AT A GLANCE / APRIL 2021

Tata Mumbai Marathon rescheduled

Flashback / pack of elite runners from the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

The organizer of the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) has informed that the event’s 2021 edition will require to be rescheduled.

In a statement dated April 17, 2021, Procam International said, “ the new date will be announced in due course after consultations with the Government of Maharashtra and relevant athletic bodies. ‘’

The race was set to take place on May 30, 2021. 

In a normal year, the event takes place in January.

India is currently in the grip of a second wave of COVID-19 infection. Among states, the case load is particularly high in Maharashtra; Mumbai is among badly hit cities.

The statement quoted Vivek Singh, Jt. MD., Procam International as saying, “ The Tata Mumbai Marathon has a special place in our hearts, and we thank everyone for making this iconic event a sporting phenomenon. As we navigate these challenging times, we want you to know that we are leaving no stone unturned to make the marathon possible this year. The Government of Maharashtra and our partners have been extremely supportive to ensure, that we have the best possible option, keeping in mind the safety and security for all involved.

“ By shifting our focus to a new date, we will continue to work closely with the state, national and international athletic bodies to identify a suitable date for the event, which is conducive to the safe conduct of the event for all stakeholders.”

According to it, the organizing team “ continues to remain motivated and committed to deliver the 2021 edition of the Tata Mumbai Marathon, in its truest sense.’’ All related details such as registration date, race course, and the events around the race will follow suit once the rescheduled date is announced, the statement added.

Further details about Tata Mumbai Marathon 2021, a World Athletics Road Race Elite Label, will be available on the website of the event.

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

16 MINUTES

Nihal Baig; from 2021 NDM (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Two hours, 31 minutes and 33 seconds. In early March 2021 when Nihal Ahamad Baig topped the amateur segment of the year’s Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon (NDM) with said timing, it was an improvement in his personal best (PB) by approximately 16 minutes.

The last full marathon he had run was the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), where he covered the 42.2 km-distance in two hours, 47 minutes and 30 seconds to place ninth overall in the amateur category and second in his age group (18-24 years). That year the winner among amateur runners at TMM had clocked 2:32:57. Although the 2020 edition of TMM was held as scheduled in January, Nihal had to sit that one out owing to a shin injury. The marathon in Mumbai was followed by the one in Delhi (2020 NDM) wherein the overall winner among amateurs clocked 2:35:10. A triathlete with successful finishes at Ironman events to his credit, Nihal’s major objective for the year was to participate in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships scheduled for November in New Zealand. The project went for a toss, courtesy something tiny and as described in a 2008 article in Scientific American “ inhabiting the grey area between living and non-living’’ – a virus. Roughly two months after 2020 TMM and almost exactly a month after 2020 NDM, India slipped into lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. As humans sheltered indoors, outdoor sports ground to a halt. Initially, it was a sense of abject gloom and plans upset for those into the active lifestyle. Then, a different script began to play out. Nihal’s year gone by – as one looks back from the 16 minute-improvement registered at 2021 NDM – appears to have followed that script.

“ During my B.Tech and M.Tech days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, I was part of the athletics team. I used to participate in races over distances ranging from 400 meters to 5000 meters. I finished my M.Tech in 2016. But I did not stop running. I continued it on the IIT Mumbai campus thanks to my being alumni. I moved to exploring longer distances, starting with half marathons. Around this time, I took up employment in Mumbai. I work as Risk Associate at MSCI Inc. I started cycling to work, a distance of about nine kilometers from where I stay. Over time, I started to go for long rides. At that time, I had heard about the Ironman triathlon. I was keen to explore it and began learning to swim. In October 2017, I did my first half Ironman distance-triathlon in Hyderabad. What attracted me to the triathlon was that I got to do three sports in it instead of the usual one. And triathlon is all about fitness and endurance. I love how I get to push myself in these three disciplines,’’ Nihal had said in an article for this blog in November 2019, soon after he placed second in Ironman 70.3 Goa.

Nihal Baig (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

When lockdown unfolded in the first quarter of 2020, of the triathlon’s three disciplines, swimming went into profound hibernation as authorities ordered pools shut as part of pandemic protocols. For those pursing the sport as well as the triathlon, the closure of pools would have left a bank of energy to be addressed – namely divert it into other activities that were still possible. Nihal, restricted to the confines of his apartment, found his refuge in cycling. “ I am not generally a fan of intense training sessions. But in the first few months of lockdown when we all had to stay indoors, I did a lot of intense cycling on my trainer,’’ he said mid-March 2021, some ten days after NDM. Cycling is recognized cross-training for running. The hours spent on the home trainer, besides working the relevant muscle groups, contributed to improving cardio-vascular fitness. He also worked out at home to stay physically fit. Additionally, as the frenzied urban lifestyle slowed down with pandemic and Work from Home (WFH) took hold, there was both greater ownership of time, an improved sense of personal ecosystem and therein, the inadvertent use of such existence for general recovery by minds and bodies traditionally addicted to relentless activity. Downtime, rest, mindfulness – these things matter. Running is an impact sport. Cycling, pounds the joints less than running. The reduced impact of cycling suited Nihal who was recovering from shin injury. Slowly, the injury began to heal. Around end May-early June, he commenced regular jogging on a loop of roughly 1.5 kilometers, within the premises of his housing society in Powai, Mumbai. Thereafter it was a gradual drift back to the training of old albeit with no events on the horizon for focus.

Nihal Baig; cycling in Pune (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

“ Between swimming, cycling and running, I have always found running to be the most satisfying,’’ Nihal said. Given his last marathon had been in January 2019, he was keen to get back to running long distance. To satisfy the urge, he ran the virtual Boston Marathon in September 2020. He did this during a visit to Hyderabad, his hometown. Then he did something that fundamentally altered his training ecosystem. According to Nihal, he had all along been training alone in Mumbai. He wasn’t particularly attached to any group of runners or triathletes in the city. At the same time, he was aware of the need for a dose of intense training to improve his act and the deficit he experienced in this regard. Training with others can be helpful. The question was – how can he create an ambience offering better motivation; where would he find it? Nihal had noticed that intensity / commitment levels were more in Pune, Maharashtra’s second biggest city, approximately 150 kilometers away from Mumbai. With WFH rendering one’s location irrelevant when it came to office responsibilities, Nihal took advantage of the new trend to shift to Pune in October. There, training in the company of committed amateur athletes, his running and cycling gathered momentum. Two other things also influenced the decision. Thanks to its location at higher elevation (1840 feet / source: Wikipedia), Pune’s weather includes a winter. The place is generally less humid than Mumbai. Plus, its terrain is more varied than that of India’s financial capital; Nihal found himself cycling outdoors more often in Pune than he used to in Mumbai. “ Currently I have intense training sessions four days a week and long training sessions twice a week. I also do easy sessions in the evening. The training sessions are evenly divided between running and cycling,’’ Nihal said.

By late 2020-early 2021, as the first flush of pandemic subsided and lockdown rules relaxed, a trickle of sporting events reappeared in India and elsewhere in the world. Partial to running, Nihal itched to participate in a running event. He registered for the district cross-country championships in Pune; the race spanned 10 kilometers. Nihal secured third position, qualifying for the state championships (race length: 11km) in the process. At the latter, he failed to qualify for the nationals. But the timing from the district championships told him something – he covered the distance in 33 minutes, 29 seconds while his previous PB for the same distance was 35:30. “ I had the feeling that if I were to attempt a full marathon, I may be able to chop off eight to ten minutes from my PB. But it is difficult to extrapolate expectations for a marathon based on performance in a 10k. The marathon is four times longer, anything can happen,’’ he said. The cross-country experience of January 2021, encouraged Nihal to register for 2021 NDM. With an event to look forward to, he trained with greater focus from five to six weeks ahead of the competition. “ About 18 days before NDM I did a time trial over 25 kilometers. The timing I got in it was an hour and 28 minutes. I then felt that if all went well, aiming for 2:35 at NDM wouldn’t be unreasonable,’’ Nihal said.

