outbreak of COVID-19 and onset of nationwide lockdown. Chan spent the first two and a half months of lockdown in Kharghar. Then, as the strict lockdown gave way to a slightly relaxed version, in mid-June, he traveled to Kausani to be with his parents.  With lockdown continuing and working remotely now an accepted way of life, he plans to make Kausani his new base.

Plains or hills, a runner cannot stay away from running. For Chan, Kausani situated at an elevation of 6200 feet, presented fresh options, especially on the trail front. He has plans to try some of the well-known trail running events of Himachal Pradesh and South India. It wasn’t long before he started exploring the trails around Kausani as potential training routes. Every day, he picks one of two windows or sometimes both; the first is in the morning around 7 AM, the other is around 4-4.30 PM. “ There has to be natural light. That is one problem in the hills. You don’t have street lights here as in the cities. But otherwise it is a vast difference between what I do here and the running I used to do in Kharghar. The weather in Navi Mumbai was always hot and humid and capable of exhausting you fast. The air was also polluted, which is the case in most urban areas. There was traffic. Here road traffic is less but then, I am not on the roads at all. I am on trails, which are frequented by very few people. It is peaceful. Yes the elevation makes you strain more than in the plains but the air is clean; you can feel good quality air in your lungs,’’ he said. As for inclines he has tonnes of it strewn around in hill country. According to him, the trails he found are a healthy mix of enjoyable running and steep, technical slopes. Incidentally, Chan is not the only one utilizing the value of Kumaon’s trails. Around the time the nationwide lockdown started, Nitendra Singh Rawat, one of India’s top marathon runners, had shifted from Ranikhet (where the Kumaon Regiment to which he belongs is headquartered) to his village in Garur. When contacted in early April, he was training on isolated trails near his village, away from people and the hustle and bustle of life. Garur is around 15 kilometers from Kausani.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

As he continues his running in Kausani, Chan admitted to nursing a wish. Places like Garhwal and Kumaon have known running for long, possibly longer than it has been viewed as fitness movement or sport in the plains. The driving force for this widespread engagement with running was military recruitment. The Himalayan foothills have a tradition of sending people to the armed forces. Both Kumaon and Garhwal have regiments bearing their name. In the run up to every recruitment season (locally called bharti), the roads of Kumaon feature young men putting in the miles to stay fit. Same is the case in Kausani. “ The people here are good runners. They have the ability to do well. But they don’t have a year-round culture of running that is independent from military recruitment. They run to be recruited and when that reason isn’t there, they don’t have any incentive to continue running. I would like to do what I can to change that. I hope I am able to contribute in some way to creating a running culture here,’’ Chan said on the phone from Kausani.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Podium finishes and timings at races are as stated by interviewee.)

THE WAY BACK

This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Films on sports become memorable when they tell a unique story; tell a known story in engaging format, features great acting or hosts technical excellence like memorable cinematography.  A problem seen in this genre is herd behavior. When one model sells, others emulate by the dozen.  For instance, there is an element of fatigue brought by the innate need of these films to showcase motivation, teamwork and achievement. Even before story unfolds, you know what it’s going to be. That can be a damper.

The Way Back is a regular film anchored by the solid presence of Ben Affleck. The film revolves around a former, talented high school basketball player who has drifted off the sport and is then called in to coach a team from his old school. There is nothing new about the problems plaguing him, there is nothing new about the struggles of the young players he is asked to coach. What appears refreshing is the acceptance of known narrative and its handling with a steady hand rooted in reality. Unlike your average sports film, which tends to periodically court elation and uplifting sequences, this one remains a bit dark and grim. That is understandable because the coach has genuine problems to overcome. The bleakness of his world mixes with the goings on in the basketball court, making for an overall mood that rarely frees itself from the damage he has already done to himself and the damage yet to be. Doing so, it becomes a good document of what it means to live and be scarred by life (which in turn, makes you an effective teacher), what it takes to be a good coach and how accountable to wards and school, coaches have to be. That element of realism and ordinary world is this 2020 film’s strong point.

 Plus, Affleck turns in a convincing performance.

