THE UNUSUAL TUITION

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuition classes are common throughout India. For many, they provide the bridge to decent scores in academics, which are in turn crucial for professionally secure future in society valuing `well settled’ life. As common as tuition, is the practice of cycling to tuition. That ritual religiously done and exams passed, student on bicycle goes on to enjoy successful career in one of the lucrative professions. Its role in transport completed, bicycle fades from memory. Steed is mere extra in life’s cast. Academics is star. As a school student, Sreenath Lakshmikanth too cycled to attend tuition. In the years that followed, he became one of Kerala’s most promising bicycle racers. This is his story:

April, 2018.

The view from the promenade along Kochi’s Marine Drive has always been intimate. Willingdon Island and Bolghatty appear closer from here. The ship at the berth meant for oil tankers, bang in the middle of the backwaters, estuary for backdrop, loomed big like a truck parked in one’s driveway. We were an hour or so from sunset; the promise of its approach already embedded in the quality of light and the ambience caused by evening sky and water. The young man seated next to me on the park bench was built lean. Two hours earlier, we had begun the appointment looking for a café to sit and chat. With one of the fancy cafes he knew closed, he decided to dispense with embellishment and cut to the chase: what do we need? We need a place to sit and talk; period. There seemed no doubt in his head of the eventual, functional choice – park bench by the backwaters. There was the ship, the port, the calmness of water and if freelance journalist still sought stimulation for grey cells, a vendor or two always in the neighborhood, selling tea. I guess if you want to do something in life – much as, all that good conversation needs is a quiet place and occasional stimulant for wakefulness -you have to weed away the distraction and focus on that which matters. Sreenath Lakshmikanth knows it. Among attributes that strike you about Kochi is lack of space and heavy traffic. Sreenath is cyclist despite that.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

Born in May 1996, Sreenath hails from a Konkani speaking-family settled in Cherthala, a town some 30 kilometers south of Kochi. His father is an astrologer; his mother, a housewife. His brother works as a chef. Although keen on sports at school, his progression was hampered by his size – he was small. “ I used to play games. But when it came to being selected to play for the school or go for tournaments, emphasis was always on size. I never figured in selectors’ imagination,’’ Sreenath said. There was however a quirk in Sreenath’s geographical location. Cherthala was part of Alappuzha district; therein Cherthala lay to the north, bordering the adjacent district of Ernakulam. According to Sreenath, Alappuzha is popularly reckoned as the district with most cyclists in Kerala. He doesn’t know the reason for this belief but it is apparently there in background chatter in the state’s cycling circles. Cycling is human powered transport. From cycling’s perspective, there is one aspect that engages about Alappuzha. Its natural beauty as a district of rivers and lagoons also makes it a geographical oddity in Kerala. According to Wikipedia, except for some scattered hillocks to the east, the district has no mountains or hills. The terrain is largely flat. For Sreenath, life changed when he moved to eleventh and twelfth standards. He joined TD School at Thurvaoor; the place was 12-15 kilometers away from home.

For many years in South India, BSA SLR – a model of bicycle made by Chennai based-TI Cycles – had been popular. Sreenath’s father owned one. When Sreenath commenced attending school at Thuravoor, he began using the cycle for commute. Like in the case of many students, the commute by cycle was triggered by the need to attend tuition classes; he had classes in the morning and evening. That was how cycling crept into Sreenath’s life. It was collateral experience to the more important task of attending tuition. For Sreenath, sidelined at sport and needing an activity to call his own; cycling engaged. More than classes, it was the means of getting there that grew on him. As his interest in cycling evolved, the first graduation up the product chain happened. At a cousin’s house in Kayamkulam, he came across a road bike – a BSA Mach 1. Originally owned by the cousin’s neighbor who shifted to riding a motorcycle and later parked with cousin who didn’t use it, the cycle was idling. Already a tinkerer adept at dismantling and reassembling his bicycle, Sreenath packed up the road bike and shifted it to his house in Cherthala. It took him about a week to get used to the Mach 1 and its capacity to be ridden more aggressively compared to the SLR. By now Sreenath was also working at a coaching center that trained students appearing for entrance exams. The Mach 1 became his ride for trips to both school and coaching center.

Riding a fixed wheel bike (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

Kerala’s highways are a natural extension of the state’s overall layout, complicated however by explosive growth in automobiles. Roughly 600 kilometers long, Kerala is a narrow state with sea to one side and a spine of hills to the other. Save a few districts like Alappuzha, it is a land of ups and downs. In geographically narrow state with high density of population, roads are starved for space. The highway linking Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi (NH-47) is narrower than similar roads elsewhere. It hums with ever growing traffic. It was on this highway that Sreenath rode his Mach 1 daily. His morning session started at 5.30 AM; evening session was at around 8.30 PM. Regular cycling seems to have stretched his limbs in the growing up years. “ I put on some height. That was my first incentive to continue cycling,’’ he said.   The sessions at the coaching center were on Saturday and Sunday. It meant he was occupied through the week. The rigor was stepping stone to evolving a work culture, something that would come handy as the cyclist in him grew to proportions he couldn’t ignore anymore.

Following school, Sreenath joined Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam (Ernakulam refers to the eastern mainland portion of the city of Kochi) to do his BSc (Physics). He was determined to participate in sports. Still unsure of what to do in cycling, he tried his hand at running instead. For this, he and his runner friend George frequented the college’s well known ground in the city. One day, when he went to meet the physical education teacher, he noticed some bicycles kept in the room. They were track cycles sporting fixed wheel. The teacher was hesitant to let Sreenath use them. However during this phase, Sreenath was already cycling twice or thrice a week from Cherthala to college in Ernakulam and back. That’s a distance of 60-70 kilometers. His friends mentioned this to the teacher who relented and allowed Sreenath to have the bike. But on his first trip with the new bike, there was a chain-slip and Sreenath crashed injuring himself badly. Luckily the teacher didn’t see the mishap as reason to demand the cycle back. Instead, he gave Sreenath the name of a local coach in cycling – Louis Thomas.

Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth

Kerala’s potential in industry was for long stunted by its brand of politics. With the advent of new sectors like information technology, the trend is now changing. But for years, what industry survived lay clustered around Ernakulam (including the borderlands shared with Alappuzha and Thrissur), the bulk of it near Kalamassery.  The Kalamassery area was synonymous with factories like Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) and Premier Tyres (now part of Apollo Tyres). Unlike its attitude to industry, Kerala has always been sports-crazy. Some of Kerala’s companies were known names in sport. Premier Tyres and the Thiruvananthapuram-based Travancore Titanium for instance, were known all over India as good at football. Sreenath started training with Louis at the ground belonging to FACT. His companions during training were Louis’s daughters. Faster than Sreenath on the bicycle, they had represented their university and state. Louis advised Sreenath to stay in Ernakulam so that he would have more time to train. To set him up so, they needed to get the cyclist from Cherthala, a job in the city.

Pai Dosa in Ernakulam. This photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

There is only so long freelance journalist can stay without tea or coffee. Our conversation on the park bench at Marine Drive had progressed nonstop. Additionally when the tea vendors came, it had been at moments when the train of thought couldn’t be broken. When the chat ended, we went hunting for tea and snacks. As before Sreenath knew where to go. We crossed the road before the GCDA shopping complex, got onto Broadway, navigated the lanes between it and MG Road and eventually crossed MG Road. “ Here, this road,’’ Sreenath said leading me to a modestly big restaurant tucked inside. In Ernakulam, Pai Dosa is a well-known eatery. Much mentioned in local media, it offers several dozen varieties of the South Indian delicacy – dosa. We placed our orders and when I offered to pay, it was roundly refused. The eatery did not let Sreenath pay either; the meal was on the house. Back when he was looking for a job in Ernakulam so that he could train properly in cycling, it was at Pai Dosa that Sreenath found work. Over time, he served at tables, managed raw material supply and handled billing. Initially he stayed at the Maharaja’s College hostel. Work hours at Pai Dosa spanned 6 PM to 1 AM. Louis’s training started at 6 AM. Given the late hours he put in at Pai Dosa, Sreenath could report for training only by 7 AM. Training happened at the FACT ground and on Willingdon Island, home to Kochi’s port. Automobile traffic was less on Willingdon Island compared to bustling Ernakulam.

Following a district level camp in cycling, Sreenath headed for his first university meet held at S.D. College, Kanjirappally. According to him, M.G. University, to which Maharaja’s College belonged, didn’t have a robust cycling scene. The goal therefore was to somehow form a college team and take a shot at finishing well. As it turned out, Sreenath secured podium finishes in both the one kilometer and four kilometer-mass start disciplines. It was his first time on the podium in cycling. Finishing after Sreenath in the four kilometer-mass start was a cyclist from Aquinas College, Kochi. Milan Josy and Arun Baby, top cyclists from the region, belonged to Aquinas. Their coach, Jaison Jacob, took note of Sreenath and offered him a chance to train with Milan and Arun. In 2014, ahead of the state road cycling championships due in Thiruvananthapuram, an event called Tour de Kerala was held around Sabarimala. The circuit was approximately 80 kilometers long. Sreenath’s friend, Mario participated in it; Sreenath tagged along to support. It was Sreenath’s first exposure to a proper road biking event replete with the support infrastructure that goes with it.

Soon after this event, the state MTB championships happened at Malankara in Thodupuzha. Riding a rented Mongoose, Sreenath finished sixth in the under-18 category. However what he relished here was that he finished ahead of those dispatched by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training wing in Thiruvananthapuram. It was window to a small contest, one that is probably still on. You glean it in Sreenath’s conversation – an underlying tenor of competition with cyclists from Thiruvananthapuram, perceived as the lucky lot with training infrastructure provided by the state. In his mind, Kochi’s cyclists are underdogs doing well for exactly that – they are better at exploiting what they have and are fueled by the need to go out and discover what is missing. In the state road biking championships that followed the MTB event, Sreenath finished outside the podium, in seventh or eighth place. Jaison was watching from the sidelines. By now Louis had retired from coaching. Sreenath joined Jaison’s group; the coach there was Chrisfin Vincent, working with State Bank of India (SBI) and hailing from Thiruvananthapuram. Sreenath was now at that stage wherein he required a good road bike to practise seriously. Towards this end, he had been saving the money he was getting at Pai Dosa. It wasn’t enough. Jaison, some teachers from Sreenath’s college and a few well-wishers also contributed additionally. What they needed now was a bicycle retailer who would understand Sreenath’s requirement and budget.