Nihal Baig; on the podium after topping the amateur category at 2021 NDM (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

On race day in New Delhi, he kept a conservative pace for the first six kilometers and then went slightly faster. “ I could catch the leaders around the 10k mark and then we started pushing each other till 30k before they began slowing down. I stuck with the same pace till 37k but then I got a bad cramp which forced me to stop. I had to stretch and walk for about 30-40 seconds before I could recommence running,” he said. He was able to hold on to his pace and finish ahead of others in the amateur category. The timing – 2:31:33 was an improvement in PB by 16 minutes; it also fetched a position on the podium.

When the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand was cancelled due to COVID-19, Nihal had opted for the event’s 2021 edition scheduled in Utah, USA. At that time, a year had seemed adequate for humanity to counter the virus. Early 2021; in hindsight, that smacked of over-optimism. With the world still in the clutches of the pandemic and international travel yet to become normal, Nihal is unsure whether he would be able to attend the event in Utah. Races closer to home appear more practical. “ I hope to participate in the 2021 TMM in May, if it is held as planned,’’ Nihal said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more on Nihal Baig, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/05/a-fine-bit-of-cycling-at-ironman-goa-and-a-podium-finish-to-remember-it-by/)

NEW NATIONAL BESTS AT STADIUM RUN IN CHANDIGARH

Amar Singh Devanda

Amar Singh Devanda, Gunjan Khurana set new national bests in 100km

Top four male finishers break existing 100km national best

Binay Sah, Deepti Chaudhary win 24-hour race

Amar Singh Devanda and Gunjan Khurana set new national bests in the men’s and women’s 100 kilometre-race respectively at the Tuffman 24 Hour Stadium Run held on March 13 and 14, 2021 in Chandigarh.

Amar Singh finished the distance in seven hours, 32 minutes and 43 seconds, a new national best. The previous national best of 7:56:22 was held by Sandeep Kumar; set at the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run at Bengaluru in January 2021. At the Chandigarh Stadium Run, the top four male finishers from the 100 km-race broke this national best.

Gorkha Ram

Finishing behind Amar Singh was Gorkha Ram with a timing of 7:40:55, followed by Sunil Sharma (7:47:19) and Suman Kumar Mishra (7:51:57). It was only last week that Amar Singh, who works with the Indian Air Force (IAF), had won the half marathon race at the 2021 Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon.

Amar Singh took up running at the age of 18, during his training days at IAF. However, he is a recent entrant to the discipline of ultra-running. A corporal in IAF, he started out tackling the 10 km-distance before commencing training for the marathon. The 24-year-old participated in a number of races organised by the Services. Closer to the present, he ran the 60 km ultra-race at Shivalik Ultra and the 100 km category at Border 100 2020, where he ended up winner with timing of 10:47:21. He also participated in the 100 km race at the NEB 24 Hour Stadium Run held in Bengaluru in January 2021. “ I ran at marathon pace and burnt out. I finished the distance in 8:26 hours,” he said.

His coach from IAF, Thakur Singh Bajetha, advised him to reduce his pace for the Chandigarh run. “ Here, my target was to achieve a sub 8:10-finish. I reduced my pace and was able to run without any break till the end,” he said. This time around, his training, race strategy and nutrition were in properly place and it helped.

Darishisha Iangjuh and Gunjan Khurana

A week earlier, he had won the half marathon race at the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon 2021. Next on the cards for Amar Singh is the IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run to be held on March 21, 2021. He is part of the Indian team for this virtual run.

For Gorkha Ram, who finished second in the men’s 100 km race, the Chandigarh run was his first competition outside of events conducted by the Services. A sergeant in the IAF, Gorkha Ram commenced running in 2015 but stayed focussed on events within the armed forces. At Chandigarh, the 36-year-old runner ran alongside his compatriot Amar Singh.

In the women’s 100km-race in Chandigarh, Gunjan Khurana covered the distance in 9:08:18, an improvement on the previous national best of 9:22:03 set by Anjali Saraogi at the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan, in November 2019. Gunjan was also part of the team representing India at the event Jordan. The women’s team had secured silver at the championships. In second position behind Gunjan at Chandigarh, was Nutan with timing of 9:22:49. Darishisha Iangjuh finished third; her timing was 9:41:13. Darishisha’s previous best in the 100k was 10:19:28, also set in Jordan. 

Deepti Chaudhary (Photo: Sunil Chainani)

A year of intensive training helped Gunjan achieve her new personal best (now also the national best). “ I was able to train well through the year. However, I had a setback in December when I contracted COVID-19. My entire family came down with the virus. After I recovered, I could not immediately resume intensive training,” Gunjan, a resident of Surat, said.

She did several training-runs of 30 and 40km coupled with strength workout. In terms of a really long run, she was able to do just one as she lost all of December to recuperating from the infection. “ At the Chandigarh race, I ran strong for the first 60-70km. Also, the weather was perfectly suited to push for better timing,” Gunjan said. Her previous best in 100 km was 9:57:42, set at the earlier mentioned championships in Jordan in 2019.

In Chandigarh, the 100 km-race commenced at 5PM on March 13. Weather was mostly pleasant but participants in the 24-hour race had to cope with warm weather during the day. In the 24-hour category for men, Binay Kumar Sah was the winner with distance of 236.919km covered. Saurav Ranjan finished second; he covered a distance of 225.14km while Rakesh Kashyap secured third position with 203.85km to his credit. Among women, Deepti Chaudhary covered a distance of 178.935km in the assigned 24 hours. Kalpana Saha finished second with a distance of 173.95km to her name while Shashi Mehta finished third, covering 172.59km.

Binay Kumar Sah (Photo: Sunil Chainani)

A week before the 24-hour run in Chandigarh, Binay Sah ran the full marathon at the 2021 New Delhi Marathon (NDM); he finished with timing of 2:49:18. “ Much of my training was focussed on the 24-hour run. But after I did a long training run of 84 km on February 14, I switched to speed training for my marathon event at NDM. I reduced my weekly mileage, which was around 150-180km, to around 100 km, for the marathon,” he said. At the 24-hour run, his strategy was to run strong for the first 12 hours. “ My race started at 4PM. Until 8AM, I ran continuously as the weather was pleasant. Post 9AM and up to 1PM, I slowed down as it was quite warm. I took a short break and then picked up pace. During the last three hours, I resorted to fast paced running,” he said. According to him, in the last three hours, he covered a distance of 35 km.

Binay, 39, trains on almost all days. He employs a combination of running on track, road and mud. He couples this with yoga and gym training. An employee of Adidas, at the time of writing, he was working from office three days a week and working from home the remaining two days. “ Once I am back from work, I run for nearly two hours at a park or a stadium near my house. In the afternoons, I do yoga if I am at home and if I am at the office, I work out in my office gym,” he said.

In the 12-hour category in Chandigarh, the winner in the men’s segment was Ajay Yadav; he covered a distance of 114.12km. In second position was Abhishake Gupta (109.14km). Sushant (108.45km) placed third. In the women’s segment, Anshu Saini won covering a distance of 100.43km. Anjali (91.15km) finished second while Mamta Sharma (88.81km) placed third.
 

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. Photos by arrangement, where credits haven’t been mentioned.)

