Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I don’t remember my first pair of shoes.

I do remember that it took me a while to master tying shoe laces.

It is a long learning curve to perfect knot.

At first, you overlook dissimilar lengths of lace on the right and left sides and end up with an imbalanced knot. Then you overlook applying the right tug at each twist and end up with a poorly constructed wobbly knot begging to come undone. After much trial and error, you get it right – a balanced, adequately tight knot keeping everything in place. Once that stage is achieved, you learn finer aspects like how to adjust the knot without undoing the whole thing.

Most of us begin our tryst with shoes laces around the same time we commence our tryst with school. Years later, wearing the black shoes of office, the pattern of relationship is similar. The shoes arrive well made and polished from the store. For some time, every speck of dust on its polished sheen is unbearable. You frequently inspect the shoes, wipe it clean. Then you realize that loss of sheen is inevitable. To be around is to weather. Enter that phase when instead of constant eagle eye on shoe, once every few days you dust, clean and polish it. Then as the activities causing wear and tear became more important than shiny shoe, black shoe acquires creases. Sometimes, the shoe sports a patch of dull leather where the outer layer has flaked off with intense use. Polished, it is shiny black where leather is still intact; in other places, a sort of matt finish-black intervenes. Through all this wear and tear right up to eventual retirement of shoe, one thing consistently improved at school – your ability to tie shoe laces. You tied them well, you tied them fast. Till it got burnt into your brain like a permanent tattoo. The art of tying a shoe lace is widespread skill acquired early in life that it is rarely called `skill.’ It has dissolved to being part of one’s being. We don’t analyse the art of tying a shoe lace to notice the framework of learning it brought. On the other hand, even after mastering it, we always questioned the knot seeking ways to escape it.

Sometime in high school, I recall buying my first pair of black slip-on shoes. It was an attempted premature graduation to adulthood for many adults sported slip-on shoes. But life at school was way too active for slip-ons to stay securely on the feet. How do you run with shoes that tend to fly off? I returned to shoe laces. The only time I reverted thereafter to shoes without laces was in rock climbing. My personal impression is that the world of rock climbing is neither for nor against laces, it has its moments of respecting laces and moments when it values alternatives. My first pair of climbing shoes was a lace-up. It took time to lace up and be ready for a climb. My second pair was also a lace-up but it was so for a particular reason – precision. Climbing demands attention to choice of shoe. There is a lot of foot-technique involved and accordingly shoes are designed to deliver. Many climbing shoes are designed to focus the foot’s strength on the big toe; some others are designed for sensitivity, yet others are shaped to generate friction for smearing. Some are specialists for certain types of climbs; others are all rounders. There are also a few other expectations that arise with continued climbing – when you are in the thick of climbing and having fun with your friends at a climbing wall or boulder, you don’t want to waste time tying shoe laces. Sometimes, you are so focussed on a boulder problem that you don’t want your shoes interfering with the climb. You just want to go. Enter Velcro. However from what I know, Velcro isn’t as precise in harnessing foot strength as a lace-up. Velcro is convenient. My third pair of climbing shoes used Velcro straps; I had much fun in them.

Velcro is photography in auto focus to lace-up’s art. You know this because you tied laces long enough – right from school – to know what art is. That’s when you reflect upon the first knot learnt long ago; the movement it taught your fingers, the hand-eye co-ordination you acquired and the imagination the act of tracing the knot lent your mind. True, climbers tell you: don’t take your climbing knot as casually as you would your shoe lace-knot; and rightly so, for the consequences are serious in climbing. What we forget is that we bring to bear on the climbing knot an understanding of knot and ability to make it, honed on the humbler, less sexy shoe lace. Marry that comprehension and imagination to a purpose with far more serious consequences – you get the mindset for learning a climbing knot. In small acts performed, lay the seed for bigger ones. My repertoire of climbing knots is limited because my flair for them isn’t much. That’s my adult mind. As a late entrant to climbing, when I struggled with climbing knots, wondering what I should do to remember how each is made, I did think about my tryst with the shoe lace. Unfortunately the child in me is a whole middle age away in the past to revisit and ask: how did you do it?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The other day in a Mumbai suburban train, a college student treated me to an ultra fast completion of the Rubik’s Cube puzzle. His fingers flew. I noticed that even the way he held the cube was different – it was worked back from the requirement to flick and flip the squares fast. Solving a puzzle is not just an individual’s flair at specific art; it is one of nature’s evolutionary masterpieces showcased – our being as this evolved machinery capable of solving problems. I wonder what all that young man must have been doing in a physiological and psychological sense when he solved the puzzle of the Rubik’s Cube. If you slow down the process to notice – there is motor activity, motor activity co-ordination, imagination, imagination of things as they were, as they are and how they will be, not to mention, all this happening at once. Muscles twitching, neurons firing, eyes darting, mind focusing – it is thoroughly engaging. I got my first Rubik’s Cube in high school. Those days it wasn’t available in India; it was typically brought from overseas. In my case, a family friend visiting from the US gifted it. Now, decades later, Rubik’s Cube is easily available in India. Its days of popularity are over. It is the committed, who stay with it. That college student in the train was working specifically on how to solve the problem super fast. He was timing his effort, trying to match a certain timing he had read about. Even his cube had evolved; unlike the cube I had, his was designed to flip around fast.

Examples ranging from climbing to Rubik’s Cube, make me wonder: what would have been our first puzzle; the first challenge requiring us to focus, marshal our intelligence, focus our faculties to pay attention to a given task and co-ordinate the effort to produce a result? Some of us may say – sitting, walking etc. I submit these are underlying expectations from life, things we do without exercising deliberate choice; probably why those tasks are attempted by children like genetic programming unleashed. I think tying a shoe lace is definitely one of the earliest puzzles we consciously wrestled with; it is almost in the same league as a Rubik’s Cube, something not essential for existence but quite fascinating if you meditate on what it leaves behind as imprint. The puzzles we choose and the ones we grow to like, betray our preferred style of thinking. Solving a puzzle can also tell us much about our level of mental alertness. At high altitude the humble shoe lace-knot has often been an index of alertness and well being for me. When your fingers find it a chore being dexterous enough for the task, you know the cold is getting to you. When your mind finds it a chore, then you know that both cold and exhaustion have got to you. Sometimes the need to pause and focus on tying a shoe lace slows down world flying by. It helps you gather your thoughts, gives you time to breathe. When you do that, you sense yourself. You know you are alive. Breath is life.

Mid-March 2016, I was at the office of a media company thriving on product reviews, when somebody excitedly mentioned about a leading shoe manufacturer’s just concluded press briefing.  That night, browsing the Internet, I discovered the reason for the press conference – the company had launched a new shoe model, one that automatically tightened its shoe laces. The video showed a foot slipping into a shoe with ankle guard; the laces automatically tightened to snug-fit. There were no fingers weaving lace into a knot, actually there was no knot, only a few parallel lines of perfectly aligned, well tightened shoe lace. It was the end of an old puzzle. It wasn’t puzzle solved and therefore puzzle ended as was the case when we learnt to tie those laces and burnt the art into muscle memory. It was puzzle eradicated. An opportunity to learn lost? – I don’t know. I am no psychologist or researcher of human behaviour to hold forth on that angle. But I do wonder: what will be the nature of human being growing out from those `high tech’ shoes with no lace to knot. What will a society of such people be like. Hopefully, as with climbing’s lace-up and Velcro, it isn’t a question of one replacing the other but both, coexisting.

