Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Article on Kieren D’ Souza, the first Indian to complete Spartathlon.

It was the first Friday of the New Year; second day of the expo preceding the 2017 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM).

At the corner reserved for talks, a runner kept the audience engaged with a presentation on how to recover from training runs and races and be ready for more. He was a young person. “ I have been running since 2010,’’ he said. The presentation was as light hearted and buoyant as his personality. It was also to the point. Confronted with a question he couldn’t answer, he didn’t beat around the bush or build castles in the air to preserve self-importance. He confessed his lack of experience in that subject and thereby, inability to answer. About running, he emphasized: have fun, that’s the most important thing to do.

Kieren D’ Souza is a young runner wishing to make a professional career from running. Born in Bilaspur, he hails from a family in the armed forces; his father serves with the Indian Air Force (IAF). The youngster lived in several cities, most notably Nagpur, Bengaluru and of late Faridabad near Delhi. “ I used to play a lot of basketball in school and college,’’ he said, tucking into breakfast, mid-2016, at Wonderland café on Leh’s Changspa Road. It was a couple of days before the 2016 edition of the cult ultramarathon, La Ultra-The High. On the adjacent chair, ultra-runner’s calling card rested – a hydration pack. Sometime earlier, requested to pose for a photograph, he had confessed that about the hardest thing for him to do is – stay still. Restlessness – rather abundant energy – hovered about him now too. It wasn’t that he was indifferent to food; he just seemed in a moment that felt in between. Breakfast had followed morning run. Other things to do appeared already beckoning. “ At times I think my running owes much to my natural restlessness. I have to keep moving my feet!’’ he said laughing.

Kieren running UTMB-CCC (Photo: Frash Sport / courtesy: Kieren D' Souza)

Kieren running UTMB-CCC (Photo: Flash Sport / courtesy: Kieren D’ Souza)

His first formal running event was a 12 km run in Bengaluru, for which he was signed on by a friend. That participation told him that he could not only run but “ I find it easier to run still longer distances.’’ The Bengaluru run was followed by participation at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), which officially enhanced his capability to 21 km. In 2012, while living in Bengaluru, he decided to attempt the 100 km-category of the Bengaluru Ultra. He attributed the jump to 100 km to his assumption that since moving from 10 km to 21 km had been relatively easy, 42 km would be as easily doable. Except for a year or so with the city’s well known coach, K.C. Kothandapani and his group – Pace Makers, Kieren trained largely on his own. Although he completed the 100 km ultramarathon, Kieren recalls being very tired at the 60 km-mark and struggling thereafter. His father who had come to encourage him was instrumental in goading him on to finish the run. The effort notwithstanding, Kieren had by now begun looking for more ultramarathons to run. He continued to run the shorter distances but treated them as training runs for eventual progression to being a dedicated ultra-runner. In 2013, he enrolled for and ran the Nilgiris Ultra. He now turned his attention to La Ultra-The High in Ladakh, which he had come across earlier while surfing the Internet.

Kieren has done his Basic Mountaineering Course from the mountaineering institute in Manali (then known as Directorate of Mountaineering & Allied Sports [DMAS], it is now called Atal Behari Vajpayee Mountaineering Institute). He was no stranger to altitude and physical strain. With a couple of ultra runs and the mountaineering course under his belt, he felt 111 km in Ladakh would be feasible. He enrolled for the race’s 2014 edition. The 111 km-category of La Ultra-The High is the shortest category of the race, spanning overall 333 km. In that short category, of the three high passes woven into the full race, you need to tackle only one – Khardung La. This pass, the road to which is visible on the mountain slopes above Leh, is guarded by two check points – North Pullu and South Pullu, with the former on the slopes leading to Nubra Valley and the latter on the side facing Leh. The race starts from the Nubra side. Likely underestimating the mix of high altitude and hard running and racked by stomach problems, Kieren’s maiden La Ultra-The High ended at North Pullu. Unable to continue, he was taken off the race. “ I was really sad. That was the first time I had not finished something I started. There is a photo of me sitting down and crying after I was forced to quit the race. I think I was under-trained – that was the biggest factor. I must have started taking things for granted. That race put me in my place. It was good that I DNF-ed. I learnt a lot,’’ he said.

Kieren after the DNF (Did Not Finish) at the 2014 La Ultra The High (Photo: courtesy La Ultra The High)

Kieren after the DNF (Did Not Finish) at the 2014 La Ultra The High (Photo: courtesy La Ultra The High)

The first time we heard of Kieren was from Dr Rajat Chauhan, whose brainchild La Ultra-The High is. A Race Director’s job is never easy, especially when it comes to taking runners off a race. Like any Race Director, Dr Chauhan has had his share of being misunderstood by participants. At some point in an old conversation on the subject, he mentioned Kieren as an exception and somebody to look out for in the Indian ultramarathon scene, despite the reverse he had suffered at his first La Ultra-The High. What shaped that perception was this – while he may have been heartbroken after being taken off the race, Kieren later spoke to Dr Chauhan (he is an accomplished ultra-runner himself) on ways to train for the high altitude event and improve his performance. Not just that, he worked systematically at it. There is a difference between sulking and walking off a race and recognizing one’s shortcomings and seeking to improve – that impressed Dr Chauhan. Amid this an interesting thing happened. At the time of participating in his first La Ultra-The High, Kieren was working at a company called The Active Holiday Company. He held a regular job. Following the Did Not Finish (DNF) at La Ultra-The High, he chucked up his job and decided to pursue running full time. “ It is basically about being in outdoor sports. I have done a course in skiing too. I am still exploring,’’ he said.

