VEDANGI’S QUEST / THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo has been downloaded from Vedangi’s website and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright violation intended)

A young Indian cyclist seeks to become the fastest woman to go around the world unsupported on a bicycle. She began her journey earlier today, July 17.

Vedangi Kulkarni has commenced her quest to be the fastest woman to circumnavigate the globe unsupported on a bicycle.

News of her upcoming project was in the media since last year. The expedition was slated to commence in June 2018. But owing to delay related to securing visas for some of the countries she would be passing through, the trip started only earlier today, July 17, 2018. Her father, Vivek Kulkarni, who is in Perth – the city that is the start and finish line of her circumnavigation – confirmed to this blog that Vedangi’s expedition has begun. “ She started her trip at midnight,” Vivek said.

As per information available on Vedangi’s website, her journey of 18,000 miles (approximately 29,000 kilometers) will be attempted in four stages. The first stage will see her cycling through Australia and New Zealand. The second stage will see her cycling across Alaska and Canada. The third stage spans Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Mongolia. The fourth and last stage covers China and the trip back to where she started in Australia. Given the fact that all required visas cannot be applied for and obtained well in advance, the exact route of Vedangi’s expedition has to stay open to adjustments as her journey progresses.

Just before the start of expedition in Perth (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

According to Wikipedia, the rules governing records in circumnavigation by bicycle were changed in 2013. The rules require that the journey should be continuous and in one direction (east to west or west to east); the minimum distance ridden should be 18,000 miles and the total distance covered by rider and bicycle should exceed the length of the Equator. The clock does not stop for any waiting time; for transit flights, ferries and the duration of such transit en route. Going by the Internet, the record Vedangi seeks to improve upon is the one held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014, aged 32 and fresh from losing her job, Paola cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days. She broke Juliana Buhring’s 2012 record of 152 days.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017, Vivek said. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. “ We have to be flexible as regards the route,” Vivek said. She plans to cover close to 200 miles every day. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on information available on Vedangi Kulkarni’s website, Wikipedia and conversation with her father.)

ROHAN MORE: GEARING UP FOR A NEW CHALLENGE

Rohan More (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2017, Rohan Dattatrey More was selected for the year’s Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award. The Pune based-swimmer was well into a series of long distance swims when the award was announced. In February 2018, he wrapped up the Oceans Seven challenge. He had bagged marathon swimming’s Triple Crown earlier. He now dreams of taking a shot at the Olympics; the open water swimming event therein. At the time of publishing this article, Rohan worked with Infosys.

The word asthma is derived from the Greek term for panting.

In regular life, panting and asthma are very different.

Asthma is a medical condition; it affects the airways and can make breathing difficult. Doctors are known to recommend swimming for children suffering from asthma. Information available on the Internet says there is no evidence yet to prove swimming is better than other exercises in this regard. Preference for it appears founded on a few factors. First, swimming is one of the best exercises. It is particularly noted for its low impact on joints.  Second, when done with proper technique, the strain of swimming is handled without recourse to panting. You settle into a rhythm, inhaling above water and exhaling in it. There is also the general perception that the moist respiratory environment of swimming is less of a trigger for asthma than dry ambiance. Third – as one doctor this blog spoke to put it – exercise and outdoors are broadly deemed to be good for growing a healthy immune system. When you encourage a child suffering from asthma to take up swimming, you are hoping that its immune system is strengthened while its respiratory system gains from gradual passage through exercise-induced stress and adaptation. The overall benefits of acquiring improved lung capacity through swimming are seen to outweigh risks like exercise induced-asthma.

From the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Rohan Dattatrey More is the only child of his parents. Born 1985 in Pune to a father who served in the police and a mother who was a housewife, Rohan attended Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya in the city. He suffered from respiratory problems. The doctor recommended sports and athletics, particularly swimming.  “ I started swimming from around four years of age,’’ he said, end-June 2018 at his apartment not far from Pune’s Senapati Bapat Road and Symbiosis College. His mother, Vijaya, who accompanied him to his swimming sessions, appears to have been a major influence in how Rohan’s early years in swimming evolved. Rohan swam at the S.P. College swimming pool; it was of Olympic dimension. He was an introvert; metaphorically a lot like Sunk Rock, the lighthouse mounted on a pier and located some five kilometers out at sea from Mumbai, a city of thickly packed buildings. Compared to the cheek by jowl living conditions of Mumbai, Sunk Rock seems a lonely outpost; a pillar of a lighthouse jutting out from the sea. Those days, many swimmers from Pune used to head out to Mumbai for attempting the distance swim from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. Vijaya, asked around if ten year-old Rohan could attempt it. The resultant trip to Mumbai with three day’s practice at Juhu beach, ahead of race, was Rohan’s first experience of the sea. Armed with those three days of familiarity with the sea, the ten year-old successfully swam the distance from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. “ I had to get used to the dynamics of open water. But I didn’t worry about depth. Once you know you are a good swimmer, you don’t fear depth,’’ Rohan said of his first major tryst with open water swimming.

Five years after Rohan’s Sunk Rock-Gateway of India swim, the first section of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway would open, reducing the time taken to travel between the two cities. The road to Pune from Mumbai passes through Khopoli. With an elevation of approximately 200 feet and located at the base of the climb to Lonavala and Pune beyond, Khopoli is gateway to the hills. The Amba River originates in the nearby hills. At the point where this small river meets the Arabian Sea, is Dharamtar, now an upcoming port. For Rohan, the next logical progression after his Sunk Rock-Gateway of India adventure was to try the annual Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. It is 35 kilometers long. He trained with emphasis on greater mileage.  On land, 35 kilometers is less than a marathon. The average amateur runner in Mumbai completes a full marathon in under-five hours. Progression in water is a lot slower. Given the longer distance involved in his next objective and the fact that swimming takes time, Rohan had to be prepared for an early morning start – in the dark hours preceding sunrise – if called for. He obtained special permission from the pool authorities in Pune and trained at night to get used to swimming in darkness. Vijaya accompanied him to the pool for these training sessions.

Crossing the Cook Strait (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

This phase in his life also represented another transition. Ever since he started frequenting the pool, Rohan had developed into a strong, competitive swimmer.  Swimming around three kilometers every day, he was good enough to merit podium finishes at district level competitions and represent Pune district at state level competitions. He specialized in 100 meters and 200 meters backstroke. Post Sunk Rock, as he aspired for Dharamtar-Gateway, the drift in training moved from short distance swims to long ones entailing endurance. The concept of endurance entered the frame. In December 1996, an eleven year-old Rohan successfully completed Dharamtar-Gateway, covering the 35 kilometer-distance in seven hours, twenty nine minutes. At that time, he was the youngest swimmer to complete the annual challenge. “ By now I realized that I liked open water swimming. Unlike in the swimming pool, you see no boundaries at sea. It is open on all sides. I like that,’’ Rohan said.

Human life however isn’t as barrier-free as the sea. Geographically, Pune is part of Maharashtra’s `Desh’ region, plateau situated at higher elevation from the sea coast. Apart from some lakes and reservoirs, it offers no scope for open water swimming, certainly nothing comparable to the sea gracing the Konkan coast far below. Dharamtar-Gateway done, Rohan returned to training at the swimming pool in Pune with occasional forays to larger tanks. As he grew older, he graduated from representing Pune district to representing the state in swimming; he was also member of the state water polo team. When he reached eleventh standard, the fabled Great Wall of India went up – studying for exams and focus on academics. The years went by characterless; swimming reduced to recreational swimming. He studied engineering at the Government College of Engineering, Pune and secured a job with Cognizant Technology Solutions, a leading IT company with operations in India. For the next five to six years he worked in Pune, a visit to the pool or an occasional bout of football was all he did to break the monotony. Dharamtar-Gateway seemed distant memory.

Crossing the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

In 2013, Cognizant transferred him to Abu Dhabi, a city blessed with Persian Gulf for coastline but too hot for working person to find adequate hours for swimming in the sea. “ I explored Abu Dhabi as best as I could. But in six months I ran out of places to explore,’’ Rohan said of his predicament. He hit the gym with two friends. That soon dwindled to just him. He then started to swim at a pool, apprehensive alongside that the swimming too would die like the gym visits did. But a video of the English Channel he chanced to come by changed things.  An old itch returned. Back in 1996, when he returned from Mumbai after the Dharamtar-Gateway swim, Rohan had picked up a new fascination – the English Channel. He had heard the name mentioned in the Dharamtar-Gateway swimming community. He complemented that by reading up about Indian distance swimmers; among them – Bula Choudhury, the swimmer from West Bengal who swam the English Channel twice in 1989 and 1999. For almost seventeen years all that curiosity and research had stayed locked up in the head. Now, in the moneyed urban expanse of Abu Dhabi, the small voice of adventure and open water swimming beckoned stronger.

In the last Ice Age, when sea level was far lower than today, England wasn’t an island. It was connected to France in continental Europe by a ridge. As the ice cap receded, two instances of flooding are supposed to have eroded and submerged the ridge. The resultant 560 kilometer-long body of water between France and England, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, is now known as the English Channel. The Channel varies in width from 240 kilometers to 33.3 kilometers. The narrowest part is called Dover Strait. Among the world’s busiest shipping lanes, it is also a magnet for endurance swimmers. Nobody quite knows how the imagery around the Channel as an objective in swimming, commenced. Some accounts (available on the Internet) mention the case – albeit unconfirmed – of a captured Italian sailor who escaped swimming the distance in 1815. Nobody knew if this was correct or not. The question lingered, likely engaging the fancy of those with the bend of mind to try. The first recorded successful unassisted crossing was by Captain Mathew Webb of England. On August 25, 1875, he swam from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours. The swim made him famous. He licensed his name for merchandising and participated in exhibition swimming contests and stunts. He died at the age of 35 while attempting a swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below North America’s Niagara Falls. The first Indian to successfully cross the English Channel was Mihir Sen; in 1958, he swam from Dover to Calais in 14 hours, 45 minutes.