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


KC Kothandapani (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

KC Kothandapani (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We were at the big Nike shop on Brigade Road in Bengaluru (Bangalore) having a look at the shoes and apparel around, when a young salesman on the second floor mentioned of his new found interest – running.

As the conversation progressed, he invited us to a small room behind the sales floor with posters of running, including one from what appeared to be the Bengaluru chapter of the Nike Run Club (NRC). Prominent in the photo was the gentleman we had met just the day before at the city’s Kanteerava Stadium.

Krishnaswamy Naidu Chakrapani Kothandapani or K.C. Kothandapani as he is known had given us a true runner’s appointment – meet at 7.30 AM. It was pleasant in Bengaluru at that hour, adequate proof for why many runners – professional and amateur – choose the city to train in. There were people running loops on the track at Kanteerava Stadium. Towards one of the curved ends of the track, a group of people were engaged in stretching. A man, distinctly athletic in bearing, stood among them, a file of papers in his hand. We were looking for a person we hadn’t met before. All we knew was – he is runner and coach. It has to be the one with the papers, we concurred. We were right. The restaurant outside the stadium served as venue for conversation. He had breakfast with his fellow runners, then, came over to join us. A young runner concerned about a detail in his training requested a minute from “ Pani Sir.’’ Matter addressed the coach spoke to us; he spoke in a composed, measured fashion.

1982-83 Air Force team prior to taking part in the Inter Services Athletics Championship held in Kochi, Kerala (Photo: courtesy Kothandapani)

The 1982-83 Indian Air Force team – Kothandapani in foreground, second from left – prior to taking part in the Inter Services Athletics Championship held in Kochi, Kerala (Photo: courtesy Kothandapani)

K.C. Kothandapani is among the best known coaches for running in Bengaluru, probably India. He is often, a podium finisher in his age category at races in the city and elsewhere. At the 2016 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), he finished second in the full marathon in the 55-60 years age category, completing the race in 3:42:12. Fifty eight years old when we met him, he was born November 1957 at Saidapet in Chennai, the eldest of three brothers and three sisters. The family was Telugu speaking; Kothandapani’s father worked at the Mysore State Electricity Board, the progenitor of today’s swankier sounding BESCOM. Young Kothandapani’s education was in Karnataka. “ I used to play some games in childhood. Mostly cricket,’’ he said. He matured to be a fast bowler, good enough to play in the initial rungs of league level cricket. Upon completing his college education, Kothandapani had to immediately look for a job as his family was big and he was the eldest son. In 1976, he applied to the Indian Air Force (IAF), joining the service in 1977. The first chapter therein was a 52 week-long training program at Belgaum in north Karnataka. At the training centre, for the first six months, he took to boxing. Then, for the local games he was drafted to run the 800m. That was the beginning of his relationship with running.

Kothandapani nearing the finishing line at the 1987 Air Force Cross Country Championship, Mt Abu, Rajasthan

Kothandapani crossing the finishing line at the 1987 Air Force Cross Country Championship, Mt Abu, Rajasthan

After training at Belgaum, he was posted to the IAF station at Kanpur, which fell under the Air Force’s Maintenance Command. There he formally got coached to be a runner. In his first year at Kanpur over enthusiasm earned him running injuries. Recovery entailed systematic training. “ In my case, everything was there from day one,’’ Kothandapani said of how the armed forces approached sports and how that in turn left its mark on him as a coach known for systematic approach. In his early days in the Air Force, he ran the 800m and 1500m, getting podium finishes in these disciplines. These were typically distances, athletes ran with spikes. “ I never used to run in shoes at that time. I ran barefoot,’’ Kothandapani said. Realizing that the use of spikes diminished with distance he shifted out from the 1500m and 800m, to cross country races. At that time, the standard distance for cross country was 14 km (today it is 12 km). He learnt soon enough that barefoot and cross country can be testing on one’s soles. He began using shoes. From this shift onward till he took voluntary retirement from the IAF in 1998, he remained a cross country runner. Except for two occasions; the first of which happened in 1989, when he was posted at Jalahalli in Bengaluru and the Training Command suddenly required a replacement for a marathoner. As part of his training for cross country, Kothandapani used to run long distances on weekends. He stepped in as replacement. The marathon was a team event. Running his first marathon so, he came in third with a timing of 2 hours 49 minutes, his best so far. That position, combined with a colleague’s second place finish in the same marathon, helped Training Command beat Western Command to clinch the championship. Kothandapani ran a second marathon in the IAF in 1992, when he was posted in Allahabad. He finished this race with a timing of 3:12.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Kothandapani retired as a sergeant from the Air Force. Post retirement he worked for some time with a friend who ran a super market. For 10 years, from 1998 to 2008, his training as runner was erratic. Bengaluru’s well known TCS 10k, then called Sunfeast 10k, was the point of serious resumption. In May 2008, he ran at this event for the first time. In the years that followed Kothandapani would finish first in his age category, four times. Till 2008, Kothandapani had trained by himself. Things changed that year when the Nike Run Club (NRC) commenced in Bengaluru; it was the first NRC in India. Sometime in 2009, Kothandapani also suffered a personal tragedy. He and his wife Sujatha had two children – a son, Karthik, and a daughter, Deepshika, who now works with an IT firm. In 2009, Karthik passed away. “ I feel sad when I think about him,’’ Kothandapani said. Running helped the healing process.

“ Many of the committed runners of the city trained with NRC. Every Saturday and Sunday we reported to Kanteerava Stadium for training,’’ he said. It wasn’t long before Kothandapani with many years behind him as runner, became a part of the coaching team at NRC. One of the runners he met through NRC was Thomas Bobby Philip. Although he was new to running, Bobby was a motivated runner, keen to become good at the sport. Bobby and Kothandapani were often running partners. Bobby used to encourage the soft spoken Kothandapani to do something about the wealth of experience he had in running. Thus was born PaceMakers, a group of runners anchored by Kothandapani, training under his guidance. “ I must give full credit for this to Bobby. For one year I dodged him while he persisted with his suggestion. One running group which was doing 12 marathons in 12 months, asked Bobby to coax me into training them. Eventually it worked,’’ Kothandapani said. PaceMakers started off with 7-12 members. As of February 2016, it had 157 members. They run every week on Tuesday, Thursday and either Saturday or Sunday.  On Tuesday, they focus on interval runs on the 400m track at Kanteerava Stadium. On Thursday, it is tempo run, uphill run and fartlek. On Saturday or Sunday, it is a long run.

KC Kothandapani (foreground) and Thomas Bobby Philip (yellow T-shirt at the back) at the 2011 Bengaluru Ultra (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

KC Kothandapani (foreground) and Thomas Bobby Philip (yellow T-shirt at the back) at the 2011 Bengaluru Ultra (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

Kothandapani outlined the annual training calendar, which imaginatively uses Bengaluru’s much loved 10k and Mumbai’s SCMM as two main reference points with the Bengaluru Marathon typically scheduled for October, as a third in between. The first five months of training dwell on preparations for the 10k; the year thereafter deals with the half marathon at the Bengaluru Marathon before shifting focus to the full marathon at SCMM. Typically therein for each discipline, the first five weeks focuses on base endurance, the second five weeks blends endurance to speed endurance, the next four weeks concentrates on race strategy and pace and the last week is reserved for tapering, reducing the volume of training by 50 per cent. “ Every fourth week is an easy step-down week, when the training volume is reduced by 50 per cent,’’ Kothandapani said. He is quite particular about warm-up and cool down stretches. The warm-up starts with a four kilometre-run at slow pace followed by 15-20 minutes of dynamic exercises. At the end of the work-out, runners do a two kilometre-jog followed by stretches for about half an hour.

