File photo of Rigzen Angmo: by arrangement; photo of Leh: Shyam G Menon. Imaging of both: Shyam G Menon

File photo of Rigzen Angmo: by arrangement. Photo of Leh: Shyam G Menon. Imaging of both: Shyam G Menon

Meeting Rigzen Angmo

Early morning September 13, as the fourth edition of the Ladakh Marathon got underway in Leh, Rigzen Angmo couldn’t help calling up those she knew to find out how the run was progressing.

She had to work that day and wasn’t in a position to participate even for fun. In fact, it wasn’t just 2015; the Ladakh Marathon has been on since 2012 but a combination of commitment to work, reluctance and maybe a desire not to revisit a chapter in her life put firmly behind, kept Rigzen away from participating.

Sometime after she confirmed that the race was on, she left her house and reached the roadside to have a glimpse of the runners. “ By the time I got there, those in the lead had already gone past. You can make out a good runner from how he or she uses the feet. The ones I saw must have been the recreational lot,’’ she said, tad disappointed. Later, she switched on the radio to listen to the race report. This September (2015), Ladakhis once again dominated the marathon. Rigzen however, wasn’t happy with the timings she heard. “ Ladakhis can do better than this,’’ she said, adding, “ my respect is more for the timing reported from the Khardunga La Challenge. I thought that was good.’’ The annual event is a composite of four sub-events – a seven kilometre-run for fun, a half marathon, a full marathon and a 72 km-ultra over the high Khardunga La pass called the Khardung La Challenge (for more on the 2015 Ladakh Marathon and the region’s quest to have a good running team, please visit this link:

This September when I reached Leh, all I knew was that Rigzen Angmo was now a senior officer with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Paramilitary personnel can be posted anywhere in India. Even if she was elsewhere in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, it would be difficult for freelance journalist on tight budget to pursue. That’s what journalism has become – a race judged by strength of resources. Media organizations have tons of it; freelancers, none. Where is Rigzen Angmo? – I thought.

When in doubt, have a cup of tea – that’s my recipe for clarity in the mountains. Kunzes served a cup of hot ginger tea. I rolled out my query, explained it. She stopped the work she was doing at the cafe in Changspa and listened carefully. “ Yes, I have heard of her. I think she has a house in Leh. Perhaps if you go there and ask, you may be able to locate her,’’ she said. To my luck, at the said house, I learnt that Rigzen had just been moved on work from Srinagar to Leh. When I finally met her, Rigzen Angmo wasn’t the talkative type. It was obvious that the chance to revisit running as a topic of discussion, made her happy. But her own past, it appeared, was something she had retired from. In 2004, she exited the central athletics team of the CRPF. Thereafter it has been regular office work.

“ Why don’t you come back to running?’’ I asked. For a second or two, Rigzen seemed undecided like somebody on a threshold. Then she replied, “ for years I pushed myself to settle for nothing but the best I can be. It is too deeply ingrained. At the same time, my body is no longer what it used to be, all that running has taken a toll.’’ It was the classic dilemma of erstwhile high performer. Over the couple of times we met to discuss her life in running, Rigzen Angmo hovered around that threshold.

Rigzen Angmo after winning the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in 1994 (photo: by arrangement).

Rigzen Angmo after winning the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in 1994 (photo: by arrangement).

She gave freelance journalist a file of old paper clippings to read and glean her story.

This is a compilation of that and a few rounds of conversation had.

Rigzen was born in March 1969 at Skarbuchan village, roughly 125 kilometres away from Leh. She was the third child of her parents; they were in all five brothers and four sisters. Her parents were farmers. Her mother died when Rigzen was still young. Life changed with the Indian government’s Special Area Games (SAG) scheme under which, talent from remote areas was spotted and groomed. The website of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) describes SAG currently as follows:  Special Area Games (SAG) Scheme aims at scouting natural talent for modern competitive sports and games from inaccessible tribal, rural and coastal areas of the country and nurturing them scientifically for achieving excellence in sports. The Scheme also envisages tapping of talent from indigenous games and martial arts and also from regions/ communities, which are either genetically or geographically advantageous for excellence in a particular sports discipline. The main objective of the Scheme is to train meritorious sports persons in the age group of 12-18 years, with age being relaxed in exceptional cases. The disciplines covered include archery, athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, fencing, football, gymnastics, handball, hockey, judo, kabaddi, karate, kayaking, netball, rowing, sepaktakraw, shooting, swimming, taekwondo, volleyball, weightlifting, wrestling & wushu.