AT A GLANCE / MARCH 2021

2021 NDM / Srinu Bugatha at the finish line (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

2021 New Delhi Marathon / Srinu Bugatha, Sudha Singh win

Elite runners Srinu Bugatha and Sudha Singh won the men’s and women’s race respectively at the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon (NDM) 2021 held on March 7, 2021. However, both runners fell short of the qualifying mark for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.

Srinu finished the marathon in two hours, 14 minutes and 58 seconds, a personal best (PB) according to published news reports, that was however short of both the Olympic qualification mark of 2:11:30 and the national record of 2:12:00. Shivnath’s Singh’s national record in the marathon was set way back in May 1978; it continues to daunt the best of Indian marathon runners. “ The race was good. I tried to go below 2:12 but in the end my wish was denied,’’ Srinu said, when contacted.

Sunday’s performance was after just three full marathons in Srinu’s career to date. According to him, the first big marathon he participated in was the 2018 Mumbai Marathon; two years later he won in the Indian elite men’s segment at the 2020 edition of the event. Roughly two months after that victory, India slipped into the lockdown caused by COVID-19. In the second half of 2020, as lockdown commenced easing, a trickle of road races trimmed to suit pandemic protocols, began to appear. At the 2020 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), held in November last year as an elites-only physical race, Srinu had finished second. Thereafter, he had focused on preparations for the 2021 NDM. On February 8, 2021, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) formally informed that the performance of athletes at 2021 NDM would be considered for selection / participation in the Tokyo Olympics “ provided they achieve the qualifying standard as fixed by World Athletics.’’ With a PB to his credit but Olympic qualification not had at 2021 NDM, Srinu now plans to run at least one more race overseas for another shot at the task. He has time till end-May to qualify.

2021 NDM / Sudha Singh at the finish line (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

From among elite women at 2021 NDM, Sudha Singh (2:43:41) secured the first place. But her timing was short of the Olympic qualifying mark for women – 2:29:30 as well as the national record of 2:34:43 set by O.P. Jaisha in August 2015. At 2021 NDM, second position in the elite men’s category went to Nitendra Singh Rawat (2:18:54); Rashpal Singh (2:18:56) finished third. In the elite women’s segment, second place was secured by Jyoti Gawate (2:58:22) while Jigmet Dolma (3:04:51) placed third. “ My training was inadequate because of the pandemic and lockdown. After the 30 kilometer-mark, I started to feel tired,” Jyoti who hails Parbani in Maharashtra, said when contacted. Her next race is the 2021 Tata Mumbai Marathon, slated for end-May. Jigmet, who is from Ladakh, said that Sunday’s race was good overall but an error she committed in her pacing cost her the timing she had hoped for. “ The weather, route and facilities – everything was good. I had set a target of finishing in below three hours. The race required us to do two loops of the assigned route. Unfortunately, I was a bit slow in the first loop. Although I did the second loop at the correct pace, it wasn’t enough to make up for the timing I lost,’’ she said.

In the half marathon category at 2021 NDM, Amar Singh Devanda was the winner with timing of 1:13:58. In second position was Dhananjay Sharma (1:15:33); third place went to Sangh Priya Gautam (1:16:35). The podium finishers among women in this category were Jyoti Chauhan (1:20:57) in first place, Pooja (1:28:39) in second and Tashi Ladol (1:30:13), third.

In the open category of the full marathon, Nihal Baig won the men’s race with timing of 2:31:33 while Nupur Singh won the women’s race covering the distance in 3:03:17. In the men’s race, Manoj Yadav finished second with timing of 2:33:25; Pramod Chahar (2:33:55) finished third. In the women’s open category, Prachi Raju Godbole finished second with timing of 3:03:44; Disket Dolma (3:18:56) placed third. Nupur’s timing of 3:03:17 was her personal best, an improvement by seven minutes. “ My training was good except in the last one month. The training helped me to do well today. Also, last week I had a focused nutrition plan. That helped me during the race as well as in the post-race recovery,” Nupur said.

IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run witnesses good performance by Indian ultra-runners

The IAU & AFI 6-Hour Global Solidarity Run was held as scheduled on March 21, 2021.

The virtual run saw some good performances from Indian ultra-runners.

Sampath Kumar Subramanian covered the maximum distance among Indian runners chosen to participate in the event. He covered a distance of 81.98 kilometers in the stipulated six hours.

Velu Perumal, who won the 24-hour category at the NEB Sports Stadium Run held at Bengaluru in January 2021, covered a distance of 76.69 km. Amar Singh Devanda, who secured a national best in 100 km at the Tuffman Chandigarh Stadium Run held earlier in March 2021, covered a distance of 74.04 km.

Among women, Preeti Lala, winner of the 24-hour NEB Sports Mumbai Stadium Run, covered the maximum distance of 60.52 km. Ashwini Ganapathi covered 53.14 km distance during the stipulated period. Aparna Choudhary covered 51.06 km during the six-hour period.

Running at their respective locations, the participants dedicated the run to ultra-runner L.L. Meena, who passed away on February 10, 2021.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

BAA announces virtual Boston Marathon open to first 70,000 entrants

The Boston Athletic Association (BAA) has announced that it will offer a virtual Boston Marathon, open to everyone aged 18 or over, in celebration of the 125th Boston Marathon this fall. “ Held in addition to the in-person Boston Marathon scheduled for Monday, October 11, 2021, the virtual race will be open to the first 70,000 registrants,’’ a statement dated March 2, 2021, available on the event organizer’s website said.

“ We anticipate having a reduced field size for the in-person road race on Monday, October 11 but want to celebrate and honor the 125th running of the Boston Marathon through this virtual race,” Tom Grilk, President and CEO of BAA, was quoted as saying. “ For the first time in our history, most everyone will have the opportunity to earn a Unicorn finisher’s medal for every B.A.A. race in 2021—no matter whether they choose to walk or run,” he added. 

Registration for the virtual Boston Marathon will open through the BAA’s Athletes’ Village and will take place separately from the in-person registration. “ All participants will need to complete the marathon distance of 26.2 miles in one, continuous attempt in order to earn their Unicorn finisher’s medal, but will not be limited to any time restrictions. Participants in the virtual 125th Boston Marathon also will receive a virtual toolkit with an official bib number, champion’s breaktape, start and finish line, and more,’’ the statement said.

In 2020, 16,183 runners from nearly 90 countries and all 50 U.S. states had finished the Boston Marathon Virtual Experience.

According to the statement, field size for the in-person Boston Marathon, scheduled to take place on Monday, October 11, has not yet been finalized but will be smaller than previous years in order to enhance participant and public safety. “ The BAA will strive to achieve a field size composition as close to previous years as possible, with approximately 80% of the field being comprised of qualified entrants and 20% being comprised of invitational entries, including charity program runners. Details about the in-person race, including registration dates, COVID-19 safety measures, and participant requirements will be announced in the coming weeks,’’ it said.

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

BEHIND A NATIONAL BEST

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

At the 24-Hour Stadium Run organized by NEB Sports in Bengaluru on January 23 & 24, 2021, Sandeep Kumar, ultra-runner from Surat, won the 100 kilometer-race in seven hours, 56 minutes and 22 seconds, a new national best for the distance. Here is an overview of his journey in the sport:

In the days leading to the NEB 24-hour Bengaluru Stadium Run held on January 23 and 24, 2021, Sandeep Kumar’s plan was to attempt the 100 kilometer-category therein, as a training run. “ I  was not approaching this event as a race. My training was far from adequate. Also, I had been traveling on work across the country and so was not able to chalk out a good training program,” he said.

Before the Bengaluru event, Sandeep could manage two long runs as part of his training plan – a 71 km-run in Manali (through Solang and the Rohtang Pass) and a 60 km-run in Surat; the latter three weeks ahead of the stadium run. He managed decent training mileage for only a week. “ I planned to take this event as a training run. I wanted to support Abhinav,” he said. Like Sandeep, Abhinav Jha, a naval officer, is among India’s leading ultramarathon runners.