In 2009, Mumbai based-runner Mani Iyer had just finished his first half marathon. Introduced by a friend to Runners for Life (RFL), it was through RFL that he secured his contacts with experienced seniors. Many discussions used to happen on the RFL website; Kothandapani who was then a coach with NRC was a regular at these chats, providing tips and comments. “ He used to regularly share his workouts which included steps to be taken before and after running like warm-up, cool down and hydration.  For every new runner in the half marathon, sub- two hours was prized goal and Pani Sir in those days was a sub-100 minutes half marathon runner,’’ Mani said. Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) is among Mumbai’s best known running groups. On the first Sunday of every month they organize a run from Bandra to NCPA (Nariman Point) in the city, approximately half marathon-distance. For the second anniversary of this run on July 1, 2012, the group invited Kothandapani to join them. Mani recalled the morning of Saturday, a day before the Bandra-NCPA run. On Juhu beach, Kothandapani shared his knowledge on running. “ This was followed by almost an hour of warm-up. It was the most comprehensive warm-up I had done,’’ Mani said.

KC Kothandapani with a memento after the 2012 Bandra-NCPA anniversary run. Also seen are Giles Drego, Milton and Ram Venkatraman (Photo: courtesy Mani Iyer)

Kothandapani with a memento after the 2012 Bandra-NCPA anniversary run in Mumbai. Also seen are Giles Drego, Milton Frank and Ram Venkatraman of MRR (Photo: courtesy Mani Iyer)

On that 2012 trip, Kothandapani stayed with Bhasker Desai. Separated by a few years, Bhasker and Kothandapani sometimes found themselves running in the same age category.  “ We fondly call him Pani Sir. And he truly deserves and earns that suffix! He is not just a good runner, he is a fine gentleman, someone who leads his pack from the front. Yet he is humble and grounded, never making a noise, letting his work speak for itself. He has trained many good runners. Thomas Bobby Philip and Neera Katwal come to mind immediately, just to name two from his band of many,’’ Bhasker said.

Seventy seven years before the Sunfeast 10k run started in Bengaluru, a man was born in England, who would redefine the meaning of running for many picking up the sport in their later years. While Fauja Singh may be the oldest man around running a marathon, Ed Whitlock has timings that would stun any young runner. His Wikipedia page describes him as the oldest man to run a sub-three hours marathon, which he did at the age of 69. His timing was 2:52:47. At the age of 74, he ran the marathon in 2:58:40. He holds the world record for men in the 70-74 years age category with a full marathon run at age 73 in 2:54:48. The Wikipedia page includes a full marathon run in 3:15:54 in the 80-84 years age category. Born March 1931, Whitlock would now be 85 years old. “ I get much inspiration from him,’’ Kothandapani said. Having participated in many races in the domestic circuit, in 2015, Kothandapani travelled to the US to run the Boston and Big Sur marathons. The Boston Marathon is held every April on the third Monday (Patriots Day) while Big Sur in California, follows five days later. For Kothandapani, plans ahead include attempting the world’s oldest ultra marathon, The Comrades, in South Africa in 2017 (for more on The Comrades, please visit this link:

Kothandapani during The Run of Raramuri Tribe, Bengaluru, 2014 (Photo: courtesy Kothandapani)

Kothandapani during The Run of Raramuri Tribe, Bengaluru, 2014 (Photo: courtesy Kothandapani)

We asked Kothandapani what qualities he liked in a runner. On top were the “ four Ds’’ – discipline, dedication, devotion and determination. Second was, remembering to give equal importance for nutrition alongside all the attention awarded for training. Third – adequate importance for rest. “ Sleep is important,’’ he said, adding, “ people are not taking proper rest.’’ He knows the ill effects of inadequate rest well, training people in a city that is the IT capital of India. Companies keep punishing, stressful schedules. It is a pattern of life every emerging Asian economy goes through; decades ago it was Japan, then Korea and the South East Asian economies, then China, now India. As people seek relief from this grind, the number of people trying the physically active lifestyle is growing. Kothandapani recommends that beginners stick to the simple basics first; do the basics for long before loading up on training. Fourth is the principle of specificity – the art of keeping your training relevant and appropriate for desired outcome. Finally and perhaps above all, Kothandapani said, “ be gentle on yourself. People must not take things too seriously. They must not obsess with a goal. You risk feeling dejected if you do so. You must take things sportingly.’’

That last bit stayed in mind.

As the young man at the Nike shop spoke about his running, we dipped into borrowed wisdom and suggested gently: take things slowly, enjoy your running.

Kothandapani at SCMM 2016 (Photo: courtesy Kothandapani)

Kothandapani at SCMM 2016 (Photo: courtesy Kothandapani)


Bangalore Ultra 2013

50k — 4:47:52 — First — Senior Men.


SCMM 2016 3:42:12 – Second – Senior Veteran Category (55 – 65 yrs)



SCMM 2015 – 3:42:57– Fourth – Senior Veteran Category (55–65 Yrs).

SCMM 2014 – 3:35:54 – Second – Senior Veteran Category (55–65 Yrs).

SCMM 2013 — 3:42:32 — Second — Senior Veteran Category (55–65 Yrs).

SCMM 2012 — 3:38:32 — Eleventh — Veteran Category (45–55 Yrs).

Air Force Athletics Championship, Allahabad, (95–96) — 3:12:00 — Second.

Air Force Athletics Championship, Bangalore, (87–88) – 2:59:00 — Third.

Half Marathon

Satara Hill Marathon — 2015 — 1:45:46 — Third — (55-64 Yrs)

Spirit Of Wipro Run – 2015 – 1:38:27.

Ajmera Thump Celebration Run — 2014 — 1:40:10 — Fourth— Senior Men

Airtel Hyderabad Marathon — 2014 — 1:39:49 — First — Super Veteran.

IBM Bluemix Monsoon Marathon — 2014 — 1:33:23 — Fifth — Open Category.

Mysore Celebration Run — 2013 — 1:38:00 — Third — Senior Men.

Airtel Hyderabad Marathon — 2013 — 1:44:25 — First — Super Veteran.

Ajmera Thump Celebration Run — 2013 — 1:42:12 — Third — Senior Men

Mysore Celebration Run — 2012 — 1:40:03 — Third — Senior Men.

Kaveri Trail Half Marathon

2010 — 1:35:20 –Second — Senior Men.

TCS World 10k Bangalore

2015 — 42:58 – First  — U 60 Yrs.

2014 — 44:00 – Fifth – U 60 Yrs.

2013 — 45:16 — First — U 60 Yrs.

2012 — 44:10 — First — U 60 Yrs.

2011— 44:00 — First  — U 60 Yrs.

Sunfeast World 10k Bangalore

2010 — 43:26 — Second — U 60 Yrs.

2009 — 46:43 — Third — U 60 Yrs.

Kaveri Trail Marathon ( KTM )

2009 10k — 42:43 — First — Senior Men.

16th Asia Masters Athletics Championship, Malaysia, Dec 2010

5000m — Sixth — 19:50.7 Sec.

34th National Masters Athletics Championship, Bangalore, June 2013

3000m Steeple Chase — First — 13:39.9 Sec.

5000m Run — Third — 23:08.4 Sec.

10,000m Run — Third — 45:26.4 Sec.