The Bike Store; this photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

In 2009, Shuhaib Abdul Rehman – he was businessman, cyclist and founder of Cochin Bikers Club (which brought together cycling enthusiasts) – started a shop retailing high end bicycles. It was called The Bike Store and was located at Palarivattom in Ernakulam. It also had presence in Chennai. While Cochin Bikers Club still exists, by 2013, Shuhaib was close to shutting down the bicycle store. The Chennai outlet was eventually closed. The one in Ernakulam had by then become a hangout for the city’s cyclists. It had grown to something more than just shop; it was community. The Bike Store received a fresh lease of life when Paul Mathew, Vinshad Aziz, Pradeep Kumar Menon, Shagzil Khan and Abraham Clancy Ross  – all members of Cochin Bikers Club, came together as Velocity Ventures to keep the shop afloat. In 2015 Velocity Ventures was transferred to Verdant Outdoor Sports World. In due course The Bike Store moved to larger premises near Ernakulam’s Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium. Also coming aboard as investors at the store were Abhishek Das, Yakkub Shabeer, Dinesh Rajendra Pai, Ajith Varma and Abhishek Kashyap. Currently, The Bike Store is among leading retailers of high end bicycles in Ernakulam. “ Interest in cycling has picked up. When we started we had about 30 bicycles. Now we stock between 60 to 100 cycles,’’ Paul Mathew said. Jason used to get his gear from The Bike Store. Mario had also bought his bicycle from there. When Sreenath wanted to buy a road bike, it was to The Bike Store that he headed. “ That was the first time I met him,’’ Paul said. According to him, the shop helped the young cyclist identify the right model for his needs. They provided Sreenath a Lapierre road bike at a discount. “ It felt good. For the first time I had a proper road bike,’’ Sreenath said. It was the beginning of a meaningful association with The Bike Store.

Training with Jaison brought a twist; it was unavoidable. Because the training commenced at 6 AM and he had to present himself adequately rested and fresh for it, Sreenath was forced to quit Pai Dosa. He also shifted to staying in a house where some of the employees from Paul’s main business – he is a distributor for Godrej heavy equipment – lived. In 2015, Sreenath started training systematically. The training was on NH-47, to be specific, the stretch of highway between Ernakulam and Cherthala. Around this time, Sreenath, Milan and Mario went for a “cyclothon’’ in Chandigarh.  They packed their bikes and set off for Chandigarh completely overlooking the fact that it was January and North India lay bathed in winter’s cold. The trio from Kochi had no jackets, warmers or gloves. In Chandigarh they bought a pair of gloves and gave it to Milan, who was the best rider. The pace at the event was fast. Sreenath and Mario retired early. Milan hung on for most part of the race before suffering a crash. The trio returned to Kerala realizing the gap that existed between what was happening elsewhere and the level of cycling they had at home. Chandigarh was reality-check. Two things happened following this visit. They started participating in more competitions; they began attempting to complete all the races they participated in. It yielded result. At a competition in Coimbatore, Sreenath ended up fourth in the elite category. At the same event, one of his friends – Faizal P.J, finished third in the under-18 segment and was picked up by Scott Bikes for their team in India.

Sreenath (second from right) with other members of Scott’s cycling team in India. At extreme right is Nigel Smith, their coach. This photo was downloaded from the webpage of Scott Owners Club and is being used here with the company’s permission.

Towards the end of 2015, the state championship was held in Kozhikode. There, Sreenath secured a third place in mass start road race, in the under-23 category. It was the first time in several years that somebody from Ernakulam was getting a medal. Mario also gained selection in the under-23 category. The two of them proceeded to Thiruvananthapuram for a 20 day-training camp ahead of the nationals. Given their selection to camp, The Bike Store also pitched in – they were given carbon frame Carrera road bikes. The training at Thiruvananthapuram was held on NH-47 and MC Road; the latter proceeds from Kerala’s capital city to Kottayam. Beginning of 2016, the nationals was held at Nilakkal in Pathanamthitta district. In team time trial, Kerala finished fifth. In mass start, Sreenath unfortunately suffered a puncture and couldn’t complete the race. His first nationals; like that trip to Chandigarh earlier, was occasion to introspect and focus afresh. At a race in Lucknow which followed, he finished with the group – in top 15 – in the mass start. He was beginning to get a hang of things. He commenced training with the nationals of 2017 in mind. At the state championships held in the beginning of 2017, Sreenath secured first place in road race mass start, in the under-25 category. In January 2017, he also secured podium finish at two privately organized events in Gujarat and Chennai. At the MTB state championship, he finished third. Between MTB and road racing, Sreenath’s preference is the latter. But the 2017 road biking nationals was yet again a disappointment; he couldn’t complete the race with the group. Things changed however with a race in Coimbatore. At the MVS Criterium held there, he secured first place. Following this, in April 2017, Sreenath signed up with Scott Bikes to be part of their team in India.

Cycling in the hills of Kerala (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

His first race for Scott was the Trivandrum Cyclothon, where he placed first. He secured podium finish at a competition in Bengaluru; he was also part of Scott’s winning team in time trial. At the nationals, which took place towards the end of 2017 he managed to finish with the group in the mass start road race. Following the nationals he went for an inter-university road cycling meet in Rajasthan, where he finished fifth. “ That gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Sreenath said. Then in December 2017, a setback occurred. At a MTB race in Ernakulam, he had an accident and fractured his arm. He was out of action for about six weeks. “ Nigel was great support then,’’ he said of Nigel Smith, who coaches the racing team at Scott. Until Nigel came along, Sreenath’s go-to person for information on how to train had been Chrisfin. In that stage, the focus had been on distance and speed. Nigel introduced the upcoming cyclist to several new things – among them, heart rate-based training, which showed Sreenath how to sustain an effort. He was also introduced to power training. During the phase of recovering from the fracture he suffered, all his training was done on a stationary bike. Emerging from injury, Sreenath’s first race was a time trial up the Thamarassery Churam (mountain pass) in Kerala’s Wayanad district. He finished first, representing Scott. That win was also Sreenath’s last outing with Scott. He shifted to Ciclo Team Racing, the bicycle racing team backed by TI Cycles and anchored by Bengaluru-based cyclist, Naveen John. Sreenath now rides a Ridley Fenix SL road bike. According to Paul, the initiative for Sreenath’s move to Ciclo came from Rajith Rathiappan, who runs a Track and Trail showroom (retail outlet for TI Cycles) in Ernakulam. Having cut his teeth cycling overseas including in Belgium, Naveen had told this blog earlier of how he thinks the road to Indian cycling’s future lay through racing in Europe (for more on Naveen John please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/23/the-electrical-engineer/). April 2018, seated on the park bench by Kochi’s backwaters and beholding an estuary traversed by ships sailing the world’s oceans, Sreenath was looking forward to his first trip to Europe with Ciclo.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

“ My wish is to be a professional cyclist. In India, it is difficult to earn a livelihood from that,’’ he said thoughtfully. Attempting to be a professional cyclist is a courageous move. Those who know Sreenath well said that he does not hail from strong financial background. He also has a long way to go in cycling; for instance, he hasn’t yet had a podium finish at the nationals. The fifth position he secured at the inter-university meet in Rajasthan is the highest Sreenath has placed yet at the national level. Immediate focus therefore, is on improving his performance at the nationals. His heart seems to be in the right place. “ He is committed. If he has to train for certain duration on a given day, he makes sure he does that. I also remember him mailing leading cycling outfits overseas – all by himself and despite the challenges he faced in language – telling them of his interest in the sport and seeking advice on what to do,’’ Paul said. The Bike Store has been integral to Sreenath’s journey so far. Their technician Murukan T. R, is the one who tunes Sreenath’s bike. He accompanies Sreenath to all his races. The two are close. Given shortage of funds, Sreenath was requiring assistance for his planned trip to Europe. It is understood that help has begun coming in. In Ernakulam, Sreenath trains every week for 15-20 hours, of which 15 hours is the real training duration. From June 2018, he planned to ramp it up to a proper 20 hours. His weekly mileage in training averages 350-400 kilometers. My mind was still on how he trains, given Kerala’s roads and traffic. “ You can’t complain about it. There is no other way,’’ he said, adding that cyclist chooses the best available option and goes with it. According to him, Ernakulam’s traffic starts building up from around 7.30 AM. By then, a committed cyclist should have wrapped up his training for the morning. The bulk of Sreenath’s training now happens on the city’s Container Road, a long and fairly wide road used by trucks headed to the port’s Vallarpadam Container Transhipment Terminal.

In 2016, Sreenath completed his graduation. He majored in physics. Science courses require students to attend classes at the lab. Popularly called “ practicals,’’ they are unavoidable. On the other hand, spending more time in class is difficult if you are athlete devotedly training for sport. For his next step – post graduation – Sreenath thought with cycling in the frame. He decided to enroll for MA in Hindi; the choice was deliberate: a course in Hindi has no sessions in the lab. It means more time to train. “ Cycling is not just physical, it is also mental. It is among very few sports where a certain level of performance has to be maintained for a long period of time. That is what attracts me to it,’’ Sreenath said explaining why he continues to court the challenge and sweat for it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Positions secured at competitions are as mentioned by the interviewee.)        

2018 BOSTON / LONDON MARATHONS – IMPRESSIONS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For some time now, the emergent norm in weather worldwide has been – unpredictable. April 2018 hosted two well-known marathons. The events at Boston and London were separated by less than a week. The contrast was sharp. Boston featured one of its coldest race days while London offered one of its warmest. This year too, there were runners from India participating at both these events. We spoke to some of them about their experience.   

2018 BOSTON MARATHON

The world’s oldest annual marathon provided much to think about with its 2018 edition. The weather on race day was terribly cold and damp. Boston this year became a proposition to know running in the context of its weather as opposed to merely viewing running as methodical execution of race strategy under ideal circumstances. Yuki Kawauchi of Japan finished first among men; Geoffrey Kirui of Kenya finished second. Desiree Linden of US was top finisher among women. The 2018 Boston Marathon triggered an interesting debate on whether women handle adversity better than men. According to a report in The New York Times, the winning times for both men and women were the slowest since the 1970s and mid-race drop-out rate was up 50 per cent from what it was last year. But significantly, the drop-out rate for men was up 80 per cent from 2017, while it was up only about 12 per cent for women. Similarly, overall, five per cent of men dropped out during the 2018 edition of the race while only 3.8 per cent of women did the same. While it would be tempting to attribute this trend amid cold weather to the thicker layer of sub-cutaneous fat women have, fact is, in 2012 when the Boston Marathon was run in very warm weather, the finishing rate for women had been higher than for men.   

Kavitha Reddy, at an event in Pune (Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy)

Kavitha Reddy

On race day as runners scrambled to board the bus taking them to the start point of the 2018 Boston Marathon, the mood was not one of celebration.

The weather was dreary with howling winds accompanied by rain and snow. It was a depressing scenario for Kavitha Reddy. Doubts began to creep into her mind if she would complete the marathon she had come all the way from India to attempt.

“ I was confused. I was unsure whether I should run in light clothing or add warm layers. Finally I just followed the herd and added some more layers of clothing. So there I was, ready for my most awaited marathon, dressed more like a resident of the Arctic than a runner,’’ she said. Kavitha had hand warmers, three layers of clothing, tights and a plastic wrap on top. Despite all this she felt frozen to the bone when she stepped off the bus. At the race venue, runners huddled together, clad in layers of clothing.

