Talking to Kavitha Kanaparthi, whose company Globeracers manages a diverse portfolio of ultramarathons in India.
In August 2005, Kavitha Kanaparthi was in Bengaluru to settle a pending legal matter.
An American citizen, she had five weeks for the purpose. Her plan was to finish the work in Bengaluru and get back to the US, where a job in government awaited her. She had been selected for it and training was due to begin. But the legal issue needed urgent attention; it demanded closure. She had requested her employers for time and secured those five weeks. What unfolded in Bengaluru was completely unexpected. A Pandora’s Box opened up. Legalities extended correspondingly. The five weeks grew to a wait of three years. By the time closure was reached, she had long lost the job she was selected for. She was upset, at a difficult juncture in life and yet again with running as sole companion to escape world and its ways.
Kavitha is no stranger to both – difficult situations and running. There is a video on the Internet, of one of her lectures, wherein she mentions an old road accident. It happened in 1988. She was on a cycle and was hit by a bus, the impact sending her flying some 25 feet into the air before crashing back to the ground. “ I pretty much broke all the bones in my body,’’ she says in the talk. Further, her face was damaged. The Kavitha of today is a “ pretty good patch work’’ done by her father, who is a doctor. “ This is not the original me,’’ she tells her audience. In the immediate aftermath of the accident she suffered from amnesia, unable to recognize anyone including her parents. She had to cope with a long path to recovery and even now its legacy is felt occasionally. In fact, she came for our chat in a Bengaluru suburb, wearing an orthopedic prop to support a wrist, a case of old accident’s aftermath periodically acting up. Her education too appears to have been fraught with penalties from society, incurred periodically for being true to her instinct. Through all this, sport remained part of her life. “ I was already competing as a runner when I was 8-9 years old,’’ she said. There were gaps – accident being one – but running was something she always got back to.
In 2008, while stuck in Bengaluru, she spoke to a friend about attempting ` The Amazing Race.’ It is an American reality competition show in which typically, eleven teams of two race around the world. The process of application required submission of a video. To shoot that, in May 2009, they went to run in the Sandakphu area on the West Bengal-Nepal border. Her friend had run there before. In all there were six persons of which, three were runners; they did the run from Mane Bhanjang to Sandakphu and back in four days. Till the time of my meeting her in mid-2016, Kavitha had not run a formal marathon at an organized event, save an exception at the request of her friend Nagaraj Adiga, when she ran the 2014 Bengaluru Marathon. City marathons are not her cup of tea. “ I love mountains. I love trails and I like being out there on my own,’’ she said. Kavitha was brought up at her village in Andhra Pradesh and then, in Vijayawada. After finishing her school education in the city, she had moved to the US and attended Washington University in St Louis. She found much happiness running and cycling in the forests there. Her love for trail and respect for solitude likely comes from this phase. As for professional qualification, she holds a degree in electrical engineering, something she has described in her talks as “ by default’’ given what she subsequently did in life had little to do with the degree she obtained. A sliver of what lay ahead surfaced in the Sandakphu run. It was the electrical engineer with a fondness for running who put the entire run together. Her friends were impressed by how she organized it. That’s how the suggestion that she organize races, took shape. “ I was very excited about it,’’ she said. She wrote about her new experiences on a blog and called it – Globeracers.
Immediately after that Sandakphu run, she chanced to go to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The regular tourist circuit bored her. Somebody said: why don’t you visit Pokhran? Kavitha shifted to Pokhran and stayed there for a couple of days. One day, seeing sand dunes in the distance, she spontaneously embarked on a run, “ much to the consternation of my hosts.’’ She thoroughly enjoyed the run. Her hosts having understood her interest in running shared her enthusiasm to organize a race in the region. “ Over the next three days, we planned out the whole race,’’ Kavitha said. In Bengaluru, she got down to the job of rechecking the distances involved. Then she changed her blog into a website and created a home for the event she had in mind. She also posted information about the event on the Runner’s World website. “ I expected nothing out of it,’’ she said. Nevertheless, organizing the event in Rajasthan excited as idea. “ I thought I will organize races for a living. Each recce takes me to a new place, I have to run to locate trails and get a feel of how things are. Organizing a race seemed the thing to do in life. It really comes down to my need to be in wild landscapes. These locations aren’t the type where one goes to spend an hour or two. They are best experienced over days. Ultras allow me to spend that time outdoors. I don’t feel the need to organize shorter distances. There are one too many offering it already,’’ she said. Finally there was also that bonus: when you organize an ultramarathon, you meet other ultra-runners. As a breed, ultra-runners aren’t as many as the marathon lot. It is a smaller community.