The film is available on Amazon Prime; worth watching.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)  

A HIDDEN LIFE

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

The human world has two camps. One finds purpose and security in clustering together. The other acknowledges the vulnerability of being alone but attributes greater value to journey by oneself.

Most of us know World War II as a contest within human cluster between the Axis and the Allies. Both sides were regimented for the task; it was a case of armies clashing and even in the case of civilian resistance, they went by their identity as a group – the Resistance. That is what makes the case of Franz Jagerstatter interesting. He was an Austrian conscientious objector. Cambridge Dictionary explains the term as: a person who refuses to work in the armed forces for moral or religious reasons. Conscientious objectors don’t count on herd for support. Their protest is typically personal and done alone.

Franz and his wife Franziska live in the village of St Radegund in the mountains of Austria. They are farmers; it is a hard but happy life. Both are devout Catholics. The life of Franz and Franziska (Fani) are the subject of the 2019 Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life.

It is the age of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany; its war machine and expansionism. People are ordered to serve in the Nazi army. According to Wikipedia’s page on Franz, when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, he was the only person in the village to vote against the move in the plebiscite held that April. Franz reluctantly undergoes a round of military training. However the surrender of France in the initial phase of World War II and the realization of Nazi objectives till then sees Franz being allowed to return home. He abhors the Nazis; he dislikes their agenda. However the war doesn’t end with France’s surrender; it continues. When his fellow villagers succumb to the general trend, justify the war effort and indulge the ruling dispensation with greetings of “ hail Hitler,’’ Franz finds himself isolated. He occasionally makes his dissent publicly evident. Such instances mark him out as a traitor, a position that is – to his detractors – worse than enemy. All this, when he is guilty of no crime and his only fault is that he doesn’t tow the Nazi line. The resultant atmosphere is like an ever tightening noose around him and family; a sense of approaching gloom constantly creeping up on them. His wife stands by him. Eventually, Franz is ordered to report for work with the army. Although very attached to his family, he is sufficiently angered by the spinelessness all around, to report for duty with the explicit intention of making his dissent known to the authorities. Lined up for inspection after reporting, he stands out from among the recruits for not saying the ritual “ hail Hitler.’’ This and what happens thereafter, form the subject of the film, a biopic.

Terrence Malick is known for his visually impressive movies, often having strong philosophical and spiritual undertones. That idiom is strong in A Hidden Life. Every frame of the film captures your attention. Each of them is a study in poignant loneliness, which is the price human beings pay for standing by their beliefs.  Even in the utterly beautiful mountain landscape that embellishes many of the frames, the loneliness and vulnerability of the main protagonists shine through. You sense the abject difference between the spiritual meaning of existence as borne by the link between self and universe and the tiered descent to compromise that happens with higher and higher levels of human organization, from self to family, community and nation. There is no judgement by the film; there is just empathy. It is a study of predicament. There isn’t one moment when the director’s art flags. For the same reason, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It moves slowly, almost at the pace of human breath. I was patient. To my mind, notwithstanding its tragic story (not an easy trajectory to handle amidst depressing lockdown), A Hidden Life is one of the best films I have seen in recent times. It is memorable for its sheer quality and the periodic balancing of its tragic narrative with the love you sense in its carefully shot frames. It is also memorable for the relevance it holds for our times in the early decades of the twenty first century, when the tendency to worship massive human formations, fancy autocratic governments and force the individual to fall in line are all back in vogue.

Be patient with this film. Your patience will be rewarded.

The film is available on Disney-Hotstar.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)    

JUST MERCY

This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Let put it in plain and simple terms – some films are relevant.

Just Mercy is one.

Well-acted and directed, this 2019 film is based on the real life story of a person serving time on death row although he isn’t guilty of the crime he is accused of. It offers insight into the trumped up charges (how they were engineered) and the legal battle that followed to get him released, including the intimidating atmosphere lawyers endure to ensure justice. The film also informs you of how in many cases, death row became a parking spot for people dealt with unjustly by the system. Framed and with their appeals thwarted repeatedly by a prejudiced system, they languish in prison. It is the exceptional who hold themselves together in one piece.