From the swim across the Catalina Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Not long after he saw the video on the English Channel, Rohan researched the topic of swimming across the channel, further. Given most channels targeted for crossing feature currents, tides, marine life and maritime traffic; not to mention marathon swimmer’s need for nutrition and hydration along the way, crossings are done with the aid of a support vessel. Rohan emailed eight to nine English Channel-pilots. They would be the ones managing the support boat guiding a swimmer through. In January 2014, one of the pilots replied informing of windows available in the period spanning July-September. Rohan settled for July 2014. Against the generally recommended two years of preparation, he had six months to get ready. Around January 20, he started training for the attempt in Abu Dhabi. He was a curiosity at the pool. Nobody from Abu Dhabi had trained in the city to cross the English Channel. Rohan persisted. Regaining three kilometers – his old benchmark in daily training – wasn’t a problem.  The difficulty began as Abu Dhabi’s summer unfolded.  It was very hot. By the end of March, Rohan was getting muscle spasms. His right arm wasn’t holding up well. The situation wasn’t making sense for another reason too. The English Channel is characterized by cold water, just the opposite of conditions in Abu Dhabi. Amid this, in April, Rohan had to rush to Pune as his father suffered brain-stroke. While in Pune, he continued to train at Tilak Tank in the city.

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

By May, he was managing four kilometers at his training sessions. He also availed acupuncture treatment for the right arm. According to Rohan, the credit for solving the issue goes to a local masseur. He returned to Abu Dhabi from Pune with the massage oil the masseur provided. It helped ease the pain. One problem remained on the English Channel front – he had to do a six hour-swim in water temperature of 16 degrees centigrade to qualify. The evidence must be submitted to authorities, a fortnight before one’s Channel attempt. There was no way he could do this in Abu Dhabi. So Rohan resolved to do the qualifier in England. Two major angles were thus reserved for addressing in Dover – getting acquainted with the cold waters of the English Channel and executing the qualifier. He needed enough days on hand for this. The last obstacle Rohan had to cross in Abu Dhabi was getting leave from office. A new boss had taken charge and he wasn’t appreciative of so many days required to attempt crossing the English Channel. In matters of this sort, you cannot dialogue with those lacking empathy for the subject. Rohan’s work in Abu Dhabi revolved around a client located there. Luckily, Rajesh Narayanan, a senior official at the client’s office, understood the attraction for English Channel and the need for adequate time to do the crossing. He agreed to Rohan being away for that long, prompting in turn the sanctioning of Rohan’s leave from his own office. On June 19, Rohan left for England. None at home in Pune were told of his plan to attempt crossing the English Channel. As far as they were concerned, he was away in England on work.

Rohan and his mother, Vijaya, after Rohan’s swim across the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Sonia & Martin welcome you to their family run Victorian Guest House – so goes the introduction to Sandown Guest House on its website. In Dover, Rohan found accommodation at Sandown. From April 15 till the end of May, he had been swimming four hours daily in Abu Dhabi. He also put in two sessions of eight hours each and two sessions of seven hours each. As he stepped into the waters of the English Channel, the cold temperature hit him. “ It was a Friday. After five to ten minutes in the water, I had a headache, my forearms were paining and after I came out, I was shivering. I ran from the beach to the hotel, downed cups of coffee and still I was feeling cold,’’ Rohan said. Weekends at Dover, Channel swimmers from elsewhere in England arrive to train. Thanks to Martin, Rohan got an opportunity to meet them. The interaction helped. That Saturday he swam for five hours; by Sunday he had touched six, which also served as qualifier. On July 14, he informed his pilot that he was ready to avail a window for the crossing.

After one call to start on July 19 aborted at Dover harbor owing to sudden onset of bad weather, Rohan commenced his swim on July 25 at 10 PM. There were hiccups en route. He had to change his goggles while in the water. Anticipating a swim largely in daylight he had brought along dark goggles. Now in the darkness of night, he could see nothing. “ I was blindly following the light on the boat. That light was all I could see’’ he said. While still in water, he traded his goggles for clearer ones. The hours went by. In open water swims the swimming is rarely in a straight line. The course changes with weather, maritime traffic and sea conditions, including currents and the movement of tides. The English Channel swim is typically in the pattern of `Z’.  Around the tenth hour of swimming, Rohan had a pain killer. By the eleventh hour, he could see the French coast. But the sighting was one thing. Reaching there took another two to two and half hours. He accomplished the crossing of the English Channel in 13 hours, 23 minutes. Against the distance of roughly 36 kilometers to cross, that day his crossing entailed covering 48 kilometers.  Once on land, he accessed a phone and informed his parents who had no idea of his attempt, that he had crossed the English Channel. “ I could swim the English Channel because I was a free person. I had nothing to prove,’’ Rohan said.

Swimming across the Molokai Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

While researching English Channel, he had stumbled upon the challenge in open water swimming called Oceans Seven.  In fact, before leaving Abu Dhabi for England and the English Channel, he had booked an attempt to cross the North Channel in August. The North Channel is the coldest of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. The relevant swimming association in Ireland wrote back advising against Rohan’s planned attempt of the North Channel as it is cold and demanding. There should be adequate rest between a crossing of the English Channel and attempting the North Channel. “ They said your money is safe. You will have your chance. But train and come back,’’ Rohan said. Not one to sit idle, he therefore booked a slot to cross California’s Catalina Channel in September 2014. “ Catalina is easier than the English Channel. Water temperature is warmer and the currents are less powerful,’’ he said. The main challenge in Catalina is – sharks. The crossing is therefore attempted at night. All the lights on the boat are switched off.  Swimming so is a peculiar experience. There are two glow sticks on the pilot’s boat, which swimmer follows loyally. There is one glow stick attached to swimmer for those on boat to track. There is also one safety kayaker in the water, keeping a watch on swimmer’s progress. While this may seem simple enough, accounts of open water swimming available on the Internet, speak of swimmer’s bobbing position in the water and the equally bobbing predicament of boat and its lights, as potential cause for swimmer to feel disoriented. For the Catalina Channel crossing (and every channel crossing thereafter), Rohan’s mother accompanied him on the trip. The swim played out well; he completed the crossing surrounded by a herd of dolphins. The time taken was 10 hours, 17 minutes. By now, Rohan was firmly locked into pursuing Oceans Seven and Triple Crown, another challenge in open water swimming made of the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

For the month after Catalina, Rohan had booked an attempt at crossing the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. Also known as Kaiwi Channel, the waters here are pretty deep, plunging up to 2300 feet below the surface. Rohan elected for a swim commencing at night. He felt it would be good to labor in water during the night and be ready for the pleasure of landfall by the morning sun. That proved to be a miscalculation. “ The night went by and quite a chunk of the following day as well,’’ he said laughing. On October 26, he accomplished the crossing in 17 hours, 28 minutes of swimming. It was late evening when it ended. For most of us, big projects are above all an invitation to be aware of the associated risk. Distance; depth, ocean dynamics, marine life – they all hit us, do jigs in the brain. Rohan said he takes note of risk but doesn’t dwell on it unnecessarily. Even in the context surrounding an imminent channel crossing, where other swimmers are also present, he said he does not latch on to conversation about risk. He would much rather listen to training tips or positive aspects around the attempt and discover things as they unfold. “ It is the pilot’s job to take me to the destination. My job is to follow the boat. Beyond a point, it is not my business to worry about current, wind speed and tide,’’ Rohan said.

Crossing the North Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

After Molokai, Rohan rested for a month. He resumed training in December 2014. In March 2015, Rohan wound up his work in Abu Dhabi and returned to India. 2015 was to be a busy year. In June he completed the Manhattan Island swim and bagged Triple Crown.  “ My focus that year was on the North Channel crossing. It proved to be brutal,’’ Rohan said. His research indicating potential battering in the channel separating north-eastern Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland, Rohan concentrated on strengthening his core muscles as best as he could. The reason was simple. Open water swimming is primarily a mind game.  However as regards its engagement of the human body, the bulk of the work is done by the core.

According to Rohan, out in the cold waters of the sea, it is only a matter of time before swimmer loses sensation of his extremities. The arms and legs keep working mechanically driven by commands from the brain. Sometimes, in the depths of a long distance swim, it becomes utterly tough to keep the body horizontal in the water. The legs begin to tire and cave in. To counter this, the core has to be strong. Rohan concluded that if all this punishment was due in the North Channel, then, he better work like mad on his core. So in addition to swimming, he ran and cycled in Pune. “ I prefer to run on trails as that helps engage the core more than running on roads,’’ Rohan said. A typical mix of all three activities meant 10 kilometers of running, three hours of swimming and 40-50 kilometers of cycling – all in a day, including a portion of the night for completing the cycling. On weekends, he hiked that to 20 kilometers of running, 15 kilometers of swimming and 110 kilometers of cycling. This training regimen resembles a series of triathlons. Interestingly, for all this training, an open water swimmer like Rohan hardly resembles the typical triathlete in physical appearance. Ahead of a demanding channel crossing, swimmer may even put on weight for some amount of body fat is good insulation against the cold of the sea.

Induction as Honouree Swimmer Class of 2018, by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. According to published reports, Mihir Sen was the first Indian swimmer to be recognized so, in 1956, followed by Taranath Shenoy in 1987 (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

As with his English Channel attempt, Rohan reached Ireland a month before his shot at the North Channel. He used the time to acclimatize, get used to the cold water. Formidable as this training and build up to crossing the North Channel may seem, there is also one underlying truth in challenges around open water swimming. By now, Rohan was experiencing some of the proverbial wind beneath one’s wings that all human beings seek in life. As you progress through the challenges of Oceans Seven, the body begins to anticipate what it must cope with at sea. “ It knows what to expect in the next challenge,’’ Rohan said. And as that knowledge builds up, you work with a body more willing to respond than before. His preparations in Ireland started in July with swims in waters having a temperature of around 15 degrees centigrade. Given it rained in the mornings, early morning swimming sessions were cold. For the first week, he swam during the warmer afternoon; then shifted to cold mornings. Slowly he worked his way down to water temperature of 11-12 degrees centigrade. The North Channel features cold water and strong currents. “ Nobody attempts this channel crossing at night,’’ Rohan said.

Swimming across the Tsugaru Strait (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

On the day of his attempt to cross the North Channel, there were three swimmers – including him – in the water. While the other two started earlier, Rohan commenced his swim at 4.30 AM. Ahead was a third challenge besides cold and current, to tackle. Jellyfish are free swimming marine animals that are very intriguing to behold and painful when they sting. They usually have an umbrella shaped bell and trailing tentacles. The bell pulsates to provide propulsion; the tentacles are armed with stinging cells. Jellyfish is found all over the world from the surface waters of the sea to its great depths. The largest known species of jellyfish is the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. They are residents of cold water. In size, those residing in the higher latitudes tend to be bigger. The bell of a Lion’s Mane can be as big as six to seven feet in diameter and its trailing tentacles can be up to a hundred feet long. The cold waters of North Channel are among places hosting the Lion’s Mane.  “ You see them along with Blue Moons,’’ Rohan said. The latter is likely reference to the much smaller common jellyfish, which is capable of limited motion and typically drifts with the current. According to information on the Internet, the common jellyfish has a weak sting that is just about felt while the Lion’s Mane can make its presence felt. Both are nowhere near the pain caused by genuinely toxic jellyfish. When you are swimming out at sea, any sting can worry. The important thing is to not panic. “ North Channel is where I saw the most jellyfish in all my swims,’’ Rohan said. His passage included a few stings to remember the swim by. Rohan completed the North Channel crossing in 12 hours, 46 minutes. Despite late start, he reached the other side before the other two swimmers did. It was August 8, 2015.