In the meantime, La Ultra-The High went past a major landmark in its evolution. Ever since its inception, Indians had failed to register a win or a notable finish at La Ultra-The High. In 2015, that changed when Parwez Malik of Dehradun won the 111 km-category, running the distance in 17 hours, 57 minutes. Reportedly laid low by injury, Parwez didn’t turn up for the 2016 edition. Pre-race buzz of strong runners for the 111 km-category was dominated by Kieren, who in the time between that photo of him sobbing and our breakfast at Wonderland café, had successfully completed ultramarathons in India and a major one in Europe – the 101 km CCC category of Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).  Completing the Nilgiris Ultra had helped him qualify for UTMB. Free of regular job, Kieren shifted to Manali, which is at an elevation of 6700 ft at the northern end of the Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh. He trained there for a couple of months. For more insight on UTMB, he also linked up with Ashok Daniel of Chennai who had attempted the race before. The effort paid off. In Europe, he finished UTMB’s CCC category in around 18 hours, 30 minutes. He looks forward to running sometime, the full version of UTMB. Applying for UTMB and preparing for it gave him what he badly needed – a firm focus on ultra-running. It was a remarkable turnaround from that setback at La Ultra-The High.

The start of the 160 km race at Bhatti Lakes Ultra (Photo: courtesy Kieren D' Souza)

The start of the 160 km race at Bhatti Lakes Ultra (Photo: courtesy Kieren D’ Souza)

By the time we met in Leh for the 2016 La Ultra-The High, Kieren could say, “ from last summer onward, I have been really focused on ultra-running. I am trying to make a living out of it.’’ Running had become his full time work. When elsewhere in India, someone took a bus, a train or a taxi to go to an office in some glass tower in some concrete jungle of a city; he set out for his office – a run in the outdoors. When others of his age prided themselves in sleep deprivation and competed at the art of working late in company offices, he put in 9-10 hours of sleep for as he said at the SCMM expo, sleep is the most important ingredient in recovery. For a runner, good sleep is part of work. And on the days of his ultra-long races, at times spanning day and night, while the world slept, Kieren logged in the miles. Not long ago in Bengaluru, he had earned his degree studying chemistry, botany and zoology. “ I have always known I can’t do a desk job,’’ he said, polishing off a slice of apple pie. While it may have been apple pie he was wolfing down at Wonderland, on running’s table right then, it was a different menu Kieren was tackling. His performance at the 2015 Bhatti Lakes Ultra (both Nilgiris Ultra and Bhatti Lakes are organized by Globeracers) had been good enough to merit entry to the September 2016 edition of the iconic ultramarathon in Greece – Spartathlon. That was the big one on the cards. In the emergent scheme of things, he was treating La Ultra’s 111 km-category as a training run, a stepping stone to Spartathlon. “ You can’t find a harder race in India to use as training,’’ he said. It seemed an interesting way to treat a run that had broken him two years earlier – look beyond looming challenge and ghosts of a run gone by, to what lay past it. If there is one thing that impressed about Kieren in Leh ahead of the 2016 La Ultra-The High, it would be – confidence; a pleasant confidence laced by the humility of setbacks known.

August 11 evening, the ultramarathon commenced from near Diskit in Nubra valley. Participants for all categories – 111 km, 222 km and 333 km – begin the race together as the finish point for each segment is marked on the same route. Kieren slipped into the lead quite early, maintaining it comfortably. He was followed by Jovica Spajic and Grant Maughan from the 333 km-category. Observing the race from the pitch black slopes of Khardung La by night, Kieren’s progress stood out for its pace. His headlamp, bobbing up and down in the steady cadence of his run, could be seen systematically creeping up in the darkness, en route to the high pass. According to Kieren, while the world may deem ultra-runners slow, in reality they aren’t all that slow. However he didn’t consider himself particularly fast; he may be fast compared to some of the Indian ultra-runners – that’s all. “ Compared to foreign ultramarathon runners, I am slow. When I practise, I am actually trying to get faster,’’ he said. As it turned out, Kieren made it smoothly to the 17, 582 ft-high Khardung La. He was a bit tired on the descent toward Leh. By around noon, August 12, he had won the 111 km-category of La Ultra-The High by a wide margin; he completed the distance in 15 hours, 30 minutes. Late noon found him back at Leh’s Goba Guest House where the race organizers were based; immediate celebration was muted and he sat quietly by the roadside to cheer the remaining runners as they passed by. He had La Ultra-The High’s shortest category in the bag; there were two greater levels of challenge in the same race to attempt, not to mention – Spartathlon is not only 246 km of running but it has a pretty stiff cut-off time too.

