SRINU BUGATHA: A COMEBACK STORY

Srinu Bugatha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Meeting Srinu Bugatha, winner among Indian men at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon

At his hotel room, Srinu Bugatha and his training partner A. B. Belliappa studied the former’s splits.

Hours earlier on Sunday (January 19), Bugatha had emerged victor among elite Indian men at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). He had clocked 2:18:45. The course record for Indians held by fellow army runner Nitendra Singh Rawat is 2:15:48. Paced by two Kenyan runners, Bugatha had commenced his run hoping to have a crack at the course record. Mumbai’s annual marathon is not exactly personal best (PB)-friendly. Its course includes an uphill segment and the weather can be warm and humid. On Sunday however, the weather was supportive and early start for the amateur categories appears to have ensured relatively smooth progression for the elites. It could have been a day of new course record for the Indian elites. Overall for the race, Ethiopian runner Derara Hurisa did set a new course record of 2:08:09.

Armed with his findings from the splits, Bugatha turned to his mentor and motivator, Vickrant Mahajan seated nearby. He had run at fine pace for most of the way. By his own account till around 35 kilometers he was targeting the course record. But the Peddar Road uphill took a toll. Past that, his leg muscles felt tight. “ I was very slow over the last two kilometers,’’ he said, the realization overshadowing his sense of accomplishment.

“ Don’t forget, we nevertheless have several positives in there,’’ Mahajan reminded.

“ Still, it’s like getting out on 93 or 94,’’ Bugatha said resorting to cricket for metaphor.

A middle distance runner specialized in 5000m, 10,000m and cross country for most part of his career, the Bugatha of 2020 TMM is a comeback story. In 2018 he had placed third behind Gopi T and Nitendra Singh Rawat with timing of 2:23:56. His timing of 2020 is therefore a new PB. What makes it interesting is that those are the only full marathons he has run. He had been on the podium in half marathons and 25K runs but that 2018 podium in Mumbai was the only precedent in the full marathon before Sunday’s victory. In 2018, Bugatha was in the national camp for marathoners ahead of the Commonwealth Games. The training then had timing of 2:12 hours (Shivnath Singh’s still standing national record) in mind with weekly mileage sometimes hitting 220 kilometers. That proved tough for Bugatha to handle and he came off believing track events – the middle distance disciplines he was used to – were his forte.  He stopped running marathons. According to Mahajan (he is the person behind Superchampions Foundation), in April 2019, he chanced to give motivational talks at the Army Sports Institute (ASI), where Bugatha trained. Slowly Bugatha warmed up to him and started to share his thoughts. The subsequent drift back to the marathon, Mahajan said, was “ partly’’ Bugatha’s decision.

In December 2019, Bugatha participated in the 5000m at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu. As per information on the website olympicchannel.com, he placed fifth. At the 2019 Tata Steel 25K (an event where he has had several podium-finishes before) held on December 15, he topped among Indians with timing of 1:18:31. From December 18, 2019 onward he started training for TMM. In other words, the first place finish and PB of January 19, 2020 was the product of a mere month of preparations, in which time the longest training run he did was a 40km-run on January 2. “ Imagine what someone like him can do with proper training. I believe today’s win is the beginning of a journey,’’ Mahajan said on Sunday. Both he and Bugatha outlined the changes already put in place. A typical middle distance runner’s weekly mileage (that is, over six working days) aggregates to around 120 kilometers. As he geared up for TMM, weekly mileage went up to 180-200 kilometers, Bugatha said. Then, there has been the instilling of self-belief that targets like Shivnath Singh’s national record in the marathon are not beyond chasing; “ mental calibration’’ as Mahajan put it. Finally, there was the weeding out of distractions. For the past six months, Bugatha hasn’t been using a smartphone.

A. B. Belliappa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hailing from Vizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh, Bugatha’s career in running started after he joined the Indian Army in 2010. “ I have been running for the last five years,’’ he said. After a long time spent in tackling the middle distances, he said, he is now resolved to focus on the marathon. Joining him in the transition is his training partner, third place winner among Indian men in the half marathon at 2020 TMM and a familiar face at half marathons and 25K runs in India – Belliappa. On Sunday, he was racing after a phase of injury. Although targeting course record and since introspecting where he got it wrong, Belliappa’s finish in 1:06 hours wasn’t far off his PB of 1:04. Like Bugatha, he was thinking of focusing on the marathon now on. It seemed mutually supportive. Mahajan believed that a reasonable target in the marathon for Bugatha, 27, would be qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. Given qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics requires breaking the longstanding Indian national record in the marathon, the qualifying mark for 2024 will be likely stiffer. Mahajan said that there may be an attempt to qualify for Tokyo too; towards that end Bugatha hopes to participate in the Barcelona Marathon of March 2020.