The story is based in Alabama, US. For the contemporary viewer, it acquires impact given the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and the simple fact that society anywhere on the planet is never far from the edge of injustice. It is a grim film particularly relevant for geographies that have seen or continue to see the type of forces portrayed in the plot. Above all, it tells why the law exists, what a lawyer means and that deep down, even the wrong doers tend to reflect and correct, however reluctantly that may be. But the price of such reluctance is steep. Innocents die while others rot in prison for years, for no fault of theirs except as the prosecution sometimes says (and gets away with): he had all the appearance of a guilty individual or all the signs of being a criminal. That dependence on perception conveniently overshadows the diligent lawyer’s question: where is the evidence?

Life in lockdown has stripped away my appetite for special effects and comic book heroes. They remind too much of excess. On the other hand, simple, bare films featuring people and their lives have been attracting as idiom for the times. It was that instinct, which made me click on Just Mercy when it showed up on Amazon Prime. It didn’t disappoint. And I didn’t mention that comic books-angle for nothing. The lead character – that of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer – is played by Michael B. Jordan who has previously starred in Fantastic Four and Black Panther. Anchoring his legal firm – the Equal Justice Initiative – is Eva Ansley, portrayed by Brie Larson, known best for her role as Captain Marvel. Here, you see these actors for what they are genuinely capable of. Acclaimed for Ray, remembered for Django Unchained and with a detour to the Electro of Amazing Spiderman-2 in between, Jamie Fox plays Walter “ Johnny D” McMillian, the innocent man stuck in death row.

This is a film worth watching for what it is and to also reflect a bit on the many things the human being can be, ranging from the one who frames to the one who saves.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)       

CROSS COUNTRY’S RETURN TO OLYMPICS WILL BE AS MIXED TEAM RELAY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The cross country event proposed for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games will be a mixed team relay featuring 15 countries, the World Athletics Council has confirmed.

“ Each team would be composed of two men and two women. Each member of the team would run two legs of the 2.5km course, alternating between male and female athletes as each athlete completes the 2.5km course and hands over to a teammate,’’ a press release dated July 30,2020, available on the website of World Athletics, said.

According to it, World Athletics will meet with the organizing committee of Paris 2024 in the near future to work out further details of the proposal. World Athletics, president, Sebastian Coe he expressed delighted at the prospect of cross country returning to the Olympic Games 100 years after it last appeared at the 1924 Paris Games.

“ My love for athletics began with cross country,’’ he was quoted as saying. “ When I joined my first athletics club, Hallamshire Harriers, the club president was Joe Williams, who ran in the last Olympic cross country race in Paris in 1924. It would be hugely symbolic for this wonderful athletic discipline to return to the fold after a century, and for a new generation of runners to fall in love with the glorious challenge of running off-piste,” Coe has said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

THE KING

This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Do you shape the journey or does the journey shape you?

That’s a question creative people often confront. I don’t know if the makers of the 2017 documentary The King had a theme to chase or whether the chase served up a theme. My hunch is it was more the latter. Whatever the reason, this is an outstanding documentary on a familiar subject – Elvis Presley.

There was no doubt in my mind as regards what the topic maybe, when I saw the film and its title show up on Netflix. Elvis is so strongly linked to that reference: the king; he is the king of rock `n’ roll. Most documentary films about rock stars end up a carefully struck balance between puff piece and their struggles, typically the product of complex life or acquired habits. What I didn’t anticipate in The King was the manner in which the documentary explored the origins of Elvis’s music, the social circumstances that led to him and not others being the king of that genre, the many ways in which his popularity was leveraged leaving him a brand and eventually a commodity and how all this probably reflected at a larger level, a nation’s aspirations hijacked by money and power and rendered hypocritical.