On the first day of the event in Bengaluru – Saturday, January 23 – the weather was fairly good. Participating in the 100 kilometer-category, Abhinav covered the distance in 7:57:35 hours. The timing was a new national best. The previous national best was 8:04 by Mumbai-based runner, Deepak Bandbe, who secured it at the 2019 IAU Asia & Oceania Championships in Jordan. The day after Abhinav’s run in Bengaluru the weather changed. It became very warm in the morning and afternoon hours. “ I started running at 5.30 AM on Sunday. I ran non-stop as long as my body allowed me to do so. In the early hours, the weather was good. But as the day grew warmer fatigue started to creep in. I also began to sense tightness in my quadriceps,” Sandeep said.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

For his run, Sandeep had sought support from the team, which assisted Abhinav earlier. The naval officer, who had commenced his run at 5 PM on Saturday and finished it only a few hours before Sandeep started his attempt, pitched in to help. It was a heart-warming gesture; typically long runs exhaust athletes and dispatch them to rest and recovery. “ Abhinav mixed drinks for me. It helped me to hydrate well during the race. It was amazing that Abhinav helped out so not long after finishing his shot at 100 km,” Sandeep said. Also lending consistent support to Sandeep was Sunil Chainani, member of the committee overseeing ultra-running at the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and who has in the past accompanied Indian teams to events overseas.

Backed thus by a good team, Sandeep was able to pile on the miles. The 30 to 50 km phase went off well. “ I felt I was getting my energy back. From then on I paid attention to my nutrition. I just focussed on getting by, one hour to the next,” he said.

The Bengaluru stadium run was the first event on track for Sandeep. It was also a case of runner progressively getting back into the thick of action after enduring an uncertain period. Earlier in August 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, IAU had held a six-hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run for ultra-runners across the world. From India, 25 runners completed the run, held on August 29 and 30. Running in Surat, Sandeep had logged the maximum distance among Indian runners with a mileage of 79.53 km. It was an encouraging performance given the intervening months of lockdown caused by COVID-19 had been trying. In the initial phase of lockdown, norms had been strict; it forced Sandeep to stay indoors. For an ultra-runner, training mileage has to be high. The complete absence of running was very difficult to handle. “ The mind and body felt caged,” he said. He used to wake up very early to do short runs or opt to run late at night. Eventually, he took to meditation. It helped him weather those months.

For the IAU 6-hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run, Sandeep commenced general fitness training sometime in July 2020 and by early August 2020, he started run training. He chose to run in Surat as it was familiar training ground. His run went off well, helped by his training and the pleasant weather. Roughly a year before this virtual run, in 2019, Sandeep had been part of the Indian team at the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships in Jordan. However, the race that fetched Sandeep the attention of India’s ultra-running circles was the Comrades Marathon. Over 2017 and 2018, he had completed the uphill and downhill versions of this iconic race in South Africa in the best timings reported till then by an Indian runner.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

Sandeep comes from a farming family in Haryana. His grandfather was in the Indian Army. Typically, the son should have followed the father’s footsteps but being the only son Ishwar Singh (Sandeep’s father) was vested with the responsibility of managing the farmlands owned by the family. During his schooling years at Sonipat, Sandeep Kumar engaged in a variety of sports – cycling, running, trail running – but mostly on his own and not on a formal basis.

In families that are into farming, it is general practice to recruit all available hands for farm related activities, especially when schools close for the summer holidays. Sandeep did his share of enduring the hard work. What must have been a chore at that point in time has probably proved beneficial to Sandeep in later years; ultra-running entails coping with hardship. But it would be still more years before he got seriously into running.

Through his years of study at the Government Engineering College, Sonipat, Sandeep did not involve much in sporting activity though he did take part in runs over distances of 3 km and 5 km without any prior training. On securing his degree in engineering, by way of campus recruitment he was offered employment at Larsen & Toubro (L&T) at Surat in Gujarat. “ After an initial stint in design, I was shifted to the execution department. Here, the work required walking 10 to 15 kilometers, visiting the various sites and departments,” he said. Sandeep joined a gym to strengthen himself for this assignment. “ I developed a muscular body. It was completely unsuited to long-distance running but at that time I had no clue I would go into running,” he said.

After five years in the execution department, Sandeep was transferred back to design. “ It was a desk bound assignment. Initially, it was a relief from all that walking about. But soon, sitting throughout the day started to stress me out,” he said. In 2011, he incorporated a one kilometer-walk as warm-up before his gym session every evening. The walk slowly became a warm-up run and in due course, a part of his daily routine. He also commenced doing trail runs of short distances.

In 2014, he participated in a 5 km run (an event) finishing it in 30 minutes. “ I was happy with my speed though at a younger age I have run faster. This performance motivated me to take up running,” he said. Running was also a source of strength; it gave him a sense of equanimity.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

In 2014, Sandeep heard about the Surat Night Marathon, held in March. He enrolled for the half marathon. “ During my training for this run, the longest distance I ran was 16 km. During the race, I was able to run non-stop for about 15-16 km. After that I resorted to walk-run. The last 6 km was tough. I had no idea of hydration. I drank too many energy drinks and ended up with electrolyte imbalance,” he said. Sandeep finished the run in 2:02. His next major outing was the full marathon at the 2014 edition of Hyderabad Marathon. The training was again inadequate. He completed the race in four hours, 15 minutes, 48 seconds. “ During the Hyderabad Marathon, I realized that I enjoyed long distance running. I started reading up on running and understood that I should also focus on speed among other things,” he said. This time he got his preparation right. At his next outing, which was the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, Sandeep finished in 1:31, a marked improvement in his timing in the half marathon.

Running is like living; there’s always room for improvement. Although he had been training well, over time Sandeep understood that his recovery was slow. “ I realized that I was not following a good diet. I had to reduce the intake of saturated fat and increase multi-grains in my diet for a lean body, which is critical for long-distance running,” he said. He believes his timings improved substantially after he tweaked his diet and incorporated nutritional foods. In the process he also gave up dairy products and in 2016 adopted a vegan diet.

Sandeep Kumar (left), in his role as race organizer (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

In 2016, Sandeep enrolled for his first race in excess of the full marathon distance, a 55 km-run at the Vadodara Ultra. By now, he had also started offering tips to other runners and doing training runs with them. Sometime in 2016, a local runner had approached Sandeep Kumar for coaching for running ultra-distances. This runner had attempted the 2016 edition of the Comrades Marathon, an ultra-marathon of roughly 89 kilometers, held every year in South Africa. However, he had failed to complete it within the mandated finish time of 12 hours. He wanted to attempt the race again in 2017.

Up until then Sandeep had been largely focussed on the full marathon and had completed only one race that was in excess of the marathon distance – the 55K race at Vadodara Ultra. After the conversation with the above mentioned runner, the idea of attempting the Comrades Marathon began to assume shape in Sandeep’s mind. The runner agreed to help Sandeep with the visa process. At L&T, Sandeep was able to get leave as his new projects were scheduled to commence much after the race. He enrolled for the 2017 edition of Comrades Marathon. The ultramarathon held every year in May or June in South Africa, attracts a large number of ultra-runners from around the world. The contingent from India has been growing over the past few years.

For the 2017 edition, Sandeep trained mostly in Surat. He occasionally traveled to Dudhani near Silvaasa to do a long run of 60 km across hilly terrain; he did this a couple of times before the race. “ “I managed to get four months of training and notched up a total mileage of 2100 km,” he said. The training mileage was good. Yet there was trepidation on how the race would pan out.