Picked up under this scheme when she was in the ninth standard, Rigzen moved to Leh’s Lamdon School for her matriculation. SAG selected her for running middle and long distance races. In the file, there was an old newspaper photograph from the district level selection race that placed her with SAG. It showed a young Rigzen racing, clad in salwar kameez and wearing normal footwear. She finished first. Rigzen said she owed a lot to SAG, in particular its director B.V.P. Rao. “ Whatever I am today is because of him,’’ she said. Years later, Rao would be one of the founders of Clean Sports India, a movement for corruption free-sports in the country. Amarnath K Menon, writing in a May 1988 issue of India Today (available on the Internet), described Rao as “ an IAS officer who stays at the Nehru Stadium and is building up a pool of sports medicine specialists, social anthropologists, ex-international sports competitors and sports promoters. The article said, “ the greatest advantage of the Special Area Games Programme (SAGP) is that it takes all round care of the trainees, including their schooling, unlike other government supported schemes. Its provisions of food, clothing and education, besides the prospects of winning a medal, are its main attraction.’’ Rigzen’s visit to Delhi happened “ one August,’’ as part of a team of 18 trainees from Ladakh. They received coaching for 15 days at the capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. It was her first taste of formal training. Following this, on return to Ladakh, she was coached regularly as part of the SAG scheme. She trained in the morning and in the evening, attending school in between. After matriculation, Rigzen completed her twelfth standard through open school. Later she graduated with a degree in physical education.

According to Rigzen, nobody pushed her towards the marathon. The shift was something she decided more or less on her own by observing how she performed. A high altitude dwelling-Ladakhi, she seemed to do well in long distance runs requiring endurance. In 1987, she ran the 10,000m race at the senior nationals, winning a silver medal. “ I felt I could do better at still longer distances,’’ she said. In 1989 she ran her first half marathon at the Rath India Open Marathon in Delhi, finishing fourth. In 1990-91 she ran her first full marathon at the same event. P.K. Mahanand, writing in the Economic Times in February 1995, said this of Rigzen’s performance, “ when she took part in the Rath Marathon in 1991, she became the first Indian woman to return a time of under three hours for an athlete on a marathon debut – she clocked 2 hours, 53 minutes.’’  From these beginnings, Rigzen Angmo went on to be among India’s top woman marathon runners, in the same league as Asha Agarwal (the first Indian woman to win an international marathon – the Hong Kong marathon), Sunita Godara and Suman Rawat. The highlights of her career would include podium finishes in international marathons at Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu. Rigzen believes that she could have done more had it not been for the problem of talent in India restricted by the politics at the country’s sports organizations.

Rigzen Angmo after winning the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (photo: by arrangement).

Rigzen Angmo after winning the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (photo: by arrangement).

In her time, India’s woman marathon runners were a force to reckon with on the Asian stage. “ If there was enough encouragement, we could have made a mark at the global level,’’ she said. But that was not to be. To start with – the discipline wasn’t any of the fast and powerful sprint events which captivate audiences, it was the marathon, that too, women’s marathon in an India awash in male chauvinism. Second, sports bodies, usually manned by politicians and the politicking types, never backed talent fully. Rigzen recalled how after being permitted to run a race overseas, the Indian sports body in question declined any kind of support. They approved her participation but how was she to fly abroad if they won’t give her an airline ticket? She wasn’t a rich person. Somebody then pointed out that a gentleman she kept passing by at a park in Delhi during her regular training runs was a Member of Parliament. She sought his help. He arranged free airline tickets. She flew overseas, participated in the event and earned a podium finish. That was merely one example. In the file, a magazine article by Ranjit Bhatia dwelt on Rigzen’s participation at the London Marathon (consequent to her impressive showing at the Rath Indian Open Marathon) not being cleared by authorities. “ Her recent selection to represent the country in the IAAF World Marathon Cup in London on April 21, came almost simultaneously as the rejection of her trip was announced,’’ he wrote.

Rigzen wasn’t the only one navigating choppy waters.

A February 1997 article in the Hindustan Times by R.M.S. Atwal on India’s woman marathon runners (Rigzen among them) mentioned Asha Agarwal’s predicament. Asha, often deemed the first lady of women’s marathon in India, had quit her job with the Railways on an assurance that she would be appointed as an Assistant Director (Sports) in the Delhi administration after three months spent in a junior position. That didn’t happen. Result – she not only stagnated career-wise but got demoted, the report said. It quoted her, “ I have got nothing on assurances from successive governments while people (other athletes) with top connections are rising and rising. I think nothing materializes without a godfather in this country.’’ In India, athletes are on their own in more ways than just the motivation to excel and the commitment to train.