That’s a lot to squeeze into a documentary film of finite dimension. But The King pulls it off magnificently with its idiom of traveling through Elvis country in the king’s own Rolls Royce and chats with singers and actors recorded as they ride in the car. None of those participating in the documentary – they range from Ethan Hawke to Alec Baldwin, Mike Myers, Chuck D and Emmylou Harris – hold back on what they think of Elvis. This makes the film natural and engaging. The musical genres Elvis promoted were not new; some of his songs were sung by others earlier and sung pretty well too. Even the car comes in for scrutiny – if Elvis was as representative of the American Dream as he was marketed to be, why did he keep a Rolls Royce? It puts the spotlight on what ingredients constituted the Elvis phenomenon. How did genres and lines that were already existing become a hit when sung by him? And in proportion to how things worked for him, you realize why it didn’t work for others. Little by little, the film, as it unravels the imagery around Elvis, unravels alongside the progressive decline of the original American Dream – life, liberty and happiness. The values the country once evoked appear lost through emphasis of money, companies and empire building, not to mention the steady propagation alongside of misleading imagery by a powerful entertainment industry.  The picture of America became that latter synthetic facade. A yawning gap opened up between it and reality. The King is as much about Elvis as it is it about what happened to America.

A few things made this documentary interesting to watch. First, as viewer, you live in the present with questions about America born from the social inequality and turbulence you saw happening there over the past few years.  Second, as you deconstruct the Elvis-image you see how much the above mentioned situation has remained simmering and unchanged through all those years.  Third, this film is not only absorbing for its subject but also for how it was made. It has an organic, evolving-on-the-go feel, which – when you think about it – is possible only if the creative mind is complemented by courage. Finally, work of this sort makes you respect America. Such films – and others, more hard hitting and on more sensitive topics – wouldn’t be made if room for critical perspective shrank as it is has in some other democracies currently diluting freedom of expression.

This is a documentary worth watching.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     

WARM SPRINGS

This image was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

As mentioned before on this blog, one of the lockdown induced-drifts I experienced was an appetite for films that told a human story in an uncluttered idiom, free of special effects. The algorithms at streaming media platforms are pretty good these days and soon enough, Disney-Hotstar recommended the 2005 television film Warm Springs. It proved to be a rewarding experience at many levels.

The film depicts a stage from the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States. It picks up from the 1920 presidential election campaign, in which Roosevelt is the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice President. At this point, Roosevelt is a picture of possibility. He hails from a well-known influential family, has had access to good education; is wealthy and married to Eleanor.  In the election however, his side loses. The Republicans gain a landslide victory. Roosevelt takes the defeat in his stride. It does little to dampen his spirit or invite introspection. He carries on as before, included therein being an affair with his wife’s secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor discovers the affair and it causes severe strain on their marriage. A divorce is prevented by Roosevelt’s domineering mother, Sara.

Around this time, Roosevelt is struck by poliomyelitis. The disease leaves him paralyzed from waist down. Besides being a personal setback, the impact of paralysis is amplified by the effect it can potentially have on his political image and career. It seems the end of Roosevelt the politician. However, his political advisor Louis Howe believes, that needn’t be the case. In his assessment, the loss at the 1920 hustings had served to catapult Roosevelt to the national stage. He and Eleanor stand by Roosevelt during the period of his illness, drawing up plans to keep the extent of damage a secret and at the same time doing what they can to keep Roosevelt’s name afloat in political circles, including forays by Eleanor into the women’s suffrage movement. The film’s real story revolves around Roosevelt’s journey to a spa resort in Georgia and his subsequent stay there trying out hydrotherapy as means to improve his condition. Impressed by his progress and inspired by the people he meets, he decides to acquire the property in the hope of creating a center offering the therapy to those in need. It is a period that restores his faith in himself and also mends to an extent, the soured relationship with Eleanor. The film concludes with his return to active politics.

Aside from the fact that polio too is caused by a virus, what made this film relevant amidst COVID-19 lockdown, was Roosevelt’s tenure as president of the US and the curiosity to know what all went into making him the person he was. Beyond being the longest serving president of the US, Roosevelt is associated with his service to the nation during two critical periods – the Great Depression and World War II. The Great Depression began during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, with the Wall Street Crash of October 24, 1929. Roosevelt became president in the depths of the depression and it was under his leadership and the programs his government introduced, that America began clawing its way out of economic downturn. His interventions, while effective, were not welcomed by big business. The website whitehouse.gov notes, “ By 1935, the nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt’s New Deal program. They feared his experiment, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.’’