From Comrades (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

In South Africa, Sandeep started the race slowly but after the 40 km-mark found the going tough.  He kept moving. “ My legs felt very stiff and I wanted to give up several times. I persisted,” he said. During the last 12 km of the race, he rediscovered his momentum and sped all the way to the finish line. His finish time for the uphill version of Comrades Marathon was 8:24 hours, a new national best for men from India for that distance. “ When I finished the race, I felt on top of the world. I got hooked to ultra-running,” Sandeep said. The next year, he ran the downhill version of Comrades Marathon and finished in 7:30:17, another Indian record.

According to Sandeep, the diverse experience of enjoying natural beauty, traveling and getting to know different cultures, people and cuisines makes ultra-running appealing. As every ultra-run is a lengthy engagement, it lets him use all his knowledge about sports and mental skills. “ Ultra-running tests the character. It defines who I am; I talk a lot to myself during a run,” he said.

In 2018, for the first time ever, India sent a team of runners to the 100 km IAU World Championships in Croatia. For the sport of ultra-running in India, it was an important moment. Thanks to his performance at Comrades, Sandeep was among seven ultra-runners chosen to represent India at the championships. In 2019, he ran the Boston Marathon and finished the race in 2:56:07. He also ran the 43 km IAU Ultra Trail Championships in Portugal, not as part of the Indian team but in the open category. In the same year, he represented India in the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan on November 23, 2019. The men’s team secured a gold medal and one of the team members, Deepak Bandbe, finished on the podium with a bronze medal. Sandeep’s performance in Aqaba was not up to his expectations. “ After 60 km, I developed severe cramps and had to slow down,” he said.

The victory lap; Abhinav Jha carries Sandeep Kumar on his shoulders (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

A year and two months later, his fortunes appeared different at the stadium run in Bengaluru. Notwithstanding the heat, Sandeep was able to manage his hydration well thanks to the volunteers helping him with his needs. Once he crossed 60 km, Sandeep realized that he would be able to continue running despite the stiff quads. According to him, he wasn’t chasing a national best or any such mark. However at around 75 km, it became apparent that his progress was in line with the national best set earlier by Abhinav; and if he managed things properly, that mark could be revised too.“ I know my body well. I can push for a good finish. I finished the race in good shape,” he said. January 23-24, 2021 remain special for ultra-running in India, in that within a span of several hours the national best for the 100K was rewritten twice – first by Abhinav Jha and then by Sandeep. A report on the IAU website by Shibani Gharat, highlighting the sportsmanship displayed, said that following Sandeep’s run, Abhinav carried the new national best-holder on his shoulders for a 400 meter-lap.

Away from participating in races, Sandeep has teamed up with ultra-runner, Nupur Singh, to organize ultra-trail races under the banner of Great Indian Trails or GrIT, a couple of road races, training camps and coaching under the banner of RunGineers. He is an IAAF level-1 athletics coach and ACSM certified trainer for the marathon. He is also an active promoter of veganism. Going ahead, he plans to focus on his own running and his roles as an event organizer and coach in ultra-running.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

A WORKSHOP IN NAVI MUMBAI

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In the concluding months of 2020, an accomplished ultra-cyclist discovered the beauty in sharing his knowledge and skills through an extended workshop. Here’s an overview: 

Bala Sitaram Rokade bought her cycle about two years ago. She was into the active lifestyle. She had been running regularly since 2015, was training women interested in physical fitness and had become an ambassador for Pinkathon in the Seawoods area. At the time of purchasing the bicycle, she didn’t know how to cycle. “ I wanted to learn cycling,” she said. Having learnt it; prior to the pandemic-induced lockdown of March 2020, the maximum distance she cycled at one go was approximately 25 kilometers on that road much loved by runners and cyclists in Navi Mumbai – Palm Beach. In October 2020, as the relaxation of the lockdown progressed, Bala enrolled for a workshop on cycling that she came to hear of through the social media channels of Everest Cycling Culture (ECC). It spanned a few weeks. “ The workshop enhanced my confidence to cycle on the road and on Palm Beach. Within a fortnight of training at the workshop, I did my first ride of 100 kilometers,” she said.

The 100k ride was essayed as loops on Palm Beach, a pretty flat road. Bala covered the distance in around five hours. Following the workshop, Bala began attempting BRMs, which are self-supported long distance rides held with a cut-off time but no competition among participating cyclists. It is typically the first stepping stone for those aspiring to know the world of endurance cycling. Internationally, the tradition of brevets or BRMs is overseen by the Audax Club Parisien (ACP); each country has a local chapter that supervises rides within its domain. Bala did her first 100k (Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi) in 4:58 hours; the second 100k (Belapur-Khopoli-Belapur) in 5:18 hours and on January 30, 2021, a 200k BRM (NMMC building near Belapur-Dhapoli) in 12:58 hours. Officially, BRMs start from 200k; the 100k is classified as Brevet Populaire (BP). “ I wish to try becoming a Super Randonneur,” the 50 year-old said. To be a Super Randonneur or SR, a cyclist has to do BRMs of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers in one SR season.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

February 2021. At a small cafe in the subway below the Seawoods  railway station, Kabir Rachure recalled his predicament in the second half of 2020. “ I was bored,” he said. Among leading endurance cyclists in western India, Navi Mumbai-based Kabir has been a podium finisher at domestic ultra-cycling events and a finisher in the 2019 edition of Race Across America (RAAM). Like others in the country, he had seen life in his neighborhood come to a halt with the pandemic and lockdown. Weird for ordinary human beings to behold, the specter of life brought to a standstill was weirder still for the cyclist used to training outdoors daily. In the initial phase, it was unsettling. Kabir trained indoors but the repetitive pattern of a bleak existence was boring. Past its strictest phase, as the lockdown started to relax and he recommenced his outdoor rides, Kabir thought of ways to overcome the ennui that still nagged him. Although there were virtual events organized by friends that he participated in and instances of Everesting (an activity in which, cyclists pedal up and down a hill multiple times till the cumulative elevation gain equals that of Everest – 8848 meters; it is done by runners too) he attended, he knew it would be some months before the old calendar of physical events in endurance cycling got restored. It left him with time on his hands and thoughts around how such time may be put to good use.

Everest Cycling Culture is a leading name in the bicycle retail business in Navi Mumbai. For some years now, it has functioned as a modern bicycle shop in the suburb of Seawoods. ECC anchors a community of cyclists replete with weekend rides covering modest distances. Kabir knew ECC well. Long before the lockdown  of 2020, he and the well known Nagpur-based ultra-cyclist Amit Samarth, had been speakers at a function organized by ECC. He had also given a talk at ECC after completing RAAM. In the period of the phased dismantling of the lockdown, Kabir realized that what would satisfy him is sharing and coaching. Thanks to his excursions in the field of ultra-cycling, he had built up a well of experience. Besides the grace in sharing, helping others improve their skills can be a sort of healing for the mind emerging from pandemic and lockdown. Not to mention – the timing seemed apt because in the wake of lockdown being relaxed, in India and elsewhere in the world, there had been a sharp surge in interest in cycling. The pandemic had highlighted the importance of physical fitness. Among avenues to stay fit, cycling ranked at the top because it mixed exercise with the joy of movement and at the same time ensured physical distancing, which had become an important aspect of pandemic-related safety protocols.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to AbdulRab Kazi, founder and admin of ECC, it’s online community of cycling enthusiasts is currently over 3000-strong and spread across 19 WhatsApp groups in Navi Mumbai. “Kabir has been associated with ECC since 2014-15. We were talking one day when Kabir broached the idea of a training workshop,” Kazi said. ECC quickly bought into the idea. Amateur cyclists typically need some guidance to gain confidence and give wing to their abilities. The workshop seemed ideal for that. “ We decided on a format that would have Kabir ride with the trainees at least three days a week and assign them homework for the remaining days,” Kazi said. ECC circulated the proposal on social media to their members. Alongside they also reactivated an old WhatsApp group they had. Called Wheelist, it was originally meant to address members nursing dreams of personal expeditions and projects. Those interested in the workshop were encouraged to come aboard Wheelist. The workshop was named: Train with Kabir. A fee of Rs 1000 was charged for the program to ensure that only those truly interested (and having suitable cycles) would participate. Around 17-18 applications were received. From that, 13 persons were selected to attend the workshop. It was a varied field ranging from abject recreational cyclists to those who had already done BRMs. It was also varied in terms of age. The diversity suited ECC because its aim is to get more people on the saddle and help them acquire the capability of riding 100 kilometers, comfortably and responsibly. As regards age, Kazi felt that in today’s times many people wake up to their capabilities late. Amateur running and cycling has plenty of people who picked up the sport in middle age. “ At ECC, we have a wide range of age groups, from 9-10 year-olds to those above 70,” Kazi said. Among those who applied and made it to the workshop was, Bala.