This general trend of navigating a politics ridden, rat race-ambience was besides the issue of being a woman training for the marathon, in the India of those days. For Rigzen, hailing from the closely knit, mountain community of Ladakh, training at home was challenging. Driven, she maintained a rigorous training schedule. Very few in the mountains could fathom the eccentricity of it all. Why would a woman want to run 42km? Why would a woman log close to 200km a week as training in an attempt to run 42km at a race? You stood out as an odd ball pretty easily. “ The problem wasn’t so much in my village where I was known; it was more towards town. Being a woman it was difficult to practise. I used to avoid being seen practising in public, preferring instead, places where people were few,’’ she said. When away from Ladakh, the bulk of Rigzen’s training happened in Delhi, Patiala and Bengaluru (Bangalore). Athletics was better known in the cities and for the girl from the mountains, training here made more sense. “ Everything outside Ladakh was new and different for me. I looked at it as encouragement. I still miss the stadiums I trained in,’’ she said. There was one thing though about ` outside.’ People in the plains and cities therein, knew nothing about Ladakh. “ They would ask: where is Leh?’’ she said laughing. There were other valid reasons for Rigzen training outside Ladakh. The training window in Ladakh is small; no more than four months a year given the region’s reputation as cold desert. The training window is bigger in the plains. She feels Ladakh is too high an altitude to develop all that goes into the making of a competitive endurance athlete. She found mid-altitudes like Shimla, better suited for the purpose. Further, back in her days, a good, consistently available diet for the competitive athlete was more possible at training centres in the plains or well established towns in the hills, than in Leh.

Rigzen Angmo (photo: by arrangement).

Rigzen Angmo (photo: by arrangement).

As other articles in the file showed, those days it wasn’t easy anywhere in India for a woman marathon runner. In February 1995, The Pioneer published an article by Neena Gupta on India’s woman marathon runners. It quoted Sunita Godara, “ mind you, every outing, each road-run for me is a lesson in the cultural heritage of India and women’s place in it.’’ The article added that in small towns, Sunita had an escort with her while running. In Patiala, she had an army subedar accompany her. It also quoted Asha Agarwal, “ since I could not run alone, I had to be accompanied by my father or brother on a cycle.’’ This report mentioned that Asha had sought a transfer from being Welfare Inspector in the Railways to being Supervisor (Physical Education) in the Delhi Administration so that she can stay around the Delhi University campus where the atmosphere was more congenial for her practice. “ However she was reportedly demoted to the non-gazetted post of a senior sports teacher. The discrimination did not end there. The post was abolished in July 1994 and consequently, her salary stopped,’’ the article said.  More than one report cited women having to prove that they are capable of marathon distances before being taken note of. As if that wasn’t enough, they witnessed their races shortened to smaller distance owing to low participation or pressured to conclude early for taking longer time than men. Such practices wouldn’t be tolerated overseas where a discipline is a discipline. Of interest for freelance journalist reading these articles in 2015 was that 15 years after they were published at least one of the officials quoted therein defending the sports federation’s side in allegations related to inadequate support for women’s marathon, became an accused in India’s Commonwealth Games scam. In such time span, athletes come and go. Officials, stay forever. That is India’s sports. “ After the SAG phase, I reached wherever I did on the strength of my personal effort. My husband Tsewang Morup supported me,’’ Rigzen said.

On September 13, barring some of the runners from Ladakh, it is unlikely anyone running the Ladakh Marathon would have recognized the small woman watching them from the side of the road. Fewer still would know the times in which she ran for India or the fact that she is the only runner from Ladakh so far to earn podium finishes at international level. Born to the mountains and focussed on her job as a Deputy Commandant, Rigzen Angmo has not been in touch with any of her contemporaries from the pioneering lot in India’s women’s marathon. She admitted that staying away from each other may also have much to do with the competitive environment in which they all originally met and raced. As the topic of running revisited her life – even if only as discussion – she said, there was a question she had often asked herself: why hasn’t Ladakh produced another Rigzen Angmo despite greater interest in sports and improved prospects for youngsters?

“ What do you think is the reason for that?’’ I asked.

“ I don’t know. There is ample talent in Ladakh. Further, these days, more young people travel out from Leh for studies than used to before. So it is not lack of exposure. Perhaps they should appreciate that good education isn’t all about studies. It includes sports too. You need to be sufficiently interested and committed to practising. You must also aim high. Only then will you reach at least half way. If you don’t aim at all, then where will you reach? To succeed in the marathon, you need perseverance, hard work and will power. Anyway the fact is – I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time with Ladakh’s young people and those among them, who like running. Only if I do that can I say anything for sure,’’ she said. Then she dropped a hint; a SAG-sort of hint, one that is known in Indian sports: “ we must go to the villages…it is in the villages that you will find good runners.’’

Rigzen said she would like to help train young runners. But she has zero appetite for politics and given her past knowledge of the politics at India’s sports bodies, she fears that engagement with sports may reopen the Pandora’s Box. “ I don’t want to go into any situation that entails politics,’’ she said. According to her, she has thought of starting a running club or something similar in Leh, after retiring from the paramilitary. “ I can’t do that alone. I will need help. I also can’t do it alongside my work, which is why it will have to be after retirement. In the meantime, it is good that Rimo Expeditions has begun work on grooming a team of competent, young Ladakhi runners,’’ she said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the dates of events and timings at races are as provided by the interviewee. Where photo credit says `by arrangement,’ the photo concerned has been sourced from Rigzen Angmo.)



Everybody likes a supported event.

A run with adequate water stations en route attracts us all.

A supported event is however different from an event that is supportive.