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

LADAKH RUNNERS: A SUNDAY THAT COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER

Jigmet Dolma (left) and Tsetan Dolkar; after 2020 TMM (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sunday could have been better for the runners from Ladakh visiting Mumbai every year for the annual marathon.

However even as podium finish eluded them at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), the team’s outing of 2019-2020 has been fruitful overall with Jigmet Dolma’s participation in the 2019 South Asian Games, Tsetan Dolkar’s triumph at the 2019 Vasai Virar Mayors Marathon (VVMM) and the duo’s fifth and sixth place finishes in the Indian elite women’s category at this year’s TMM.

The two runners’ performance at 2020 TMM is a repeat of tradition; not only are the timings close to each other (Jigmet -3:05:10; Tsetan – 3:05:14) but the splits are also very close right through. With PBs (personal best) of 3:01 hours and separated by mere two seconds, both have been on a quest to go sub-three. They came to Sunday’s race in Mumbai with a plan in place but unfortunately its execution wasn’t to the dot. “ Our strategy was to run the first 21 kilometers in about 1:27. But we were a bit slow and it became 1:30,’’ Jigmet explained. In a race, particularly when chasing a mark like sub-three, the seconds and minutes count. Otherwise, 2020 TMM was “ a good run.’’ They faced no difficulties, the weather was much better than what it was last time and their training had been good in the run up to race day.

Aside from Jigmet and Tsetan in the elite Indian women’s category of the full marathon, the team had one participant in the men’s marathon and the rest in the half marathon for both gender categories. This year, according to Jigmet and Tsetan (who this blog spoke to), they return without a podium-finish in any segment at TMM. In 2019, Jigmet (3:10:43) had finished third among Indian women and Tsetan (3:13:13) had placed fifth. On the bright side, there is improvement in the timing of both runners at TMM, from last year to now. Further within the space of their 2019-2020 outing, Jigmet’s timing at 2020 TMM is better than the timing she returned at the South Asian Games of December 2019 (3:07) while that of Tsetan is an improvement over her timing at VVMM (3:10:27), also from December 2019.

They now have the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon as last event to attend before heading back to Ladakh. They hope they are able to get that sub-three in Delhi. Asked if the mark seemed formidable, Jigmet said, “ it is not a big challenge. It is possible.’’

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

2020 TATA MUMBAI MARATHON (TMM) / NEW COURSE RECORD, ETHIOPIANS TAKE TOP HONORS

Srinu Bugatha, Sudha Singh winners among Indian elite

Ethiopian athlete Derara Hurisa set a new course record at the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon, topping the men’s category with a finish time of two hours, eight minutes and nine seconds.

The previous course record was 2:08:35, set by Kenyan runner Gideon Kipketer in 2016.

Ayele Abshero and Birhanu Teshome, both of Ethiopia, also finished in timings better than the previous course record. Ayele, in second position, crossed the finish line in 2:08:20 and Birhanu, in third position, in 2:08:26.

In the women’s race, Ethiopian Amane Beriso was the winner with timing of 2:24:51. She missed the previous course record of 2:24:33, by 18 seconds.

In second position was Kenyan runner Rodah Jepkorir, who finished in 2:27:14. Haven Hailu of Ethiopia came in third in 2:28:56.

Barring the Kenyan runner in second position in the women’s race, it was an Ethiopian sweep of the top podium positions.

Among Indian elite runners, Srinu Bugatha and Sudha Singh were winners of the men’s and women’s races respectively.

Bugatha of Indian Army finished the race in 2:18:44. In second place was Sher Singh with timing of 2:24. In third position was Durga Bahadur Budha with timing of 2:24:03.

Defending champion Sudha Singh maintained her title with a winning finish of 2:45:30. Jyoti Gawate came in second with timing of 2:49:14. Shyamali Singh finished in third position in 2:58:44.

Jyoti Gawate had finished second in the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon with timing of 2.45.48, which was her best timing at the race. “ There was a change in the route and that resulted in a wide gap between the winner and me,’’ Jyoti said.