31st National Masters Athletics Championship, Tamil Nadu, Feb, 2010

5000m — Third — 19:50.4 Sec.

Urban Stampede 2010

4 X 5k — Mixed Category — First — 1:22.36 Sec.

Air Force Athletics Championship, Kanpur — (92–93)

3000m Steeple Chase — 00:10:17.19 Sec.

10,000m Run — Third — 00:36:11.00 Sec.

Air Force Athletics Championship, Agra — (81–82)

800m – Third — 00:1:59.0 Sec

1500m – Second — 00:4:12.0 Sec

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more on Bhasker Desai please see For more on Thomas Bobby Philip please see    


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On the poster of `Race,’ actor Stephen James looks you straight in the eye.

A front shot of the signature Jesse Owens pose, it is an expression of absolute focus; the edge of his palm in line with his nose, splitting his face and creased forehead into two halves. Each half is defined by a raised eyebrow with an eye below preying on a distant object – a finish line. The palm, the creased forehead, the eyebrows, the eyes – they emphasise his concentration to the expense of all else.

What that poster conveys is the strength of Stephen Hopkins’s film. It tells an uncluttered, linear story that is almost a documentary on Jesse Owens. Denied melodrama, the film lets sport and its main protagonist, be noticed. Despite the light physical build of the classical athlete, his position in script is secure. The casting is balanced. The acting is right sized; a powerful actor like Jeremy Irons shines in his role but doesn’t squeeze others out. Amid the simmering race relations in the US of that time, the racist views of the Nazis and the growing danger in Nazism, sport shines through. There is the relation between Coach Larry Snyder and Owens. But I remember more other instances. There is a dialogue in the film, one that speaks the perspective of sport: when you are running there is no black and white; there is only fast and slow. In age of propaganda, we see the equation between Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl. When Goebbels uses a construction project to bait builder and sports official Avery Brundage, in Berlin to evaluate whether American participation is possible in a Nazi run-Olympics, we see the colour of money (a 1999 article on the Berlin Olympics, in The New York Times, mentions a 1938 letter from Germany in the University of Illinois archives, indicating acceptance of the bid by Brundage’s construction firm to help build the German Embassy in Washington). There is the amazement America’s black athletes have in discovering no separate quarters for them at Berlin’s Olympic village. Then there is that conversation between Owens and Carl “ Luz’’ Long, the German long jumper Owens beat to second position. Long reveals his disapproval of racism under the autocratic Nazis and his belief that the democratic US system is better causing Owens to say reflectively that he isn’t sure. The scene sums up the predicament of individual in collective, then and now. Race is a good film. See it.

However, a linear narrative denies as much as it shows. Owens is an athlete at times of racial discrimination in the US. Across the Atlantic, Germany consumed by notions of racial supremacy, views the 1936 Olympic Games awarded to Berlin, as an opportunity to showcase country under Hitler. America contemplates boycotting the Berlin Olympics to display its aversion for the Nazis’ racist policies and anti-Semitism even as transport buses on its own roads kept separate seats for African American people. Amid this, in 1933 and 1935 (as per the Internet) , Owens equals the world record in the 100 yard dash, becoming one of the top sprinters on the planet. Whether he should participate in the Olympics or not – easily answered in his athlete’s mind – becomes a vexing question for the African-American community. He is confused. It is a web of charged histories with athlete entangled. The film doesn’t delve deep into these trends shaping Owens’s times, even his life. Although eventual outcome is a film I found more watchable than what Bollywood served up on India’s best known sprinter, it must be said that in as much as the Indian film traded sport for the muscular nationalism loved by prevailing market, Hollywood embraced sport and breezed over history, including personal history. You suspect a more creative script may have accommodated those times better. I wouldn’t mind it even if the resultant film was called `1936.’ As sport becomes event management and event becomes the hunting ground of those seeking power, sport isn’t sure anymore what happened to it. That perennial question of individual in collective isn’t just a social, political or business question; it is a question in sport too, a question of what you lose in sport when you want sport on grand scale or want sport to prove a point.

Race ends showing Owens and his wife taking the freight elevator to attend a reception in his honour because coloured people aren’t allowed entry via the hotel’s main entrance. This is in the US, soon after he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. There is no hint, except as epilogue in text, of what followed. Owens returned to America from Berlin with no congratulatory message from the President of his own country. His sporting career ended early. Wanting to capitalize on his post-Berlin fame, he took up some commercial offers as a consequence of which, officials withdrew his `amateur’ status.  Denied participation in amateur events and unable to sustain his reputation, his commercial offers dried up. This forced him to run for spectacle, including racing against horses. He ran a dry cleaning business and even worked as a gas station attendant. He eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966 he was prosecuted for tax evasion. It was after this, that recognition and help came.

When you read this on Wikipedia, you realize how important it is for a biographical film to pick up those portions of a person’s life, which tell as much of his story as possible. In Owens case it is tough to do so for he packed much into his life, not to mention, his times was equally packed with social issues and political developments. How do you make a script of it all? Problem is – the moment one heard of a film on Owens, one thought of `Ray.’ The film on the singer-musician progressively built his character. You understood from where each brick came. The Owens of Race appeared parachuted into the movie, inhabiting it for a while and then disappearing with a scene, which is the last in the film but we know is the beginning of a tough phase for the athlete. If a man’s life is a reel of film, then Race with its linear narrative, has snipped and showcased the middle.

Owens merits a Ray.

That is still awaited.

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


Thomas Bobby Philip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Thomas Bobby Philip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early morning, like the quiet before the storm, MG Road was vacant.

It was a welcome sight for anyone valuing a walk or a run. That generally temperate weather – for long Bengaluru’s USP – may be altering but it’s still there. Bengaluru isn’t the humid oven Mumbai has transformed to. Cubbon Park, sprawling and hosting walkers and runners by dawn, bristled with activity. Some walked slowly; some fast, others jogged, a few ran. The man in orange T-shirt seemed settled into a rhythm, as distance runners do. He was barefoot. “ Hi Bobby!’’ someone called out. He waved and continued running.

Two days earlier, we were near the city’s Old Airport Road. It was a nice house; definitely designed by an architect, with attention to materials and detail. You sensed choice exercised, somebody translating an image in the head into a liveable habitat. It was cool within. There was Thomas Bobby Philip and his mother. His wife was away at office; daughter was at college. Bobby who works with Nokia, worked from home. The arrangement suited him well as it saved travel time.

Life began however not in Bengaluru but in the city we had come to visit him from – Mumbai. That’s where he was born and brought up. The family lived in Mulund; he studied till early college in Thane and Mumbai, then did his engineering from Pune. Work brought him to Bengaluru in August 2003. “ I was never into sports. During my school days I may have played cricket but never such that I could call myself a sportsman,’’ he said. Subsequent life too was conventional; he had his share of smoke and drink. Things changed in March 2009 when his daughter had to prepare for a sports meet in school. He accompanied her for her practice sessions at a garden near where they stayed. A loop around the garden was approximately 200m. “ At first, two rounds of it used to exhaust me,’’ Bobby said. After a week, his daughter stopped. Her effort had been in pursuit of the requirement at school. The father however, persisted, slowly building up mileage. His daily jogs at the garden and its vicinity progressed to running on the road. He ran for about 15 minutes or so covering a distance of roughly two kilometres. That was it. It was all running; no warm up, no stretching or exercises. As his interest grew, he looked around for a pair of good running shoes. The exploration introduced him to the city’s Nike Run Club (NRC) in April 2009. Bengaluru was the first Indian city to host NRC.  Exercises, stretching, best practices – they entered the frame. “ NRC taught me sustainable running. Training with them produced tangible results. The results were an incentive to run,’’ Bobby said.