Completing the 111 km race of the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High (Photo: UpSlope Productions / courtesy Kieren D' Souza)

Completing the 111 km race of the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High (Photo: UpSlope Productions / courtesy Kieren D’ Souza)

Kieren’s introduction to Spartathlon was through Scott Jurek’s book, ` Eat & Run.’ That’s where he found mention of the race. It kindled his imagination. To make things engaging, while on his way to UTMB, at Chamonix in France, he actually met Scott Jurek. The American runner has won Spartathlon thrice – in 2006, 2007 and 2008 – with his 2008 timing being the fifth fastest ever. “ Once I decide on a race, I speak to people who have done it. I tell them what I am doing and find out what I am missing,’’ Kieren said. It was October 2017. We were at Indian Coffee House on Bengaluru’s Church Street; coffee for us, bread-omelet and dosa for him. Looking back, La Ultra-The High had perhaps been perfect training ground for Kieren. Mark Woolley, who successfully completed the 333 km-category, had run Spartathlon before while Grant, who emerged joint winner with Jovica in the 333km-category, was headed for Spartathlon. “ Chatting with these guys is always helpful,’’ Kieren said. Also of assistance was Tobias, who got in touch once Kieren started browsing the Internet for more on Spartathlon and how to prepare for it. For Kieren, Spartathlon felt intimidating. The only 100 miler he had run before was Bhatti Lakes. At 246 km, Spartathlon was both longer than Bhatti Lakes and entailed more time on one’s feet. Kieren explained the attraction. “ I definitely want to do Badwater. But Spartathlon appealed because first, it is less known and second, at 36 hours overall cut-off time for a 246 km-race, its pace is faster. That said you can never compare races to conclude which is harder. It is personal choice and further, what each person is on given day,’’ he said.  According to Wikipedia, Spartathlon has 75 checkpoints with each checkpoint having its own cut-off time. Any leeway in enforcing these cut-offs fades as the sun goes down and in the last one third of the race, not only are cut offs strictly enforced but fatigued runners may be pulled off the race.

Scott Jurek's book

The book by Scott Jurek

We requested Mark Woolley to put the race in perspective; provide an idea of what Spartathlon means to ultra-runners worldwide. He wrote in, “ Spartathlon is simply the greatest race on Earth and for the vast majority of ultra-runners it represents the holy grail in ultra-running. The origins of Spartathlon are set in antiquity in ancient Greece during the Persian wars in approximately 500 BC. Miltaides, the general in charge of the Athenian army at Marathon faced defeat by the Persian forces; so sent a messenger, Pheidippides to Sparta to ask for help. According to Herodotus he set out with the first light and arrived at Sparta just as dusk was setting the following day. Until the 1980s many people regarded this story as just another part of ancient Greek mythology as it was widely considered to be an impossible task. That is until John Foden and his team decided to prove to the world that a runner could indeed cover 246 km in 36 hours which included crossing two mountain ranges. The Spartathlon was born. The runners imagine themselves as Pheidippides, running for the very survival of our civilization. He represents the impossible which is actually possible …. just. So if you have finished the Spartathlon it is a huge badge of honor among ultra-runners all over the world; most probably the most important and widely recognized badge. It is an incredible athletic feat but one that is just within reach of the most well trained athletes. There are longer races out there, hotter, higher and every other superlative out there but Spartathlon is the Greatest. Perhaps you need to experience it to see what I mean.’’

Kieren at the start line of Spartathlon, with officials from the Indian embassy in Greece (Photo: courtesy: Kieren D' Souza)

Kieren with officials from the Indian embassy in Athens just before the start of the 2016 Spartathlon (Photo: courtesy: Kieren D’ Souza)

The top four fastest timings at Spartathlon are held by Yiannis Kouros, the well-known Greek ultra-runner, who in 1984 completed the 246 km-distance in 20 hours, 25 minutes. A couple of abstracts from Scott Jurek’s book are invaluable for insight into Kouros and what ultra-running is in Kouros’s universe. Jurek writes: Kouros is a philosopher-athlete in the ancient Greek tradition. His results seem to stem from an overflowing energy of spirit. He paints, writes poetry, records songs, played the role of Pheidippides in the movie A Hero’s Journey and delivers motivational talks “ to get people inspired and alert, so they can discover and utilize the unconditional abilities of human beings, in order to bring (beyond personal improvement) unity, friendship and harmony to the world.’’ A paragraph later, Jurek notes: Ultimately, Kouros teaches us that the ultra is an exercise in transcendence. He explicitly defines it as a test of “ metaphysical characteristics,’’ as opposed to inborn athletic gifts or level of conditioning. Only a continuous run of 24-plus hours will do, “ as a runner has to face the whole spectrum of the daytime and nighttime and be able to continue. Doing so, he / she will prove that he / she can run beyond the effectiveness of genetic gifts and fitness level, as these elements will have gone from the duration of time and the muscular exhaustion.’’ While respecting the athleticism of such events, he disqualifies 50-milers and stage runs from the category of ultra, as they will favor athletes who are well trained and gifted. The true ultra-runner must endure sleep deprivation and complete muscular fatigue. Only then, can he or she “ find energy after the fuel is gone.’’