Across various categories of races, over 55,000 runners participated in the 17th edition of Mumbai Marathon, held on Sunday, January 19, 2020.

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

AT A GLANCE / JANUARY 2020

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Avinash Sable, Srinu Bugatha, Rashpal Singh, Sudha Singh, Jyoti Gawate lead Indian competition at 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon.

Over 55,000 people expected to participate.

Srinu Bugatha winner of the 2019 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon and Tata Steel Kolkata 25k, and Rashpal Singh, silver medalist at the 2019 South Asian Games, are among Indian elite runners scheduled to participate in the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon, due January 19, 2020. Also in the fray is Rahul Pal, winner of the 2019 Pune International Marathon.

According to a statement available on the race organizer’s website, Indian elite runners in the women’s marathon include defending champion Sudha Singh and Jyoti Gawate, bronze medalist at the 2019 South Asian Games.

In the men’s half marathon race, Avinash Sable, national record holder in 3000 meter steeplechase (he turned in a gritty performance at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha) and Shankar Man Thapa will be among contenders. Swati Gadhave and Monica Athare will spearhead the challenge in the half marathon for women.

Nitendra Singh Rawat, course record holder among Indian runners and a popular face at TMM, won’t be running this year. In a Facebook post on January 13, he informed that after winning TMM in 2019 and giving his best at the London Marathon, “ it is very disheartening to say that I will not be able to participate in the upcoming TMM 2020 and Tokyo Olympics because of my fractured knee. I am advised to give complete rest to my knee.’’

A record number of 55,322 people are expected to participate in 2020 TMM. The 17th edition of this World Athletics Gold Label Road Race, will have 9660 runners running the full marathon, 15,260 runners in the half marathon, 8032 runners in the 10 kilometer-race, 19,707 participants  in the Dream Run, 1022 runners in the Senior Citizen Run and 1596 participants in the Champion with Disability, the earlier mentioned statement said.

According to it, women’s participation has increased to 35 per cent. Outstation participation has grown by 22 per cent and full marathon participation by 15 per cent.

Kipruto sets new world record in 10K

Kenya’s Rhonex Kipruto has set a new world record in the 10 kilometer-road race. On January 12, at Valencia Ibercaja, he clocked 26 minutes, 24 seconds to win the World Athletics Gold Label road race, a report on the website of World Athletics (formerly IAAF) said.

The 20 year-old took 14 seconds off the yet-to-be-ratified mark set just six weeks earlier by Joshua Cheptegei in the same city, on a different course.

“ Only the legendary Ethiopian duo Kenenisa Bekele (26:17.53) and Haile Gebrselassie (26:22.75) have recorded faster times on the track, while Paul Tergat holds the Kenyan 10,000m record at 26:27:85,’’ the report said.

Sheila Chepkirui, also of Kenya, won the women’s race in 29:46.

Shoe war heats up

The controversy over Nike’s Vaporfly shoes worn by Eliud Kipchoge during his record breaking sub-two hour marathon in Vienna last year, has gathered momentum with recent media reports indicating that World Athletics may soon rule on their legality and share prices of shoe manufacturers responding accordingly.

On January 16, leading wire service Bloomberg informed that shares of Japanese manufacturer Asics Corp, a rival to Nike, “ surged as much as eight per cent before paring gains to 4.7 per cent as of 11:41 AM that day in Tokyo, after the Times of London and others reported that World Athletics was mulling a ban for Nike’s Vaporfly shoes in professional competition. Mizuno Corp, another Japanese maker of running equipment, rose as much as 1.6 per cent.’’

Nike’s Vaporfly Next % model was the shoe of choice for Kipchoge in Vienna and Brigid Kosgei, when she broke the women’s world record in the marathon, last year in Chicago. According to the Bloomberg report, the shoes gained popularity in Japan too resulting in a fall in share price for Asics at the start of 2020.

However, thick soles, the use of carbon fiber-plates and runners who used it confirming that the shoes contributed to improving their performance rendered the Nike model controversial. There have been calls since to restore a level playing field.

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

 

2020 TATA MUMBAI MARATHON / LAGAT, ALEMU SET TO RETURN

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

Defending champions Cosmas Lagat and Worknesh Alemu will be back for the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), due January 19, 2020, a report dated January 4, available on the website of World Athletics (formerly IAAF), said.