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

While ` supported’ sails strong courtesy its natural drift to commercial format, ` supportive’ rings of relevance that is more central to what you set out to do. The idea of a supportive run acquires dimensions of aiding passage in a way that is directly related to the act you are engaged in. All the support – from gear and facilities to human encouragement – dovetails to enabling the chosen challenge comprehensively. A good mountaineering expedition exceeds being merely supported to being supportive of the quest. `Supportive’ has a touch of attempting experiment; it empathizes with the core pursuit.

From a participant’s point of view, the annual Mumbai Ultra, for instance, could be called a supportive run. Even as it is supported with water stations and snacks like regular organized events, it is additionally set up so that it supports runners seeking to experience an ultra marathon. With medical teams at hand and mandatory check-up after every loop, it provides you a relatively safe environment in which you can conduct the personal experiment of discovering how far you can push your body. And should the ego override common sense and the fool in you take over, somebody assigned the job of remaining sensible stops you. The Mumbai Ultra is thus useful hand-holder. It provides people already into running, an idea of what it means to run for a long time covering long distances. Critically, it does not subject you to stage cut-off times or prefixed ultra distance. Apart from an overall 12 hour-duration, it leaves you to explore.

One good question doing the rounds in the context of ` supportive’ is the relevance of having supported runs across distances other than the regularly heard 10km, half marathon and full marathon. The 10km is a tidy distance; the half and full marathon are known, defined entities. But from 10km to 21km is a leap; it is another leap from 21km to 42km. While purists may have it no other way, are these prefixed distances the only respectable way to graduate from short distance to long? Won’t intermediate distances be a fine way of hand holding aspiring runners in their progression of choice?

Well known ultra runner, Satish Gujaran mentioned this during a recent conversation. According to him, when he was introduced to running in South Africa and starting out as a distance runner, the context he found himself in was rich in a variety of distance races. There were plenty of organized outings offering intermediate distances bridging the gap between the better known, established distances. Further, many events in running also featured an associated event in walking. Back in Mumbai, Satish felt, such bridges were missing or at the very least, not adequately represented in the races / events / simple outings the running community has. While training for long distance runs, Mumbai’s runners have evolved private runs in which atypical, odd distances, which are suitable stepping stones to an eventual long distance in mind, are run with support. However as organized events, these odd distances – or bridge distances – rarely find fancy despite their relevance to the running community. Some events exist but they are a minority compared to the twenty ones and forty twos.

How about some bridges?

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


Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

The shutters of the shop window went up.

Ladakh’s pure sunshine lit up a modestly big space within. There were shelves to stock things and on the wall was a line of hooks to hang bicycles. One could imagine a counter for the manager and space around to park more cycles.  “ What do you think?’’ Tsering Sonam asked.

Besides trekking, mountaineering and river rafting, Ladakh is identified with cycling.

The Manali-Leh cycle trip is a much sought after attraction. Cyclists wishing to be off the beaten path explore less known, equally engaging routes. Tourists to Leh, especially those into the active lifestyle, often hire cycles from the town’s clutch of shops renting out mountain bikes. For a daily fee, rather stiff by the standards of yore (but then you are on a geared bicycle), you get a pair of wheels to go around town the healthy way. If you are serious cyclist who left his bike behind and travelled light to Ladakh, you can hire a mountain bike for a long trip across the region, including auxiliary services like camping gear, mechanic and support vehicle. Leh’s bike rental shops help you with that.

By the end of the 2015 tourist season, a missing link in the town’s cycling infrastructure will be addressed. Leh is set to get its first shop that will retail modern, premium bicycles. The town has a couple of shops that sell cycles manufactured by the traditional Indian bicycle companies. The new shop will deal in premium bicycles, essentially the imported brands finding favour with those into the active lifestyle. These are also the bicycle types defining Leh’s cycle rental business.

Summer Holidays, Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Summer Holidays, Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Leh’s cycle shops have gone through their ups and downs. The first to come up was Summer Holidays, in June 2006. It was begun by Stanzin Dorje, who had long been associated with the travel business. Joining him was his nephew Konchok Namgial. The initial fleet was a dozen or so used mountain bikes brought from Delhi. It was a phase fraught with teething troubles. Abused by customers in Ladakh’s rough terrain, the bicycles frequently broke down. Complicating matters was the issue of maintaining these bikes, quite different from the regular Indian-made bicycles. Neither did many in town know how to repair these relatively complicated models nor were spare parts easily available. It was a learning curve. Sumer Holidays was helped by two factors. First, Stanzin Dorje, who during his earlier times with the travel industry (he worked for a Delhi based-company) had led cycling groups elsewhere in India, was familiar with some of the work. Even today, he is one of the go to-persons in Leh for the skilled job of wheel-balancing. Second, Konchok Namgial began learning the craft of maintaining bicycles. To catalyse the process, Summer Holidays brought a mechanic from Delhi to Leh. However the market presence of premium bicycles in India at that time was so limited that the mechanic turned out to be inadequate in skills. The route ahead was clear – it will be learning by doing. Namgial soldiered on. According to Tsering Sonam, Namgial’s brother, in the wake of Summer Holidays opening shop several other similar establishments had commenced in Leh. But the ability to maintain a fleet proved a force of natural selection. Some shut shop; a few survived. Summer Holidays was among those that made it through.