Kieren reaching the finish line of Spartathlon; giving him company is his mother (Photo: Sparta Photography Club / courtesy Kieren D' Souza)

Kieren reaching the finish line of Spartathlon; giving him company is his mother (Photo: Sparta Photography Club / courtesy Kieren D’ Souza)

Spartathlon begins in Athens and ends in Sparta. Kieren’s mother accompanied him to Greece. As luck would have it, Grant Maughan was also staying in the same hotel as they did. It was good to meet him and chat, weeks after La Ultra-The High. As the race drew close, some officials of the Indian embassy visited Kieren to wish him luck. He had met the Indian ambassador to Greece a few days earlier. Although sustained training for Spartathlon and running La Ultra had addressed some of his nervousness, a fresh fear surfaced in Kieren at the start line in Athens. There was both a sense of intimidation by all the superlatives – from distance to tough cut-off times – attached to Spartathlon and a sense of excitement, for this would be the moment when whatever he had read about the race would start to actually unravel in his life, in his time. “ The first 40-50 km of the race, I was just enjoying the experience,’’ Kieren said. At the 93rd kilometer mark in Corinth, he met his mother who was waiting for him and spent about five minutes with her to chat and have some food.  He resumed well and comfortably settled in “ the zone.’’ Midway, at the 123rd kilometer mark, he was supposed to meet his mother again but she was delayed reaching there. It worried him. At the relatively big aid station here, Kieren hung around a little longer having food and sorting his gear as night had descended. Then, just as he was leaving, his mother arrived. It lifted his spirits. At that point he met Tobias as well. For the next 70 odd kilometers, they ran together. Except for walking up mountain passes, they ran the rest.

The formal finish at Spartathlon at the foot of the statue of King Leonidas (Photo: Sparta Photography Club / courtesy: Kieren D'Souza)

The formal finish of Spartathlon at the foot of the statue of King Leonidas (Photo: Sparta Photography Club / courtesy: Kieren D’ Souza)

At 4 AM, around the 175 kilometer mark set in a valley, Kieren paused to nap for 15-20 minutes. Tobias moved on. “ It was really cold,’’ Kieren said. He continued alone up the next mountain pass and beyond, sticking however to the same strategy of walking the ascents and running the rest. Past the 205th kilometer mark, he sensed a pain in his left ankle. In due course, the mild pain grew to solid pain. He tried running but couldn’t; the ankle was too painful. He had to trade running for walking. “ The last 40 or so kilometers, I must have walked,’’ Kieren said. This was strategically alright for having crossed the earlier check points well within time he had built up a buffer. Near Sparta, people had lined up the road to cheer the runners. Kieren recalled a couple of incidents. Two little girls on bicycles approached and rode alongside him as he limped into town. Upon being told by Kierien that he regretted ending up walking, they told him that he was doing well and was their “ hero.’’ A lady asked him to wait as he passed her café; she went inside and fetched an olive branch to gift him. It was heart-warming. His mother was at the finish line. The last 50 meters of the race Kieren somehow ran. The race officially ended at the feet of the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta. Kieren had crossed every one of the race’s 75 check points within their assigned cut off time. Against an overall cut off time of 36 hours, he had completed the 246 km-race in 33 hours and one minute. As finisher, he was given water from the river which runs through town and an olive wreath was placed on his head. Then he was whisked off to the medical tent to have his feet washed and checked for blisters. Given the ankle injury, Kieren was also taken to the local hospital where the doctors who had been watching the live telecast of the race on TV, told him that they had just seen him at the finish line. Injury checked and addressed, he returned to the finish line to watch others complete the race. Among those he saw finishing so, was Grant Maughan. “ I met Kieren and his mother at Spartathlon. He ran well for someone who hadn’t done that distance before. He seems very disciplined with his training and racing. That’s all he talks about; so I know he is very interested to keep going with it and try new challenges. It must be a great honor to be the first Indian to finish that race. I think he has a solid future in ultra-running,’’ Grant Maughan wrote in.