Bobby at the 2015 TCS 10k in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

Bobby at the 2015 TCS 10k in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

The time Bobby started out in running Bengaluru didn’t have as many running groups as it does today. There were Runners for Life (RFL), NRC, Runners High and BHUKMP. Running events were few. “ That was actually an advantage,’’ Bobby said, “ you were not rushed into doing many races.’’ Arguably, running in those days was less injurious, healthier and more sustainable. Today the retail urgency in running is a lot higher. Everybody is impatient. “ Injuries, as many and as frequently as reported today, were unheard of back then,’’ he said. Bobby’s biggest challenge wasn’t injury, it was something else. He lacked endurance. Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium, where runners gather early morning to train, has a 400m-track. Bobby couldn’t do many loops on it. “ I was ashamed of it,’’ he said. NRC’s weekly training every Saturday and Sunday was also tiring him out. On the other hand, he had enrolled for the city’s 10k run then called Sunfeast (now TCS) 10k. Bobby’s question to everyone he met was: is it possible to complete a 10k run without stopping? At the 2009 Sunfeast 10k, his big achievement was exactly that – he completed running 10k without stopping in 58:58 (58 minutes, 58 seconds). That was the beginning. Following this run, he kept up the momentum. In 2009, Bobby ran two more races. Besides the Sunfeast 10k and another 10k, he ran his first half marathon – a race in Chennai – as preparation for the 2010 SCMM in Mumbai. In January 2010, he ran the half marathon at SCMM, completing it in 1:52 (1 hour, 52 minutes).  A year later in January 2011, he ran his first full marathon at SCMM, completing the distance in 3:49. The period 2010-2011 was committed to improving endurance. According to Bobby, in 2011, he was doing an average weekly mileage of 65km-75km. In 2010, it was still higher; some weeks he averaged 90km-92km.

K.C. Kothandapani is one of Bengaluru’s best known coaches in running. He was also Bobby’s running partner. “ Bobby is a determined runner. He is committed and once he gets the required inputs, trains by himself,’’ Kothandapani said. It was a kind of synergic, collaborative link between the two. Kothandapani, who used to be an athlete in his days with the Indian Air Force (IAF), had tonnes of experience in running. Bobby, who credits Kothandapani with being his mentor, egged him to do something with the vast experience in running he had. Thus was born PaceMakers, a new running group anchored by Kothandapani. PaceMakers became a success, helping many in Bengaluru take to running. Bobby trains with them when he has the time. When he doesn’t have the time, he trains by himself. “ I am self motivated,’’ he said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In 2012, Bobby transitioned to running barefoot. It started off as an experiment. His first run so was for two kilometres. The second one spanned six kilometres. Then something happened. He went back to wearing running shoes and found them “ heavy.’’ It was a tipping point. He took the plunge, decided to continue barefoot. The transition took time and it had its difficulties. But overall the gains he experienced outweighed the pains. “ The absence of shoes on the feet is a luxury compared to all the aches and pains,’’ Bobby said. However, he cautioned that the body’s experience with barefoot running varies from person to person. “ In my case, it has really improved my performance,’’ he said. Bobby’s first barefoot run was in April 2012, three years after he began running. In May 2012, he ran the city’s annual 10k race, barefoot. At the 2016 SCMM, Bobby who finished second in his age category in the full marathon was not only barefoot, he wasn’t wearing a T-shirt. He compares it to running free, as naturally as possible. “ Talking of barefoot running, if you look around, human beings are the only animals running in shoes. That’s something to think about,’’ he said.

In 2015, Bobby was all over social media having run the Boston Marathon barefoot. It worked well except perhaps for one factor he had to cope with – Boston is cold, its roads are cold (incidentally, the reverse has also occurred – his writings show he has had to cope with very hot roads). That year he did something unusual; soon after the Boston Marathon, he ran the Big Sur Marathon, also in the US. His normal approach is to do a few races, that too, well spaced out. Typically, his running calendar builds up around two events – the TCS World 10k in Bengaluru and the SCMM in Mumbai. In 2015, besides these and the races in the US, he also ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon where he finished with a personal best of 1:22:24.

If you want to put Bobby in perspective, try this reality: Bobby was born in 1966, which puts his age at close to 50 years, at the time of writing this article. Right now, he is one of the best distance runners in Bengaluru across age categories in the amateur segment. Having completed the 2016 SCMM full marathon in 3:06, his goal for the year and ahead is to do a sub 3-hour marathon. So what keeps Thomas Bobby Philip interested in running? From our conversation with Bobby, we present a few hints. First, in his experience, running has been an investment delivering results. As mentioned earlier, results work as incentive to improve. “ For example, 3:06 at SCMM was a motivation. It inspires me to attempt a sub 3 hour-marathon, which is my clear goal for the 2016-2017 period till the next SCMM,’’ he said.

Bobby running the half marathon at the 2015 Bengaluru Marathon (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

Bobby running the half marathon at the 2015 Bengaluru Marathon (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

KC Kothandapani and Bobby ahead of their 2015 trip to run the Boston and Big Sur marathons (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

KC Kothandapani and Bobby ahead of their 2015 trip to run the Boston and Big Sur marathons (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

Second, strange as it may seem, among the distances he runs, Bobby enjoys most the shorter ones – the 10k and the half marathon. “ I like the intensity in these distances. I like to finish off a race fast. I am not a fan of ultra distances,’’ he said. Third, Bobby appeared the type who likes the ambiance of a race. None of his personal best timings have been in training; they have all come under race conditions. The trend is underscored by the timings reported at races. In one of his articles providing an overview of his first five years in running, Bobby has listed the timings he registered for the 10k, half marathon and full marathon races he ran. In each, you see the timing reduce, sometimes sharply. His faith in continued improvement wouldn’t seem misplaced. “ Something takes over at races,’’ he said. Finally, there is perhaps the fact that he lives in Bengaluru. “ The weather here is amazing. Every morning is superb for running,’’ Bobby said.

Bobby’s preparation has a method to it. To start with, some of his articles on running reveal him as capable of sustained focus on objective. There is also a bit of a paradox at play – in as much as his training is dogged and systematic, Bobby’s improvements and milestones have come rather fast as though he found something meant for him, in running. The broad outline of his annual preparation appeared generic to Bengaluru’s training calendar, it was an outline we found when we met K.C. Kothandapani as well – the city uses the two polarized distances of the TCS 10k and the full marathon of the SCMM as reference points for progression through the training calendar. Bobby explained how it worked for him: for the TCS 10k, which comes earlier, the focus when training is on strength and intensity. As runner shifts to SCMM, the focus includes endurance. Specifically for the sub 3-hour mark he is aspiring for in 2016-2017, Bobby has punctuated these two reference points with a half marathon in the middle. “ You also have to be fit,’’ he said. He devotes time to strength training and some (not much) cross training, mainly cycling and swimming. Around 2014, he started work outs aimed at “ reducing belly size.’’ “ I do it all at home, I don’t go to the gym,’’ he said. At present, every week he visits the physiotherapist for a technical massage; he maintains a disciplined diet. The old drinking and smoking – they disappeared naturally with the growing presence of running in his life. In 2009, when he began running, he was around 75-76 kilos in weight. Now he is a stable 62 kilos. He is not into yoga or meditation. “ There is a lot that can still be done. There is room to improve,’’ he said when asked of advancing age and the continued pursuit of better performance. Did he expect any of this? “ I never in my wildest dreams thought that results will be so. This is what keeps me going. I feel running is my right sport. My technique is falling in place. Photos show that my running form is good. My body is running in rhythm. Form is crucial for sustainable running,’’ Bobby said.