To get the event up and going, Kavitha spoke to Santhosh Padmanabhan of Runners’ High. Through him, she got in touch with Arun Bhardwaj, who has been a pioneer among Indian ultramarathon runners and who by then was participating in events overseas and faring well in many of them. However the first person to register for the race in Rajasthan was a German citizen working with Mercedes Benz in India. Two days later, a runner from Canada enrolled. Then two runners from Singapore signed up. The Pokhran run was planned for December 2009. She had six months to prepare. During that time, Kavitha did the recce twice. She didn’t want the race to be on the road. It had to be trail. The markers for the GPS were picked up during the recce. Her route started in Pokhran and ended in Jodhpur, 210 km away. It was a good enough distance for a multi stage ultramarathon. Arun wanted to do this at one go. The interest all around was encouraging. But there were challenges. Kavitha didn’t have the required capital to invest. On the other hand, high race fee, which is usually the norm when races happen in remote locations (cost of organizing, overheads etc), cannot be shouldered by all. For instance, according to Kavitha, when Arun signed up for the run in Pokhran, he wasn’t in a position to pay the fee decided by race economics. You have to take talent along. A race being organized for the first time, struggles.
Given Pokhran as location, Rajasthan Tourism helped. Approvals from the local administration took some time to materialize. In 2009, India’s biggest marathon – the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) – was itself only five years old. Although growing, the running culture was an urban phenomenon; that too most seen in big cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi. Ultramarathons were known mainly to distance runners and within that, to a limited lot. Most people had no clue what the discipline held or why anyone would be so mad as to run extremely long distances. Add to it, the spectre of going off road and into an arid desert. Initially officials at ground level couldn’t understand what the organizers were up to. When they grasped the idea of ultramarathon, they tried to steer the race on to the road, something Kavitha didn’t want. She preferred off road and trail. Eventually permissions had, about half a dozen participants ran the first edition of the Thar Desert Run. Arun’s blog entry on the race mentions that he ran it at one go because that suited his style; besides, he didn’t have that many days to spare. He finished the whole 210 km in 31 hours, 20 minutes. It was with the Thar Desert Run that Globeracers firmly left the world of being blog and became race organizer. The event was run again in 2012 with seven runners.
The best known race from Globeracers’ portfolio is Bhatti Lakes Ultra. According to Kavitha, that race was the fallout of a need felt by Arun Bhardwaj. He hadn’t run the iconic Badwater Ultramarathon, staged every year in California’s Death Valley. Until then, no Indian living in India had completed Badwater. In 2010, Chris Kostman, the Race Director of Badwater Ultramarathon, visited India at Kavitha’s invitation. It was part of a quest to get Arun to Badwater. Participation in the race is by invitation. While the visit provided the Race Director an opportunity to meet Arun and gauge his interest, Arun needed a 100 mile-race, an officially accepted Badwater qualifier. Kavitha was staying in Gurgaon at this time. A friend, Prem Bedi, spoke of a place to run near Delhi, essentially a trail-run in a region hosting five lakes. They went to the said area and tried the trail. The local people said they will help organize the race. On race day, 19 people turned up to run the inaugural Bhatti Lakes Ultra, most of them for the shorter distances. Arun ran the entire 100 miles. The 19 participants were despite no marketing. “ There was no thought in me that I should market the race. For me, it was all goodwill. There were embassy officials; there was a race organizer from Nepal. My learning from organizing races is – logistics. I feel insulted if I have to market a race. I am not looking for a large number of participants. I would like to know my runners by name, know what they want, what they eat, what makes them run,’’ Kavitha said. The Bhatti Lakes Ultra has since been organized every year. According to her, the runners who come to Bhatti Lakes are serious runners. “ I believe they have a sense of accomplishment at my races. That is among the reasons that make us special,’’ Kavitha said of Globeracers and its races. The 2016 race was the seventh edition of Bhatti Lakes. As for Arun, after that first edition, he went on to successfully complete the Badwater Ultramarathon in 2011, the first Indian from India, to do so.