Kieren D' Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kieren D’ Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When we met Kieren in Bengaluru, he had a small clutch of sponsors backing him. But he was looking for long term sponsorship. “ I am looking at running as a long term engagement. So ideally, sponsorships should be similar,’’ he said. Kieren now spends much time in Manali, his preferred spot to train. The mountainous terrain with its mix of altitude, roads and trails suits him. “ The Himalaya is the best training ground I can have. Someone in US and Europe can’t imagine the altitudes we can touch in training here. That’s why I don’t want to shift out from here,’’ he said. January 2017; Kieren’s talk at the SCMM expo in Mumbai appeared well received. He though wasn’t satisfied. “ I missed out a few points,’’ he said as he came off the dais, adding, “ now tell me to my face, how was it?’’ In that need for feedback to perfect a package probably lay the real challenge of what he has embarked on.  When running becomes the stuff of livelihood, won’t it be hard to keep it fun? It is an old dilemma, all too familiar to freelance journalist. One of Kieren’s observations, from that earlier meet-up in Bengaluru, came to mind: The one thing I am sure about is that I wish to run. Rest is still the stuff of exploration.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This article is based on a set of conversations had over a period of time. Please note: the height of Khardung La is as mentioned in Wikipedia. For a detailed report on the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Featured runners: Sabhajeet Yadav, Thomas Bobby Philip, Pervin Batliwala, Team Ladakh, Kamlya Bhagat, Idris Mohamed, Ravi Kalsi, Shyam Sunder, Amar Chauhan, Savio D’ Souza, Vaijayanti Ingawale and Dnyaneshwar Tidke. Scroll down to read what each one had to say.

The annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) typically sees participation by over 40,000 people, around half of them regular runners enrolling for the half and full marathon. While the event has certainly had its share of weathering over the years, what makes it still an experience is how Mumbai responds to it – despite being a huge city with busy life centered around money and consequent capacity for insularity and indifference, the city turns out in large numbers to cheer the runners in their midst. Besides the aid stations put up by the organizers, informal stations and groups of people offering everything from oranges to lemonade, biscuits, water and packed oral rehydration solutions crop up. Not to mention, the groups of dancers, drummers and rock bands along the way. SCMM is as much a race as it is a city’s festival of running. Among the resident community of runners, preparations are visible from weeks before SCMM with most suburbs featuring runners, out training by dawn. Inevitably, at the end of this annual passage, a few among the thousands who ran find themselves on the podium. We spoke to some of them. Excerpts:

Sabhajeet Yadav; back at Mumbai's Kurla Terminus to board his train for Uttar Pradesh following the 2017 SCMM (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sabhajeet Yadav; back at Mumbai’s Kurla Terminus to board his train to Uttar Pradesh following the 2017 SCMM (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A Sixth Win at SCMM

Sabhajeet Yadav: At the 2017 edition of the race, the farmer from Uttar Pradesh notched up his sixth consecutive victory in the full marathon, this time in the 60 to less than 65 years age category. “ I am always happy to run in Mumbai, this is the best event,’’ he said, when asked if the sultry, warm conditions of race day, which had been a dampener for many, had affected him. “ I didn’t find the weather oppressive. It was warm, yes. Two days earlier, when I arrived it was pleasantly cold, fine conditions for running. But the big difference this time was in me – I reached Mumbai after much preparation. I was averaging 200-250 km a week in my preparations back home. When you are well prepared, you are not upset by other difficulties like the weather on race day. I enjoyed my run, I even managed to have a pretty fast last kilometer-spurt,’’ he said. Sabhajeet thinks differently from other runners. As a farmer, his income from farming fluctuates. Farming in India depends a lot on the monsoon; a year of weak monsoon is bad for crops. 2015 for instance, had been a tough year in farming for him. Further earnings from farming usually get reinvested in farming. Running has been an alternative source of income. Prize money earned through running, helps cushion him and family amid the unreliable fortunes of farming. Imagining back from income, Sabhajeet has been evolving a matrix in his mind that seeks to match earnings to effort. According to him, the effort that goes into a competitive full marathon is much more than what goes into running a half marathon. Yet in races across India (he participates in quite a few), he finds that the disparity in effort is not adequately reflected in the disparity in prize money assigned for the full and the half. This being so, he wonders – isn’t the half marathon more value for effort? Consequently, he finds himself progressively partial to the half marathon. “ I am thinking of restricting my full marathons to Mumbai and Bengaluru,’’ he said. It is of course a different matter if in a given instance, the full is monetarily attractive. A quiet, unassuming person Sabhajeet is known to sleep at railway stations and race venues the night before a race, get up early next morning and win a competition. This time around in Mumbai, he stayed with his longstanding benefactor, Bhasker Desai. A veteran of many marathons, Bhasker has of late been favoring the half marathon and had therefore registered for that discipline at SCMM. These days the full and the half begin at opposing ends of the giant loop that is the marathon’s route in Mumbai. On the morning of the race, Bhasker said, Sabhajeet in characteristic style disturbed none, quietly took the train and proceeded to the full marathon’s start line. Hours later, a sixth win was in the bag with a timing of 3:24:35.