Near the four kilometer-mark, she threw away her zipper jacket. At the seventh kilometer, Kavitha is used to taking salt tablets. At Boston she was unable to do that as her fingers were too numb to open the zip of her waist pouch. “ For the first time in my running career, I ran an entire marathon without any salts or energy gels,’’ she said adding that she picked up a bottle of Gatorade from a volunteer, but could not drink as it was too cold.

As she continued her run, the weather got progressively worse and many runners quit the race.

After Heartbreak Hill, at the 34th kilometer, she took a sip of water and threw away her hand bottle. The worst was yet to come. Over the last seven kilometers the weather deteriorated further. “ The wind and the rain were so bad that I felt I was running in the same place and not moving forward. The last mile felt like a marathon in itself. Even though I could see the finish line, it felt like the wind was pushing me away,’’ she said.

Kavitha finished the race with a timing of 3:34:26, a little over a minute more than her personal best of 3:33:05 at the New York City Marathon of November 2017.

In 2015, Kavitha ran the Bangalore Marathon completing it with a sub-four hour timing of 3:53 hours. That was when she learnt about the possibility of qualifying for Boston Marathon; she also realized that she was quite close to the qualifying timing required for the iconic race.

In November 2017 she completed the New York City Marathon and followed it up with half marathon at the 2018 Mumbai Marathon where she finished first in the age group of 40-44 years among women.

For Boston, her coach added some more mileage and tweaked the workouts to make her stronger to tackle the marathon’s route. “ He prescribed undulating routes for my training runs. I did my tempo runs on roads that went up and down. I also included some hills in the second half of my long runs and did some fast finish-runs,” she said.

Going ahead, she will be attempting the Berlin Marathon in November 2018.

Mahesh Londhe (Photo: courtesy Mahesh Londhe)

Mahesh Londhe

A couple of days ahead of the Boston Marathon, the weather turned bad. The run ended up being extremely challenging for Mahesh Londhe. “ We are not used to running in such weather conditions where temperatures are at zero and sub-zero levels. Nevertheless this race taught me that as runners we have to be prepared for any eventuality,’’ Mahesh said.

At the race expo, Mahesh had to buy a whole range of running clothes that he would have to get into if the weather failed to improve. He had to buy thermals, gloves and raincoat. “I have never run wearing a raincoat,” he said.

According to Mahesh, many of the American runners also found the weather quite challenging.

The night before the race was terrible as it rained through the night. At the start point at Hopkinston Village, runners were milling around under tents attempting to protect themselves from cold winds and rains.

“Up until the 13th mile, I was able to keep up my pace of sub-3 hour finish. But the cold started to get to me and I had to slow down,” said Mahesh.

By the 19th mile, Mahesh had to slow down and was almost on the verge of giving up. However he decided to continue.

“The most amazing thing was the number of people who came to cheer the runners in such atrocious weather. There were children too among them, handing out hydration. People had come with raincoats for the runners. It was such a heart-warming sight,” Mahesh said.

Along the route, Mahesh could see that runners were quitting. At the finish line, Mahesh was in quite a bad shape with fever. He was rushed to the medical center. He finished the run in 3:59:17 hours.

Born in Mangalore, Mahesh was into cricket in his early years. He moved into running later and then got into triathlons. He has completed several triathlons including two Ironman competitions in Australia and France and a half Ironman in Sri Lanka.

A certified coach for Ironman, Mahesh was aiming for a sub-three hour finish at Boston. But what Mahesh ended up with was an experience that will be forever etched in his memory – running an iconic marathon amid severe cold, howling winds and lashing rain. “ It was the experience of a lifetime,’’ he said.

Karthik with K.C. Kothandapani (Photo: courtesy Karthik Anand)

Karthik Anand

Bangalore-based runner Karthik Anand kept an eye on weather reports in the run up to the Boston Marathon. He was mentally prepared for hostile weather.

Still it was extremely tough. “ I did not expect it to rain so heavily for the entire distance. I was hoping that the rain would taper but it just kept getting worse,’’ he said adding that strong winds made things really bad.

On race day, for the 11:15 AM race-start, Karthik left his hotel at 9 AM. “ That meant I was drenched for two hours even before the race started,’’ he said. He started his race much slower than planned. With heavy rains and winds, maintaining constant pace was important.

“ My hands were numb and I could hardly remove any gels from my pockets. The toes of my feet were all numb. I was shivering and my jaws were quivering from the cold. Because of wet clothes I also had to experience lot of chaffing,’’ Karthik said. He had to use extra jackets and track pants for protection from the cold weather. The jacket and track pants were thrown away before the start of the race. He used gloves to keep his hands warm but discarded them after the fifth kilometer.

Race Day, 2018 Boston Marathon; Karthik all layered up (Photo: courtesy Karthik Anand)

Karthik finished the race in 3:57 hours. “ The happiness of finishing Boston marathon under such tough conditions gives me immense pleasure,’’ he said.

Karthik’s training for Boston Marathon was under K.C. Kothandapani, among Bengaluru’s best known coaches. The training featured mileages of 90-100 kilometers every week, incorporating speed workout, tempo runs, hill runs, recovery runs and long runs apart from strength training.

Karthik started running in 2008. “ I had enrolled at a local gym. One of my friends who used to often run on the road forced me to join him. There has been no stopping since,’’ he said.

After some years of running, Karthik decided to attempt the world’s major marathons. He has already completed Berlin, Tokyo and Chicago apart from Boston. “ I will be running the New York Marathon in November 2018 followed by the London Marathon in April 2019. If I get an opportunity I will surely do Boston once more. It’s a beautiful course with a lot of crowd support,’’ he said.

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom

Ramesh has run before at Boston, he has also run the Chicago Marathon. The third big marathon of North America – New York – has evaded him because its dates are very close to Kochi’s Spice Coast Marathon, which is managed by Soles of Cochin, the running group Ramesh identifies with.

This April, the Boston Marathon happened in very cold conditions. “ The weather in New England is dynamic. There is a saying there that if you don’t like the weather, you should wait for five minutes. That’s how fickle it is. Seasoned runners from Boston tell you of it,’’ Ramesh said. The marathon’s 2018 edition witnessed one of the worst weather conditions in its history.

“ I reached the US a week earlier. I ran a half marathon in Virginia, near where I used to live. It was cold but the run went off well. I could handle the cold. Until about two days before the Boston Marathon, the weather forecast spoke of mildly windy and wet conditions. Then it suddenly changed to strong wind and rain,’’ Ramesh said.

Three years earlier, in 2015, he had experienced near similar conditions in Boston, although not as bad as it was manifesting now. Running the race’s 2015 edition, he had slipped into hypothermia. He had then walked randomly into a building, where people took good care of him, covering him in a warm blanket and feeding him hot soup. Cold and Ramesh don’t seem a great combination; in 2010 too, he had ended up shivering and experiencing hypothermia after a marathon in upstate New York.

Luckily in 2018, while in the US to run the Boston Marathon, Ramesh stayed with a friend whose son was into rowing. The son had a collection of warm clothes Ramesh could borrow to layer himself for the race. Additionally, his friend offered to be at the finish line with more warm clothes, just in case that was needed.

Ramesh reached the start line of the Boston Marathon wearing four layers of warm clothing. “ Still it wasn’t enough for me, given the wind,’’ he said. The running was miserable; he took it slow and easy. Playing in his mind were memories of previous runs in cold weather. “ I was cautious. I was dreading what lay in store at the end,’’ Ramesh said.

He knows the Boston race route well. He knows how to strategize his passage; what objective difficulties to anticipate on the course and how to tackle it. Yet none of that past experience helped to elevate his spirits. All through, the bleak weather lingered in mind, a persistent annoyance.

“ The beauty of Boston is its crowds. This time the crowd was thinner than usual. But those who came cheered and supported the race as best as they could. The event’s volunteers also went out of their way to encourage runners,’’ Ramesh said. Despite the encouragement, runners pulling out of the race, electing not to finish – were many.

Ramesh finished the marathon in three hours, forty minutes; he last saw such timing was in 2013 or so. That was how much the weather slowed him down. On the bright side, he completed with no shivering or hypothermia. The multiple layers he wore helped. Thermal blankets were distributed and this year, the blankets were better than before. His friends who met him at the finish line brought hot chocolate.

Ramesh said that he wasn’t surprised at all by the race results dominated by North American runners. Given the weather, he had an inkling that such outcome lay in store. “ Having said that, Yuki Kawauchi of Japan finishing first among men shouldn’t seem out of place. He is known to do well in cold weather,’’ Ramesh said, adding, “ one thing did surprise me – notwithstanding the cold weather, the timing returned by some of the podium finishers is really good.’’

Looking ahead, Ramesh said he would like to run the London and Berlin marathons.

Brijesh Gajera (Photo: courtesy Brijesh Gajera)

Brijesh Gajera

Brijesh Gajera has been running for the past ten years.

About four years ago he realized that it was possible for him to qualify for one of the world’s most competitive marathons – Boston Marathon. He was edging close to the qualifying time of 3:10 hours assigned for his age category.

At the 2017 edition of Mumbai Marathon, he finished the full marathon in 3:03 hours, thereby qualifying for Boston.

Brijesh – he works with Cisco – commenced his training for Boston in November 2017. “ I trained as per my plan,’’ he said. After training under Bengaluru-based coach K.C. Kothandapani for several years, he spun off on his own; he evolved both his own training plan and group.

At Boston, he found the expo well organised.

On race day, the holding area where runners were milling around was slushy as it had been raining since early morning. “ I had four layers of clothing until the start of the race. Once the race began I discarded the top two layers,’’ he said.

Despite the weather conditions, for about 24-25 kilometres, Brijesh’s run progressed in tune with his target of bettering his personal best of 3:03 hours. “ At that point there was heavy downpour. We are not used to such conditions. I was quite cold and shivering,’’ he said.

Even though the weather kept deteriorating, the thought of quitting the race did not cross his mind. “ This was my first run overseas. So, there was no question of quitting. I wanted to complete it at any cost,’’ he said.

Brijesh realized that timing and similar other personal targets would have to be chucked out of the window; the focus had to be on completing the race.

(From left) Brijesh, Gurudev Nagaraja and K. C. Kothandapani (Photo: courtesy Brijesh Gajera)

“ At the 38 kilometer-mark, a runner from Peru asked me to run with him as he was also finding the going tough. This was his first run overseas. We ran the rest of the distance together,’’ Brijesh said.

He completed Boston Marathon in 3:40 hours.

Brijesh then went on to run the Big Sur International Marathon, held annually along the Pacific Coast. He completed that event with a timing of 3:55:59 hours. “ This marathon was spectacularly scenic. It was fun with people singing and dancing along the route. I took it easy as I wanted to stop and take pictures. Along the way, it did rain and that brought some worry,’’ he said.