Another was fifty year-old Ajith B. Nair, who stays in Seawoods and works as a chief manager at State Bank of India. He had been living the regular working man-existence with physical fitness denied its due share of attention, when a physiotherapist he consulted for a knee problem, recommended cycling. Initially, he borrowed his son’s bicycle for the purpose. “ I liked the experience,” Ajith said. He joined the cycling community at ECC. About a year and a half ago, still unsure whether his new interest in cycling would become a serious engagement or not, the bank officer purchased an affordable hybrid bike – Riverside – from Decathlon. “ My goal on the days I cycled was to pedal for an hour or in terms of distance, about 20 kilometers. I hadn’t heard of BRMs and so knew nothing about them,” he said. However courtesy, the supported group rides offered by ECC, Ajith had to his credit a long bike ride of around 60 kilometers prior to reporting for the workshop. That was the longest distance he had covered. In the course of the workshop (it started on October 20), Ajith did a 70km-ride on Palm Beach. “ It was at the workshop that I got my first insight into what BRMs are,” he said. Ajith did his first BRM, a 200km-ride in November during the course of the workshop. In December, he did his second BRM, this time a 300km-ride. He plans to continue participating in BRMs. But the best thing that the combination of cycling, workshop and BRMs have done is that it has given him a hobby he can continue anywhere in India. “ BRMS are there in many cities now,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

A structural engineer by profession, Parag Kulkarni, 48, used to be a recreational cyclist.Owner of a Giant road bike, he was a member of the ECC cycling community. The longest ride he had done ahead of the workshop was of 100 kilometers; it was a supported outing with ECC of 70 kilometers complemented by a 30km segment on his own. According to Parag, in the early stage of the workshop, the participants along with Kabir, did a slightly long ride covering Palm Beach and the nearby Parsik Hill. This gave Kabir an idea of where each trainee was in cycling; he was able to customize inputs for each in addition to the general sharing of knowledge, which every workshop entails. Parag participated in his first BRM roughly three months ago, a 200km-ride that he completed in approximately 13 hours. Going ahead, he wishes to attempt being a Super Randonneur. But for that, he feels an emergent problem in cycling has to sort itself out. One of his BRMs (a 400k one) had to be aborted because of a couple of punctures, including one that ripped the tyre. Parag managed to hire transport and get himself and cycle back to Navi Mumbai. Unfortunately in the months after lockdown’s relaxation, the sudden surge in cycling and bicycle purchases had created a shortage of bikes and spare parts. Good tyres have become difficult to procure. It took him a couple of weeks to find a replacement for the damaged tyre and that meant no cycling for the period. The difficulty in finding spares also means that amateur cyclists pushing their limits may have to do so conservatively, for damaged parts are currently tough to replace.

Anup T. V was among the more experienced of the trainees. The 41 year-old forex dealer working with Kotak Mahindra Bank and residing in Sanpada, is a triathlete with a few Ironman events under his belt. It was around three years ago that he bought his first bicycle – a Firefox Rapide hybrid. The decision to take up cycling was mainly to check weight gain. He also became a member of ECC. In the ensuing months, he was one of the attendees at the talk hosted by ECC featuring Amit Samarth and Kabir; the former had completed both RAAM and Trans Siberian Extreme while the latter was preparing for RAAM. “ A day after this talk, I signed up for my first triathlon – the Ironman 70.3 held in Dubai in 2019,” Anup said. The journey to that event saw him acquiring a second bicycle, a road bike – Scott Addict 30. Following the Dubai Ironman, Anup participated in the 2019 Ironman Goa and a triathlon of 70.3 dimensions in Kolhapur. The last Ironman event he competed in was in New Zealand. Held in March 2020, it was a case of leaving an India before lockdown, competing in New Zealand and then returning to an India and world altered by the pandemic-induced lockdown. With ECC, Anup had done rides of 100 kilometers and more. Back in 2018 he also did a 200km-BRM on his hybrid bike, covering the distance in roughly 13:15 hours. During the course of the workshop, Anup did two BRMs of 200km each – from Navi Mumbai towards the Pune side, up Bhor Ghat and back. The first one he completed in approximately 10 hours, the second in 11 hours. Later he did a 300km-BRM in roughly 15:10 hours and a 400km-BRM in 23:15 hours. In November 2021, he plans to participate in the 600km category of the Deccan Cliffhanger, an event used as a RAAM-qualifier by many. Interestingly, despite his ability in cycling, Anup’s focus is not ultra-cycling; it is the triathlon. He has set his eyes on an upcoming Ironman in Lanzarote, Spain, which is reputed for its tough cycling leg. “ I would like to keep doing an Ironman every one to one and a half years,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Seventeen year-old Lenin Kennedy was the youngest trainee at Kabir’s workshop. Until then, he had been the regular recreational cyclist-sort, taking his bike out once or twice a week for rides approximating 20 kilometers on Palm Beach. Owner of a Dodge hybrid cycle, he was also a member of ECC and with the group, had done rides that were 50-70 kilometers long. The workshop has taken his relationship with cycling to another level. While many of the other participants at the workshop proceeded to participate in BRMs, Lenin couldn’t as his age didn’t make him old enough to enroll for one. So the youngster had his own 200km-ride on Palm Beach, which he completed in roughly nine hours. “ I am now interested in getting into professional cycling. I wish to take part in road races,” he said.

Fifty two year-old Prabhat Paranjpe, a telecom professional working with Reliance, has been a recreational cyclist for the past six years or so. His bike is a Trek 3 series MTB, purchased in 2013-14. “ I used to be a weekend rider,” Prabhat said. His rides usually covered around 50 kilometers; “ 25 kilometers one way,” as he put it. From Navi Mumbai, he used to ride in the direction of South Mumbai, Thane and Kalyan. A member of ECC, on his rides with them he cycled a bit longer. “ I didn’t know much about BRMs,” he said. What drew him to the workshop was a simple instinct. During group rides with ECC he had noticed others who were better  than him at cycling longer and faster. He wished to improve. He also wanted to give himself adequate motivation to graduate from being merely a weekend rider to somebody who cycled more regularly. “ I was hoping to bring in some discipline and knowledge,” he said. That seemed possible with the workshop because it was scheduled to be at least a month long affair (it eventually lasted some more to accommodate Kabir’s commitments as a cyclist). During the course of the training program, Prabhat did two rides that were longer than any he had attempted before. He did his first 100k ride; Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi, which he completed in roughly five and a half hours. The next was supposed to be a 200k BRM but Prabhat required some customization. The route of the ride from Navi Mumbai included the Bhor Ghat, which lay on the approach to Lonavala. Given he was on a heavier MTB with 21 (7×3) gears to boot, Prabhat was doubtful of how he would fare within the paradigm of a BRM. So Kabir suggested an alternative – accumulate 200 kilometers by riding from Navi Mumbai to Kasara and back. This Prabhat did; he covered the distance of 205km in approximately 13 hours, stops included. Unfortunately after the workshop, there was a minor loss of momentum in Prabhat’s cycling as the months of January and February had to be surrendered to business travel and recovering from illness. Past mid-February 2021, he said, “ I have just got back to cycling. I did a 50k this weekend and should be doing a 100k next weekend.” Not one to chase timings and such, he seemed interested in solo, self supported tours on his bicycle. “ Maybe I will ride to Pune next,” he said. 