Thomas Bobby Philip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Thomas Bobby Philip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Breaking into Sub-Three Realm

Thomas Bobby Philip: This man did something truly remarkable at the 2017 SCMM. Running in the 50 to less than 55 years age category, he broke into sub-three hour realm in the full marathon finishing the 42 km long distance in two hours 58 minutes and 46 seconds. It was the first such instance for Bobby and while this blog is not informed enough to be sure about it – among rare instances, if any – of a sub-three reported by an amateur Indian runner of that age at a major marathon in India. Well known in India’s running circles, Bobby is a committed runner, born in Mumbai, living in Bengaluru. “ I had been training for it for the past one year,’’ he said, “ at the 2016 SCMM, I had completed the full marathon in 3:06:34. I knew that sub-three is possible as long as I ensure that I put in longer training and improve.’’ That effort has paid off. Bobby was coached by K.C. Kothandapani. “ A good coach is important,’’ Bobby said, pointing to the plan Kothandapani had given him. “ That’s one half, the rest is your commitment and mental strength,’’ he said. According to him, the first challenge was to maintain the timing he had returned at the 2016 edition of the race. After all, every improvement is on the back of an earlier performance maintained. Then, you have to come up with ideas on how to improve. In Bobby’s case, the emphasis was on strengthening, flexibility, intensive training for faster pace and endurance training. Plus, over the November-December period, ahead of SCMM in January, he ensured that he was logging higher weekly mileage. Interestingly, Bobby said that he was not planning a random sub-three, anywhere. He was clear – he didn’t want it during any of the races of 2016 following the 2016 SCMM; he wanted it at the 2017 SCMM. So the goal was to peak by then. Preparations hit a major obstacle in October 2016, when he fell from his bicycle and fractured his arm. A runner may be running on his legs but as any runner would tell you, the movement of one’s arms is an integral part of running. The incident meant, three weeks of training lost. To Bobby’s credit, he maintained his focus and positivity. “ I let nothing shake my positivity. I maintained it through my preparations, including the time lost to fracture. I always told myself I am going to do a sub-three,’’ he said. 2017 SCMM as target – that goal never wavered. At a full marathon in Coorg essayed before the Mumbai run, he completed the course in a relaxed 3:20. On race day at SCMM, conditions were less than ideal with a pleasant Mumbai transforming on the eve of the 2017 SCMM into a sultry, warm ambiance. Minutes into the race, it took a toll on many runners. Bobby didn’t let the weather affect him. “ It was challenging but I had only one goal in mind,’’ he said. As he put it, there is one’s goal and there is one’s focus. The latter dwells on the self. Trained well, gaze glued to intended outcome, the runner’s focus smashed through the three hour-barrier to leave the benchmark high for participants in SCMM’s 50-55 year age category. What next? – We asked Bobby. The pattern going ahead is no different from post-2016 SCMM. Maintain, improve. “ Maintaining 2:58 will be challenging enough,’’ Bobby said. And did sub-three, mean greater exhaustion and longer recovery? “ No, I always give my best at SCMM. There is soreness afterwards and a period of time taken to recover. This time too, it is no different, it’s just the same as before,’’ he said.

Pervin Batliwala (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Pervin Batliwala (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

All Set for Boston

Pervin Batliwala: A veteran of many SCMMs and a podium finisher several times at the event, Pervin topped her age category (60 to 64 years) in the full marathon at the 2017 SCMM. However, she isn’t quite happy with the outcome. “ I was disappointed with my performance. I finished in 4:28:46. The weather was bad but I can’t blame the weather. I could not keep pace and also cramped a bit on the Peddar Road hill. I was expected to keep my pace at 5:55 but I could not manage that. My timing was not up to my expectation and did not match up to my training. Nevertheless, I did end as a winner in my age category,’’ she said. Her top priority now is the 2017 Boston Marathon. “I am set for Boston Marathon. I just need to keep up the momentum of training. I have been told that Boston is a tough route, especially the second half of the route. I will be participating in the Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon in February but I plan to take it easy. I won’t go all out there,’’ she said.

Some of the members of the team from Ladakh. Jigmet Dolma [first from left], Tsetan Dolkar [third from left], Disket Dolma [second from right] (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some of the members of the team from Ladakh. Jigmet Dolma [first from left], Tsetan Dolkar [third from left], Disket Dolma [second from right] (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A Model to Emulate