Bobby at the 2016 SCMM (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

Bobby at the 2016 SCMM (Photo: courtesy Thomas Bobby Philip)

Before Nokia, Bobby worked with a company called Intec, now known as CSG International. It was a different Bobby then – he was focused on career, he travelled on work and he was known for his work. “ Now I avoid all kind of travel. A lot for me revolves around running. My identity is more with my chosen sport,’’ Bobby said. So would he look at making a living out of running; make running his work? “ I doubt if running as source of livelihood can be as successful as a regular job,’’ he said.

Walking in Cubbon Park was a pleasant experience. The man in orange T-shirt kept going on and on doing his laps. Every time his trailing leg lifted off the ground, it gifted a barefoot to all on cushioned soles. In a quiet corner, we took off our shoes and walked a bit, feeling the road and the park’s bare earth below our feet. It did feel different, like long lost sensations stirring alive. We put our shoes back on returning rubber sole between foot and earth, exited the park and confronted a MG Road now needing care while crossing. As the day progressed, we travelled by vehicle, distanced even further from earth and the mechanics of human movement. We became part of Bengaluru’s traffic, the storm that invades every city’s roads.



Sunfeast World 10k 2009 – 58m 58s

Sunfeast World 10k 2010 – 47m

TCS World 10k 2011 – 45m 01s

TCS World 10k 2012 – 43m 15s (barefoot)

TCS World 10k 2013 – 41m 06s (barefoot)

 TCS World 10k 2014 – 39m48s (barefoot)

TCS  World 10k 2015 – 38m 24s (barefoot)

Half Marathons

Standard Charted Mumbai Half Marathon 2010 – 1h 52m 12s

Airtel Hyderabad Half Marathon 2012 – 1h 39m 44s (barefoot)

Kaveri Trail Marathon 2012 – 1h 39m 41s (barefoot)

Dream Runners Half Marathon 2013 – 1h 38m 11s (barefoot)

Airtel Hyderabad Half Marathon 2013 – 1h 34m 59s (barefoot)

Ajmera Thump Life is Calling Bangalore HM – 1h 29m 54s (barefoot)

Dream Runners HM (DRHM) in Chennai 2014 – 1h 32m 20s (barefoot)

Bengaluru Half Marathon 2015 – 1h 25m 22s (barefoot)

Airtel Delhi Half Marathon 2015 – 1h 22m 12s (barefoot)

Full Marathons

Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2011 – 3h 48m 32s

Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2012 – 3h 42m 20s

Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2013 – 3h 29m 38s (barefoot)

Standard Charted Mumbai Marathon 2014 – 3h 19m 48s (barefoot)

Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2015 – 3h 15m 18s (barefoot)

Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2016 – 3h 06m 34s (barefoot)


Urban Stampede 2010 5 – 21m 10s

Urban Stampede 2011 – 21m 15s

Urban Stampede 2012 – 20m 10s (Barefoot)

Ultra Marathons

Bangalore Ultra 2010 37.5 Kms – 3h 21m 35s

Bangalore Ultra 2011 37.5 Kms – 3h 25m 46s

Bangalore Ultra 2012 50 Kms – 4h 52m 47s (barefoot)

Yearly Mileage

2010 – 3200 km

2011 – 2450 km

2012 – 2200 km

2013 – 2170 km

2014 – 2464km

2015 – 2469km

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please note: race timings are as provided by the interviewee.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Mid-2015, I went looking for a certain café in Leh.

It wasn’t there anymore.

That café had provided a post script for an expedition.

Fresh from the trip, Punit and I were enjoying a cup of coffee there, when a group of young Indian climbers walked in. Seeing our sun burnt faces, they asked which mountain we had been on. “ Chamser Kangri,’’ I said enthusiastically. “ Oh, that one – that is an easy walk,’’ one of them said dismissively. The youngsters took their seats and huddled in talk, wrapped in a blanket of their youth. We looked at each other and sipped our coffee quietly. I licked my wounds.

Sometimes we find ourselves at a sweet spot, an intersection in universe crisscrossed by possibilities, which on given day works supportively for a person called you. The word for it is – luck. I had a lucky trip in 2011. Lucky not because I was in trouble and got saved or something like that but because, except for one unsavory incident three quarters into the whole trip, there was no trouble at all. The universe stood by me. I was right person passing through a right intersection at the right time. That year, when I decided to attempt Chamser Kangri, the correct approach wasn’t hard to guess. The then 43 year-old seaside dweller had best start with the less high Stok Kangri. I had climbed this 20,300ft high-peak in July 2009 and repeating it seemed a good way to acclimatize. It was a mountain often rubbished by Mumbai’s mountaineering circles for being a trekking peak, a non-technical ascent. I told nobody in Mumbai about my Stok Kangri plan. I climbed the peak with two Ladakhi friends for who the mountains are a way of life and debates of technical / non-technical ascents, a distant urban affliction. That was two years before.

Early August 2011, at Leh airport, the first thing I did was look toward Stok Kangri. Then I headed for guest house and work reporting La Ultra: The High, the ultra marathon held in Ladakh. This work gave me days in Leh, getting used to the altitude. As luck would have it, the ultra marathon story also took me across and back over the Khardung La pass, something useful when a Stok Kangri-climb is due. Ultra marathon work done, I joined a commercial trip to Stok Kangri. Of particular relevance to me was that the climb had been merged to a preceding multi-day trek starting near Leh, going up the Stok La pass and on to Stok Kangri Base Camp. This would help team members acclimatize. At my age and predominant existence as chair bound-journalist, acclimatization is everything. While that was a pleasant departure from my 2009 experience of hitting Base Camp straight with the climb thereafter, there was a shocking change in store.

Stok Kangri (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Stok Kangri (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In July 2009, the base camp had three to four tents – a large parachute tent for canteen and probably three small ones, including mine, belonging to climbers. This time, it was a minor township of tents, big enough for us to designate a team member as ` Mayor of Stok Kangri.’ Unfortunately the town planning improvements he contemplated were frustrated by a steady stream of fresh arrivals compounding the township-look. Somewhere in the middle of that displaced urbanization, we left one midnight for the summit. Again unlike in 2009, there were many headlamps that night on the mountain and as dawn broke, climbers could be seen like segmented ant columns. Thanks to a spell of bad weather earlier, there was much unsettled snow near the summit and verglas (thin ice on rock) all along. In that condition it was tricky progress on the summit slopes. With the summit visible very close-by the team turned back to stay safe. I couldn’t agree more. On a commercial expedition, safety is paramount. Besides if you ask me, a summit that close, isn’t summit lost.

Back in Leh, I found that one of my Ladakhi friends from the 2009 Stok Kangri trip, who had agreed to accompany me to the 21,800ft high-Chamser Kangri, had backed out. He had personal work to attend to. The expedition seemed a non-starter because I don’t feel comfortable yet, hiking and climbing alone. There is always that thought of how to manage an emergency should anything go wrong. I prefer agreeable company. However ` agreeable’ is increasingly difficult to find. I sensed Chamser Kangri slipping away.