Japan is a stratovolcanic archipelago composed of 6852 islands. The largest island is Honshu; the second largest is Hokkaido located to the north of Honshu. Between Honshu and Hokkaido, connecting the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, is the Tsugaru Strait. September 2015 on Rohan’s calendar was reserved for attempting the crossing of the Tsugaru Strait. If the North Channel offers the coldest swim in Oceans Seven, Tsugaru offers the most powerful currents. Besides the current, there is one more thing to watch out for – sharks.  Rohan reached Japan two days before the scheduled date of attempt. It was to be on September 11 or 12, whichever proved ideal. Ahead of swim, he trained with a Mexican swimmer. On the day the swim was to start, the pilot asked Rohan which side he turned his face to, to breathe. Rohan found the question odd but he nevertheless replied: left. He completed the channel crossing in 10 hours, 13 minutes. “ I could have done it in eight hours or so. But for the last four hours I was at the same  spot, not making any gains due to the current,’’ he said. After the swim was over, Rohan asked the pilot why he inquired about the side swimmer turned to, to breathe. The pilot replied: that’s the side I should have the boat ladder on for you to grab and exit the water, should there be any hostile shark. The Strait of Gibraltar is the simplest of the Oceans Seven challenges. Rohan tried to book that for 2015 itself. “ But I didn’t have money,’’ he said.

Receiving the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award from Sri Ram Nath Kovind, President of India (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Post Tsugaru, Rohan’s Oceans Seven bid slowed down for want of resources. In September 2016, he joined Infosys, among India’s biggest IT companies. He was based at their campus in Pune. Roughly two months later, in November, he successfully swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, polishing off the distance in three hours, 56 minutes. Not long after the Gibraltar swim, Rohan was selected for the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, India’s highest award in adventure. He got it in the `water’ category. The award fetched him Rs 500,000, precious input for realizing the last challenge in Oceans Seven – the Cook Strait in New Zealand. Also of help was the financial assistance Infosys provides staffers attempting a challenging objective, which Rohan availed. Up till then, he had sustained the channel crossings from his own funds and contribution from friends. At this concluding phase, besides the money he got from the national award and the assistance from Infosys, Tata Trusts pitched in to help. As with some of the other swims, he went a month in advance to New Zealand to prepare and acclimatize. Separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand, Cook Strait has a reputation for being unpredictable and rough. It has strong tidal flows with submarine ridges running off the coast further complicating the flow and turbulence. “ The beginning of the swim is in generally warm waters.  On the day I swam, about two to three hours into the swim, the cold waters of the Southern Ocean arrived with the current. That really hit! It is a game changer. On the whole given the channel’s capacity to be rough, I would say, I was lucky to have a good day,’’ Rohan said. Cook Strait is noted for its marine life. It gifted Rohan plenty of dolphins for company. “ You feel good having dolphins swim with you,’’ he said. It was a fine way to conclude Oceans Seven.

In May 2018, Rohan commenced training for a new project. He wants to take a shot at the 10 kilometer open water swimming competition held at the Olympics. “ I am currently able to cover the distance in one hour, 58 minutes. I need to get that down to one hour, fifty or fifty five; in that range, to qualify,’’ Rohan said. Will he make it? Time will tell. Rohan’s training continues to be mostly at the swimming pool in Pune. He still has no long term sponsors.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Rohan in Pune. Time taken to complete channel crossings are as mentioned by the interviewee.)

TODAY WE DIE A LITTLE

It is not always that you come across a book on Emil Zatopek. Richard Askwith’s biography of the great runner was both informative and a reminder of what humanity can do to the talent in its midst.

A trip home to Thiruvananthapuram is never complete without a visit to Modern Book Centre.

The last time I was there, the manager – he is the rare sort who recalls buyers’ interests – approached me with two books and said: I thought you may like these. I bought both. One of them was material I had waited long to come by.

In his heydays Emil Zatopek ruled the disciplines he competed in. He trained hard, set records, won medals at the Olympics. Richard Askwith’s book on Zatopek – Today We Die A Little – is recommended reading not because it is on a famous runner but because it sheds light on the life of a man we actually know little about. The research is extensive. The emergent picture is a composite of the athlete as remembered by those who knew him, including his wife and fellow athlete Dana Zatopkova, as well as material gathered by Askwith.

A national icon in erstwhile Czechoslovakia, information on Zatopek is colored by popular myth and Iron Curtain-propaganda. Rendered famous by his athletic achievements he unwittingly became a mascot for the socialist block’s ascent in sports. His global fame shielded him from the capacity of totalitarian state to censure. He spoke and acted freer than many of his countrymen, not all of it palatable to political masters. He was also a humanist. He helped others, shared what he had and even gifted one his Olympic medals to a visiting Australian runner. Sociable and easily accessed, those who engaged with Zatopek evolved their versions of what he said. Truth, in such situation, is hard to come by. Notwithstanding considerable research, there are information gaps in Askwith’s book. There is also conjecture at places, to bridge the deficiency. The goodness of this book is that it narrates, admitting the gaps despite sizable research done. In the process you get an idea of Zatopek the person and the context he lived in. It is the interaction between the two that led to the Zatopek we know and crucially, the Zatopek we don’t know as well – a man who eventually paid the price for speaking up. A colonel in the Czechoslovakian army, he was dismissed from military service and faulted by the very state he earned accolades for.

At the core of this predicament was Zatopek’s relationship with socialism. He appears to have agreed with it in principle but disagreed with the totalitarian approach implementing it. It is a relationship with two distinct halves. In the first, spanning the phases of upcoming athlete and Olympic hero, Zatopek periodically tests the state with his comments and actions but is spared reprimand. He is a hero; the people’s darling. In the second, spanning the phase past his athletic prime and deeds around Prague Spring (a season of counter revolutionary spirit in Czechoslovakia), the full weight of the system is brought to bear on him. It eventually cracks him. It is imagery that contrasts Zatopek’s famed capacity to endure on the track. But the pressure of state sponsored persecution is such. In totalitarian societies once you are tagged as wrong doer and word spreads, people avoid you. Not wishing others to suffer through association with him, Zatopek too kept to himself in that bleak phase.

His eventual rehabilitation posed its share of risk to personal reputation. It delineated the contradictions in his life, which as athlete focused on sport – or perhaps, as someone trusting sport to build a better world – he seems to have overlooked. The Communist regime was backdrop for his ascent to world stage and the Olympics. Yet he questioned government. He empathized with Prague Spring when it unfolded and criticized the Soviet military crackdown that followed. After his dismissal from the army and years spent in nondescript jobs, he was put on the path to rehabilitation by the same Communist apparatus. So what is the real Emil Zatopek? Critics felt he wasn’t adequately clear on which side his political loyalty lay. The doubting didn’t end there. Totalitarian regimes maintain a sea of informants. Leading athletes like Zatopek, were under surveillance at home and overseas. It was a time when you didn’t know who was watching who. After Communism’s collapse in Czechoslovakia, Zatopek was doubted of being a former informant. Askwith investigates the angle as best as he can. He finds no direct evidence to prove the allegations hurled at one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Perhaps the best way to put it would be – Zatopek’s life away from race track reflected the troubled reality of East Europe in the years following Second World War and leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This is a story of the athlete as human being. If you are picking up this book to learn how one of the world’s greatest runners trained, you may be disappointed. Without doubt the descriptions of his grueling training schedules come alive in the narrative. As do the races. Askwith’s account of both is detailed. But all that training in military boots, the running in forests and snow and the victories at the Olympics is already the stuff of legend. Many of Zatopek’s techniques – including interval training, which he is said to have pioneered – have since been improved upon, with those doing so, smashing the records he set. Pick up this book, if you wish to know what happened to Emil Zatopek the person. Crammed with insight it is not a quick read. You have to be patient.

The Cold War is over. Communism’s sphere of influence has shrunk. I read this book treating the predicament it portrayed as an example of what could happen when the same political system repeats in different garb. The correct perspective I believe, is to see it as pattern, an arrangement of power and authority diminishing individual freedom. Totalitarian regimes, propagandist media and witch hunts come in all political shades. The greatest impression Askwith’s book left on me was this: it made me wonder why Zatopek ran. What is it that he found in running? What is it that human beings still find in running? Something tells me that despite grand collectives like civilization, nation state, corporation, market and such, the individual would rather run away for a sense of existence.

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

“ SWIMMING HELPED ME CHANNELIZE MY ENERGY’’

Shubham Vanmali (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shubham Vanmali, 23, is a young swimmer from Navi Mumbai, currently attempting the Oceans Seven challenge in swimming. It consists of seven open water channel crossings worldwide. Shubham has done three, he has four to go. Earlier, he accomplished open water swimming’s Triple Crown – which involves crossing the English Channel, the Catalina Channel in California and completing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Mid-June, Shubham was at his home in Nerul (a suburb of Navi Mumbai), setting up a business and getting a book authored by his parents to the stands. He spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:

What brought you to swimming and how did swimming help you tackle the learning disability you faced as a child?

It started when I was seven years old or so and was diagnosed with asthma.

The doctor suggested that swimming may help deal with asthma; that was how I started swimming. The learning disability part came later. Nobody knew of it till I was in ninth standard at school. I was getting below-average scores. I was scraping through in exams. That was when the movie Taare Zamein Par released. It caught my parents’ attention; everything looked similar to my state – the spelling mistakes, I could answer the questions my mother asked me at home but I couldn’t write the same properly during an exam. She was like – this might be the case. We went to Sion Hospital and from there to Drishti Centre, where the results came positive. I had dysgraphia, dyslexia and from before, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  The diagnosis was an eye opener for everyone. My swimming was also getting affected by it. I wasn’t a good swimmer. I was quite average. My parents – my father played volleyball and my mother played kabaddi – had represented the state in their chosen sport. They were supportive. They never pushed me. They told me: keep swimming, you will eventually find your way. Even in studies, they didn’t push me.