Team Ladakh: Since 2013, Leh based-Rimo Expeditions has been sending a team of young Ladakhi runners to SCMM. Four years later and with the help of training availed from Mumbai based-coach, Savio D’ Souza, the team has produced results. For 2017 SCMM, based on their earlier performance at the event, two Ladakhi runners – Jigmet Dolma and Tsetan Dolkar – were included in the elite segment of the women’s full marathon. In the final result Jigmet ended third in the Indian elite category for women with a timing of 3:14:38. Tsetan was close behind, finishing the run in 3:14:42. “ We were together right from the start,’’ Tsetan said. The weather having unexpectedly turned warm, they stayed cool pouring water on their head. At around 25 km, they had some snacks before continuing together again. The gap between the two apparently opened up in the last 300-400m of the race, which Jigmet said, she sprinted. Close finishes – one following the other – seem habitual for these two Ladakhi runners as you see the pattern repeated at some of the other races they participate in too. In addition to the fine performance by Jigmet and Tsetan, Disket Dolma finished third in the open category of the women’s half marathon with a timing of 1:41:43. In all 11 runners came for the 2017 SCMM as part of the Rimo-sponsored team. Their current outing is as yet, the longest since the project of grooming a clutch of distance runners from Ladakh started with that visit to Mumbai in 2013. To put things in perspective: after the 2016 SCMM, the team left for Leh in February that year. Although cold, they said that they could manage short runs in Ladakh, in March. Training for the Ladakh Marathon (organized by Rimo) commenced in April 2016. Savio’s training schedule for the team, Jigmet and Tsetan said, underwent some change with emphasis on mileage. The previous schedule had focused on getting them into the scheme of training. Rimo uses the Leh Marathon results to decide each year’s team for the trip to Mumbai for SCMM. The top three Ladakhi runners in each category get selected. The Ladakh Marathon happens in September. The journey to the 2017 SCMM commenced in October 2016 with four runners leaving Leh for Delhi where they participated in a marathon in Gurgaon. From Delhi the quartet moved to Darjeeling where they stayed a month and practised hill-running. Darjeeling was chosen because while hilly, its temperature isn’t as cold as Leh’s allowing for more training time. The four runners then returned to Delhi where seven more runners joined them and the 11 strong-team, traveled to Mumbai. However, participating at the 2016 Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), they suffered a setback. According to Jigmet and Tsetan, the four Ladakhi runners who participated, received their bibs only the morning of the race. There weren’t enough safety pins for all. Three of them ran with bib clutched in their hand. Tsetan finished first in her category in the full marathon; Jigmet came second. Prizes were distributed, they said. But there was protest by other runners over the run without bibs pinned on, following which the prizes were taken back. Both Jigmet and Tsetan said that they liked the ambiance at VVMM, well known for the crowds that line up to cheer. “ We would like to come back and run it again,’’ Tsetan said. With SCMM done, the team’s attention is on the upcoming half marathon in Thane. Their last engagement will be the IDBI Half Marathon in Delhi, after which, they should be back in Leh by around the first week of March.

Kamlya Bhagat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kamlya Bhagat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Road Runner Strikes Again

Kamlya Bhagat: Although living near the Mumbai-Navi Mumbai region, Kamlya had never participated in SCMM. That was until 2016. That year, he ran his first SCMM and ended up first in his age category in the half marathon. In 2017, he ran his second SCMM and ended up first for a second time in his age category (30 years to less than 35 years) in the half marathon. January 18, two days after SCMM, we were back at Panvel’s Visava Hotel for a chat, missal pav and tea. Hailing from financially challenged circumstances, Kamlya races mostly on short distances at events in Raigad. Well-wishers and sponsors in Mumbai’s running community point out races elsewhere and register him for a 21 km-half marathon. Given that is how major half marathons materialize for him, in the time between his first win at SCMM and the 2017 edition of the race, the bulk of Kamlya’s running was over smaller distances. Closer to the event, according to Kamlya, Dnyaneshwar Tidke put him in touch with the folks at Nike (the coach there is Daniel Vaz). They provided Kamlya a training schedule. He couldn’t travel to Nike’s training sessions in Mumbai city; so he trained on his own near Panvel. It was already December when Kamlya began his training for SCMM. “ I must have trained for a fortnight at best,’’ he said. His schedule emphasized speed training. The short duration of training he somehow managed compared to, much of Mumbai that makes a year-long affair of Mission SCMM, wasn’t the only quirk in his preparations. On race day, minutes before the half marathon commenced, one saw him engaged in warm-up jogs. He wore no shoes; he had on just a pair of socks. According to Kamlya, while he wears shoes for his training runs, for some reason, he can’t extract race winning performance from them on race day. So at races, he prefers to go barefoot. Barefoot however, doesn’t work well on all Indian roads. He sought an intermediate situation and that is how the socks debuted. In a version of minimalist footwear he innovated, he started to wear the socks over a plain insole. But that wasn’t satisfactory as the insole tended to slide and slip around. Early January 15, with minutes left for the SCMM half marathon to begin, he was into version two of his innovation – he created a contraption wherein he first wore a pair of socks and glued the insole into place under it, then he wore two pairs of socks over it; this was his race footwear. In that, Kamlya ran to an early lead in the half marathon. Past the 17 km-mark, he recalls feeling some tiredness; he also experienced mild cramps. But he maintained his lead to end first in his age category with a timing of 1:16:11. Was he nervous defending his first position from the past? “ No, that was never a source of tension. My only worry was – I had promised those who sponsored me in registering for the race that I would try to return a timing of 1:15. Unfortunately, although I won, that timing stayed elusive,’’ he said. When this blog first wrote about Kamlya, he was staying in a hut of a home at a small hamlet on the outskirts of Panvel. He has since spent money improving his home, giving it better shape and stronger build. The money for this came mostly from running; a mix of funds contributed by fellow runners – particularly many at Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) – and prize money. “ There is still work left to do. But once the house is complete, I plan to name it: Road Runner,’’ Kamlya said.