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From the conversation with Kabir, a visible streak in the training process appeared to be sharing of his personal experience and nudging people towards attempting BRMs. As he pointed out, the physical ability to cycle is there in most people; what varies is the personal experience gained from cycling long and hard. That is what ultra-cyclists like him bring to the table at a workshop. Years of training and pedaling long distances have given them insight into how to endure extended hours on the saddle and tackle various situations related to person and bike as they evolve. In the latter context, the encouragement to try BRMs makes sense because they are self-supported rides; the rider has to manage challenges en route himself / herself. But in addition to the above and the general satisfaction he got from helping fellow cyclists improve, there was probably another reason why Kabir elected to coach. Although he and others from his generation in cycling continue to dominate ultra-cycling events in India, the gap between them and the next wave of talent has been narrowing. Kabir thinks that in general, the basin for this talent currently runs through Mumbai-Navi Mumbai, Nashik, Pune and Bengaluru. These are regions that have produced prominent names in ultra-cycling (riders and coaches), around who, other cyclists have since clustered or grown. Each successive wave of talent rides in having benefited from more opportunities to cycle and improve, than the generation before it. So at some point, it is inevitable that new names will hog the podium. Nobody wins forever. What genuinely endures in such reality is one’s accumulated bank of experience as a cyclist. It makes sense to share it.

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

AT A GLANCE / FEBRUARY 2021

L L Meena (right, with the Indian flag) Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani

Ultra-runner L. L. Meena passes away

Noted ultra-runner, L. L. Meena, passed away on February 10, 2021, following a battle with cancer.

Meena, who worked with the Indian Army had turned 39 on February 1. He had been running ultra-distance races for the past several years and had represented India in both the 2018 100 kilometer IAU World Championships in Croatia and the 2018 24-hour IAU Asia & Oceania Championships in Taipei.

“ He was running ultra-distance races much before India started sending teams to represent the country in international championships,” Sunil Chainani, member of the Ultra Running Committee of Athletics Federation of India, said. At the Taipei event, he pushed himself over the last couple of hours to help India secure the bronze medal. He was among the three top Indian finishers, the others being Ullas Narayana and Sunil Sharma, Chainani said. The team medal is decided on the performance of the top three runners. The Indian team was represented by six runners at that event.

Many ultra-runners remember Meena as a kind, genuine, compassionate, extremely helpful and down-to-earth person. He was known to be very supportive of runners. “ In Croatia, we had rented a large apartment for the event. Meena would cook for all of us,” Sunil Chainani remembered. “ He was extremely supportive and a very positive person. You won’t find another ultra-runner like Meena. We ran together at many events,” Pranaya Mohanty, ultra-runner, said. 

“ He was a very selfless individual,” Anjali Saraogi, ultra-runner, said. Meena used to call people without fail, on festival days and their birthdays, to wish them. She remembered in particular the support he offered at the 100 kilometer IAU World Championships in Croatia. Anjali came into this event as a comparative novice. “ Meena had already done many ultra-runs and stadium runs. He used to call me and provide tips and suggestions on how to prepare. He was protective and encouraging,” she said. In the run up to the event Anjali came down with dengue fever. Result – on the day of the competition, as the run got underway, she found herself really challenged. “ I was suffering. The competition in Croatia was held on a loop. There were many instances when Meena and I passed each other on that loop. At each instance, he would overlook his own suffering and encourage me,” Anjali said, pointing out how Meena never lost sight of the team. “ His passing is a big loss for the Indian ultra-running community,” she said.  

According to those who knew him well, the type of cancer Meena suffered from was tough to overcome. It was detected in the second stage. Both the news of Meena’s ailment and his eventual passing, reached the running community late. Chander Kandpal is among those who knew Meena well. He comprehended the situation obliquely at the 2020 New Delhi Marathon. At one of the hydration points en route, he came across Meena cheering and supporting the runners. Chander noticed the typical signs of chemotherapy on Meena; that was how he got to know of the predicament. “ He used to come to Delhi for treatment. After the diagnosis, which I think was sometime in August 2019, Meena didn’t participate in any event. But he would turn up to cheer and support others,” Chander said, adding, “ anybody can be a good runner but being a great human being, that is not possible for everyone. Meena was just that. He was the finest human being in the ultra-running community.”  

New national records in 20km race walk

Sandeep Kumar (Haryana) and Priyanka Goswami (Uttar Pradesh) became the first Indian athletes to qualify for next year’s World Athletics Championships Oregon22 when they broke the national record in the 20km race walk for men and women respectively, a press release dated February 13, available on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI) said.

The event concerned was held on a 1km-loop on Morabadi Road in Ranchi.

“ Together with Rahul Kumar, who finished second in the men’s event, they also qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games to be held later this year. Both men are athletes from the Army Sports Institute They took the number of Indian race walkers who have made the grade to five, joining K T Irfan and Bhawana Jat.  Their efforts have raised the number of Indian qualifiers to 14 so far,” the release said.

Results:

Men 20km walk: 1. Sandeep Kumar (Haryana) 1:20:16 (new national record / old: 1:20:16, K T Irfan, London, 2012 and Devender Singh, Nomi, 2016); 2. Rahul Kumar (Haryana) 1:24:41; 3. Hardeep (Haryana) 1:47:47.

Women 20km walk: 1. Priyanka Goswami (Uttar Pradesh) 1:28:45 (new national record / old: 1:31:29, Baby Sowmya, Delhi, 2018; awaiting ratification 1:29.54, Bhawana Jat, Ranchi, 2020); 2. Bhawana Jat (Rajasthan) 1:32:59; 3. Sonal Sukwal (Rajasthan) 1:36:05.

List of ultra-runners for Global Solidarity Run announced

A press release from the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), dated February 26, 2021 and available on the organization’s website, disclosed the list of ultra-runners selected for the IAU & AFI 6 Hour Global Solidarity Run to be held on 21st March 2021.

According to the release, the following athletes have been selected to run the IAU 6 Hour Global Solidarity Run, slated for 05:30 AM – 11:30 AM IST on the aforesaid date:

Men: Binay Kumar Sah, Sunil Sharma, Amar Singh Devanda, Velu P, Praveen Kumar, Geeno Antony, Amit Kumar, Sampath Kumar Subramanian and Ajit Singh Narwal.

Women: Preeti Lala, Ashwini G, Anju Saini and Aparna Choudhary.

The following athletes have been selected to run the AFI 6 Hour Solidarity Run, also scheduled for the same date, same time:

Men: Badal Teotia, Saurav Kr Rajan, Manoj Bhat and Pranaya Pratap Mohanty

“ In addition, the committee will also invite ultra-runners meeting the criteria to participate in the AFI 6 Hour Solidarity Run,’’ the release said.