Back from his running and hiking sojourn, Brijesh intends to rest a while and then focus on filling his running calendar with suitable events.

2018 LONDON MARATHON

For UK, the winter of 2017-2018 was unusually cold; the media named the cold spell: The Beast from the East after the causative weather pattern spanning from the Russian Far East to the British Isles. By April 2018, it appears to have been another story. Held annually since 1981, the London Marathon witnessed its hottest race day ever for the 2018 edition. According to reports, extra water was provided and more cooling showers added along the route to combat the heat. The organizers told runners to leash in their appetite to push themselves for improved timing; they were also advised to avoid fancy dress clothing, which could lead to over-heating. The results at warm London were a sharp contrast to Boston. Of the top ten finishers among men, barring one runner – Mo Farah, the rest are all from Africa. In the women’s segment, six of the top ten hailed from Africa, while one person was from Bahrain. Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya topped among men; Vivian Cheruiyot also from Kenya, topped among women.  

Pervin and her husband Kushru, at the 2018 London Marathon (Photo: courtesy Pervin Batliwala)

Pervin Batliwala

Standing at the start line of the 2018 London Marathon, all Pervin Batliwala could see was a sea of humanity. “ There were people and more people,’’ she said.

For her, the race was not easy for two reasons. First, it was very warm. The race day of 2018 was the warmest in the event’s history with temperatures touching 24.1 degrees. “ The sun was very strong. It hit you really hard,’’ she said, adding that unlike in India where races start early, in London the start was around 10:30 AM. This meant the average marathoner is running through late morning hours and into the afternoon hours.

The second factor that bothered Pervin was the crowd. There were far too many runners and it was very difficult to make one’s way through the crowd.

Nevertheless, Pervin’s outing at her second world marathon major – her first was Boston Marathon in 2017 – went off well. She finished in 4:16, largely within her expectations.

“ I achieved what I had planned and trained for,’’ Pervin said, adding that her GPS device showed that she had run about 500 meters more as she had to wind her way through gaps in the crowd of runners on her path.

“I worked very hard for this run. I have not taken a break at all starting with the race in Delhi late last year followed by Mumbai Marathon in January this year, Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon in February, Navi Mumbai Half Marathon, also in February and now the London Marathon,” she said.

The London Marathon, according to her, starts at three points and converges at the 5 km-point. “ The roads are narrow. Over and above that many runners kept throwing bottles,’’ Pervin said.

Following a holiday overseas, Pervin’s next race will be her third from the world marathon majors – the 2018 New York City Marathon scheduled for November. Following that, she will be doing her fourth major at Tokyo in February 2019.

“ I now want to focus on strength training, where I have shortfall to bridge,’’ she said. Pervin does not plan to do London or Boston in the immediate future. Her focus is now on completing all the six marathon majors.

Kiran (orange T-shirt) at one of the editions of the Chicago Marathon (Photo: courtesy Kiran Kapadia)

Kiran Kapadia

For Kiran, running the London Marathon was an awesome experience despite the downsides of 2018 race day. “ It was quite hot and because the race starts late we had to bear the brunt of the sun,’’ Kiran said.

Kiran finished the marathon in 3:50 hours, tad outside his target of around 3:40 hours. “ After the 12th kilometre or so, my legs started to feel very heavy probably because of the heat. I immediately slowed down my pace so as to help myself to go the entire distance of 42.2 kilometers,” Kiran said.

He had a fairly good training season ahead of London Marathon although the unusually warm temperatures of March in Mumbai did impact some of his Sunday long runs.

Kiran, 58, has been running for the past ten years. “ I did my first full marathon at the age of 52,’’ he said, adding that he has run many of the marathons at overseas destinations including New York, Chicago, Prague, Rotterdam and twice at Berlin.

He was involved in sporting activities through his school and college years but his foray into running happened much later. “ When I hit my mid-40s I realised that I was leading a sedentary lifestyle and with it came demons in the form of cholesterol and triglycerides edging above acceptable levels,’’ he said. This was his wake-up call and he immediately plunged into walk-run activity graduating to running.

All in all, the London Marathon was a great experience with awesome crowd support. It was a well-executed race, he said.

Mehlam at the 2018 London Marathon (Photo: courtesy Mehlam Faizullabhoy)

Mehlam Faizullabhoy

Record high temperatures on race day at London probably hit the targeted timing of many runners. But Mehlam Faizullabhoy ended up with a new personal best of 3:38 hours.

He attributes it to his strength training.

In training, Mehlam’s mileage also fell short because he travels on work very often. “I travel a lot and therefore miss out running days. But I do a lot of strength training. Wherever I travel to, I use the gym seriously,” he said. Mehlam believes that strength training is what helps runners get through the last 10 kilometers of a marathon.

London marathon was an enjoyable experience for Mehlam. “ It is a very well organised race with great atmosphere and fantastic crowd support,’’ he said.

Mehlam has had an active sporty life through school and college and the years after that with sports such as rugby, cricket and badminton being his preferred choice. Knee injury forced him to give up badminton and move to spinning. Eventually he moved to running.

He did his first half marathon at the 2009 edition of Mumbai Marathon. The very next year, he graduated to the full marathon and from then on has run a total of 12 full marathons, two of them overseas in Barcelona and Rotterdam.

“ My training this time was quite good. Actually, I had started way back in July 2017 as I was scheduled to run a race in Tokyo in October 2017. But the run there got cancelled because of a typhoon,’’ he said. That training came in good stead for the Mumbai Marathon in January 2018 where Mehlam scored a personal best of 3:42:53.

Mehlam is due to participate in the Chicago Marathon later this year.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

SLOW TRAIN TO PONMUDI

View from the top of Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tucked away in the deep south of Kerala is a delightful little run; from Thiruvananthapuram to Ponmudi. I am an amateur runner. This article is a personal account. Treat it as such. For more on Ponmudi and its neighborhood please try this link to a three part series published earlier on this blog: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/08/09/a-trek-and-a-tea-story-part-1/)

I have a strange relation with Kerala.

Decades ago, when I was in school, the state’s language – Malayalam – was taught with a vengeance. Born Malayali, I was expected to be a master of Malayalam, including Malayalam literature, pretty early in life. I dislike anything shoved down my throat. Consequently, I grew up hailing from the state but with no identity founded in mother tongue. Instead, I rediscovered Kerala on my own terms, loving it in adulthood for its natural beauty; the sheer magic of being a land where you can travel from 600 km-long coastline to an equally long spine of high hills in three to four hours or less. Few places have such diversity, so easily accessed. For bonus, it was all green although a green battling to hold its beauty amid the state’s emergent bane – the garbage of its rampant consumerism ranging from an explosion of automobiles to trash piled at every turn. As for Malayalam, I won’t say I rediscovered it with the same fervor as bonding with the state’s geography. I am told I speak and write it better than before. The improvement amazes others; the effort I make to articulate well amazes me. Maybe back at school, the curriculum should have set aside linguistic chauvinism and let me explore geography first, as reason to know land and language.

As part of rediscovering Kerala, most trips home include a visit to the seashore, hills, backwaters or forests. At the very least, an extended ride stitching together a clutch of state transport bus routes. On such trips along state highways or between towns, from my bus window I watch mansions and properties priced beyond my wallet, pass by. That has been another route to banishment from home state – I can’t afford a place there. Elsewhere in the state, I soak in the greenery knowing well that its ownership is domain of wealthy agriculturists and where it isn’t, belonging to government. I am therefore visitor; sometimes I think, visitor everywhere. Even visitor in life, for as we are prone to say in our wakeful moments: who is going to haul all these assets along, when they die? But humans are empire builders. Try preaching the virtues of living light to emperors! Life is as you choose to live it.

From the last uphill stretch to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

One trip I often make from Thiruvananthapuram is to Ponmudi, a 3600 ft-high hill approximately 60 km away from the city. Positioned as a resort, it was once home to a healthy tea industry; the southernmost tea plantations of India. Now there are portions of neglected tea estate and an industry that is a ghost of its former self for a variety of reasons. What continues to attract people like me to Ponmudi, is the prospect of getting away from city, even getting away from ourselves. You take a bus from the Thampanoor bus stand, reach Ponmudi in two to two and half hours, spend some time on top and then take another bus back. Years ago, it was a quiet place. It is still relatively quiet on weekdays but with Thiruvananthapuram’s growing army of cars and bands of youngsters on motorcycles, the peace has begun crumbling.

On April 14, 2018 – the day before Vishu, the Malayali New Year – I ran to Ponmudi from my home in the city. I am sure there are many who did this before me; many who continue to do it. I did so for a few reasons. First, all my previous trips to Ponmudi had been in a bus or a car. I had long wanted to do the journey on foot. Second, I know my limitations as a runner. I am not cut out to compete or chase podium positions. I like the act of moving. I like running as a means of moving. I am also ready to mix running with walking when required; even walk if that be all I can do. A journey – as opposed to a race – appealed. Third, I find it increasingly difficult to make sense of the world I live in. I like it when I can shut out thoughts in the head. A long run helps you do that. I had imagined doing this run in advance. So before I left Mumbai for Kerala, as part of my regular running, I ensured that I did a few modestly long runs. Frequently prone to injury, this trip happened luckily in a phase wherein I kept injury at bay.

On April 14, I left my home in Thiruvananthapuram at 3 AM with just one goal in mind – don’t injure yourself. I promised myself to run slowly, be gentle – maybe even walk – on uphill and downhill sections and I pinched myself to remember well, the care to avoid injury my friend, Ramachandran of Coimbatore had described in his article about running 80km in Kodaikanal (please click on this link for that story: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/29/kodaikanal-by-trail/). I had a hydration pack with one liter of water, a few bars of chocolates, phone, wallet and a change of clothes. The pack had reflector strips; roads in Kerala are narrow and people tend to drive fast. I wore a bright red T-shirt and until the sun showed up, used a headlamp. As much as the run was self-supported, I was also determined to pause at roadside tea stalls for fuel and conversation. I wanted to get a sense of local life. The first such pause was on the outskirts of Nedumangad, where a tea shop that was just opening for business gave me a big glass of water to drink (the water in the hydration pack, I reserved it for use on the final ascent to Ponmudi). Twenty minutes later at another tea shop, I had a quick glass of tea. At Tholicode, roughly 30 km from Thiruvananthapuram, I bought a bottle of ice cold water to drink and wash my head and neck with, for the April heat had set in early and strong. I reached Vithura, about 37 km from Thiruvananthapuram, by 7.15 AM. There I took a half hour-break. The tea shop I went to was already bustling with customers digging into their breakfast and it took fifteen minutes for my tea to manifest. Leaving Vithura around 7.50 AM, I again halted some distance away at a fruit shop. Its owner, who had just opened the shop for the day, said he would give me an orange. Thus fueled, I headed for Kallar at the foot of Ponmudi.