The new bicycle store gets ready (Photo: courtesy Tsering Sonam)

The new bicycle store gets ready (Photo: courtesy Tsering Sonam)

As the market picked up, the shop’s fleet changed. In 2007, a foreign tourist gave a Trek 3900. Encouraged by the bike’s performance, Summer Holidays bought a clutch of Trek bikes from Delhi. This was followed by a handful of Merida cycles. The shop’s business was also helped by a product in Leh’s cycling experience it popularized. India has many high mountain passes. But Khardung La, near Leh, is distinct as the highest pass with a road through it. After coming to Leh, it is common for tourists to drive up to Khardunga La. Motorcyclists and SUV enthusiasts drive all the way from the plains to be at Khardung La and have it recorded for posterity in a video or photograph. Needless to say, Khardung La attracts cyclists. The product Summer Holidays popularized will irk the purist among cyclists but it caught the fancy of the recreational lot and the tourist seeking fun. The proposition offered was simple – drive up to Khardung La and then roll down the road on a bicycle, all the way to Leh. A mix of this product, daily rentals for cycling around town and long trips, kept Summer Holidays going. Today, in tourist season – essentially the months spanning Ladakh’s summer – Summer Holidays is a busy shop. “ In peak season, at least 20-25 people hire cycles every day,’’ Tsering Sonam said.

Summer Holidays now has an inventory of over 80 premium bicycles of which around 50 are in business. The balance is victim of a problem faced acutely in Leh given its remote location and if the cycling enthusiast elects to dig deep enough, likely elsewhere in India too – availability of spare parts. In fact, the idling cycles are sometimes cannibalised for spare parts to keep the rest of the fleet functional. This is one of the reasons inspiring commencement of a new, proper multi-brand bicycle store. Besides selling bicycles, the shop will stock spare parts and offer servicing to those in need of it after cycling to Leh from far. Tsering Sonam described an arrangement whereby the sale of cycles and spare parts happens from the new shop and the business of renting bikes and servicing of bikes continues from the old Summer Holidays location.

Photo: courtesy Tsering Sonam

Photo: courtesy Tsering Sonam

Some other factors too fuel the plan. In the decade since Summer Holidays opened shop in 2006 the Indian market for premium bicycles has evolved considerably. This evolution of the market shows in Summer Holidays’ fleet, which has both added brands (Giant being the new addition) and grown diverse in terms of bicycle specifications. Besides the regular sieving (which we are all used to as customers) based on thoroughly used cycles and the relatively new ones, the fleet for rent can be differentiated on the strength of number of gears, quality of derailleur, V-brakes, mechanical disc brakes, hydraulic disc brakes, adjustable suspension, suspension that can be locked out, suspension that can be remotely locked out etc. Intended application – whether local riding, going to Khardung La or cycling long distance – influences the quality of bicycle chosen and likely thereby, the hire charge. Unlike before customers nowadays are cognisant of technical subtleties. From a pure business perspective, there are people now willing to spend for acquiring a good geared bicycle. Such market evolution plus the profile of tourist visiting Ladakh – typically a person loving the active lifestyle – prompts the shop’s promoters to think that somebody may elect to buy a good bicycle in Leh. More relevant for business plans: over time, as the town’s bicycle shops grew, they not only enhanced their fleet size but also sold ageing cycles locally contributing to a rising base of used premium bicycles in Leh. Adding to this growing mass has been the occasional sale by the foreign cyclist passing through, who after a long journey done, chooses to sell or gift his / her bicycle. This local base of bicycles provides a captive market for spare parts, not to mention, potential aspiration by their owners to upgrade.

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Finally there is the truth that cycling is an environment friendly way of getting around, anywhere. Ladakh at an average elevation of over 9800ft is the deep end of the need to maintain a clean environment. Already in its thin, still air, vehicle exhaust and the smoke from shop generators are sensed by the human nose with a clarity that is more profound than how you sense the same in the plains. In Ladakh, vehicle fumes stand out. According to Tsering Sonam, the town’s renovation plans currently underway have it that once the main street and market have been done up, it will become a traffic free zone. Such moves provide oblique encouragement for cycling and highlight its environment friendliness. The proposed new bicycle shop in Leh, near Axis Bank and opposite the local office of the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), hopes to tap into all this. Like other towns, Leh has a cycling club now and Tsering Sonam envisioned something similar attached to the new shop as well.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: in the Indian bicycle market geared bikes, MTBs, hybrids – they all fall in the premium category. For an overview of the market please try this link: )       


Dr Kaustubh Radkar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr Kaustubh Radkar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We were at the PYC Gymkhana on Pune’s Bhandarkar Road.