For four to five years I meandered in swimming with no medals, not even a district level one. Then, I got a medal at the district level. That is considered late for a swimmer in India. Usually in swimming, if you don’t produce results in a couple of years, your parents change your sport. I don’t have a competitive nature. I used to enjoy water. I was a chubby kid. After I got that district level medal, my father started monitoring my diet and fitness.  In one month or so, I became really fit. I graduated from district to zonal level in swimming. Then they realized that as the distance to swim increased, the better I performed compared to others.  That was when we thought of open water swimming. It changed my life, providing me a huge amount of confidence. I had terrible stage fear. Now I have no problem talking to a crowd of people. Open water swimming changed my personality. If I had not come to swimming I would be still struggling with everything. That’s why I tell parents to get their children involved in sports. It will even help with academics because a child that is into sports is more alert.

Shubham with his coach, Gokul Kamat (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Could it have been any sport for you or was it the combination of swimming and water that worked well in your case?

It could have been any sport but I think swimming was perfect for me. It helped me channelize my energy. Plus swimming for ten hours plus is so challenging; it is very calming, quite like meditation – you are doing only one thing, you are not talking to anyone. That helped to calm me down.

Most people would consider swimming 10 or 20 laps in a pool as sign of endurance. You measure it in terms of kilometers and hours. Was there something about endurance which fascinated you, given as a swimmer you could have opted for the speed events if you wished to?

I used to wonder about that myself – I am not such a good pool swimmer but how come I became a good open water swimmer? Distance is not the difficult thing in this entire scenario. The ability to persist; sustain the pain for so long – that is the real challenge. There is a race in Bengal, which is a long one of 80 kilometers or so. But you swim with the current. As I see it, the real differentiator in open water swimming is not distance; it is the ability to sustain effort. The challenges you face in open water swimming range from current to sea creatures. There is jellyfish, there are sharks. A shark won’t do anything to you. But seeing a seven foot-shark below you in the water can mentally freak you out.

Cold water – that is another challenge. There is the issue of being in cold water for long. It is alright if you are in cold water for an hour. But maintaining body temperature for long and ensuring alongside that you don’t swim so fast as to tire and invite hypothermia – that is tricky. So distance is not the problem. Once you can swim at a stretch for six hours, your aerobic capacity is good enough to tackle long distances.  The game starts when it comes to sustaining this in open water, in the middle of the sea. The body has the ability to adapt. The game depends on where your head is in the equation.

You grew up in Navi Mumbai, a township that has at present, a small community of open water swimmers. The Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim is often featured in local media. Did the availability of this community help you in embracing open water swimming?

I did my first Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim in 2014. At that time, the community was not in place. I got into open water swimming because of my father. He had grown up reading about Mihir Sen and Taranath Shenoy. When he asked me whether I wanted to try it, I said yes. I was however imagining differently. When he mentioned English Channel, I said okay because I was thinking more of the chance to travel overseas. When I reached there, I understood what I was getting into! Besides my father who nudged me into open water swimming, what has helped me continue the sport is the global community of open water swimmers. It is so small and great at once; the people in it are amazing.

Young man and the sea (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Let me take you back to the boy with learning disability you once were. What sort of mind are we talking of here – is it a restless mind that requires a lot of stimuli like a sport perhaps, to calm down and focus or is there something in that state of mind which lends itself naturally to pursuits like long distance swimming?

It depends from person to person. In my particular case, I suspect I made my condition into an advantage. If I am doing something, I get easily distracted. My mind would be somewhere else. In open water swimming, an activity in which progress to destination is anyway time-consuming, if you sense every second go by – that can be crazy. I, on the other hand, was prone to being naturally distracted, thinking of other things in my head. That worked to my advantage.

Many open water swimmers from Mumbai begin with the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. You have done this a few times; you have also swum elsewhere in the world. How bad is the water quality here and how do you cope with it?

(Laughs) It is unfortunately something you have to put up with.

I look at it from a different point of view. Over here, swimming that distance is not a big deal at all. Believe me – it’s easy. I am the only swimmer as yet, who has done Dharamtar-Gateway in both directions. Somewhere in between, the tide helps you. I am not taking it away from anyone but Dharamtar-Gateway is kind of easy compared to other such swims. I had a hydrographer in my team; so I know what I am talking of. The tough portion of this swim is in the middle near an island, where the current changes. But you do it. The difficult thing is not the distance. The first time I did this swim, I told myself: I am not getting into that water ever again. The reason I swim it is for the mental part – the irritation of being in such water. The water is salty, conditions are humid and your throat feels nasty from the water going in. Your throat swells up and you have difficulty eating for a week after that. It hurts a lot. Mentally, the swim frustrates you. That training helps me in my swims elsewhere. Aside from the cold, waters elsewhere are a pleasure. The difference in pollution levels is huge. I swam around Manhattan in the US. The president of the local swimming association told me: let me warn you, one out of every six swimmers gets some bacterial infection because the city’s waste comes into these waters. I saw the water and I was like, this is nowhere near what I have swum in; so it’s not going to be a problem at all. So yeah, the difference is huge (laughs).

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

When did the Oceans Seven project start and what triggered it?

It started in 2014. Our first goal was the English Channel and later, the Strait of Gibraltar. We wanted to give these two a shot and then later, we got to know of the Oceans Seven. I wished to do all the seven. It isn’t for an award, it isn’t competition – it is just something I love to do. I love being out there and testing myself.  At some points of the journey, I have been close to the breaking point; even close to death. But the adrenalin rush keeps me going. So far I have done three of the swims involved. There are four more to go (for more on Shubham and the Oceans Seven, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/shubham-and-the-oceans-seven/).

Are you following a schedule?

We had a schedule for this year. But then, it has run into a problem because of my shoulder injury. We are currently in discussions with my doctors to find the best way ahead. We need to find out how long it will take to heal and then train my way back to the levels of before. Every time I return from a break, I have to work my way back up from zero. I have been in this situation multiple times. Swimming is a skill and you have to repeat a skill over and over again to drill it in. When you lose the feel of water, return to form is time-consuming. The time it takes to get back to where you were depends on your mental state. It is all in your head. If I am calm and focused, it takes me a month to reach the point where I can start working on my aerobic capacity again.

When you are on the verge of launching off into one of your long swims, what do you base your decision on – your physical fitness as ensured by the training you put in or how good you feel in the head?

It’s both. It’s both mind and body; I don’t attempt with a deficit in either. I don’t want to go in with the doubt: what if? I don’t go in half prepared and once I commit to a swim, I give it everything. Also remember – these channel crossings are a big deal for me. There is a lot of money involved in each of these attempts. My parents support me. I don’t have any sponsors.

What has been your experience with sponsors?

I understand the sponsor’s perspective of what I am doing – it is not a spectator sport. It is not entertainment. It is not something you would wish to watch on TV. However I am still trying to engage people.  For example, we have just launched a book in Marathi, to be soon followed by one in English. The sole purpose of the book is to help parents understand how to help their children should they be suffering from dyslexia. I hope that also puts the focus on what I have done so far, coming as I do from a childhood affected by dyslexia. With sponsors, you have to provide them a return on investment. Right now, if a sponsor invests in me, I have something to give back – I have my book, I have my YouTube videos, I have my Instagram account. Earlier, I had nothing to give back. But now, I do. Incidentally, India is known globally in open water swimming. People overseas know Indians as endurance swimmers.

The book in Marathi, written by Shubham’s parents, Deepika and Dhananjay Vanmali. Soon to be published in English as well, the book tells their journey with a child suffering from learning disability and at the same time, wishing to excel in sports. It also serves as a primer for those venturing into open water swimming, providing the contact details for relevant swimming associations here and overseas.

One of the things you notice nowadays is how Indians seem to fare better in endurance as opposed to disciplines demanding speed or qualities of that sort.  From where do you think is this fascination for endurance, coming?

Indians are good at enduring suffering.  We can endure a lot. We have been brought up that way. We know what struggle and pain is. That gives us raw material to work with when it comes to endurance sports. But having said that, I must add – we are making good progress in other attributes like speed.  There are good sports training facilities – a couple of them in Bengaluru for instance – which have come up. So I think the game is going to change.

What is the ideal sponsorship that works for you? Is it one entailing return on investment or is it something cast on the lines of a grant, wherein the burden of investment return isn’t there?

I would say I prefer a company that is looking for a return on investment. That gives structure to the whole deal. It makes it sensible for others also to get involved.

In the swimming you did so far, which was the most challenging stretch?

The swim around Angel Island, off San Francisco was quite tough.  The current here is so powerful that at some points I made no progress. I was swimming but not covering any distance. There was also the issue of being thrown off course and on one occasion I found myself being borne by the strong current towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  There were times when the team contemplated calling off the swim because I was well past the longest time taken for the swim. That is unusual for me as I am a fast swimmer – I hold the fastest time among Asians swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar; 16 kilometers in three hours, 16 minutes. The Angel Island swim was roughly the same distance but I had been more than seven hours in the water. Luckily I had trained earlier in these waters and knew when the current would change. I just had to hold out. Slowly the current changed and I ended up finishing the swim.

During all this I had no idea how much time I had taken. I would have my feed (nutrition offered from support boat, which must be had without touching the boat) but there wasn’t much conversation. There is no point asking for the time because if there is bad news in it, you end up getting very disappointed. It can shatter your morale.

Do you ever inquire about the time while you swim?

I generally don’t. I prefer not knowing what’s going on. You are sustaining so much pain and then suddenly you get some bad news, in an instant you will drop off.

From the Angel Island swim, off San Francisco (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In the case of a marathon, it is very common to find runners looking at their watches to know the time while running. Why is it so difficult in the case of a marathon swim? How is exhaustion in long distance swimming, which engages the whole body, different from how you feel exhausted while running?

It is way beyond the conventional description of exhaustion.

After swimming long distance, you can feel every single muscle in your body hurting. While swimming, the water is so cold that you don’t get as much inflammation in the body as you would in warm temperatures.  You also don’t get the palpitation that runners do. We don’t end up breathing heavily as in running. What we feel is pain. It is an experience of pain because all the joints and muscles have been continuously working. Pain is what we cope with.

Have you tried to transfer the endurance you gained from swimming to any other sport within the family of endurance sports?

No. I am a bad runner. Anything other than swimming – I really suck at it.

Because you are a good swimmer, a triathlon wouldn’t attract you?