Road to Ponmudi. This picture is from near the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By now I was a little tired and needing effort to produce good running form. I must have been a sight, for one person from a group of laborers gearing up for their day’s work, trotted towards me imitating the hunched shoulders and slouch of an old man. It triggered laughter. I am happy I provided them reason for mirth although right then, I chose to ignore the group. About five to six kilometers before Kallar, a woman looked up from what she was doing and said loudly for all to hear, “ look, there is somebody running in from some far off place.’’ Her brief broadcast made me feel important and happy. I put on my best running form, jogged past the settlement and out of sight, relapsed to journalist’s slouch born from too many hours before the computer. In general, all through the run people left me alone. But deep down, knowing how much well-settled life and its frills count for social standing in Kerala, I suspected my running self was an oddity. Middle aged and pointlessly sweating it out on foot to Ponmudi; one man I checked with for road directions asked: why don’t you take the bus?

I reached Kallar by 9 AM. The sun was now out in full force and it was blazing hot. Kallar is approximately 45 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. The road from the capital city till Vithura is mildly hilly, from Vithura to Kallar it gets hillier, and from Kallar to Ponmudi, it is completely uphill for 15km. I had been mixing running and walking from just ahead of Vithura. From Kallar, given the heat, I decided to walk the uphill portion and not run. For the first eight kilometers or so of this final stretch, there are no small shops you can visit for a drink of water. I sipped from the hydration pack. Past this portion, you have small stalls opened by tea estate workers. At one of those shops, I met Muniyandi who busied himself making two glasses of lemonade for me while his friend, Appukkuttan, regaled me with great conversation. I love these small shops filled with produce from the local tea estate and the land these people live on. They sold tea, guava, rose apples (locally called chambakka) and, my favorite – sliced green mangoes served with salt and chili powder. I paid twenty rupees for the two big glasses of lemonade Muniyandi gave me. According to Appukkuttan, neither he nor Muniyandi had received salary for their work at the tea estate for the past several months. I remain utterly grateful for the lemonade they generously gave me notwithstanding their own troubles. It was a very warm morning.  These two men – the lemonade and conversation they provided – made my day. A little ahead, I met a group that had stopped to have tea. They said they had seen the running group I belonged to – Soles of Cochin. I was aware of Thiruvananthapuram based-Iten (another group of runners), who run up Ponmudi on a regular basis. I wasn’t aware of Soles of Cochin joining in. I told them that I didn’t belong to any of these groups and had come alone. We had another nice chat.

Ponmudi, view from the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

I was on top of Ponmudi, at the restaurant operated by Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), by 11.53 AM.  Technically they call this the lower portion of the apex of Ponmudi. But having witnessed the traffic congestion that sometimes happens in the upper half on previous visits, the KTDC restaurant had been my destination right from start. I sat down, took my shoes off and nursed my left sole, where a large blister was beginning to form. It woke me to a mistake in preparations – I should have packed in an extra pair of dry socks. Two youngsters who were speaking to the restaurant’s security guard (he knew all the running that had happened that day; he asked me for my account too) came to speak to me; the mother of one of them had been part of that day’s team run from Kallar to Ponmudi. The view from the top was an eye opener. My ever distracted brain held no memory of rolling hills from past visits to Ponmudi and I was staring exactly at that. Water, coffee and lunch later, I caught the 2PM bus back to Nedumangad and from there another bus to Thiruvananthapuram. With last fifteen kilometers walked, would I call my outing a run? Years ago one of the gifts Thiruvananthapuram gave me was introduction to blues music. Trains found mention in some of these songs – from just “ train” to “ lonesome train” and “ slow train.” With my huffing and puffing, I have always felt like a train engine on my runs. On the road to Ponmudi with people on cars and bikes whizzing past, I think I was slow train. One day, I will sing the blues.

Then, I committed a blunder.

After two days of rest, I returned to my daily running. Happy with my outing to Ponmudi and enjoying the roads of Thiruvananthapuram, quite empty early in the morning, I ran at a pace faster than sensible. Vanity got the better of me. I forgot that what had worked for me on the trip to Ponmudi, was being slow train. I forgot the caution Ramachandran had wisely shown. One hour later, I was home nursing a very familiar shin pain from the past. I knew I would be grounded for a month, at least.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All distance and elevation mentioned herein are from the Internet. All the photos used with the article were clicked a few days after the run, when I returned to Ponmudi for some solo time.)

BEING ASHOK DANIEL

Ashok Daniel (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We speak to Ashok Daniel, the youngest Indian to complete the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). In a relatively short span of time, he has been to a variety of races, the bulk of them partial to trails and mountains.

Six-pack is the flag bearer of the gym movement. For some gym goers, despite six-pack, gym becomes limited fascination. The type of person you are, matters. There is only so much the confines of a room and its occupants sweating their way to sculpted glory, offer for engagement. “ I got my six pack and all. But I was finding gym work-out very repetitive. It became the same thing over and over again, it became boring,’’ Ashok Daniel said.

Born December 1990, he grew up in Chennai’s Besant Nagar, a suburb that got its name from the noted theosophist, Annie Besant. It is a well-known suburb, particularly popular for its beach – Elliot’s Beach, also called `Bessie.’ The Theosophical Society has its headquarters in neighboring Adyar. Its premises or `garden,’ spanning over 250 acres, is one of the greenest parts of Chennai. Ashok’s father worked as a lawyer; his mother, a teacher. As a child he was on the heavier side and had no interest in sports. By the time he was in twelfth standard, he weighed 93 kilos. When he reached law school Ashok decided to address his obesity. He joined a gym and through a combination of work-out and diet, brought his weight down to 58 kilos in six months. “ I was very dedicated when it came to working out at the gym,’’ he said.

From a recce run of the Jawadhu Hills Ultra before the race and as part of training for 2016 UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

That was why the emergent boredom bothered. If you have known a regimen and its benefit long enough, threats to continuing it, worry. And yet, there was no denying the truth – gym sucked because there is no creativity in repeating and repeating the same thing. In direct proportion to six-pack sprouting on abs, the mind felt bored. On the other hand, if you left the gym’s confines, you became one with the world. If you moved around in that world, the world and its many dimensions engaged you. The brain likes variety. “ I used to jog in the morning and hit the gym in the evening. Between the two, I decided to pick running and focus more on it,’’ Ashok said.

As it turned out, all those months of morning jogs and strength training at the gym, had laid the foundation for a potential runner in him. A Sunday, he saw senior citizens running a half marathon in Besant Nagar. It prompted him to sign up for his first running event – the half marathon segment of the Chennai Trail Marathon organized by Chennai Trekking Club (CTC). He finished fourth in that. Ashok’s progression over distance categories appears to have been rapid. Following that half marathon, he signed up for the Chennai Marathon and the Bangalore Ultra. At the latter, he planned on attempting the 25 km-category but when almost everyone he connected with online in discussions around the event seemed to be headed for the 50km, he changed his mind and registered for that. At the Bangalore Ultra, his fist 25km-loop went by smoothly. The next was painful. He finished the assigned 50km in around six and a half hours.

At the finish line of the 50k Val Vil Ori Ultra in Kolli Hills, April 2016 (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The good thing about an event is that you meet like-minded others. He trained through November 2012 with runners he met at the Bangalore Ultra; in this case – a group from Chennai YMCA. He ran the Chennai Marathon in around four hours. Following this he kept attending races in other places – Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Auroville among them. Around this time, he read a book titled Extreme Running. Published in 2007, it was written by Kim McConnell and Dave Horsley. According to information on the Internet, the book provides an overview of extreme running and races in that niche located in testing environments like mountains, cold places and hot deserts. The book played a big role in effecting Ashok’s transformation from a runner of half marathons and marathons, to runner of ultramarathons. But while it offered a goal, finding the path to it seemed Ashok’s onus. In the lean season following the run at Auroville, he began ramping up mileage, sometimes up to 160km per week with 50km every weekend. “ The distance barrier broke for me,’’ he said. This phase was followed by a project in league with his friend Sreekumar – run a half marathon every day for 50 days with weekend runs going up to 30km. Sreekumar did this for 80 days, Ashok said. “ The first 20 days of this was painful. Thereafter the body got used to it. We even upped the weekend distance to 50km. All this running was done early morning; start running by 3-4 AM and be done by 9 AM. None of us had any clue on how to handle training for ultramarathons. We decided to figure things out as we went along,’’ he said. Also happening around this time was a run from Chennai to Puducherry. There were five runners. On the first day, two of them including Ashok ran 75km. The next day, the same two did much of the running and reached Puducherry.

Near Snowden, Wales; from a training run for UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

In English folklore Robin Hood is an outlaw with a difference. Operating from Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, he robs the rich to help the poor. His main adversary is the Sheriff of Nottingham. The story of Robin Hood contributed to making Nottingham a known name worldwide. In 2013, Ashok moved to the UK to do his masters in law (LLM) at the University of Nottingham. He joined the university’s running group. That group – they were into cross country running – was composed of fast runners. “ I had to raise my performance. The university group was my introduction to structured training. My time in the UK taught me to train smart, not merely hard,’’ Ashok said. In Nottingham, he ran less and trained more. The idea of piling mileage got recast. He was exposed to the concept of acquiring muscle memory. Nutrition was emphasized. He also got introduced to running on trails, in mud, in the rain. “ Trail running was something I wanted to do. I had got bored of road running,’’ Ashok said. He did a 50 mile-race in Sheffield. It was a low key event; a mud fest. He ran it in road shoes. But he managed a decent time – around nine hours. Soon he was dreaming of UTMB – The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc – among the most coveted ultramarathons out there. It is 166km long with roughly 9600m of cumulative elevation gain. To run UTMB, you have to accumulate points running other races accredited for the purpose.

Running Highland Fling (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

UTMB was first held in 2003. The entire UTMB basket consists of the main UTMB, the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix) entailing 101km of running plus 6100m of elevation gain, TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) at 119km plus 7250m, OCC (Orsieres-Champex-Chamonix) at 53km and 3300m and PTL (La Petite Trotte `a Leon) at 300km plus 28,000m. According to Wikipedia, the route basically follows the Tour de Mont Blanc hiking path, a loop around Mont Blanc, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland. However, changes in route do happen from year to year, main reason being safety. Ashok’s blog post on UTMB put the challenge in perspective: Generally people take around a week to ten days to get the route done at a leisurely pace but during the race we have around 46 and half hours to finish it. Given the need to accumulate points for eligibility to apply, UTMB smacks of project. For aspirants, it is a long haul. In 2013, when he came to India for the holidays, Ashok ran the Nilgiris 100, completing it in 14 hours. It was a race that provided UTMB points; he gathered some in the process. In December that year, having accumulated UTMB points from the races in Sheffield and Nilgiris, Ashok applied for the 2014 TDS, part of UTMB. For Ashok, 2014 was the first year with a real calendar in running. In March 2014 he ran the Oldham Way 40 miler. In April he did South Downs Way, a 50 miler along the coast. South Downs Way is basically a long distance footpath and bridleway along the South Downs in southern England; it is one of 15 national trails in England and Wales. Wikipedia says people have been using the paths and tracks linked to form South Downs Way for approximately 8000 years.  A week after the 50 miler at South Downs Way, Ashok did Highland Fling, a 53 miler from Glasgow to Tyndrum. Lack of recovery from the previous run hit home and he was forced to abort the run at the 30 mile-mark. Next he signed up for the West Highland Way Race; it had UTMB points on offer.