Our mutual introduction and subsequent conversation had one shared quality – Dr Kaustubh Radkar spoke to the point. Except in places, he didn’t seem one for long sentences or the sort for whom, one sentence leads to many. You gauged pretty early, a penchant for brevity in the interviewee; the likely legacy of having been for long a competitive swimmer and after that, Ironman.

Kaustubh was born May 1982 in Pune, coincidentally the year Julie Moss fired popular imagination in the US with the mantra that finishing an Ironman is as good as victory. Moss, a college student then, had collapsed near the finish line. She crawled the rest of the way to complete her race. She didn’t give up. The incident was widely telecast in the US. It is unlikely anyone in India would have seen that telecast, now available on YouTube. In 1982, India was still a government monopoly in television broadcast and colour television commenced only that year, thanks to the New Delhi Asian Games. Ironman was probably unheard of. Indeed, according to the website of the Indian Triathlon Federation (ITF), the first triathlon in the country was held eight years later, in 1990.

The Radkars were a family of four; besides Kaustubh, there was his father, Sunil, who was a lawyer, mother, Nilima, a trained violinist and PhD in music and a sister, Deepti, three years elder to him, who was into swimming. She was a good swimmer who used to win medals at swimming competitions. At seven years of age, the boy followed his sister into swimming. It wasn’t a move with any aim in mind. He just followed. Nevertheless two years later, he was competing at swimming competitions and by the age of 11-12, he was winning medals at Pune level.

From Kaustubh's early days in the pool (Photo: by arrangement) Kaustubh

From Kaustubh’s early days in the pool (Photo: by arrangement)

We met Deepti at a cafe in suburban Mumbai. According to her, Sunil Radkar was a keen sportsman, particularly interested in baseball. He encouraged his children to take up sports. The family stayed not far from Pune’s iconic Tilak Tank. That is where Deepti and Kaustubh were introduced to swimming. Those days Tilak Tank was completely fed by subterranean springs, `L’ shaped and at 100 yards on its longer side, slightly less than double the length of an Olympic-sized pool. Today it is a modern swimming complex with only a portion retaining spring water, the old way. The siblings had diverse tastes in swimming – Deepti preferred the breast stroke and longer distances; Kaustubh took to freestyle and sprint. She recalled two coaches in particular – S.N. Karandikar and Srinidhi Sakharikar. Karandikar also organized swimming camps during the holidays. A day at one of these camps typically entailed a hill run, a few hours of swimming in the pool and lectures by sportspersons, nutritionists and motivational speakers. This was the environment in which Kaustubh’s swimming evolved. In 1995, at the national level school swimming championships held in Kolkata (Calcutta), he secured gold. Then based on his performance at the open nationals, where he was in the 15-17 age-group, in 1997 he got his first chance to represent India for races at the Asia-Pacific level. Speaking about the progression, Kaustubh said, “ initially I did not like swimming. It is a solitary pursuit, anti-social in a way and I wasn’t winning any medals. It was often serious practice, long practice sessions and few results to show. I was working as hard as any of the other kids and not getting anything. But at 13 years of age or so, the difference between talent and hard work started to show. That is when I started getting results and began enjoying it.’’

At the finish of Ironman, South Africa (Photo: by arrangement)

Finishing Ironman South Africa (Photo: by arrangement)

Apart by 150km, Mumbai and Pune are cities with different character and in sport, arguably different trajectories. Set by the sea, mercantile and open to the world, Mumbai was first off the mark in sporting greatness. Up and over the hills, located on the high Deccan Plateau and regarded as a sentinel of local culture, Pune took time catching up. Nowadays, Mumbai is the laggard in sports and adventure activity. In swimming, Kaustubh recalled, his years in the pool at school and university level, was the period Pune emerged from the shadow of Mumbai, Maharashtra’s erstwhile powerhouse in swimming. “ We were not afraid anymore,’’ Kaustubh said. Representing Pune University at the national university meet in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), he won six gold medals; one silver and a bronze in swimming. “ I was a specialist in the 100m, 200m and 400m-freestyle events,’’ he said. The Radkars were a family of lawyers. Although she made it to the nationals at university level, Deepti progressively found her calling in the arts and slowly veered off swimming. Kaustubh’s future, the family realized, may be in sport. “ The two of us not becoming lawyers was a major departure,’’ Deepti said.

Things weren’t rosy in India for a career in competitive swimming. Characteristic of Indian sports, there was much politics in swimming. Kaustubh started looking for opportunities to study and train overseas.  He wrote to American universities seeking to represent them in swimming. He was accepted at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, initially with 50 per cent scholarship. Later, after seeing his performance, another 10 per cent was added to the scholarship component and he was included in the Dean’s List. His chosen line of academics was: BSc in Exercise Science & Pre-medicine. Deepti felt that there was an experiential link between the solitary progression of the competitive swimmer and Kaustubh’s academic journey. Several colleges in the US have a sizable Indian student population. But as a student with strength in sports and seeking to grow in it, Kaustubh was at colleges overseas that didn’t always have a large Indian student population. He became more independent; his circle of friends was diverse. “ He is an excellent cook,’’ she said.