No, because the swimming part in a triathlon is very small. I may be able to do cycling. But running is a big no for me. I have my thoughts of doing something very extreme and pushing my body to the point where I wonder whether I can sustain it or not. There is much for me to explore in swimming. The number of swims I have done so far is a decent number as regards open water swimming projects. But in places like the US, there is a lot more to do. There are swims, which people have tried and failed. I want to try those swims; swims of the Angel Island sort.

Shubham; from the Catalina Channel swim. Swimmer can be seen in the water, kayaker keeps watch (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

You spoke of your shoulder injury. How did you get that?

The shoulder injury goes back to the Catalina swim in California. While training for that a tendon got pinched. I still managed the swim – it took me 10 hours, 42 minutes to do it. This was in 2015. After that I took a break for a year. I then went to attempt swimming across the North Channel in Ireland but that didn’t go as expected. After 13 hours in the water, I became hypothermic. My body grew bloated. We had a swimmer – he was a good friend – overseeing my safety in the water. I lifted my head to see ahead and noticed that only 3-4 kilometers remained to complete the crossing of the North Channel. But no sooner than I looked up, I blacked out. If you lose a body in the open sea, it is next to impossible to get it back. I started to sink. Luckily, my friend pulled me out in the nick of time. It was tough for him to do that because I had bloated up in the water due to excessive work and become heavy. I wasn’t in my senses for 30-40 minutes.  North Channel is the coldest of the channel crossings constituting Oceans Seven.

I took a break after this swim. I tried to attempt it again but the weather was bad and there was no good window of opportunity available. Once the break following the North Channel attempt got over, I resumed my swimming. But the shoulder injury came back. I swam Gateway-Dharamtar. I was doing well. There comes a time towards the end of this swim when the water becomes really calm. I swam fast at this stage. Then at a certain point, my shoulder made a cracking sound and thereafter it began hurting. I was now struggling to swim. I stopped using my right arm. I was set to finish that swim in five to six hours, which is a really good time for a distance of 35 kilometers. But I ended up taking seven hours. I was very disappointed. We consulted doctors. There were two tendons involved in the damage. To reduce the pain, I had to take an injection to the shoulder joint. That was the state in which I proceeded to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim.

At Cabrillo Beach, California (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

You mentioned how supportive the open water swimming community has been. What would you tell a fellow open water swimmer stepping out from India to try big projects like you did; is the presence of this community of fellow enthusiasts comforting?

It is comforting, very comforting.

When I went to swim the North Channel in Ireland, I was all by myself. The crew for my swim, who I had assembled myself, backed out at the last moment. So, there was this lady swimmer – her name was Ruth McGuigan, she was captain of the Irish water polo team – she agreed to be my crew. After I was pulled out of the water following that incident of hypothermia during the North Channel attempt, she took me home. She told her husband that I would be staying with them for a while till I recovered; they even told me to stay there in case I wished to explore the possibilities of a second attempt. I stayed with them for almost a month. They helped me a lot. They treated me like their own son. The water polo team she was part of, they were open water swimmers too. They went on to set a new record for crossing the North Channel in the relay format. Ruth helped me cope with my failed attempt at the North Channel. She told me that the next time I come to Ireland to try the North Channel, I should stay with her. The other incident was – there was this American swimmer who completed North Channel a couple of days after my attempt. He became a good friend. He told me that when I come to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim, I should stay with him. He took me in just like that.

We are tutored to define our world in terms of the coordinates of our origin; the language we speak, the place we hail from, the culture we belong to etc. How does it feel to have your world mapped in terms of a shared craziness, a shared passion?

It feels amazing. It is liberating (laughs).

I am really fortunate to have such a thing in my life.

I don’t take it for granted at all.

There are so many things I learnt doing this, than just swimming. For example, Steve Walker – the person I stayed with in San Francisco – is not just a successful swimmer; he is successful in life too. Steve has done six of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. He runs a few IT companies.  He used to drop me every morning to the beach. San Francisco is an expensive city to stay in. I would have gone bankrupt had I footed the bill myself. I used to travel to Steve’s office. It was an amazing place where people actually liked to work; they were willing to help. That is not the case over here in India. I learnt much from these visits. There was this club called South End Rowing Club in San Francisco; I was a guest there. There are not many Indian open water swimmers in San Francisco. The club was quite helpful.  There are very few instances in open water swimming when I found people being terribly competitive. There is competition but it does not get carried around everywhere.

I think part of the reason for this is that it is a community with a lot of grown-ups and consequently an element of maturity.  In the world of running, the ultramarathon crowd typically tends to be older than those running the regular marathon. It is the same in the case of endurance swimming. Looking back, maybe that’s also why a youngster like me got treated so well! You feel welcomed. It is a chilled community that does not tend to judge. Had it been composed of only young people, I suspect it would have been very competitive.

Shubham (far right) with his family; (from left) his sister Siddhi, who used to be a competitive swimmer in her school days, Dhananjay and Deepika (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page).

In India, swimming is still a niche sport. What do you think can change the trend and bring more people into swimming?

First of all – more swimming pools.

Second, it is not just enough to have swimming pools; you must have pools that you can train in.

At many of the pools we have, access is only for the members of that given club and the swimming is chaotic with people going up-down, left-right.  In contrast, a pool like the one at Fr Agnels in Navi Mumbai, where I train – that pool is meant for training. The swimmers swim in a circular pattern with each lane segregated on the basis of swimmer’s speed. It is not a pool to goof around in. It is one of the rare pools in India. We need more such pools to train in. Once that training environment sets in, the sport will pick up and we will begin producing better swimmers in the lower age groups. Right now what you are seeing is that a lot of swimmers come into the lower age groups but only very few sustain the effort to reach open category. Many fade away due to personal disinterest and disinterest caused by the environment in which they swim. We also need more experienced, educated coaches.  Further, openness to try counselors and psychologists will help. I have been going to a sports psychologist for years. She has helped me change.

Finally, we need more patience at the parents’ end. That can make a big impact. Indian parents lack patience. When you reach the tenth standard you are forced to focus completely on academics, you give up other interests. The thing is – once you take a break at that stage, it is difficult to regain the momentum. People try to get back after tenth standard, they find it mentally tough. And even if you succeed, you hit another wall in the twelfth standard, which is the next point of reckoning in academic terms.  I would prefer a flexible education pattern. I wish we could borrow from how schools and colleges overseas manage talent in sports. If you don’t start seriously at the college level in sports, it is difficult to build it up later.

Indians – parents included – are prone to ask: what will you get out of this? You have gone into open water swimming in a committed way. How will you answer the classic Indian question?

I know I will not get my bread and butter out of swimming. I am working on something else, which will address my need for income.  I swim because I love to swim, because I am passionate about it. Swimming has helped me be a person who can have a perspective in life.

Your personal preference is to keep your sport as your bread and butter or avoid doing so?

I would like to avoid having the sport I love as my livelihood. That would make it a job. I don’t want it to be a job.

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

THE UNUSUAL DOCTOR

Amit Samarth; from a trip to Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

In July 2018, Amit Samarth is scheduled to attempt the 9100 kilometer-long Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme in Russia. Last year (2017), he was the second Indian cyclist to complete Race Across America (RAAM) in the solo category and the first Indian to do so in the very first attempt. He is also an accomplished triathlete and runner. This is his story; the story of an unusual doctor.

June 19, 2018.

Late night, the highway from Nagpur to Raipur lay bathed in darkness save the odd street light and the headlights of passing vehicles.  Indicators flashing on the car’s dashboard showed that the vehicle’s hazard lights were on. Soft music played on the car’s speakers. None listened to it. Besides its four occupants, the car carried a crate of bottled water and energy drinks. On the door accessing the boot of the car, was an empty bicycle rack. The two wheels on carbon frame it held till some time back, was now object in motion some 15 feet in front of the car. Settled into a steady, smooth cadence, the cyclist sat crouched on the road bike, his arms on the bike’s aero-bars for aerodynamic efficiency. At the car’s steering wheel, Makarand maintained steady speed. He had been told to stay adequately away from the bicycle for cyclist’s safety and yet be near enough to illuminate the road ahead for him.

A ten kilometer-loop past the highway’s toll plaza was the cyclist’s training ground for that night. The car’s speedometer rarely dipped below 40 kilometers per hour; on occasion it seemed to touch fifty. Sixty kilometers covered so, cyclist and crew were back home by midnight. The late night training was essential because early next morning Dr Amit Samarth – endurance athlete and 2017 finisher at Race Across America (RAAM) – had a flight to catch, to Delhi. There was a meeting due in the national capital with a potential sponsor and no guarantee that he would be able to train that day. The countdown to the 2018 edition of Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme was well underway and only three weeks remained for Amit’s departure to Russia for the 9100 kilometer-race.

From the 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Amit is a doctor. His trajectory in life and medicine don’t match paths usually chosen by Indian doctors.  Born 1980, Amit grew up in Nagpur. His father, now retired, worked with Syndicate Bank. His mother worked as a school teacher, was school principal, ran a department store and now manages a gym on the first floor of their house, which caters exclusively to women. A few attributes qualified Amit’s school years – he played games but wasn’t seriously into sports; he was chubby and fat to the point of being mocked, he was a good student. His academic scores at the time of exiting school were high enough for admission to medical college. The first turning point was the period between finishing school education and moving to medical college. He joined a gym to reduce weight. Within a month, he discovered that he liked to pump iron. Soon after he became a medical student, he started applying whatever he learnt, to his body and his eating habits. From almost 98 kilos, he transformed to being lean, muscular body builder. So much so, that people recommended he go for body building competitions; he was once Vidarbh Sri, a local title won in body building. The next turning point – in retrospect – would seem the period following medical studies. After completing his MBBS, Amit worked as Medical Officer at the P.D. Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai and Max Health Care in Delhi. Then he got a chance to work with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) as part of their health care consulting group. He shifted to Hyderabad. By now he was no more body builder; he was however “ fitness-conscious.’’  Work with PWC took him to Assam and Dhaka; at the latter, he was attached to the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDRB). This line of work in public health and community medicine captured his interest. It also took him away from the Indian mainstream as regards career choices within the medical profession.