Besides being a distance runner, Kavitha is a keen cyclist. When in Bengaluru, she used to cycle from the city to Ootacamund (Ooty). Those trips became the bedrock for her next ultramarathon event – a run in the Nilgiris. The first edition of this race in 2012 December had just two runners; they had been to Globeracers’ Bhatti Lakes Ultra before. The Nilgiris Ultra has been happening every year since. However participation grew at snail’s pace. In the second edition, the number of runners was again low – three. It was in the fourth edition that the number of participants moved up marginally. Kavitha is clear she is not looking for a large number of participants. She however acknowledged that it is hard economics to tackle when numbers are low. In fact, as a whole, the paradigm of organizing ultramarathons in India makes for difficult economics, given the sport is still in familiarization phase. The difficulty is arguably more when the event entails genuine distance and challenges, isn’t cast as loops in a city stadium or loops over a contained course in a city or its outskirts. Running in remote locations or point to point on a road away from main cities, entails cost. Sponsors shy away from such events because brand visibility is little. Participation is low, at best modest, because it is a niche sport. The same economics characterized her next event – an ultramarathon in Uttarkashi. Kavitha had once run the Har Ki Dun trail. But a race on it never materialized; it exists still as an idea in the mind. Instead, in the ensuing years, she recced the road route from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi with Gaurav Madan and decided to go ahead with a race on it – a 220 km single stage ultramarathon. For the first race in August 2012, she had two runners. Next year the event wasn’t held owing to floods in Uttarakhand. But it has been held annually thereafter. Participation was always in the range of two, three or four runners.
Kavitha used the description“ stabilized’’ only for the Bhatti Lakes Ultra. The rest are an annual challenge, she said. Race location away from media filled cities, tough economics of organization and low to modest participation levels make her races among the more expensive ultramarathons in India. An apt sponsor to share the cost is hard to find. What makes this a tough deal to strike is that she finds relevance in cash sponsorship to meet expenses related to organizing and logistics. Such sponsors are hard to find; product sponsors are comparatively easy. In the absence of cash sponsorship for working capital, ultramarathon events are an endurance test for organizer too. “ Visibility and sponsorship haven’t been my focus. I prefer to focus on runners’ needs and not sponsors’ demands. Finances are tough and we hope our planning and execution will be honed well enough to keep wastage to a minimum while not compromising on quality,’’ she said. Likely echoing the same rationale is her reply to another observation a few runners (this blog contacted) had about her races – you rarely find any big names from overseas participating. “ That is not correct. We have had good participants from overseas. However, one thing about us is – big or small, we treat everyone the same,” she said.
Except for two or three events organized at irregular intervals, Kavitha has so far kept most Globeracers events happening every year despite participation levels. There is also something else you notice – she appears to add events even when already commenced ones are yet to stabilize. Some may question this approach. But the flip side would theoretically be – it gives her a portfolio of races, not one or two. While it is hard to see benefits of scale in a multi-location activity with much location specific nuances, portfolio means richer variety of experience, bigger geographical footprint and more people reached. In her business model, Kavitha funds the parent organization – Globeracers – herself. An exception is what she receives in the form of race fee. Unless she finds a genuinely compatible sponsor she would rather not open up the parent outfit for funding. “ It may change the path and the vision. That is not a welcome change,’’ she said. What she prefers instead is treating each race as an independent entity with relevant sponsors coming aboard at that level as required. She also said that although a couple of events evaded the discipline, she admires having continuity in her races. “ Continuity is important to us,’’ she said. Yet continuity can also be “ every other year’’ and she plans to introduce a few races so, to allow runners to enjoy variety in geography and race format. The direction, it would seem – is creating and retaining a community that boards a bandwagon and gets to race in different places.
Several Indian ultramarathon runners have been through the races organized by Globeracers. Some counted on these races to qualify for bigger events overseas. The 335 km-Himalayan Crossing, staged in July 2014 with start in Spiti and going over the Kunzum La and the Rohtang La, had only one participant – Mumbai’s Breeze Sharma. In 2016, Breeze became the second Indian from India (after Arun Bhardwaj) to successfully complete the Badwater Ultramarathon. At the time this blog wrote about him in April 2016, he had run four races from the Globeracers portfolio. Further, of the three 100 milers he needed to qualify for Badwater, two were from the Globeracers fold. “ Kavitha has definitely contributed to growing the ultramarathon scene in India,’’ Arun Bhardwaj said.