Judy and John Collins, at their induction into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. Triathletes from California, they introduced the triathlon to Hawaii on February 18, 1978 by creating and staging the first endurance tyriathlon, The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, a swim/bike/run course that circled the island of Oahu. The Ironman course linked the minimum 2.4mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, an estimated 112 miles of the 115 mile Round Oahu Bike Course and the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon (Photo: courtesy Judy and John Collins)

Judy and John Collins, at their induction into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. Triathletes from California, they introduced the triathlon to Hawaii on February 18, 1978 by creating and staging the first endurance triathlon, The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, a swim/bike/run course that circled the island of Oahu. The Ironman course linked the minimum 2.4mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, an estimated 112 miles of the 115 mile Round Oahu Bike Course and the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon. This is how Ironman started. (Photo: courtesy Judy and John Collins)

Training in the US was a remarkably different experience. The Indian approach to being a better swimmer was to swim, swim and keep on swimming. The coach postured as a know-it-all. In the US, approach to sport was a convergence of different streams ranging from practising the sport to strength training and nutrition. There were separate teachers for each stream and none posed as a know-it-all. “ If you compare it hours for hours, you probably spend fewer hours in the pool there. But the recovery time is productively used for a lot of related training,’’ Kaustubh said. Another major difference was – the Indian approach focussed on the individual; training in the US focussed on teams. The entire team travelled together, trained together and cheered each other. Every weekend there was a swimming meet where Kaustubh’s university competed with some other university from the region. The daily training spanned 6AM to 8AM and 3.30PM to 6PM. There was only one session on Saturday. After two years of such training, he was either the best or second best swimmer on the team. He finished his programme by May 2003. “ I was pretty burnt out from swimming by then,’’ he said.

Kaustubh joined the University of Wisconsin to do his Masters in Cardiovascular Physiology with specialization in rehabilitation of people with heart and lung disease. This was an intense course with hospital-internship; it lasted till December 2005. During this period, he swam little. But he began running. Although from the same stable of endurance, swimming and running are two entirely different animals. Running is a high impact sport; swimming is not. One is partial to upper body-engagement; the other is wholly lower body-engagement. “ The transition from swimming to running was challenging initially. The good thing was I already had the required endurance,’’ Kaustubh said. Starting with 5km and 10km runs, he slowly graduated to distance running.  In 2006, he ran the New York City Marathon. His participation at this prized event was a matter of luck. The daughter of one of his patients worked with the Road Runners Club. They gave him a slot to run the marathon.

In 2007, Kaustubh shifted to Boulder, Colorado. He was now in the outdoor capital of the US. As he put it – in other cities people talk of which party they went to on a weekend; here they talked of the running, cycling or climbing they did. While in Boulder, he joined a Masters Swimming Programme, marking a return to swimming. By 2008, he had placed fourth in the US Masters Swimming Championship in the 200 and 400 yards freestyle events. He also took part in the Denver Marathon of 2007. His swimming coach at the Masters Programme was a triathlete; almost 90 per cent of the trainees at the programme were triathletes. It wasn’t long before curiosity set in. His friends mentioned Ironman. It seemed like a good challenge. Started in Hawaii in 1978 and since staged at various locations worldwide, the Ironman is essentially an extended triathlon. The full Ironman entailed 3.8km of swimming, 180km of cycling and 42km of running, all of it back-to-back. According to Kaustubh, full Ironman races in America have 17 hours as overall cut-off time. Within 17 hours, 2 hours 30 minutes is cut-off time for the swim, 8:10 for cycling and 6:30 for running. In comparison, the Olympic format of the triathlon features a 1.5km-swim, 40km of cycling and a 10km-run. He signed up for his first Ironman – a full Ironman – due in Arizona in six month’s time. As part of training, in 2008 June, Kaustubh did a half Ironman in Lubbock, Texas. He finished in 5 hours 59 minutes.

Kaustubh finishing the 3.8 km-swim at Ironman Brazil (Photo: by arrangement)

Kaustubh finishing the 3.8 km-swim at Ironman Brazil (Photo: by arrangement)

“ Arizona was really nice. The water was cold and I had to borrow a wet suit for the day. I had the fastest time in the swim segment at 47 minutes and 37 seconds. The cycling was okay. I had two punctures, the first at 120km and the second at 170km. I fixed both myself as you lose time waiting for the mechanics. The run went as planned. Overall I finished in 11 hours, 41 minutes. I was very happy,’’ Kaustubh said. He had overcome the main challenges – training the lower body for the strength and endurance demanded by running and cycling and surmounting the mental barrier in cycling, the sport – among triathlon’s three – he felt least connected to. The outcome at Arizona was also despite the fact that he was working full time. “ Kaustubh’s shift to the triathlon was completely unexpected. The Ironman was a surprise for us. It was only when he shared the timing he had in Ironman and details like you are doing the three disciplines back to back, that the enormity of it hit us,’’ Deepti said. In December 2008, Kaustubh moved to the East Coast, to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, where he commenced work at the hospital’s cardiology department. Between 2008 and 2013, he did four full Ironman races. This included races in Canada (2009), Lake Placid, New York (2010 & 2012) and Idaho (2011). “ I was doing an Ironman every year,’’ he said. Amid this, he enrolled for a MBA programme in Health Care at Johns Hopkins and then halfway into the MBA, added a PhD programme also to the list. These commitments were among reasons that kept his participation at Ironman to one race per year.