At bottom right corner - a lone kiang, Tso-mo-ri-ri in the backdrop (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

View from Base Camp: at bottom right – a lone kiang, Tso-mo-ri-ri in the backdrop (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Then out of the blue, a call came. Punit Mehta, who I knew was trekking to Ladakh from Himachal Pradesh, was in town. His next trip was with a group from Bengaluru led by Dinesh K.S. Both Punit and Dinesh have worked as instructors at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), an organization I am familiar with. Dinesh’s expedition had a two pronged agenda – to partly go up the approach to Chamser Kangri and install a plaque in memory of a friend who died there on a previous expedition and then attempt the 20,600ft high-Mentok Kangri, a peak on the opposite side of the Tso-mo-ri-ri lake. It was soon obvious that a more efficient expedition would be one that continued up Chamser Kangri and attempted that peak instead of Mentok Kangri. Suddenly my plans appeared salvaged. The team was kind enough to count me in. I will always remember this meet-up with Punit and Dinesh as a miracle of sorts. In the countdown to leaving Leh for Tso-mo-ri-ri in south eastern Ladakh, Punit and I cycled to stay fit. It was my first taste of cycling at altitude and within days I knew, I had found a new interest.

On the Internet, you will find descriptions of Chamser and Lungser Kangri as easy peaks joined by a common ridge. My learning from the outdoors: don’t go by what someone else says; respect every mountain (that goes for Stok Kangri too). While most of the team headed straight to Base Camp, Punit and I elected to spend a night near Tso-mo-ri-ri and then hike along the lake’s edge before commencing the ascent to Base Camp. The night by the lake was pretty cold; my bivy sack (an all weather outer layer into which, you and sleeping bag can tuck in when camping without a tent) was covered in frost next morning.

Broody evening at intermediate camp (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Evening at intermediate camp (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Chamser Kangri is not an impressive-looking triangular peak. It resembles more a beached whale. The hike to Base Camp tracking the contours of Tso-mo-ri-ri’s shoreline and then climbing up, was tad tiring; during the day Ladakh’s high altitude sun can be an unforgiving orb of bright light and warm sunshine. Camp was tucked some ways up from the lake’s shore, a couple of tiers of relatively flat, open space intervened between the lake and camp. On that flat land, at various times of day, a kiang or two grazed or ran around. The animal is also called Tibetan wild ass and is the largest of the world’s wild asses. In India, you find it in Ladakh. Over the next couple of days, we made our way up the mountain. After the installation of the plaque, two expedition members who had come mainly for that ceremony, returned to Leh. Of the rest, as we gained height, two developed altitude related problems despite a strict regimen of ascending and descending the mountain that Dinesh had maintained for the team.

The last of the altitude related evacuations happened at intermediate camp. Most people left. Kul Bahadur and I stayed behind. The expedition seemed near cancelled. Neither that day nor the next seemed to indicate fine weather ahead. Dark clouds gathered. The evening sky was spectacular but ominously grey, a deep shade of grey laced with the red of the vanishing sun. Something told me that if you wanted to attempt the summit, it better be soon for the window of opportunity appeared shaky. But we didn’t want to move this way or that without some word on how the rest of the team was. Personally for me, it was turning out to be one of my best expeditions. The support staff and arrangements for the trip had been put together by Punit and Tsewang Phunchok. We had motivated support staff in the form of a cook – Kul Bahadur, helper – Ram Bahadur and a young guide called Stanzin Chosgial. In addition to this encouraging ambiance, the preceding Stok Kangri climb, the cycling that followed and Dinesh’s insistence that we not break the fundamental mountain rule of working high and sleeping low – all had me well acclimatized and tuned to climbing. Both Kul Bahadur and I would have been sad had Dinesh and Punit decided that the whole team should retreat. I was feeling good; Kul Bahadur was in no hurry to go anywhere else, his heart was right there. It was the perfect frame of mind to proceed. Then, Punit and Stanzin who had gone to escort out those who were leaving, returned to join us at high camp. They brought me an unforgettable note from Dinesh wishing me luck and reminding me to climb safely for “ the mountain will always be there.’’ That same day we moved to still higher camp at 19,000ft at the base of Chamser Kangri’s sprawling summit ridge. It was below freezing by evening.

Stanzin on Chamser Kangri (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Stanzin on Chamser Kangri (Photos, above and below: Shyam G Menon)

Stanzin on Chamser Kangri (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Around 3 AM, Stanzin and I set off for the summit. Our progress was in darkness, immediate world lit by the beam from our headlamps. It was the first time on Chamser Kangri for both of us. So we followed our instinct, exploring and correcting the route as required. As the first sliver of sunlight pierced the horizon we reached the summit ridge. Measured by my very average physical fitness and technical competence, it had been a stiff ascent up rock and snow in plastic climbing boots but no crampons. A little way up the ridge the snow transformed to hard, wind-swept type. I sat down to wear crampons. This was followed by a stretch where we decided to court the well snowed-in side of the mountain, instead of the ridge. It was an engaging, snow clad mountain face. We ascended using our axes for support. The detour helped us gain height quicker than how it would have been had we stuck to the ridge. But the enjoyment was diluted by the subsequent steady plod, back on the ridge. It kept going on and on. “ When will this ridge end?’’ Stanzin asked. Amazingly when it did end after a long time, he simply called it quits. I was stunned by his decision. So near the goal and he gives up the chase?

I looked around. Next door, Lungser Kangri resembled a giant softie; there was so much snow. Far below Tso-mo-ri-ri was a serene blue. The scene was ringed by endless snow-capped peaks. Albeit in the distance, very prominent was a snow white pyramid and close to it a large rocky massif, which I was told, was the remote peak, Gya. The 22,420ft high-peak at the tri-junction of Ladakh, Spiti and Tibet is the highest in Himachal Pradesh and until some years ago most attempts to climb it had ended up on its sub-summits, not the main peak. My mind returned to Chamser. There were two highpoints visible – ten minutes of further plodding would bring me to a cairn, usually signifying summit. On the other hand, I had been told that the real summit was not the obvious one. Closer to where we were, a high ridge took off like a Mohawk haircut for the peak; one side was a plunge. Its apex wasn’t marked by any cairn but it seemed as high, if not higher than where the cairn stood. A trick played by perspective? I don’t know. I looked toward Stanzin. He had already taken out his prayer flags and was busy putting them up. It was a humbling experience for me to see him so capable of turning his back on a summit when the majority of us won’t be happy without gaining the highest point. Although he had climbed before in the neighborhood it was his first time too up Chamser Kangri. I got as far as I reached because he was with me. I moved independently but the awareness that there was another to assist should something go wrong meant a lot. Yet, unlike me, Stanzin wasn’t chasing a milestone.

Leaving him to his work, I set out along the high ridge. Less than forty feet from its faintly corniced apex I stopped. I am a timid adventurer who likes to preserve himself for God willing, more adventures. The point where I stopped seemed the edge of safe existence by my technical skills. I had come to love Chamser Kangri and it didn’t make sense to stand on its absolute head, its ` summit.’ Plus there was Stanzin below, who was already happy. A Ladakhi with more rightful ownership of the mountain than I, he was a picture of contentment without needing to stand on Chamser Kangri’s head. What is a summit anyway? – I thought. Am I here to pass one of those board exams where 100 becomes first and 99.75, is second? Summit this is – I said, and turned back.

Stanzin's prayer flags with the highest point we reached on the trip in the backdrop (Photo: Shyam G Menon).