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

2021 TATA MUMBAI MARATHON SCHEDULED FOR MAY END

Flashback / pack of elite runners from the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

The 2021 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) is scheduled to take place on 30th May.

A related statement dated February 9, 2021, available on the website of the event organizer concerned, Procam International, said, “ with cautious optimism and hope, this decision has been taken after deliberation and collaborative efforts with the state and civic authorities, including the Indian and International Athletic bodies. Guided by the prevailing government protocol, Procam International will look to conduct the on-ground event, with limited participation in the Full Marathon, Half Marathon and 10 Km runs. While limited numbers will run from their scheduled location, participants from across India and the world, will be able to run as one with TMM from a location of their preference, via the official TMM 2021 App.”

The event organizer will continue to monitor the situation keeping the safety of participants and support staff in mind, the statement added.

“ Details including format of the race, registration details, safety measures, protocols, and participant requirements will be shared at a later date,” the statement said.

While the last edition of TMM happened in accordance with the normal practice of holding it in January, the months thereafter till now were affected by pandemic, lockdown and the phased process of restoring old normalcy through progressive relaxation of lockdown. In India, from among major events in running, only the 2020 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and the 2021 Chennai Marathon managed to host truncated physical versions; the rest were cancelled or had to stay content with virtual formats. However, following the Chennai Marathon which featured several hundred amateur runners on a race track away from the city, the momentum has been slowly building. For instance from the world of ultra-running, over January-February, stadium runs were held in Bengaluru and Mumbai. In March, the Ageas Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon is scheduled to take place in the national capital.  

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

PREETI LALA WINS 24 HOUR MUMBAI STADIUM RUN

Preeti Lala (Photo: courtesy Preeti)

Deepak Bandbe wins in 100 km category

Preeti’s mileage is the second best by an Indian woman in the 24-hour category so far

Preeti Lala emerged the overall winner of the Ageas Federal Life Insurance 24-hour Stadium Run held in Mumbai over February 6-7, 2021.

Thane-based Preeti, the sole woman running the 24-hour race category at the Mumbai event, finished way ahead of the rest of the field, covering a distance of 193.60 kilometers during the allotted time of 24 hours. It is the second best by an Indian woman in the race category so far. It was also the maximum distance covered across both genders in the given race category, at the Mumbai stadium run. 

Apoorva Chaudhary holds the national best of 202.212 km, set during the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Albi, France. During the same event, Priyanka Bhatt had finished with a distance of 192.845 km. It is this mark that Preeti has bettered.

In the 24-hour category at the Mumbai event, Parwinder Singh was the winner among men with 154 km covered. Buddhi Saini finished second (151.60 km) and Munir Kulavoor third (150 km).

Deepak Bandbe, running in the 100 km category at the Mumbai event, finished the race in seven hours, 57 minutes and 47 seconds. It is the third best finish so far for Indian men in the 100 km category.

Sandeep Kumar had set the national best in 100 km – 7:56:22 – at the Bengaluru Stadium Run held on January 23 and 24, 2021. At the same meet, Abhinav Jha had secured the second best male performance in the same category with a timing of 7:57:35.

In the 100 km category for men in Mumbai, Nilesh Yadav finished second with timing of 8:27:28. Aaditya Dattaram Badavate placed third with 9:24:20. In the 12 hour-category, Sandel Kisan Nipane (120.80 km) was the winner among men. He was followed by Raman Baisla (119.60 km) and Ankur Lakhera (112.80 km). From among women, the winner was Reena Maru (98.40 km). She was followed by Mahek Makhija (95.60 km) and Corina Van Dam and Pooja Varma (both 82.80 km). The Mumbai event was organized by NEB Sports.

Preeti started her run at 6PM on February 6, 2021. “ I did not have any target except that I wanted to be on my feet for the entire 24 hours,” she said.

Deepak Bandbe (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

Participants were few as there was uncertainty about the event taking place, she said. Training could have been better but the uncertainty affected it. Still, she had moderately good training sessions for three months with average mileage of 100-120 kilometers per week.

Over 2020, training for most runners was impeded by the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Preeti’s last run before the lockdown was in the 50 km category at Tata Ultra of February 2020.

Getting back to training after the lockdown induced-break, Preeti chose to run the Run to the Moon challenge organised by NEB Sports. “ The challenge required us to run a distance of 2 km to 10 km daily. This helped me get back into rhythm,” she said. She also participated in TCS 10k virtual run.

“ I am happy that the event (Mumbai Stadium Run) took place finally. The weather was mostly humid especially during the night but early mornings were quite cool. We had several hours of scorching sun,” Preeti said.

“ The excellent arrangements at the venue with volunteers and runners supporting me during the race, helped immensely,” she said.

Apeksha Shah and her husband, both runners, provided substantial support to Preeti. “ Also, Pranaya Mohanty, ultra-runner from Bengaluru, ran with me for the last 20 km,” she said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

A COVER TO COMPLEMENT THE ORIGINAL

Photo: Rajeev G / Imaging: Shyam G Menon

Doing the cover version of a song can be as engaging as you wish it to be. Some artistes aspire to keep it true to the original; others offer their own interpretations. Both approaches have unique challenges. In the first, there is the challenge of nailing things perfectly, to the last detail. In the second, you must get your interpretation right; right in terms of either how enjoyable the resultant music is as distinct creation or how resonant of the original the overall reinterpretation is despite degrees of departure. It is a balancing act.

Many of us have an all-time favorite song; something that we love because it completes us and our view of life, lyrically or as soundscape. For long, that song for me, has been U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. I loved it from the day I heard it for the first time, in 1988, when a program on the nominees for the year’s Grammy Awards was broadcast on television in India. Courtesy it’s weird yet comforting rhythm and signature bass line, the song helped channelize the restlessness in the listener into a joyful sense of movement, a journey. The lyrics then proceeded to build a beautiful cathedral in the mind. Unlike so many other rock songs which end up anchored in earthly concerns and entanglements within the human collective, this one stayed spiritual and therefore, a song for the years. The influence of gospel music in the song was something I discovered much later in the age of Google and Wikipedia. What endeared it to me was the theme of not having found what you are looking for; the notion of a continuing quest.

In the ensuing decades, I had this song with me at all places I lived and worked in. It was there at hand at home; it was there at the offices I worked at during my years as an employee. As the human collective periodically chewed me up and spat me out, I played the song for reassurance by universe. It made me feel that I had the right to exist just as I am. It isn’t the destination that matters but the journey. Not to mention, as an evocation of journey, it was the abject opposite of the world’s preferred style of focusing on the limited for profit instead of attempting to see the whole. In my fifties now and beset with a tortured planet as legacy of such focus, I wonder – isn’t it better to journey on having still not found what you are looking for, than to claim: found? For many years, the song lived in an audio cassette or CD. A veteran of multiple technology waves, it was played on a Walkman and later, a portable CD player and MP3 player. Nowadays, thanks to the mobile phone, I don’t have to possess a physical format; I can listen to it online when the urge arises.

A cover version of this U2 song is tough to do, especially one featuring reinterpretation. The original set the bar high and molded expectations comprehensively. Room to maneuver is limited. How do you use so little space to shift things around and yet make a statement, uniquely your own? In early January 2021, on YouTube, I came across the cover performed by K. T. Tunstall and Pomplamoose. It was remarkable; they had a style and sound that was distinct without losing the spirituality and sense of journeying of the original. As mentioned, the original was special for Larry Mullen Jr’s unforgettable drumming and the beautifully supportive contributions by the other members of U2. The Tunstall-Pomplamoose version is less radical as it essentially builds on a fantastic original but it holds its ground, courtesy excellence in vocals, engaging bass and an airy, ambient texture that retains the song’s overall feel.  

Hope you like it:

The original by U2:

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