In 2019, Kenya’s Lagat, breaking away from the rest of the pack at around kilometer 29 and running alone for almost a third of the race, had won in 2:09:15, the second fastest winning time in Mumbai. It was just 40 seconds outside the course record of 2:08:35, set by his compatriot Gideon Kipketer in 2016, the report said. To date only one man has won TMM back-to- back; Kenyan runner John Kelai did that with victories in 2007 and 2008.

According to the report, for the 2020 edition of the race, TMM organizers have signed up no less than 14 men who have run faster than 2:10:00, “ making it the strongest marathon ever to be staged in India.’’ Of them, nine have run faster than the course record during their careers and six have run under the super-elite benchmark of 2:07:00. The four fastest men in the field are all Ethiopians, led by Ayele Abshero who has a personal best (PB) from eight years back at the Dubai Marathon, of 2:04:23.

Ethiopia’s Alemu had won in the women’s category at TMM in 2019 with a PB of 2:25:25, which was also the second fastest winning time in the race’s history. She subsequently improved her best to 2:24:42 later in 2019 when finishing sixth at the Amsterdam Marathon in October, the report said. In 2020, Alemu heads a very strong women’s field that has eight women who have run under 2:28:00. The fastest woman in the field is another Ethiopian, Amane Beriso, who clocked 2:20:48 for a second place finish in the 2016 Dubai Marathon, placing her third on that year’s world list. She took a break from competitive running last year. The course record at TMM for women is 2:24:33, set by Kenya’s Valentine Kipketer in 2013.

In addition to the marathon – which has a total prize fund of US$ 405,000 – there is a half marathon, a 10km race, a Dream Run (5.9km), Senior Citizens Race (4.2km) and a Champions with Disability Race (1.5km). About 50,000 runners are expected to take part, the report said.

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

ON A BICYCLE / MUMBAI-GOA

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Cycling from Mumbai to Goa is a popular endeavor undertaken by many. The journey is approximately 550km long and is usually done via roads hugging the Konkan coast although some seeking faster passage are known to take the highway. Each rider has his / her set of reflections. These are mine:

Summary

Mumbai-Goa: the pairing is old.

I didn’t know of people cycling between the two places, till into my thirties, working in Mumbai and more importantly – member of the outdoor club, Girivihar. In 2002, Rajneesh Gore, a club member, cycled to Goa with a friend and wrote a book on it called Goa on a Cycle. That was my introduction to the Mumbai-Goa cycling bug, later packaged into group-trips by commercial service providers and done by many every year. In December 2019, Prashant Venugopal, friend and fellow club member at Girivihar, decided to avail his annual leave from work. As residents of the same suburb in Navi Mumbai, we had done a couple of single day bicycle trips of 100km and more. We decided to attempt Mumbai-Goa via the coastal route, unsupported or as some call it, self-supported. However, we weren’t going to carry tent and stove. Those two needs – stay and food – we decided to pay and obtain on the way. Much of the rest – and there is a bit therein ranging from hydration to snacks, clothes, first aid kit, pump, locks and bike repair tools – we decided to carry ourselves.

Goa on a Cycle; the book by Rajneesh Gore

There was a reason for the above mentioned self-supported approach. As freelance journalist surviving frugally, I cannot afford commercial service providers although I would love to be client having support vehicle, hired mechanic, prearranged places to stay and no luggage carried on bicycle. Who wouldn’t? At the same time, as a once active hiker-climber, I am used to trading speed and achievement for the slower world of progress with all that you need lugged alongside. Not to mention – a major challenge in contemporary life (if challenge also be what you want) is not making things faster but slowing them down. Can the competitive mind with voracious appetite for distinctions, take it easy, be patient? Can it feast on life’s innocuous details, life’s ordinaries instead of the brag-worthy conquests? Over the years, little by little, we had accumulated some of the gear required for bicycle touring. All we needed to do was, load up the pannier bags and cast off.