Cycling in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Amit proceeded to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, US to do a one year program specializing in public health.  Upon completing the course at Johns Hopkins, he returned to India. “ I like Nagpur and India. This is where all my friends are. This is my ecosystem. So I returned,’’ he said. His parents, who had taken pride in his academic performance, his well-paying jobs after MBBS and eventual passage to the US for higher studies, were disappointed by that return to India. Amit found himself back in Hyderabad, this time working with Access Health International. A couple of factors intervened to change the course of his life. He started learning taekwondo, going on to become a black belt in the martial art. His trainer was Mohammad Malik. Malik introduced Amit to running. Slowly, he progressed from 10 kilometer-runs to running the half marathon. Following podium finish at a local half marathon, he shifted to running the full. Among people he met at Hyderabad Runners Group was Sunil Menon, currently a well-known coach for triathlon, including Ironman events. At that time Sunil was yet to attempt an Ironman. Sunil’s interest in the triathlon rubbed off on Amit. He decided to attempt a Half Ironman. As luck would have it, Access Health had its office in the campus of Indian School of Business (ISB). It was home to a nice swimming pool. Amit began learning to swim; he also started to perfect his cycling. “ So if you look at it closely, I am not that old as a cyclist. Probably six to seven years – that’s all,’’ the RAAM finisher said.

Both Amit and Sunil had registered for the 2011 edition of the Half Ironman in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately Amit fell ill. But he went to Sri Lanka and cheered Sunil, who completed his first Ironman event.  Amit’s graduation to that league happened six to seven months later at the Half Ironman in Phuket, Thailand. This chapter of running and triathlon is important when it comes to profiling Amit. The world knows him as a cyclist. But to date, he has run over 100 half marathons and completed eight full marathons, 11 Half Ironman events (at the time of writing he led Indians in points accumulated from Half Ironman events) and one full Ironman. His best timing in the full marathon was at one of the editions of the Mumbai Marathon – 3:19. His best timing so far in the Half Ironman is 5:28. The lone full Ironman he participated in – in Busselton, Australia (the event is called Ironman Western Australia) – he completed it in 11:50.

Cycling in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

From Access Health, Amit shifted to Sugha Vazhu, a not for profit company that aims to improve health conditions in India by developing and delivering primary healthcare solutions in collaboration with its knowledge partner, IKP Centre for Technologies in Public Health (ICTPH).  Amit shifted to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu for this work.  He continued his running and training for the triathlon here. It was during his tenure at Thanjavur that the organization he founded (his friend Anirudh Pandya helped him) and is now identified with in Nagpur – Pro Health Foundation – had its genesis. Pro Health has four goals – it organizes sports events; identifies talent, creates sports infrastructure and promotes healthy lifestyle. Amit became one of the founder organizers of the Thanjavur Marathon. Amit has good memories of Thanjavur. In 2014, he left Sugha Vazhu and joined Save a Mother Foundation as its Chief Operating Officer. His work was mostly in Hubli (north Karnataka) and Telangana. Among those he met in Hubli was Vivitt Walve, an engineer who did his higher studies in the US. Vivitt is passionate about cycling. An early morning in Hubli, he was on a hill road teaching his friend to drive, when he saw Amit training. A fortnight later, Amit visited the shop Vivitt had in town, to procure a bicycle tube. They got talking. Prone to initiating sports activities wherever he is, Amit commenced Hubli Fitness Club. “ Amit was mentor. There were 13-14 of us involved,’’ Vivitt recalled. In those days of Hubli and Save a Mother Foundation, Amit the ultra-cyclist was yet to be.

June 2018; Amit Samarth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Work with Save a Mother Foundation entailed much traveling. Amit didn’t like losing his personal time. He also wished for adequate time on hand to train. In the meantime, with Amit too busy at work, Pro Health went into hibernation.  The doctor feared that his life in sports had died prematurely.  All this led to his decision to leave Save a Mother Foundation. He shifted back to Nagpur and started organizing marathons. The events were held under the banner of Pro Health Foundation. He also commenced coaching, including coaching for Ironman. He was Nagpur’s odd doctor. His batch-mates in medicine were into successful careers, some of them running their own clinics and hospitals. Amit was coaching for sports and organizing running events. He maintained no medical practice. At his home, aside from the board announcing Pro Health Foundation, you don’t find any board mentioning doctor within.

June 2018; a training session of Pro Health Foundation underway at Nagpur University’s sports complex (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The universe works in surprising ways. Of all the things he had done till then, one event he participated in sparked a streak. Earlier during a visit home from work in Hubli, Amit had heard of a 200 kilometer-brevet being organized in Nagpur. “ I remember him coming home excited and telling us about this,’’ Mukul, Amit’s wife, said. Amit registered for the event.  Part of cycling’s sub culture called randonneuring, brevets are non-competitive. But participation in these bicycle-rides spanning distances from 200 kilometers to over 1000 kilometers is part of the journey to becoming an ultramarathon cyclist. When the said brevet in Nagpur happened, Amit finished it way ahead of others.  “ I went to pick him up at the finish line and found him standing there quite confused because there wasn’t anyone else around,’’ Mukul said.  That finish was noted in Nagpur’s cycling community. Suggestions emerged that he try bigger distances and according to Amit, as is typical of small communities suddenly confronting visibly different athletic performance, the suggestions were laced with challenge. Without Amit’s knowledge, his friend Sachin Paliwar registered him for the 2015 Deccan Cliffhanger, a race in India that is also qualifier for RAAM.

Seana Hogan starts her race at RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Deccan Cliffhanger is an annual 400 mile (643 kilometers) ultra-cycling race from Pune to Goa. Prior to it, Amit had done only the 200 kilometer-brevet. Nagpur based-cyclist Devnath (Dev) Pillai has known Amit since 2015. “ I don’t think at that point in time, Amit considered himself an endurance cyclist in the strict sense of the term. But if you challenge the wrong guy, he will end up doing it,’’ Dev said. Amit completed the 2015 Deccan Cliffhanger successfully qualifying for RAAM in the process. But he still did not take RAAM seriously for his research showed that the event was expensive. He put RAAM in the freezer and continued to take part in brevets. “ There was this 1000 kilometer-brevet from Delhi to Wagah border and back. I did that in decent time. Following this, people began to say that I may be RAAM material,’’ Amit said. While researching RAAM on the Internet, he had connected with Australian cyclist, Steven Bervering. Steven recommended a book on RAAM. He also suggested that Amit crew at RAAM to know the race better; it was something Amit’s friends in Nagpur too had been telling him to do. Amit wrote to veteran US cyclist, Seana Hogan, asking if he could be part of her crew for 2016 RAAM. Seana is a legend at RAAM. Now in her late fifties, she is a six time-winner of the race in the solo women’s category and has also held the fastest time among women. Seana accepted Amit’s request to be part of her crew. He and Vivitt flew to the US for the purpose. Being part of Seana’s support crew was valuable experience. “ At RAAM you can expect the unexpected. Patience is a very important quality to have. You lose patience, your whole game goes for a toss,’’ Vivitt said. Besides getting a taste of real crewing with ringside view of how RAAM progresses, the duo also obtained insight on commercial aspects. For instance, they realized that despite her several years at RAAM, Seana too used the year preceding a race to assemble sponsors and funding. Family was part of her crew. “Seana helped by showing us what we needed to learn for participation at 2017 RAAM,’’ Vivitt said.

Vivitt and Amit just before the 2017 RAAM got underway in Oceanside, California (Photo: Rajeev G)

Bhanu Rajagopalan runs an advertising agency in Nagpur. The first time he met Amit was when Anirudh Raich, who runs a bicycle shop, came to meet him along with the doctor organizing a marathon in the city. “ Amit had just returned from Hubli and he was organizing this run for which he needed help in marketing,’’ Bhanu recalled. He quickly sensed that Amit had extraordinary capability; there were all those half marathons, marathons and Half Ironman events he had been to. Amit told Bhanu that the fee he was charging for his marketing services was high. “ I told him to forget the money and agreed to take up the work,’’ Bhanu said. He remembers telling Amit to think big (that’s something Amit corroborates; according to him, Bhanu told him that if he wanted to do big things in life, then he should become a brand to reckon with, himself). According to Bhanu, he decided to support Amit till the 2017 RAAM got over.

Bhanu discussed Amit’s case with Jeetendra Nayak, an industrialist from Nagpur. Jeetendra is chairman and managing director of Minar Hydrosystems, a company having its core strength in hydraulic cylinder technology. “ Jeetu Nayak, besides being industrialist is an aggregator of philanthropists. If you give him a cause, he will give you his time. Plus he brings to the table other people wishing to contribute to the cause,’’ Bhanu said. Among those who supported so were Dinesh Rathi of DRA Consultants Ltd and Prashant Ugemuge of Vidarbha Infotech Pvt Ltd. Although Amit had continued long distance cycling after his RAAM qualifier, there is a big gap between brevets in India and RAAM, which spans roughly 4800 kilometers and takes rider across varying terrain and weather conditions in the US. Some of those assembling to fund Amit for RAAM wanted to be convinced he was up for the challenge. “ In 2013 a few of us had come together to do a fund raiser for the new hospital Dr Prakash Amte wished to build. So we had a group of like-minded people in place. Bhanu introduced Amit to us. The first thing we noticed was his humility. But we didn’t know his capability. We therefore put forth a challenge requiring him to attempt a course half the length of RAAM in India,’’ Jeetendra said. . In September 2016, Amit cycled Nagpur-Hyderabad-Bengaluru-Hubli-Kolhapur-Pune-Aurangabad-Nagpur. The aggregate distance was roughly 2500 kilometers; Amit completed it in five days, five hours. He did that on a Trek 1.1, his first road bike, one he still owns. “ For me, this ride was the turning point; over those five days he slept for only about eight hours,’’ Jeetendra said. Then, even as he proved to his supporters that he had what it takes to attempt RAAM, Amit slipped into self-doubt.

June 2018: a training session of Pro Health Foundation underway at Nagpur University sports complex (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

His dilemma was simple. His life and career had evolved very differently from what MBBS conventionally means. Specialization in public health had narrowed his options in India. On top of it, when you train for something as demanding as RAAM and more of your time is consumed by it, the earnings stream gets squeezed further. “ Only 227 people have completed RAAM in their first attempt in the last 37 years. There is no prize money. That is the RAAM equation – you spend a lot and get nothing for it. I had that question perennially in my head – why me?’’ Amit said. Mukul, who is an architect, realized her husband’s worry. Born into a military family and growing up in Nagpur, she knew Amit from 2001. They got married in 2010. Post marriage she took on freelance interior designing assignments. To help in the financially tough pre-RAAM phase, she increased her work load so that Amit can train in peace. Amit spent the months immediately following that 2500 kilometer-ride and the early months of 2017 battling his thoughts. As RAAM drew closer his head cleared up. From “ why me?’’ it transformed to “ why not me?’’