From a climb in the 3×3000 Skyrace in UK’s Lake District (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

West Highland Way, a long distance trail in Scotland, was opened in October 1980. The first race on it – it was between two athletes; one well known, the other little known – happened in June 1985. From next year onward, it was opened up to more runners. At around 24 years of age, Ashok was the youngest runner in the 2014 edition of the 95 mile-race. Waiting at the 50 mile-mark were his uncle and aunt. On race day, Ashok reached 50 miles to be greeted by stunning scenery. He felt good. He cruised for the next 20miles. That was a revelation for him – realizing that such energy kicks in so deep into a run. At 75 miles, by when he had been running for over 20 hours, things started to go wrong. He had his first spell of distance running’s hallucination. Then he started to feel “ super sleepy.’’ But a Scottish friend who was along – Gavin Bussey – egged him on. Gavin dropped off at the 80 mile-mark. At that point, Ashok was pulled out of the race and told to wait for the others. Cut-off time was 36 hours and there was much time left. However, his muscles began to seize. The next section of the race was isolated and risky. The organizers were reluctant to let Ashok continue. “ I was a hallucinating mess,’’ he said. Two runners who came in just then, agreed to take him along. “ Those 13 miles were the hardest of my life. My body was literally shutting down,’’ Ashok said. Fresh life kicked in over the last 10 miles. The scenery was lovely; Ben Nevis – Britain’s highest peak – was visible. Eventually Ashok completed the race in 32 hours. West Highland Way has remained special for him as an instance of the running community making sure that he got to the finish line.

Near the highest point of the course, around 50km into the Transvulcania Ultra; May 2015 (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The rest of that summer he licked his wounds, slowly recovering and regaining his strength. He commenced running only two weeks before TDS. That was too late to attempt the race properly. So he let TDS go by that year. But he travelled to France to see UTMB and came back resolved to run it. A point worth noting is that each of these visits to UTMB and its locale was enhancing Ashok’s familiarity with the race and its dynamics. Ashok’s blog mentions him having a degree of familiarity with the event by the time he got down to actually running it.  Lake District is a mountainous region in North West England, famous for its lakes, forests and mountains. In October 2014, Ashok did a 50 miler in the Lake District and although it was far from satisfactory, it gave him precious UTMB points. Adding that to his existing bank of points, he applied for the 2015 UTMB. Then once again, setback occurred. In an accident, he tore an abductor muscle. It forced him to skip plans of running once again at Nilgiris 100 and put him out of action till mid-February 2015. Returning to training, he decided to give a shot at a race he had signed up for in November 2014 – Transgrancanaria (125km, 8500m elevation gain).  Held since October 2003, the race sees participants crossing the island of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, on foot. Yet again Ashok made the mistake of deeming himself fit too early and ended up doing a DNF (Did Not Finish) at around 65km. At this race, he met for a second time, Paul Giblin, a Scottish runner who had won the 2014 West Highland Way. Paul started to coach Ashok; get him ready for UTMB.

In March 2015, Ashok ran Oldham Way again. In April he repeated Highland Fling too. In May he headed for Transvulcania. This race, another one held on Canary Islands, is rated among the toughest ultramarathons. It has been held since 2009 on the island of La Palma. Ashok found the race living up to its reputation – it was tough. The weather was warm and the route, steep. His blog post on the race put La Palma and the weather in perspective: The place is stunningly beautiful and less touristy / trashy than other Canary Islands as it’s harder to get to but there’s a reason it’s called the Isla Bonita (Beautiful Island). It has some of the most varied and technical trails in the world and gives you a real sense of skyrunning as you are literally running above the clouds for most of the race. It is also the most mountainous island in the world. Although technically its part of Spain, it’s just off the coast of Morocco in Africa and often around the time of the race we get hot winds along with Saharan smog to the island, which certainly spices things up; this natural phenomenon is called `Calima.’ “ The first 50km of the race was awful, I almost had a heat stroke’’ he said. He started to cramp and throw up. Eventually, he finished the race in 16 hours and 45 minutes with 15 minutes left for cut-off. Transvulcania took a toll on Ashok. But that didn’t stop him from signing up for the June 2015 Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Italian Dolomites. Although he trained well for it, within 20 minutes of starting the race, he grew nauseous. He had to stop running by 50km. Paul and Ashok didn’t want to mess up prospects for UTMB. They decided to come back for the race in the Italian Dolomites, next year.

On a glacier around the Chamonix valley, during a training run in July 2015 ahead of Ashok’s first attempt at UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Site of the first winter Olympics in 1924, Chamonix lay in south eastern France. It is close to the peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges. According to Wikipedia, the north side of the summit of Western Europe’s highest peak – Mont Blanc – and therefore the summit itself is part of the village of Chamonix. The place is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Chamonix is much revered in climbing. It is also UTMB country. Paul was training for UTMB around Chamonix. It being holiday season, he asked Ashok to go along. Ashok ran the UTMB route over 2-3 days. He was in good form; he also felt mentally ready for the race. Reaching France that year to do the CCC was India based-ultra runner Kieren D’ Souza. Ashok had been in touch with him. According to Kieren, they were both participants at the 2013 Nilgiris 100. However an opportunity to meet and talk hadn’t manifested at that race. In 2014, when Kieren got around to applying for CCC, Kavitha Kanaparthi who manages Globeracers (they organize Nilgiris 100) mentioned about Ashok, a runner based in UK with plans for attempting UTMB. That’s how the two connected. Subsequently they met up in Chamonix, two to three days before commencement of the 2015 UTMB. Kieren went on to complete CCC. For Ashok, the race went well up to the 60 km-mark. Past that he suspected he was pushing himself but running empty. He wasn’t fueling properly. Around 65km, he took a fall and injured his hip. As a result, stretches with descent became difficult to handle. He had to DNF at 50 miles (he was pulled off by race medics). “ I was devastated. I was in good shape and had wanted to do UTMB for long,’’ Ashok said. He also suspected another angle; one that was philosophic. “ When you put on the UTMB bib you are supposed to respect the mountain. I think I got too competitive with the landscape. I shut everything out in the interest of performance, leaving nothing open for the ecosystem to seep in and inspire me. That came back to bite,’’ Ashok said.

From the 2015 Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Italian Dolomites (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Three to four weeks after UTMB, he signed up for a 100 mile-race in UK called Autumn 100. He ran it to get UTMB points. The race is unique for its long night-running segment. A flat, fast course, Ashok completed the race in 23:30. All the disappointment accumulated from the aborted run at UTMB was flushed out. He decided to attempt UTMB again. In December 2015, his studies completed, Ashok moved back to India. He decided to take a six month-holiday. At the beginning of 2016, he applied for UTMB and was accepted. In February, he ran the Hong Kong 170 (it no more exists). For the first 18 hours of that race, it rained. Almost half the field pulled out. Having run in UK and the Alps, Ashok was alright with the bleak, wet weather. Around 8 AM, morning of the second day, he succumbed to sleep but snapped right out of it and somehow managed to finish the race. He completed it in 37 hours. Within two weeks of the race in Hong Kong, he participated in a 50km race in the Kolli Hills, a small range in Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal district. He finished it in five hours flat. Next he signed up for Lavaredo, the race in the Italian Dolomites. He spent May training in the UK. In June, Ashok ran Lavaredo. Paul told him to pace himself and enjoy the race. He completed it in 28 hours with two hours left for cut-off. “ That gave me a lot of confidence. I told Paul that I have got the monkey off my back,’’ Ashok said.

From 2016 UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Back in Chennai, he trained diligently, spending his weekends with Peter Van Geit of CTC, running long distances in the hills. He approached his second UTMB with all learnings from the past, in place. He also felt more relaxed. Yet again, in a repeat of the previous attempt, he hallucinated during one of the descents in the latter half of the race. He blacked out and woke up wondering where he was. Ashok describes it in his blog: On the way down I told Paige to keep running while I sat down to remove dirt from my shoes. I had a blackout here for about ten minutes where I had a vivid dream which involved me volunteering two years ago atop this same mountain while tracking the elite runners. It felt so real that it was hard for me to snap out of it as my mind was playing the memories that happened two years ago before I snapped out of it and started questioning if THIS was real or I was dreaming. I slowly got back to my senses as people passed me. I looked at my bib and realized I am in the race and not volunteering! Slowly I got up and started running.

From 2016 UTMB (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

Race cut-off time was 46 and half hours. Ashok finished it in 45 hours and 45 minutes. “ I really enjoyed the whole experience,’’ he said of the 2016 UTMB. In October 2016 he ran Malnad Ultra in Karnataka followed by a 100km-race in Thailand in February 2017. “ I didn’t finish the race in Thailand as I got lost in the forest,’’ Ashok said. That month, he also signed up for the iconic Tor Des Geants in the Italian Alps. The race located in Aosta Valley in Italy’s northwest, comes with a waiting list and lottery for admission. Each country has a quota. Nobody had applied from India. So Ashok got in without a problem. Ahead of the Tor, he also did a 100 mile-race in the US – Old Dominion in Woodstock, Virginia. It was on trails. Unlike trails in Europe, which are quite technical, American trails appeared well maintained. One reason for this, Ashok said, could be that many American races go back to horse racing and continue to be run on trails of that sort. Ashok completed Old Dominion in 23:45.

From Tor Des Geants (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The 330km-Tor Des Geants is a seven day nonstop race with cut-off set at 150 hours. The route includes some 25 mountain passes and cumulative elevation gain of approximately 24,000m. Positioned in the transition phase from summer to autumn, you get to experience seasonal change. Plus, it is one of those races, where you have to carry crampons for tackling snow and ice. Not all who participate complete the Tor. According to Wikipedia, completion rate is 60 per cent. In a piece he composed for his blog, Ashok notes that he had initially thought of the Tor as something he would attempt in his older years; perhaps an assignment amid midlife crisis. But then aged 26, he felt ready for it. His friends encouraged him to enroll; as first applicant from India, the race welcomed him immediately with no recourse to lottery. Ashok appears to have prepared well for the Tor. At a wedding in the US, he met Dima Finhaus, who had been a three time-finisher at the Tor. It fetched him valuable advice. Training for the Tor was done mostly in the hills of South India coupled with a month of running in the US East Coast (including Old Dominion) and time spent with Kieren running in the Himalaya. Still, despite preparation, the Tor was a handful. “ I went through a lifetime of emotions in those seven days,’’ Ashok said. His biggest challenge was sleep – most days he was sleeping only 20 minutes or so. Towards the end spurts of sleep evolved. “ I must have lost about eight kilos during the race. But somehow I had it mentally locked down,’’ he said. He completed the race in 147 hours and 41 minutes. Ashok has applied for the Tor again in 2018. Meeting him there would be Kieren, who is attempting a shorter version of the race. After the 2017 Tor, Ashok signed up for Diagonale Des Fous (also called Grand Raid) on Reunion Island, a French overseas territory located between Madagascar and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. He was the first Indian attempting it.