Prashant (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To get us started, we needed a route map. That was easily found on the Internet. In our case, we picked the route available on the website of Add-Venture India, a commercial enterprise in Navi Mumbai started by a couple of Girivihar members, which among its activities, offers an annual cycle trip to Goa. It provided an overview of the route they followed; the rest we filled in ourselves or decided to figure out as we went along. Early morning, December 16, we pushed off. Less than seven days later, on the afternoon of December 22, we reached Panjim in Goa. Like most other denizens of the urban universe, we too ended up slaves of haste working our schedule back from limited number of days to spare. We kept a disciplined grind of cycling from 6AM every morning to about 6PM with a break of little over an hour for lunch, which isn’t recommended pattern, for the right way is to avoid wasting yourself in the warmest hours of the day. Our indestructibility wilted slowly. By around midway through the trip we were very mortal and most accepting of the laws deciding human limits. At Panjim, we loaded self and bicycle into one of those Volvo buses headed to Mumbai; suffered a vehicle breakdown near Kolhapur, changed bus to Pune, changed bus again at Pune and eventually reached Mumbai happy to sink our sore butts into the comfort of cushions and mattresses.

The poster we saw on a ferry boat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The route

Most commercial operators commence their cycling from Alibag after taking the ferry from South Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Given Prashant and I live in Navi Mumbai, we cycled through Uran to Karanja, took the ferry there to Rewas and then pedaled on to Alibag. That first day, ended in Murud.  Day 2: Murud – Agardanda – Dighi – Borli Panchatan – Harihareshwar – Bagmandla – Veswi – Kelshi. Day 3: Kelshi – Anjarle – Karde – Dapoli – Dabhol – Dabhol ferry – Dhopave – Guhagar. Day 4: Guhagar – Palshet – Velneshwar – Tawsal ferry – Jaigad – Ganpatipule – Ratnagiri – Pawas. Day 5: Pawas – Purnagad – Jaitapur – Padel – Devgad – Kunkeshwar. Day 6: Kunkeshwar – Achara – Malvan – Parule – Vengurla. Day 7: Vengurla – Aramabol – Panjim. This route likely includes some creative connections we opted for, making it marginally different from the original route map we had. For instance, both of us like ferries and didn’t waste a single ferry that presented itself as potential onward link. This was thanks in the main to a poster we spotted – we saw it first on the Agardanda-Dighi ferry – which listed the ferries along the Konkan coast. It also ensured that we remained close to the coast and never very far from the sea. When hard at work, I have a tendency to hunker down and slog in tunnel vision. I miss noticing the world. I am also not digital savvy; I prefer to ask people for directions. So credit for whatever adoption of navigation’s modern avatar we did, should go to Prashant, who is comparatively more comfortable with apps and Google.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

An easy way to visualize route

Keep your palm face down on the table. Now imagine climbing up each finger, then down into the cleft in between and up again over the next finger. That’s how our route was – it was relentless uphill, downhill. Every time you descend to sea level and find a bridge, ferry or beach, you know there is an ascent waiting, not far away.  Each segment of elevation gain is not significant compared to the height and size of hills elsewhere in India. What plays with your mind is the relentlessness of the up-down mix, which serves as idiom for the trip. It should also be mentioned that there are some sharp, stiff inclines served without notice and sometimes, served with notice, which the urban ego then shapes into a competitive tussle. It reminded me of lessons learnt in hiking. It took many hikes to abandon the competitive streak, discover one’s steady, sustainable pace and then gradually improve efficiencies therein. On the Mumbai-Goa coastal route, there were also a few combinations of sharp, stiff incline followed by longer uphill and bad road. Very memorable for me was one such combination of all three attributes or two, following which I emerged on to a flat, smooth road atop a plateau where a posse of policemen sat. They beheld my panting self on bicycle married to easiest climbing gear. They smiled and waved. Then the inspector shouted: o kaakaaa….kahan jaa rahen hain? Goa?  Strangely, unlike those instances from my early forties, when being called kaka (uncle) alarmed and reminded of fading youth, now it didn’t. Maybe there’s nothing left to defend and the mind knows it. Kaka waved back at the policemen, showed a thumbs-up and carried on.