2017 RAAM, Amit commences his race at Oceanside; ahead lay 4800 km of the United States (Photo: Rajeev G)

One of the learnings Amit brought back from RAAM 2016 was how taxing and monotonous the event can be on cyclist’s support crew. They may not be on the saddle but they share a lot of the strain. Once it starts, RAAM runs at one stretch. It is up to cyclists and their crew to decide how much they should rest within the overall cut off time. Crew members end up as sleep deprived as cyclist. Driving a car is fun when the vehicle is allowed its natural speed. Tailing a cyclist as support vehicle requires car to be driven slowly; imagine doing that for 4800 kilometers. Amit realized that these situations and the celebration of solitude endurance races generally are can be particularly trying on Indians who are accustomed to active community life. Hiring crew locally in the US costs money. Further, the crew needs to be composed of people who know him well. So Amit envisioned crew from India working in an ambiance they are used to. Mukul would be part of it, as would be Vijaya Samarth, his mother. Vivitt, who had crewed with Amit at RAAM 2016, would be crew chief. “ The race will take a toll on me. If the crew also becomes serious and boring, what’s the fun? I wanted a crew that would both work and be happy,’’ Amit said.

2017 RAAM; Amit and his support crew (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Two months before RAAM, Amit and Mukul moved to the US. For the most part, he trained in Boulder, Colorado. Then a problem arose. Dev and Chetan Thatte, who knew cycles and cycling well and were to be part of the crew, saw their application for visa rejected. It impacted the technical expertise resident in the crew. “ In India, Amit was being crewed by Chetan. He is a person who is willing to do anything,’’ Vivitt explained. The sudden unavailability of Dev and Chetan meant a search for new hands. Jeetendra summed up the situation. “ My wife and I had planned to go the US to see RAAM and cheer Amit. But when visas were denied for some of the original crew members, we stepped in to crew. Further, Amit asked me to be involved because he wanted a senior person who can help keep the crew together. If by some chance, the crew splits, then it impacts rider’s morale and efficiency,’’ Jeetendra said. Word was spread about the need for hands. Vivitt who had studied and cycled in the US worked his network. Two Indian students in the US responded to his call – Rushabh Ingle and Devesh Thakker. For some of those enrolled as crew it was a case of coming for a few days and then returning. So, one car from the three support vehicles that the team had was also used for trips to the nearest airport and back, ferrying volunteers. In all, the crew included Mukul, Vijaya, Renuka Nayak, Jeetendra Nayak, Vivitt, Suruchi, Sachin Paliwar, Sachin Kuthe, Ravi Nayak, Doug Dunton, Mridula Kini Dunton, Lalit, Devesh, Rushabh, Krish Srikant, Anand Supner, Anurag Kulkarni, Bhanu, Nikhil Chauhan and Dinesh Rathi. Mukul reckons that about ten of them stayed all through. Also in the team was Amit’s son, Ayan. It was as Indian an ambiance as Amit would have wished.

June 2018, Vijaya Samarth fixing the bike rack on the car ahead of Amit’s training session on the Nagpur-Raipur highway (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vijaya’s emergent role in Amit’s cycling ecosystem was visible at Nagpur, the night of June 19, 2018, when Amit was leaving to train on the highway to Raipur. A proactive person, it was she who fitted the bike carrier on Makarand’s car and handed over first aid kit and carton of water. She was still awake at midnight, ready with dinner when cyclist got back home from training. Back at 2017 RAAM, Vijaya and Renuka anchored the team’s kitchen, in many ways the heart of any Indian operation. They were stationed in the big recreational vehicle (RV) at the very rear of the support column, the food they made ensuring everyone had a taste of home cuisine amid all the stress and strain. “ Ours was the happiest team at RAAM,’’ Vijaya said. In the middle of the relatively scattered column was the vehicle which shuttled between lead car and van, passing supplies and also running errands like those airport visits. The lead vehicle loyally tailed cyclist. Mukul stayed in the lead car. Two groups were detailed to work shifts in that vehicle; she was part of one. They stayed in constant touch with Amit on the cycle using a communication system, conversing with him and playing songs to keep him awake. “ There will be occasional friction between cyclist and support crew and between members of the support crew. But we worked to make sure that none of the stress we felt reached Amit. The mission was to ensure that he reaches the finish line in time. To the crew’s credit, we didn’t pick up a single penalty,’’ Mukul said. Violation of race rules by crew members can result in penalties including time-penalty that sees riders being held back or delayed.

Things go wrong despite best intentions. Thanks to his training at Boulder, which is at an elevation of 5400 feet, Amit cleared Wolf Creek Pass (10,857 feet) in the early part of RAAM, quite well. But in hot Arizona, he struggled. A resident of Nagpur and its punishing summer, Amit can handle heat. Bhanu recalled Amit cycling from Nagpur to Hyderabad and back in the scorching summer of Central India. However at RAAM 2017, a brief mismanagement of the distance between support vehicles and cyclist ensured that he didn’t have access to more water when he needed it. Result – he got dehydrated in Arizona. “ Arizona is warm. What makes it tough is that the rocky terrain reflects light and heat,’’ Mukul said. Amit’s dehydration progressed to fever. It slowed him down considerably. His condition improved as he got to Kansas but new challenges cropped up in the form of weather conditions. Good fortune returned at the race’s final climb up and over the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia (the section is called Four Sisters), a challenge confronting exhausted riders towards the concluding portions of RAAM. To thank herein was Sachin Kuthe, a senior official with BMW in the US, who readily agreed to help when his friend, Bhanu, mentioned Amit’s bid to complete 2017 RAAM.

From the 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Sachin had the foresight to get Amit over from Colorado and train on the West Virginia section of the RAAM route. Impressed by how Amit fared, Sachin had then convened a meeting of the crew and spread the message that Amit would succeed if the crew got its act together. Now, tired from the few thousands of kilometers he had cycled and recovered from recent fever, Amit repeated those Appalachian gradients smoothly. At Annapolis, he became the second Indian to complete RAAM solo, after Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. Amit finished the race in 11 days, 21 hours. Importantly, he was the first Indian to finish RAAM in the first attempt. “ There is not a day I don’t think of RAAM. It is special for me,’’ Amit said. At the airport, ahead of boarding the flight back to India, the airline he had booked with insisted on a heavy fee for excess baggage. Amit was short of money. “ They told me that if I don’t have enough money, I should leave my bicycles behind,’’ he said. Eventually friends in the US pitched in and helped raise the required money at short notice. June 2018, exactly a year after 2017 RAAM, he was weeks away from a whole new adventure. At 9100 kilometers, Trans-Siberian Extreme is almost double the distance of RAAM. “ Everything that is going to unfold beyond 5000 kilometers on the saddle is uncharted territory for me,’’ Amit said.

There are differences between RAAM and Trans-Siberian Extreme in how they are organized. In the latter, there are only about a dozen participants in 2018. Every cyclist’s track record in ultramarathon cycling is checked before acceptance. Upon paying the registration fee, Amit was told to report in Moscow with bicycles and just one person for support crew. As before, keeping the Indian nature in mind, he has decided to take two – Dev and Chetan. Everything else from food to support vehicle, drivers, bicycle spare parts, technicians – it is all being provided by the organizers. Unlike RAAM, the 9100 kilometer-long Trans-Siberian Extreme is a stage race with cut-offs for every stage. There is also a rest day in between. The race begins on July 24 and ends on August 17. On Amit’s side, two similarities prevail across RAAM and Trans-Siberian Extreme. According to Vijaya, at the time of RAAM, she had told Amit that he should give it his all. Finish it and come back; else, don’t – that was her attitude. “ I have told him the same for Trans-Siberian Extreme,’’ she said. The other similarity, carried over from RAAM is – search for funds. Trans-Siberian Extreme costs much less than RAAM but it still costs and that money requires to be raised. June 19 evening, on the way to Nagpur University’s sports complex where coaches from Pro Health train amateur athletes, Amit said, “ I wish I had long term sponsors. Then I can focus on training.’’ For now, he said, he looks beyond funding and focuses on project. “ Focus on what lay beyond the challenges. You need guts to attempt these races. Funds will follow. It is all about how badly you want it,’’ he wrote in later. According to him, even at RAAM, aside from maybe elite athletes who have sponsors, most others are supported by their communities and have their struggles with funding. A leading business conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai has provided a third of the funds needed for Trans-Siberian Extreme on condition that if Amit doesn’t piece together the balance, then their money must be returned. Nagpur based-Plasto Group of Companies has also contributed.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Despite completing RAAM, Amit does not consider himself, a cyclist. He sees himself as an endurance athlete. In his matrix of assessment, the triathlon tops as endurance sport. Post Trans-Siberian Extreme one of the things he would like to do is – improve his timing in the full Ironman; bring it to below 10 hours. He would like to improve his timing at RAAM (as many RAAM cyclists do) provided sponsors step in to support repeated RAAM attempts. Amit also wants to contribute to society. He currently trains over 150 amateur athletes of all ages under Pro Health. From their ranks have emerged good finishers at several domestic races (including positions on the podium) and the first Comrades finishers from Nagpur. Then, there is the city. While it is true that the nearest hills are some distance away, Nagpur is flat and hot enough to prep for endurance oriented distance running and cycling, even swimming; Amit’s trainees use one of the local lakes for open water swimming. Organizing a triathlon in Nagpur is on Amit’s radar. He also wants Pro Health to work more and more at the grass roots level. There is a training engagement in sports with youngsters from tribal communities, going on at Hemalkasa. “ I don’t want to add scale. I would rather add depth,’’ Amit said. At the apex of all these plans is a training academy for athletes.

Amit at the finish line of 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Amit Samarth)

Both Bhanu and Jeetendra Nayak said they now wish to see Amit graduate to a sustainably funded model as regards his races; maybe a combination of corporate support and crowdfunding. According to Jeetendra, he continues to stay engaged with Pro Health Foundation in the Hemalkasa program. He helps fund it. Bhanu believes a person like Amit with his mix of training in medicine, specialization in public health, work at Pro Health Foundation and capability for endurance sport should ideally be supported by government. But then in the run up to RAAM and finding funds for it, the sports ministry informed it had no schemes under which Amit could be helped. That was a major disappointment. It is tempting to imagine that the work Pro Health is doing falls in the realm of public health, which Amit specialized in. Unfortunately that is not how the healthcare industry is structured. Within its fold, fitness and sport were traditionally categorized under physical medicine. In more recent times, as an extension of the same, specialists in sports medicine have emerged. When contacted, the CEO of a large hospital chain pointed out that probably where the likes of Amit – combining medical background, public health, fitness and endurance sport – click, is in policy making.