In 2013, with a few Ironman races now in his kitty, he designed a goal for himself – do a full Ironman in every continent. “ It was just something I came up with. Two other people had done it till then and it seemed a nice thing to aspire for,’’ Kaustubh said. The new goal entailed some specific challenges. Different locations come with different peculiarities, most important being difference in weather conditions. Then there is the issue of resident weather condition at one’s base – how much training one can do and how much training in those conditions may be relevant to the location you are planning to go. His new pursuit in the Ironman fold started off in May 2013, with the race in Port Macquarie, Australia. This was followed up with a full Ironman in Wisconsin, where he registered his personal best – 11:03 hours. That year – 2013 – also became the first year in which he did two full Ironman races. In December 2013, Kaustubh returned to India. He had always wanted to start something of his own in his line of work.

Cycling at Ironman Zurich (Photo: by arrangement)

Cycling at Ironman Zurich (Photo: by arrangement)

Meanwhile his pet project continued. In July 2014, he went for the Ironman in Frankfurt completing it in 12:11. In September, he was at Langkawi, Malaysia, finishing the event there in 13:24. In November, he did the Ironman at Fortaleza, Brazil in 13:49. If in 2013, he did two Ironman races, he ended 2014 with three races done in a year. In March 2015, went to Port Elizabeth, South Africa for the Ironman there, completing it in 13.22. With that Kaustubh had done an Ironman event on all the six continents it is held. In July 2015, he raced at Zurich, Switzerland, finishing the race there in 12:32. It was the first time he coached four others to participate; two did, the others couldn’t get visas in time and so hoped to do an Ironman later in Malaysia. Two weeks after Zurich, Kaustubh completed the Ironman in Boulder, Colorado in 12:31. “ I don’t advise that,’’ he said pointing to both the need for time to recover between races and that fact that Boulder is at an elevation of over 5000ft. He now has a new goal coming up. After you have finished 12 Ironman races, you gain entry into the Legacy Programme. Under this provision, you get a slot for the Ironman World Championship held annually at Kona, Hawaii. Kaustubh has so far participated in and completed 13 Ironman races. He hopes that his slot for the World Championship will come in 2017. “ The World Championship is always a big dream for anyone who has done an Ironman. That’s the birthplace of Ironman,’’ he said.

In the years since he returned to India, Kaustubh began Radrx, a clinic that attends to people with heart and lung diseases, cancer and also deals with sports medicine. Additionally, he is associated with two hospitals (going on to three) in Pune. Of direct relevance to sport, he started Radstrong Coaching which specializes in coaching for running and triathlon. In January 2015, he got married; his wife, Madhuvanti, is a PhD in Pharmacology. He estimates that around 20-25 people from India have so far finished the full Ironman. He has set a goal for Radstrong: coach 100 Indians to finish an Ironman by 2020. At some point, he would also like to bring Ironman to India. This is not an easy task for multiple reasons.

With others at a triathlon training camp (Photo: by arrangement)

With others at a triathlon training camp (Photo: by arrangement)

Most locations hosting the Ironman have a sizable resident community already into the triathlon. This is crucial because an event cannot survive by banking wholly on foreign visitors. India’s triathlon-community is yet small. At present, the Indian hotspot in terms of people interested in the Ironman is Bengaluru (Bangalore). Pune, Mumbai and Delhi are catching up. In Chennai and Hyderabad, local clubs have organized races sporting Ironman-distances. But there is a long way to go. Then there are India’s infrastructural challenges. The Ironman event requires the portion of road used for running and cycling to be closed for the whole duration of the event. That means a road being closed to traffic for 17 hours. Ironman events happen outdoors. The swimming segment needs a suitable water body and while the water body can be a river, lake or a portion of sea, it could be a challenge finding a water body in India that is presentable at the international level. “ For now, Goa looks promising,’’ Kaustubh said. There is also another angle to India’s relation with water. While abroad, swimmers turned triathletes are common, in India those moving to the triathlon are mostly from running and cycling. As in sailing, the country’s engagement with swimming smacks of reluctance despite its shores graced by major seas and water bodies available inland (for an idea of India’s evolving relation with sailing, please see the series on Sagar Parikrama at this link:

The question plays on the lips of the curious: will there be an Ironman race in India?

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Where photo credit says ` by arrangement,’ the photo concerned has been sourced from Dr Kaustubh Radkar. The authors would like to thank Judy and John Collins for allowing the use of their photograph.)