Road on plateau; a typical specimen from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Eventually you embrace the uphill-downhill idiom of the Konkan coast. There are also portions of road that are utterly straight (like the one where I met those policemen) but they stretch like runways atop plateaus with no tree cover. It is solitary cyclist and miles of open space. We called it spaghetti westerns with a twist: Ennio Morricone’s background score plays as Clint Eastwood becomes visible on the horizon, not on a horse but a bicycle. Talking of plateaus with no shade; if there was one complaint we heard consistently from residents all through the route, it was this: this is not how December should be. It should be cool. But it just isn’t.  Welcome to climate change. And yet we ridicule Greta Thunberg. I am not a geologist. But the incessant ups and downs and the palm-on-table analogy it inspired, made me recall that era from India’s northward drift millions of years ago, when the volcanic explosions forming the Deccan, occurred. Were the fingers of land we kept ascending and descending, the remnants of ancient lava flows that cooled off into the sea? Is that how you got this beautiful weave of hills, estuaries, coves and inlets? Who knows? But I remembered well what Mumbai based cyclist Sumit Patil had recalled from his childhood. One of his earliest memorable experiences in cycling was a school trip. Led by their teacher, the class pedaled out to get an idea of the lay of their tehsil. On day one of our Goa trip, as I cycled through Alibag noticing the place with my eyes and feeling it under my wheels, I remembered Sumit. He grew up there. Cycling through, Alibag came alive as geography lesson. You want to learn? Then, you should walk, run, cycle, swim, sail or float in the air; anything else is a compromise. And by the way, there is no compulsion, no rush. Let it unfold at your pace.

Beach at Kelshi; sunset (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some good people

Located in Raigad district’s Srivardhan taluka, Borli Panchatan is roughly 65 km south of Alibag. By the time we reached Borli Panchatan, we had become very aware of both the up-down nature of our route and another challenge – stretches of terrible road; some almost wholly gravel and dust, others, erstwhile tarred surface ruined by large potholes and craters. It was humbling to the mind (to realize that people lived so) and numbing to butt perched on bicycle saddle. In my assessment, a well finished asphalt / bitumen road is surface friendliest to cyclist. There’s something firm and yet soft about it. Unfortunately, there’s another category – concrete – increasingly popular with the ascent of infrastructure projects. That’s like a truck ramming bicycle frame, human bones and joints above it. The hardness is so much and so acutely felt that everything vibrates. Not far from Dighi we had run into a terrible stretch of potholed road. Then that gave way to a stretch of concrete. It felt weird. If you want to know how good a road is, you should run or cycle on it. Which government official overseeing roads does that? Unfortunately the surface quality of roads is decided by motorized vehicles engineered to soak vibration, not bicycle or human knee which sense vibration. The roadside tea stall we found at Borli Panchatan appeared a small, makeshift arrangement. We had no expectations when we sat down for tea. But a bunch of men there took great interest in our trip and proceeded to not merely inform us of the best route options ahead but also present it in terms of ascents, descents, road conditions and availability of shops for tea and snacks. That was amazing; most helpful. At Guhagar in Ratnagiri, the next district; the home-stay we chose referred us to their next door neighbor for dinner. According to the manager of our home-stay, Jog Kaku was in her seventies. She had a few tables and chairs for people to sit and eat at the back of her house. The dinner she served was the finest on the trip and among the best specimens of home cooked food I have had anywhere. Bless her. Food was without doubt, one of the highlights of this trip. There wasn’t a day without good, simple food for breakfast, lunch and dinner; all of it local cuisine, made with what was available. The less digital savvy of the two and often cycling alone to sense personal ecosystem, I was happy to periodically see pointers and markings drawn on the road, courtesy two names well known in the domestic cycling circuit. The first was `YHA’ – Youth Hostels Association; the other was `DC,’ which I assume is – Deccan Cliffhanger. As helpful as the lot at Borli Panchatan, was a juice shop owner on the outskirts of Malvan. An avid talker, he first informed that all groups of riders halted at his shop. Then as we sipped glasses of sugarcane juice and kokum sharbat, he provided a detailed overview of the way ahead, recommending lunch at Parule. We did as he said.

Murud beach; sunset (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Whoooosh