Stanzin’s prayer flags with the highest point we reached on the trip in the backdrop (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We returned via a snow slope above the mountain’s glacier, a portion we mistook to be firm. It was the only stretch where we roped-up because our footsteps sent weird cracking sounds all across the brittle snow. It felt like slabs snapping underneath. The sun was also up, not a good time to linger around. Looking back, that stretch of brittle snow did cause a problem. Finding it unwise to continue along that portion, we were forced to abandon the seemingly comfortable line of descent we had originally seen and pick a more precipitous rock strewn-route down. As the rocks, which were glued to the mountain side by nightly ice dislodged in the rising heat of day, we had to avoid being one above the other. It was touch and go with more than once, a bunch of rocks sliding down with man surfing on top. Eventually, we reached the bottom and walked toward camp. Punit, who has unashamedly embraced hiking over climbing, had in the mean time done his own exploratory walks in the area. That strength – the ability to turn his back on a summit despite having been a climber, is something I respect Punit for. It doesn’t come easy if you have tasted climbing. With Punit, you discover a side of the Himalaya easily overlooked in the race to climb its prized heights – the immense sprawl of the range, home to many wonderful treks.

My original plan was – climb Stok Kangri, Chamser Kangri, Ladakhi and Shetidhar. The latter two were near Manali. After Punit left for Delhi, I continued my cycling, including one trip to Stok village, where I reached in time to see another group set off for Stok Kangri. I also fell in love with a particular cycle available at Summer Holidays, the shop where I rent cycles in Leh. It had been sold to them by a foreign tourist. I sought it out every day. Some cycles just match a cyclist’s anatomy and this was my long lost soul mate.

A week later, I was in Manali and soon thereafter at Iceland Hotel in Solang, where Khem Raj Thakur, had assembled a support group for the Ladakhi-Shetidhar leg. It was a young team of guides, cook and helper; once again a good team. But we had two problems. Just before reaching Beas Kund, a bitter quarrel erupted between me and one of my friends who had come along for the trip. It was to remain a lesson because high altitude is the last place where anyone should provoke or succumb to provocation. I succumbed to provocation. In turn the incident has made me resolve that doing something one can do independently however lowly in stature it maybe, is better than chasing an achievement with folks you can’t get along with. Second, while we had initially thought of attempting the two peaks because they are linked by a common ridge, we learnt late that camping on the ridge was discouraged as it is cold and windy. So we settled for just Shetidhar.

An early morning, we climbed the 17,500ft-high peak. It was a short, stiff climb, enjoyably essayed with ice axe, boots and crampons; no roping-up. The summit was corniced. We stayed off the cantilevering snow. Five and a half hours after we began the climb, we were back at high camp. Our assessment of the 17,600ft-high Ladakhi was not wrong – although connected by a common ridge, it was rather distant from Shetidhar and the climbing route wound around the peak. Climbing both Shetidhar and Ladakhi, back to back from high camp below, would have been exhausting and I was anyway beginning to tire from having been out for so long. It was now late September.

Shetidhar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shetidhar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Here I must pause and say: I liked Shetidhar. The area where it stands is dominated by the immense rock wall and ice fortification of the 19,560ft high-Hanuman Tibba. Given its modest height Shetidhar does not receive the attention Stok Kangri gets. The latter is India’s busiest trekking peak and a money spinner for authorities because a lot of people come for the comparatively easy shot at 20,000ft it promises. Shetidhar on the other hand, packs into a small, sharp punch, a much better challenge – it has an evolved walk-in to high camp which you can make harder by carrying your full rucksack; its summit attempt is a swift affair but the snow slope is quite inclined and familiarity with climbing, therefore an asset. Compared to that Stok Kangri is a much longer haul on summit day with little else for challenge except climbing conditions and altitude. But like Everest, best known mountain and yet not the most difficult peak around, Stok Kangri’s height and accessibility attracts more people than Shetidhar. In Leh, veteran mountaineer Sonam Wangyal, who administers climbing permits in the area, had pointed out that nobody has any curiosity for Stok Kangri. It is plain request for permission to touch 20,000ft. Nothing illustrates the public’s obsession with height more than Stok Kangri’s neighbor, Golep Kangri, which is less than 20,000ft and unlike Stok Kangri, slightly technical at the top. Very few go there although both peaks share the same base camp. For most of us from the plains, our pursuit in the mountains too, is a distinction. It has only got worse in the age of high population and media. The two – population and media – has made the need for distinction, a contagion, highlighting saleable statistic at the expense of savoring an experience.

Few days after Shetidhar, we hired cycles in Manali for a final piece of action – cycling up the Rohtang Pass. It wasn’t our aim when we started out that morning but gradually we realized the pass was achievable. Unfortunately I had to stop six kilometers ahead of the pass because the road, which was being widened, was in terrible shape. There were bulldozers at work, too many waterlogged portions, plenty of mud and reckless traffic. I will try again another time.

The good fortune of the 2011 trip didn’t visit me again. While I have no control over luck, the more tangible reason was that I didn’t anymore have the money for extended trips. Mountains entail cost. I am no foreigner or Non Resident Indian with dollars in the bank; I am no rich Indian either. As my freelance journalism continued with matching shortage of resources to frequent the mountains, I have often looked at the 2011 trip – Three Peaks and a Pass, as I call it – as treasured memory. I have this sense amid resource crunch that it is as far as I will ever reach. Within that, the Chamser Kangri expedition was clear highpoint for the way in which things converged well for me. Two other instances from the outdoors have provided similar happiness – the time I ran from Munsyari to Kalamuni Pass and back and the occasion I was part of a cycle trip from Ranikhet to Lansdowne and beyond .

Leh, 2009 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Leh, 2009 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On subsequent visits to Leh, I learnt that Stanzin Chosgial had joined the security forces. Leh is growing, changing. Mid-2015, I went looking for a particular café; it wasn’t there anymore. That café had provided a post script for the Chamser Kangri expedition. Fresh from the trip and happy for it, Punit and I were enjoying a cup of coffee there, when a group of young Indian climbers walked in. Seeing our sun burnt faces, they asked which mountain we had been on. “ Chamser Kangri,’’ I said enthusiastically. “ Oh, that one – that is an easy walk,’’ one of them said dismissively. The youngsters took their seats and huddled in talk, wrapped in a blanket of their youth. We looked at each other and sipped our coffee quietly. As you age, you realize that happiness is an escape from human habits. I had the joy of the universe coursing through my veins, till measurement by human cluster busted the illusion. A mountain was climbed but it wasn’t hard enough to make the cut in the cluster. I licked my wounds. I wondered what the young climber would think of Stanzin. He grew up with the mountains in his backyard and when he got to the top of one, didn’t feel anything remarkably different for it. Stanzin, I suspect, could sense universe. The youngster at the cafe breathed verticality, physical strain and climbing’s grades. Maybe, he sensed universe in an utterly difficult climb. Are you blessed if you have to bloody yourself to sense universe or can do the same much earlier, on gentler terrain? I don’t know. All I know is that I prefer universe to people. For some time after his quip I wished that young man had spared me my freedom to exist, self esteem intact, in my own fantasy as mountaineer. Then something about my age, ageing and the pleasure of seeing the mountains differently each passing year, spoke to me. I was pretty fine a while later.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An abridged version of this article appeared in MW magazine. For more on the 2009 trip please visit For more on La Ultra: The High, please visit For more on the run from Munsyari to Kalamuni Pass, please click on this link:; for more on the cycle trip in Kumaon please visit