While Bhatti Lakes is possibly the flagship ultramarathon for Globeracers, what has been fetching it buzz of late is an ultramarathon in the Rann of Kutch. The Rann is a vast expanse of salt marshes located in the Thar Desert bio-geographic area in the Indian state of Gujarat with some portions in the adjacent Sindh province of Pakistan. According to Wikipedia, its total area is around 10,000 square miles. For knowing more about this location and the trails it held for running, Kavitha enlisted the help of a friend, Vijay Bariwal from Ahmedabad, who had run the Bhatti Lakes Ultra earlier. Together, they reached Bhuj in Gujarat’s Kutch district and proceeded to meet officials of the Border Security Force (BSF), the organization entrusted with guarding the India-Pakistan border in these parts. The BSF took some time warming up to the idea but once they did, they dispatched a team of runners to accompany Kavitha and her friend during the recce. For the 100 km-recce, she ran with the soldiers from one border post to the next. They completed the recce in two days. The course was finalized – it stretched from Lakhpat to Dhorodo. “ The response to this race has been amazing. One thing is, you get to see these parts of the country only if you sign up for the race.’’ Being a border area, for the organizers, it is also a race entailing considerable documentation and paper work. “ There is a lot of process that goes into it but the procedure once followed is efficient. The BSF has been a great support,’’ Kavitha said. The first edition featured 20 civilians and 100 BSF runners. The event has been repeated every year since. To keep logistics manageable and efficient, Kavitha said she had requested the BSF to cap their participation at 60 personnel. “ On the average, around 20 civilians have turned up for the event every year,’’ she said.
Mid 2016, Kavitha was back in Bengaluru and gearing up for a fresh season in India with Globeracers, when she spared time to talk to this blog. “ There are many facts about Globeracers that are little known,’’ she said. For instance, it was the first to organize UTMB-qualifying races in India with the Bhatti Lakes Ultra. Similarly, Globeracers was the first to hold RAAM (Race Across America) qualifying cycle races in India; the Ultra BOB held every year since 2012. There have also been personal challenges Kavitha faced in the race environment. Most people come to a race wanting to achieve something. In that mode, runners can be touchy folks. Lapses in organization won’t be easily forgiven. At the same time, when a race is viewed from an organizer’s perspective, there are rules to be observed and concerns to be addressed. Disqualification and DNF (Did Not Finish) are hard to handle. They can occasionally become nasty episodes. Being an insider – a part of the larger environment – helps.
Kavitha said she has frequently experienced being an outsider to the Indian environment, something that doesn’t work to her advantage when tackling difficult issues. In a mail subsequent to the meet-up in Bengaluru, she said, “ I find myself looking in from the outside quite often than not. It also reflects in how Globeracers has been thus far received. They don’t understand me, much less know me. I am not from anywhere here, do not have a base of friends I can lean on (though that has changed considerably over the years on the personal front), and no peers who will spread the word for me and sign up for races. The camaraderie is missing and I find myself at times missing it. There are misconceptions that have led to personal confrontations, which is a completely undesired flip side of being an outsider though I refuse to attribute it to I being a woman at the helm and making decisions that some may not be able to live with or comprehend. Cases of disqualification have been that much harder on me as a person than it would have been on a male race director.’’ She wishes that athletes understood her side of things better. “ Emotions run high in India when it comes to race day preparations. Runners refuse to read through information and it taxes an organizer to keep answering simple questions via email and messages when the same can be found on the event website and mails already sent. Athletes need to follow rules and guidelines. That is one major difference I find between racers in the US and here,’’ she said.
Asked what plans she has for the future, she mentioned a Rain Ultra in Assam, hopefully by July 2017. She wanted to design an event around the backwaters of Kerala and hinted at the first overseas foray for Globeracers – an ultramarathon in Costa Rica. Post 1997, soon after graduation, Kavitha had started a company called Design Net in the New Jersey / New York area. It did well, but in 2000, she shut it down “ for personal reasons.’’ In 2002, she set up an IPO for Kafin Consulting in India. Everything went well till the company’s listing was delayed by a controversy then gripping the stock exchange in Mumbai. “ We incurred severe losses due to time lags,’’ Kavitha said. The next phase was the potential government job in US. But that lengthy phase of litigation in Bengaluru which prolonged her stay in India denied her that job. “ Building Globeracers has been my salvation,’’ Kavitha said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)