As an outside observer, you wonder – how did a person born and raised in elite circumstances come to embrace such an approach and lead his country out of an economic crisis? For me, now tackling the economic consequences of COVID-19 lockdown, that was the dominant instinct while watching Warm Springs (the film is named after the place where the spa resort stood), which scans a small but important phase of Roosevelt’s life. The film didn’t disappoint, unraveling in its sweep, the personal suffering Roosevelt endured on account of polio, the society he encountered in the conservative south, the fellow disadvantaged souls he attracted to the spa resort and the inclusive community he built there. As a politician, he was already a people’s man albeit withdrawn since the polio episode. In addition to his own transformation through hdrotherapy, what you notice in the film, is the change to the social circles he elects to connect with and learn from. You get a sense of cocoon breached and world seeping in. The film has a solid cast with Kenneth Branagh as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor, Jane Alexander as Sara Delano Roosevelt, David Paymer as Louis Howe, Kathy Bates as Helena Mahoney and Tim Blake Nelson as Tom Loyless.

Warm Springs remained dear to Roosevelt’s heart. He died during his fourth term as president. He was in Warm Springs when the end came.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

OLYMPIC QUALIFYING SYSTEM TO RESTART FOR ROAD ATHLETES FROM SEPTEMBER

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

World Athletics will lift the suspension of the Tokyo Olympic qualification system for the marathon and race walk events from September 1, 2020.

This follows concerns over the lack of qualifying opportunities that may be available for road athletes before the qualification period finishes on May 31, 2021, an official statement dated July 28, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, said.

The original suspension period, from April 6 to November 30, 2020, was introduced due to the competition and training disruption caused by the global pandemic, and remains in place for all other track and field events. “ Road athletes will be able to register Olympic qualifying entry standards from September 1 to November 30, but only in pre-identified, advertised and authorised races being staged on World Athletics certified courses, with in-competition drug testing on site,’’ the statement said. The accrual of points for world rankings and the automatic qualification through Gold Label marathons /Platinum Label marathons remains suspended until November 30, 2020.

According to the statement, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe noted that it had become apparent that marathon and race walk athletes may have very limited opportunities to register Olympic qualifying times in 2021 due to the uncertainty around staging mass participation events over the next year given these events  rely heavily on cities around the world agreeing to stage them. The statement quoted Coe, “ Most of the major marathons have already been cancelled or postponed for the remainder of this year and the evolution of the pandemic makes it difficult to predict if those scheduled for the first half of next year will be able to go ahead. That situation, combined with the fact that endurance athletes in the marathon and race walks can only produce a very limited number of high-quality performances a year, would really narrow their qualifying window without this adjustment. We have also been assured by the Athletics Integrity Unit that the anti-doping system is capable of protecting the integrity of road races during this period and will put in place strict testing criteria for all athletes.”

The Virgin Money London Marathon, due to take place on October 4, is committed to working with World Athletics to promote this opportunity to athletes around the world and to assist with their travel challenges so they can participate in London and achieve their Olympic qualifying time, the statement said. World Athletics will also work with the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon to see if they can offer similar opportunities. In addition, World Athletics expects there will be at least two major race walking events staged between September 1 and November 30, 2020.

Both the Athletes’ Commission and Competition Commission were consulted prior to this decision and approved the proposal. The Athletes’ Commission noted that this decision does not assist all athletes, given the travel restrictions still imposed by some countries, but will support the majority of road athletes in the particularly difficult circumstances they face to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games. In making the decision, the World Athletics Council also noted that the conditions for making the Olympic standards at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 were challenging for road event athletes whereas the conditions for in-stadium events were excellent as the results showed.

“ World Athletics will also work with its Member Federations and meeting organisers to ensure that there are sufficient pre-Olympic competition opportunities for all track and field disciplines, particularly those that traditionally have fewer meeting opportunities, from December 1, 2020 onwards,’’ the statement said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)