“ Hello, happy journey?’’ the man on the scooter said, bit inquiringly, trying to figure out if cyclist was Indian or foreigner.  “ Thank you,’’ I replied, continuing to pedal. Encouraged, he drew alongside and said, “ your friend? He got puncture. But not normal puncture; it was like a small blast: whoooosh.’’ I stopped, thanked him for the information and turned back. Whoooosh didn’t sound good. All trips have some point when things go wrong. For us, that point occurred less than 10 kilometers past Ratnagiri, at Pansope, when one of our cycles suffered a burst tyre. It was a warm afternoon. What we had was a rip through both tyre and tube. We had carried spare tubes but not spare tyre. A new tyre had to be purchased. Given the cycle in question also seemed to have a few issues with gear-shifting, we figured the best option may be to take it to Ratnagiri, get it checked by a mechanic and if required, stay in town and carry on the next day. We parked the cycles in front of a small restaurant and using our phones, located a bicycle shop to go to in Ratnagiri. The husband and wife team running the restaurant served us tea. Then we flagged down a three wheeled-cargo carrier and asked if the driver would take rider and cycle to Ratnagiri. “ Are you the guys who called me on the phone?’’ he asked. Apparently, somebody in the neighborhood had called him for assistance in taking a damaged motorbike to the city. He was responding to that call. As it turned out, that caller was from a shop right across the road and the destination of the motorbike (its place of repair), pretty close to where the bicycle shop was. The motorbike owner agreed to take the bicycle too into town and suggested that if we paid the return fare, the same three-wheeler would bring the cycle back after repair. Prashant went along. I waited at Pansope.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In that while, the husband and wife team at the restaurant served me some more tea, gave me a bottle of water, shut the place and left briefly to get supplies and on return, told me about their business – how long they had been running the restaurant, where they had started it first before shifting to Ratnagiri. It was a business model we saw in other places too – the woman ran the kitchen; the man got the supplies, served customers and maintained the front desk. Truth be told – the woman’s share of work, wherever we saw this model in action, seemed more. On day one, there had been a hotel we got into for lunch at Kashid. The man promised food without delay, barked a few orders loudly, the kitchen came alive like machine switched on, a woman in saree could be seen working furiously and chatting happily at once in there. Fifteen minutes later, as I tucked into the delicious fare she had cooked, I noticed that the kitchen was back to quiet and the woman was now busy cleaning the guest house adjacent to the restaurant. She was hanging sheets and towels out to dry. After lunch, as we asked for tea, one of the men around scratched his head, stared at the kitchen now bereft of its engine and said, “ sorry.’’ But the couple in Ratnagiri appeared quite happy. I felt envious seeing their happiness and wondered to myself – what monsters was I trying to slay in my head cycling daily from morning till evening when happiness is not a case of because of or due to, but simply, is? The bicycle repair-episode took some time. It was dark by the time we reached Pawas.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Me, mid-life and my baggage

As we age, we become several people in one till at some point, fed up of all that we are defending as accrued baggage, habit and conditioning, we strip away the layers and genuinely simplify. At 51, I am still far from that simplicity; ego rules. That’s what makes expeditions by humans tricky. It isn’t only about enduring nature; it is also about enduring one’s self and that of others as complicated, defensive and hauling baggage like you. Week-long outings as a team are a bit like that TV show: Big Boss; it can become too much of each other. Not to mention, all that plus the stress accumulating from pushing one’s limit daily. There are good days and bad days. Days when we speak a lot to each other; days when one or both clamp up briefly, often to preserve the peace. You can’t do anything about it. Staying aware of these possibilities is the best solution. Joke about situations; joke about your tortured butt. Give each other space. Visit a beach at day’s end. Clean your cycles. Have some good food. We did all that. Not every reflection in the mirror will be pretty. But hey, you knew this possibility from start. That’s why you are here – to know what all may happen.  Speaking of what all may happen, our first aid kit mercifully stayed untouched. The one time it begged being opened it had nothing to do with either of us; it was someone else in trouble. At the guesthouse we stayed at in Kelshi, the manager’s friend was delicately poised on a chair atop a table, repairing a ceiling fan, when both chair and table gave away like a pack of cards. The man fell awkwardly, hurt his hand; he was in considerable pain. For some time, that is. An hour later, he started his motorcycle and drove away.

Beach at Guhagar (Photo: Prashant Venugopal)

Kabaddi country

Kelshi in Ratnagiri district had a quiet beach. There were all of seven people there, the evening we visited. The absence of crowds and the soothing quietness seemed to come with an unspoken footnote for the visitor: you homo sapiens, you are the disturbance, so tread carefully and the less you are here, the better it is for aesthetics by nature. Hopefully someday, our species gets it. A couple of youngsters wearing identical T-shirts jogged barefoot on the beach.  On the approach to the beach, next to the village path; was a small playground with carefully nurtured mud floor. Two youngsters in identical T-shirts did exercises there. A few more, dressed the same way and on their way to the play field, told us that they weren’t the local running team as I thought, but recruits for kabaddi. The jogging on the beach was part of daily training. Kabaddi competitions existed in the region and on day six as we found our way to Vengurla, we met a youngster who was on his way to Sagareshwar beach for training. He said he occasionally played for Sindhudurg. There were kabaddi players running barefoot on Guhagar’s beach too. Possessing strong legs, they bounced along smoothly on the beach sand. Each lap would have been a kilometer, easily. It was the time of sunset. A woman sat meditating some distance away. As we prepared to leave, a different type of runner arrived. He wore black shorts and black vest and on his feet, were a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.