Completing Tor Des Geants (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

The event of October 2017 was the twenty fifth edition of Diagonale Des Fous. Cut-off for the 162km-race with 9643m of cumulative elevation gain, was 64 hours. It was a technical route but given the location was a heritage site use of trekking poles was banned. “ I really suffered in this race. But it was a beautiful experience. I hate running on tarmac. I like being in the mountains. Flat is monotonous. It gets tedious. When you run in the mountains, you cannot shut off your brain. There is no fooling yourself. You can’t be on autopilot when you are running in the mountains,’’ Ashok said. According to him, years ago, when he started shifting more and more towards trail,  it took him two to three months to get used to the transition and run without pain. Road forces the legs primarily into forward motion; trail requires sideways motion too – so there is both transition and getting used to, in the frame.

From Ashok’s visit to Manali to train with Kieren D’Souza (Photo: courtesy Ashok Daniel)

There is also another transition happening across Indian athletes like Ashok and Kieren. You can’t do a race like Tor Des Geants if you don’t really enjoy running in the mountains simply for what it is; but it takes years if not decades for this mindset to develop and having that deep ultra-running experience is vital: Ashok wrote.  Read that alongside Ashok’s race statistics from the Tor – the advertised distance is 330km with 24,000m elevation gain but the post-race GPS log showed close to 350km and 31,000m. This, Ashok says, is like climbing three Everests while running a 200 mile-race with very little sleep. Although in their pursuit of the world’s great races athletes like Ashok and Kieren still tackle tarmac, their repertoire includes transition from road running to trail running and within that, willingness to tackle technical trails. Importantly – there is a lot of mountain in the frame. At this juncture, they become a convergence of skillsets from multiple disciplines – there is running, hiking, tolerance of altitude, capacity to move fast on rock and snow. If you scan the world of endurance sports, the emergent term for this sportsperson of multiple skills is `mountain athlete.’ As with the Tor, Ashok has signed up again for the Diagonale too. The last race Ashok had done before we met in Chennai, early March 2018, was the 120km Ultra Trail Angkor Wat in Cambodia. A lawyer handling civil cases, he funded most of his running by himself. In the last three years, he said, he has been getting some support. A French company, WAA Ultra, supports him in sports attire; Unived in nutrition, Salomon India in shoes and Sunto in watches.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Ashok Daniel. Timings at races are as provided by interviewee.)                                   

BARKLEY 2018

Grant Maughan (This picture was taken at the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High. Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This is an article by invitation. The author Grant Maughan is a seasoned ultramarathon runner and adventure racer.

Many of us in India know Barkley Marathons through that wonderful documentary film: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It is an ultramarathon of approximately 100 miles (with a “fun run’’ of 60 miles) happening in late March or early April every year in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee in the US. The race – it has 54,200 feet of accumulated climb – is limited to a 60 hour-period. Only 40 runners get to participate.

The Barkley course was designed by Gary “ Lazarus Lake’’ Cantrell. According to Wikipedia the idea of the race was inspired by the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr, from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray covered just eight miles (13km) after running 55 hours in the woods. Mocking Ray’s low mileage, Cantrell told himself that he could do at least 100 miles. He named the race thus born, after his longtime neighbor and running companion, Barry Barkley. It is an event with unique traits. For instance, besides running, runners are expected to find a certain number of books placed along the course and remove the page corresponding to his / her bib number as proof of completing a loop. Each loop comes with a new race number and therefore the need for another page from all those books. The race – you have to complete five loops of the course – was first run in 1986. In all these years – 33 as of 2018 – it has been completed 18 times by 15 runners. The 2018 edition saw no finishers.

Among those in the fray in 2018 was Grant Maughan. Hailing from Australia, Grant is a freelance super yacht captain who also keeps a busy schedule as endurance athlete. Veteran of many races and a regular at Badwater, in 2016 he was joint winner with Serbian ultra-runner Jovica Spajic in the 333km-category of La Ultra The High, the ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. Ten days before the 2018 Barkley, he finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race across winter Alaska (pulling a sled). Post Barkley, he heads to Tibet to attempt Everest from that side. At the time of contributing this article, he had his calendar packed till September, all the way to Tor Des Geants with yet another Badwater in between.  

Contrary to popular belief, the infamous Barkley Marathons isn’t that hard…. it’s freaking unbelievably hard! It’s a psychological thriller wrapped in a survivalist’s apocalyptic daydreams.

Having just completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race pulling a sled across winter Alaska only 10 days before, I had a simple ambition: turn up at the yellow gate and see if I could make one loop in the allotted time and find all 13 books.

After check-in, the sorry souls who were about to embark were allowed to view the master topographical map and draw the route on their own maps, as well as the general locations of the books that each runner was required to find so as to rip the page out of each that corresponded to their own race bib number. These were to be handed back to Laz, the RD, at the completion of the loop to confirm that you had been to each location. Each runner also received a few pages of navigation notes, which at first, second and third reading appeared to be a cryptic scroll to hidden treasure. They would take considerable time to decipher and apply to finding our way.

Barkley is a thinking event. You can’t zone out too much, like in “normal” races where you just lift your head long enough to spot the next marker or course flagging. You are continually evaluating where you are, because if you don’t know where you are, you can’t get to where you’re going. I have worked at sea for more than 35 years so navigation is a daily occurrence. But doing so in the bush is a different story. At sea, you plot Rhumb Lines or Great Circles to skirt around land, but in the mountain bush it is difficult to see exactly where you are even if you are trying to find a spur that leads to a ridge line high above. You need to actually feel the ground contour and correlate that to your map and compass, then try to analyze if you are on the correct section of the mountain. As soon as you drift off into a reverie, you may miss a critical landmark confirming – or otherwise – that you are on the “loop”.

Virgins at Barkley usually cling to a veteran for at least the first loop to try to learn the navigation so as to make it back in time to start the next loop. I figured this was excellent advice and hung with Aussie veteran Nicki Rehn. It was her fifth start at Barkley, so she had a good feel for the bush and a better nose for the navigation. I can’t imagine having to do the first loop by map and notes alone. The night before I had jotted down compass bearings and distances of most of the legs of the route to find the books. But the time to keep stopping and correlating everything while underway would be all consuming and probably lead to timing out on the loop.

Grant at the Barkley Marathons race venue (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

The majority of the course is off marked trails, and runners find themselves sliding and stumbling down precarious topography, clinging to trees and rocks while trying to find an important watercourse at the bottom to direct them to an equally steep and precarious ascent. Torrential rain assisted in making Frozen Head State Park a quagmire of soap-slippery mud. Climbing up the notorious Rat Jaw was a lesson in frustration of trying to find enough grip per step to make any headway. Coming back down was like sliding down the face of a giant Hawaiian wave of mud. Time on your feet was marginal as one fell, rolled and cartwheeled to lower elevations. Much of the climb and many sections of the loop are mired in brier bushes whose thorns stab holes in grabbing hands and shred clothing to flapping ribbons.

Cantankerous weather gave us sheets of cold rain, windblown summits and fog, making navigation and book finding even more fun. At the final summit of the first loop, with all pages in hand, the fog was so thick I could hardly see my feet, which meant the long slippery descent was literally done by feel. I got back into camp in good spirits but shivering in soaked clothing. It had taken about 12.5 hours to do one loop. The distance is supposedly 20 miles, but most would agree that it’s a bit more than that. To finish 3 loops is called the “Fun Run”. To finish all five loops in 60 hours is almost incomprehensible and, indeed, in 30 years only 15 persons have managed to accomplish that, which will give you a general idea of how “out there” the Barkley Marathons event is. Which is exactly how abnormal and brutal the race director, Laz Lazarus, envisioned it to be.

In an age where one can find a 100 mile ultramarathon on any given weekend, the Barkley stands out as an eccentric tour-des-punishment as quirky as its long-standing race director, and after the release of a number of documentaries about the event there is a steady stream of masochists, male and female, knocking on the door to get invited. That’s if you can work out how to apply…

(The author Grant Maughan is a freelance super yacht captain and ultra-endurance athlete. For more on Grant please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/10/13/living-the-interesting-life/ For a detailed account of the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/)

THE CHALLENGE OF THE FINAL STRETCH / TALKING TO T. GOPI

T Gopi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

T. Gopi is among India’s leading marathon runners. Assigned to pace the army’s best hopes in the discipline at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, Gopi found himself not only running his first full marathon but also securing a podium finish. Qualifying thus for the 2016 Summer Olympics, he went on to finish a creditable twenty fifth in the marathon at Rio de Janeiro, covering the distance in 2:15:25. In August 2017 at the IAAF World Championships, Gopi placed twenty eighth in the marathon with a timing of 2:17:13. In November that year, he became the first Indian to clinch gold at the Asian Marathon Championships covering the 42km-distance in 2:15:48. In February 2018, Gopi improved his timing further from the figures returned at Rio; he completed the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon in 2:15:16. Media reports said that Gopi had commenced the run at a pace suited for 2:13, slowed down at the halfway mark and picked up pace again in the last ten kilometers but was unable to recover lost ground.

In January 2018, soon after the Tata Mumbai Marathon (he finished first among Indian elite athletes), Gopi spoke to this blog. A small abstract from the interview was immediately published on this blog in a report on podium finishers from the 2018 edition of the event. Here are some more excerpts including the runner’s account of what lay between him and the national record:

The 2016 SCMM was where you made your mark as a marathon runner. Can you explain how that happened?

I had this feeling that I may be able to qualify for Rio when the qualifying time was disclosed as 2:19. But that was one to one and a half months before the 2016 SCMM. I asked my coach if I may attempt the marathon. He didn’t discourage me. But he pointed out that there was little time to prepare and be good enough to meet the qualifying standard. I left it there. I focused on the Asian Cross Country Championships, the national level selections for which were due a week or so before the 2016 SCMM. I was following that schedule.  It was in this phase that the coach asked if I can be pacer for a distance of 25-30km at SCMM for Nitin (Nitendra Singh Rawat) and Kheta Ram.  I reached Mumbai for that task following my cross country selections, where I had placed second. On race day at SCMM, I ran well without any problem for 30km. At 35km there was only Nitin and I left (at the front of the Indian elite group). Given I had executed what was expected of me I was told that if I wanted to, I can slow down. But I said I will continue and stop if I sensed anything going wrong.  At about 38km Nitin pulled ahead.  I stayed where I was, maintaining my pace because I had no experience at truly long distances; in my work-outs I hadn’t trained beyond 25km.  At the same time, since I was past 38km, I was confident I will complete the race.  I remember Nitin opened a gap of almost 200m. Eventually I finished the race. That was also when I noticed the time on the screen – 2 hours, 16 minutes. I was very happy that I had run within the qualifying time for the Olympics. What can I say? I was just happy.