Amit Samarth’s journey continues.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is primarily based on a conversation with Amit Samarth in Nagpur. Inputs from others have been suitably added. Timings at races as well as the number of half marathons, full marathons and Ironman events participated in, are as mentioned by interviewee. At the time of publishing, Amit had a crowd funding program underway on Ketto to help him fund his participation in the 2018 Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme.)

2018 GGR / RACE COMMENCES JULY 1

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Commander Abhilash Tomy and is being used for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

The 2018 GGR starts on July 1. It entails solo nonstop circumnavigation. Commander Abhilash Tomy KC is among participants. Rules of the 2018 GGR require technology levels aboard participating sail boats to be at the same level as in 1968. This return to purity in sailing is one of the challenges and attractions of the latest GGR.

In a few days from now the 2018 Golden Globe Race will commence from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France.

The race features solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat.

Among the participants is Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat. GGR 2018 is a repeat of the original GGR of 1968, which produced the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat; the distinction went to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston of UK, who accomplished the voyage in the India built-Suhaili. For the 2018 edition of the race, Abhilash will attempt his second solo nonstop circumnavigation in the Thuriya, a replica of the Suhaili. The Thuriya was built in Goa at Aquarius Shipyard, the third sail boat for circumnavigation – after INSV Mhadei and INSV Tarini – the yard has built. In terms of design, the Suhaili – and thereby the Thuriya – is not a fast boat. In the 1968 GGR, the Suhaili had cut the image of patiently soldiering on. The boat’s design lays greater emphasis on stability and safety. It was the only design to complete the 1968 GGR, keeping aside the potential of Bernard Moitessier’s steel boat, the Joshua, which under the command of the maverick French sailor executed a splendid voyage but set a direction of its own (for more on the Thuriya, her design and why Abhilash chose this design, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/08/11/2018-golden-globe-race-ggr-meet-the-thuriya/).

Last reported on this blog in April, the Thuriya was shipped to Rotterdam in Netherlands aboard a freighter, from Kochi. From Rotterdam the Thuriya proceeded to Medemblik to have her mast refitted, get some repair jobs done and to take on supplies. She then sailed to UK to participate in the Suhaili Parade of Sail at Falmouth. In the 1968 GGR, Falmouth was from where the Suhaili started her voyage and concluded it. From Falmouth the participants of 2018 GGR sailed in a friendly race – the SITraN Challenge Race – to Les Sables-d’Olonne in France. The race village there opened on June 16. The 2018 GGR will start around noon, July 1.

On Friday (June 22) Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) – the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation in a sail boat and Abhilash’s team manager for 2018 GGR – told this blog that the Thuriya’s safety inspection, mandated by race regulations, happened earlier that day. “ Everything went well. A few minor adjustments are required, that’s all,’’ he said. According to him, the Thuriya has performed well at sea, so far. Final adjustments and stocking of supplies will continue till close to departure. “ That is normal,’’ he said. All three members of Thuriya’s core team – Abhilash, Dilip and Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius Shipyard – were in Netherlands for refitting the sail boat’s mast and other equipment, which had been dismantled for transport from India. Besides this, the boat was given coats of underwater anti-fouling paint and equipment-tweaks to bring her in line with 2018 GGR regulation, like not having telescopic poles for her sails. “ We had to convert that to non-telescopic,’’ Dilip said.

From left: Ratnakar, Abhilash and Dilip on the Thuriya, the day the sail boat was launched at Aquarius Shipyard in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The work was largely done by Abhilash, Dilip, Ratnakar and Johan Vels, a former boatyard owner, who is known well to the team that has worked on India’s circumnavigation projects. Where more hands were required, the team hired external assistance accordingly. Ratnakar has since returned to Goa. Once the 2018 GGR begins and Abhilash and Thuriya are off on their voyage, Dilip will sail to UK in the Suhaili with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Thereafter he will sail with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to Iceland, Greenland and Northern Ireland before returning to Goa in September. As Abhilash’s team manager, he will have to be available for the race managers to contact anytime.

According to Dilip, the Indian Navy has supported Abhilash’s second attempt at solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of 2018 GGR by providing a sizable portion of the funds required on loan-cum-grant basis. Besides funding from the navy, Thuriya and Abhilash were also afforded some buoyancy by gestures like the boat’s self-steering mechanism being gifted by its manufacturer and some of the onboard electronics being contributed by a Dubai-based company.

Rules of the 2018 GGR require technology levels aboard participating sail boats to be at the same level as in 1968. This return to purity in sailing is one of the challenges and attractions of the latest GGR. In the 1968 GGR, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had completed the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat in 312 days. He was also the only finisher in that race. In the annals of modern circumnavigation, the voyages of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and the late Sir Francis Chichester (first solo circumnavigation via the clipper route in 1966-67 and fastest circumnavigator at that time; nine months, one day) are important. They provide reference points for countries pursuing circumnavigation dreams.

Both Dilip and Abhilash earned their place in the ranks of solo circumnavigators thanks to the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama program. Besides gifting India its first solo circumnavigator and solo nonstop circumnavigator, the project recently saw the first circumnavigation done by an Indian all-woman crew. The sail boats used for all these voyages were built in India. Sagar Parikrama was the brainchild of Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd).

Asked what he felt about a product of Sagar Parikrama among those at the start line of 2018 GGR, Vice Admiral Awati wrote in, “   I think of how far we have come since the first Indian in an India built boat in 2009-10, my toils and travails during the previous quarter century to make it happen. I persisted because of a strange conviction that the sea and India had a very primeval, symbiotic relationship which had been one of the props of ancient Indian civilization, its contribution to a world community starting with the Indian Ocean. Such geographic advantage is not given to many people on God’s earth. And then we squandered it through a strange diktat based on the primacy of caste over the sea. For more than a thousand years we became – the elite certainly did – strangers to the sea. Someone else stepped into the vacuum and reaped the benefits of a sea based civilization, a sea based international order. We had to get back there. We had lost our sea legs. How do we regain them? We have to start from the top because this is an expensive business, getting the young back to the sea for their recreation and leisure in a big way. That was my thinking. My persistence prompted Sagar Parikrama; at least I think it did.

This photo has been downloaded from the Facebook page of Commander Abhilash Tomy. No copyright infringement intended.

And now after two solo circumnavigations, another by a team of six women, here is Abhilash poised to race solo around the world, once again in an India built boat against sixteen other stalwarts. The outcome will not matter to me. He will complete the race and help put India back a little more where she has always belonged, among sea based civilizations. So help me God. Besides mucking about at sea in a small sailing boat is always great fun, a tremendous learning process about the great natural forces which sustain Homo Sapien.’’

An iconic take-away from the 1968 GGR is the competition that happened between Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the Suhaili and the late Bernard Moitessier of France, sailing in Joshua. Although he started much after Suhaili and had the fastest time among the racers, Moitessier didn’t go back to England to complete the race. Instead, upon rounding Cape Horn and returning to the Atlantic, he continued eastward to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific beyond, terminating his voyage in Tahiti. He is said to have done this to protest the commercialization of long distance sailing. While there is a Suhaili replica at 2018 GGR in the form of Thuriya, there is no replica of the Joshua participating in the race. At ceremonies related to 2018 GGR at Falmouth, the Suhaili was joined by Joshua and Gypsy Moth IV, the sail boat Sir Francis Chichester used. All three boats were berthed on the same pontoon. In November 2015, when the new UK passport was launched, the Gypsy Moth IV was among heritage motifs selected to feature in it. An August 2017 report in Yachting & Boating World says that there are plans underway to have “ a second class of Joshua steel-built one-design yachts.’’ Both the Suhaili and Joshua are there at Les Sables-d’Olonne in the countdown to 2018 GGR. Also present is Pen Duick VI, one of the boats sailed by the late Eric Tabarly, the famous French long distance sailor.

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

RAAM 2018 / STRASSER WINS FOR THE FIFTH TIME

Christoph Strasser (This image has been downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page / no copyright infringement intended)

Austria’s Christoph Strasser has won the solo category of Race Across America (RAAM) for the fifth time.

The win puts him on par with the late Jure Robic of Slovenia, who won RAAM five times in the men’s category; in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. The record for the maximum number of solo wins – six – is held by Seana Hogan of the US.

According to the event’s official website, Strasser – he holds the record for the fastest time to finish at RAAM – completed the 2018 edition of the race in eight days, one hour and 23 minutes.  As per information available on the Internet, this would be his third fastest finish at the event. He previously won in 2011 (eight days, eight hours, six minutes), 2013 (seven days, 22 hours, 52 minutes), 2014 (seven days, 15 hours, 56 minutes) and 2017 (eight days, nine hours, 34 minutes).

RAAM is approximately 4800 kilometers long. It spans the United States, commencing from Oceanside in California and ending at Annapolis in Maryland. The first Indian solo finishes at RAAM happened last year (2017). Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath earned the distinction of being the first Indian solo cyclist to complete RAAM. He was followed by Dr Amit Samarth, who became the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category on the very first attempt.

This year there are no Indian racers in the solo category at RAAM.

Austria’s Christoph Strasser takes a selfie at the start line of RAAM 2018 (Photo: Rajeev G)

Placed second after Strasser at the currently on 2018 edition of RAAM, was Luxembourg’s Ralph Diseviscourt who had completed 2727.9 miles (4390 kilometers) – when checked at 11.36 AM, June 21 in India – eight days, eleven hours and seven minutes since the solo category of the race started in the US. In third position overall was the leader among women, Nicole Reist of Switzerland who had cycled 2625.7 miles (4225.6 kilometers).

Placed fourth in the solo category and third among men, was Michael Conti of the US who had covered 2412.8 miles (3883 kilometers).

Veteran cyclist Seana Hogan was at 2172.7 miles (3496.6 kilometers). She was followed closely by Kathy Roche-Wallace of the US at 2142.7 miles (3448.3 kilometers). Seana holds the record for the most number of solo wins by a rider, male or female, at RAAM – six, in the women’s category. She won in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998. She also holds the transcontinental record among women having cycled the distance in nine days, four hours and two minutes.

Austria’s Mauerhofer Thomas, placed third overall among solo cyclists when RAAM 2018 was last reported on this blog, had retired from the race.

Update: Nicole Reist of Switzerland finished RAAM 2018 in nine days, 23 hours, 57 minutes to top the solo category among women.  Luxembourg’s Ralph Diseviscourt completed the race in nine days, 12 hours, 33 minutes to place second in the solo category among men. Seana Hogan finished the race in 12 days, nine hours, eight minutes with Kathy Roche-Wallace following closely at 12 days, 11 hours, 22 minutes.

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