Fishing boats at Vengurla (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Operation Thali

On day four, I was so hungry on the approach to Tawsal that I mistook the police station perched on the edge of a plateau just before long descent to ferry, to be a hotel. Most of these roads on plateaus have few restaurants and tea shops; so perhaps, it was a case of plateau-mirage, my mind replacing reality with that which I wished to see. Less than a kilometer before the ferry, we found a nice restaurant bathed in the aroma of cooking and ordered two thalis. The women in the kitchen promised to deliver it promptly. That was when a team of three or four policemen arrived. They seemed to have a feast unfolding at their office; maybe some senior officer visiting. For the next half hour they hung around, gazing expectantly into the kitchen, as the women fried several slices of fish, made chappathi, rice, curry and salad. Then they packed it all up along with steel plates and spoons, loaded a small pick-up with the precious cargo and proceeded to wherever the meal was due for staging. It was an operation effected with efficiency and enthusiastic team work; much like a crackdown on crime except, the target here was a dozen or more thalis laden with curry, fish and meat.“ I am sorry. We had to give them priority,’’ the elderly lady who served us, said apologetically. Understandable – that was a big order. By the way the thali we had – it was yet another case of delicious Konkan food.

Ravinder and his bicycle (Photo: Prashant Venugopal)

Time and touring

Sometime on day four, on a road atop a plateau – to be precise, after enduring that treeless road for long – I was happy to find a shop and check into its shade for a couple of cold drinks. I had by now abandoned caution and was experimenting with brands I was seeing for the first time; names like Fizzingaa or something similar. Five minutes later, Prashant too pulled in. We were at the shop for a while and when we left, true to my tunnel vision-self, I locked on to next major destination and pedaled off. Prashant on the other hand, noticed another cyclist – out touring like us – tucked into the shade of a nearby shop. Ravinder from Chandigarh was on a long journey through India. According to Prashant, he had been on the road for five months already. At the next halt, as we discussed Prashant’s meeting with Ravinder, it was opportunity to reflect on how differently time was perceived by people. Unlike us, this cyclist appeared comfortably settled into a patient experience of existence. I remembered some cyclists I know, who don’t hesitate to spend longer time than originally planned at places they like or pedal at leisurely pace making sure they don’t needlessly stretch themselves. We had limited number of days at our disposal; we just kept pedaling, chasing a goal each day. We might as well have been in the city. But more than that, it was mental; conditioning. We simply didn’t know how to cope with a slower flow of time, flow of course being a human sensation for time is whatever it is. Do less and you sense existence and time. Do more, you seem to own time, which (the ownership) is an illusion. Prashant’s meeting with Ravinder was brief. But the unhurried cyclist left us with much to think about.

Karanja; early morning (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Two low points: the beginning and the end

The coastal route to Goa is by and large an escape from the urban, competitive paradigm of life. However the route we were on started in city and ended in city. Both these ends are steeped in all that has gone wrong with the urban model; its best ambassador being ugly exploded traffic. Thanks to infrastructure projects, a major sea port and real estate business, the once pleasant road from Navi Mumbai to Uran has been usurped by vehicular traffic. Cycling here is not a pleasure anymore. You are at the mercy of a mindset that gives no damn for bicycles or thoughts in the slow lane; it’s called development. But you still cycle through the traffic laden road to Uran because there is something charming in the contrasting quietness of Rewas just a ferry hop away from Karanja. It is a contrast (like so many other such contrasts) that should inspire people to introspect: what are Indians doing to their daily existence? Does a tonne of money made, justify the ruining of life as we know it? A week after we set foot in Rewas, Navi Mumbai returned as Goa. It was Sunday and yet, the road from Mapusa to Panjim was filled with traffic. Life had come full circle. We were back in the embrace of development. Someone with a talent for the blues should compose a song: Development Blues; sing it like John Lee Hooker belting out Boogie Chillen.

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