Can you tell us something about your background – where you grew up and how you became the athlete you are?

I was born 1988 into an agricultural family, at Kalloor in Wayanad, Kerala. As a family we had no connection with sports. I am the only child of my parents. We now stay in Sulthan Bathery.  My father is a farmer; years ago, he also worked as a wage-laborer but now he does his own farming.  My mother is a housewife. I studied at the government high school in Kakkavayal. It was in eighth standard that I came into sports; that was the time I participated in the state level sports meet. I was interested in sports even earlier, I was interested in running but I didn’t have a proper environment for it. School was some distance from home. I therefore stayed at the school hostel.  My physical education teacher – Vijayi – she encouraged my progression in sports. After eighth standard, I stayed at her house and finished my studies. Her house was close to the school and residing there helped me gain practice time for sports.  Those days, the disciplines I participated in were 800m, 1500m and 5000m. My interest from then itself was to run long distance.  It wasn’t because I wasn’t good at speed – I used to run the last leg in the 400m relay for my school team. I was interested more in long distance running.

Was there any specific reason for liking distance running?

That is hard to say. I liked sports and used to play whatever games were available including football.  Sweating, panting – I was used to all that. Looking back, I think I had a decent capacity to handle panting. Maybe all that slowly built up endurance and made me good at distance running.

Sportspersons from Kerala, often say that the state’s best distance runners come from hill districts like Idukki and Wayanad. The argument forwarded is that you grow up on a regimen of tackling uneven terrain, ascents and descents. Is that true of where you grew up and did such conditioning contribute to what you are?

Where I grew up, such terrain was there but not in a pronounced fashion. For example, we also had fields, which were flat and big enough to play games.

Following school, how did life pan out?

After school, I joined Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam.  I trained under P.I. Babu.  Mar Athanasius College has a name in sports in Kerala. There was a reason why I joined that college. When I was in high school, completing my eleventh and twelfth, two teachers from this college had come inquiring if I would be keen to join Mar Athanasius College upon finishing school.

Did they come looking for you at school because it is a college that seeks out talent in sports?

Yes.  Students from different schools, having track record in sports, have gravitated towards Mar Athanasius College. The management of that college took interest in sports.  In school I had begun running the 10,000m and my time used to be around 33 minutes.  Within one year of being at Mar Athanasius College, that lowered to 32 minutes.  After two years attending my degree course, I was moving into the third year, when I got selected to the Indian Army. I then shifted to Hyderabad.

How did you come to join the army?

That is an interesting story. I was at home and 21 years old; to be precise the start of 21. Once you are fully past 21 years of age it becomes difficult to get entry into organizations like the army and railways. My friends Ajesh and Aneesh – they studied at the same college as I did – they wanted to go for trials being conducted for enlistment in the army. They asked me to go along. I wasn’t physically in best shape but I had my certificates, accumulated from sports events at university level, with me.  As it turned out, I got selected to join the army but the other two didn’t make it. I joined the army in 2009 and underwent training for a year. In 2012 I moved to Army Sports Institute. In 2013, I secured a bronze medal at the national cross country championships. Since then I have been a podium finisher at the nationals in the 10,000m, either in cross country or on track. My marathon running commenced only in 2016 with that year’s edition of SCMM.   I am now known as a marathon runner. In 2016 at the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games, I had run the 10,000m in 29:10. I could have done better but the last two kilometers proved to be problematic; my stomach was very tight. Had that not happened, I believe I could have taken that timing to below 29 minutes. The discipline I was originally interested in was the 10,000m. The marathon – I was interested in it but I never expected that I would be able to tackle it so quickly. It just happened.

You said you are now known as a marathon runner. What do you see yourself as?

I see myself as a long distance runner tackling distances beyond 1500m.

Indian elite runners Gopi T (foreground, blue vest) and Nitendra Singh Rawat at 2018 TMM; they finished first and second respectively in their category (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

Can you describe the Rio experience and your passage to Rio following the 2016 SCMM?

After SCMM, I was battling a shin bone-injury. I was being treated in Delhi. The injury took time to heal. The training camp for the Olympics was in Bengaluru. I got three months to be there and prepare.  Within that, in the first month there was interference from treatment protocols etc. I could devote two months to focused preparation. It was with that amount of training that I reached Rio. The Olympics was my first major international competition in the marathon.  I wasn’t particularly tense. I knew I hadn’t had much training. The silver lining was that in training, the gap in performance between Nitin, Kheta and I wasn’t very big. The men’s marathon was on the last day of the Olympics. The women’s marathon had less than ideal weather. It was very warm; you would recall what happened to O.P. Jaisha. Luckily for the men, the night before their marathon and on the morning of the event, it rained. It was therefore not too hot. Sole problem was that the road was slippery in parts. For the first 25km, I managed to stay with the first batch. That was all I had the capacity to do. Eventually, I finished twenty fifth in the field. But then again, something tells me, that had I enjoyed more time to prepare, I may have finished within the top 20.

What do you think you lacked?

That is hard to say. I had worked out only so much. You therefore tend to conclude automatically that you worked out only so much and your performance corresponds to that. I have also had a continuing problem with my hamstring. It improves through treatment but then after strong competition, it gets tight again forcing me back to treatment.  However on the whole, I was quite satisfied with the outcome at Rio.

Now that you have run with international athletes what is your assessment of where Indians stand in the marathon and how we can improve?

To tell you honestly, for the first 30km or so, we manage to stay in the first batch. What happens in the next 12 km, we can’t explain. In that distance, some block is occurring in the body. What this is due to, on account of what shortcoming this is happening – I don’t know.  We don’t know how others are training. But there are videos available. We watch it and try to make relevant changes to how we train. The coaches do that. For example how I trained ahead of Rio is not how I train now.  Many things have changed. The thing is – in the training phase, there is faith that we can live up to the targeted timing. What we are finding difficult is carrying that over into a competition scenario.

What are your immediate plans for the future?

My desire is to break the national record set in 1978 by Shivnath Singh. That is the goal. The first target however is performing well at the Asian Games.

You ran the marathon at Rio in 2:15:25. The national record is 2:12. From a runner’s perspective how tough is the job of slicing away those few minutes?

From a runner’s perspective, if you can cover every kilometer in three minutes eight seconds, you should be able to run a full marathon in 2:12. When we design our work-out we orient it towards this. However what we feel we can do while training is not quite what it is like in the thick of competition.  For instance during work-out (training) I had the confidence that I will do 2:14. But that didn’t happen. There are also variables to consider like the weather on a given day.  Conditions have to be hospitable. Not to mention, that challenge of sustaining the last 12 kilometers in good form. At the world championships, I could hang on to the first batch till around 27km. Thereafter they pull ahead while we remain at the same state or tend to fade.

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

IN EVERY STORY IS A SKETCH MAP

Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club, is a book packaged to be collector’s item.

The concept – each chapter as sketch map of mountain visited plus supporting article – is essentially tribute to an old habit at the club commenced by The Himalayan Journal’s very first editor, Kenneth Mason. A geographer and surveyor, he made it a point to insist on sketch maps accompanying expedition reports published. These maps gave a quick overview of the region visited along with route taken. Since then as The Himalayan Journal continued to be published, the club has steadily accumulated sketch maps.

Harish Kapadia, veteran mountaineer and explorer of the Himalaya who also served many years as The Himalayan Journal’s editor, avers that the total number of sketch maps with the club should be several times more than what has been published in the book. Besides encapsulating the human trait of observing and helping to reinforce narrative, these maps also have a few other uses.  Speakers of languages other than English have contributed considerably to exploration and climbing in the Himalaya and Karakorum. An account in English by them for The Himalayan Journal is a narration in alien tongue.  Writer struggles for correct word and tone. Like a picture that speaks a thousand words, the sketch map compensates for any shortfall in narrative. Further according to Kapadia, the Survey of India has been quite conservative in making maps available to trekkers and climbers visiting the Himalaya. For reasons best known to the establishment, detailed maps in the hands of civilians, is deemed a security risk. In turn, lack of reliable information on mountain features has caused errors at expeditions; some have climbed the wrong peak. In such context, Kapadia believes, the hand-made sketch maps of The Himalayan Journal help to get a bird’s eye-view of a region or a mountain massif, at the very least develop a mental image of what visitor is getting into.

However, between the two – evoking the spirit of exploration with its accompanying human quality of noticing one’s world, and map as comprehensive tool for location in perspective – it is probably the former that this book celebrates. For instance when you study a sketch map with archival article alongside by a Bill Tilman; T.H. Braham, John Hunt, Giotto Dainelli, Maurice Herzog, Bob Pettigrew, Victor Saunders, Kinichi Yamamori, Andre Roch, Chris Bonington, Martin Moran, Major J.K. Bajaj  or Kapadia himself, the take away is a slice of human experience in that time, that year.  As of 2018, The Himalayan Club was ninety years old; to choose maps and articles, the book’s team of editors scanned editions of The Himalayan Journal from the late 1920s onward. There are photos too, from the club’s archives and Kapadia’s personal collection. Make no mistake – this is not a book that replaces the utility of Google Earth. Through its combination of sketch map and narrative, the book reminds you that the act of being outdoors and exploring is essentially founded on one’s senses. Comprehension – that is what you gain when you sketch a map and the quest to comprehend is timeless Google Earth or none.

Given all the maps and articles are from The Himalayan Journal, Kapadia who served as general editor for the book said that curation from archives was based on attributes like a given article being interesting or having a humorous tone, writer being famous or an incident mentioned being important.  “ Priority was for sketch map. A well written piece to accompany followed availability of sketch map,’’ Kapadia said. The written narrative is mostly in the form of abstracts from the original article. In the old days, sketch maps for publication were hand drawn. Over the last 20 years or so, a key person in this craft at the club has been Pune based-Aparna Joshi. A commercial artist and graphic designer associated with The Himalayan Journal’s production, she provides final form to the sketch map accompanying an article. According to her, on most occasions Kapadia provides the basic sketch. She would then render it using computer software. “ We don’t use cartographic software or anything like that. We use regular software used for illustrating.  Our need is limited to showing areas visited and specific routes taken to climb or trek,’’ she said. Visual clues like variations in elevation or the prominence of ridge lines are indicated in a rudimentary way. The maps are generally flat in appearance. Emphasis is on helping the reader to understand. “ The idea of bringing out a book based on sketch maps had been there for some time. The club’s ninetieth anniversary seemed apt juncture,’’ Kapadia said.

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