Idris Mohamed (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Idris Mohamed (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Next Year: A Full Marathon

Idris Mohamed: When Idris Mohamed first ran at SCMM, he chose the full marathon. At his subsequent appearances in 2016 and 2017, he opted for the half marathon. An intriguing set of choices, Idris explained that it is both temporary and reflecting his predicament in prize money-based racing. Idris has investments, one of which is an investment in an optical business, where his partner manages the show leaving runner free to compete and more importantly – maintain a second line of earnings through prize money. It so happens that in prize money’s calendar of events, half marathons seem to exceed full marathons in India. Idris’s schedule reflects this. He came from running a series of half marathons to SCMM. By the second weekend following SCMM he was due to sail into a schedule of four half marathons. “ I cannot ignore these half marathons,’’ Idris said. As he did in Bengaluru last year, he could have run the full marathon on the back of a series of half marathons done (Idris is a triathlete and has adequate endurance to cover the additional distance of running involved) and even attempted a good timing (he had finished the Bengaluru full marathon in 3:04). But recovery in time for the half marathons following SCMM would have been tough. So he decided to stay with the half marathon at the 2017 SCMM too. He finished second in the half marathon in his age category of 45 years to less than 50 with a timing of 1:24:52. This was 28 seconds slower than the timing he registered in 2016. One reason for this was that he wasn’t feeling all that well going into the run. The sultry weather didn’t bother him. He however wished there had been some more aid stations stocked with oral rehydration solutions and energy drinks. “ Next year, I plan to do the full marathon at SCMM. Before I turn 50 years old, I want to do one,’’ he said.

Ravi Kalsi (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi / Facebook page)

Ravi Kalsi (Photo: courtesy Ravi Kalsi / Facebook page)

A Personal Best despite the Weather

Ravi Kalsi: “ I like to run SCMM. I enjoy the spirit,’’ Ravi, who works with a BPO, said. On a warm, sultry day – not exactly ideal conditions for running – he managed both personal best timing and place on the podium. Ravi finished third in the half marathon in the 45 years to less than 50, age category. “ The run was good as I ended with a personal best of 1:25:29. I did a barefoot-run again. The road was very good till Marine Drive. My plan was to get to sub 1:25 because that meant I would be in the A category of the half marathon. I could not achieve that but I am happy with my performance. There is always a next time,’’ he said. Ravi had trained well for the 2017 SCMM. Unexpected element was the weather which suddenly changed from fine weather, ideal for running to warm and sultry, the night before SCMM commenced. “ The weather was a dampener and I realized it in the second or third kilometer itself. After about seven or eight kilometers I started pouring water on my head to help me cool down; I did so every two kilometers or so,’’ he said adding, “I like to run SCMM. I enjoy the spirit. There is so much positivity and energy. After I finished my run, I rushed to Marine Drive to cheer other runners.’’ Ravi will soon be back to training. He plans to do the ILFS 10 k coming up in February. His stringent training schedule also includes emphasis on form, diet and rest.  He started running in 2011 and has done a couple of marathons. But now his focus is on improving speed and efficiency in half marathons.

Shyam Sunder (Photo: courtesy Shyam Sunder)

Shyam Sunder (Photo: courtesy Shyam Sunder)

Enjoy Running SCMM, No Complaints at All

Shyam Sunder: The septuagenarian who gifted himself a marathon overseas when he turned 70 years old some time back, finished second in the 70 years to less than 75 age category of the 2017 SCMM full marathon. “ The race was good until around 30 kilometers or so. After that I got cramps and had to resort to a mix of walking and running. I did 21 km in 2:06 and 30 km in 3 hours. I was doing well until I started to get cramps at around 30km-mark. I had not trained much this time. All my long runs were below 20 km. I did not want to strain much. I enjoy running SCMM. I have no complaints at all,’’ he said. Shyam Sunder finished the run in 4:53:24, knocking six seconds off his timing in last year’s Mumbai Marathon, which incidentally had been his maiden full marathon. His next plan is to do a half marathon at the Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon, mid-February.

Amar Chauhan (Photo: courtesy Amar Chauhan / Facebook page)

Amar Chauhan (Photo: courtesy Amar Chauhan / Facebook page)

Good to Run in a City that Cheers and Supports Runners

Amar Chauhan: Amar Chauhan lives for six months of the year in Mohali and the remaining six months he divides his time between the U.S. where his daughter lives and Canada where his son resides. The retired Punjab government official started running overseas about four years ago. “ I used to go for brisk walks earlier,” he said. He has participated in 21 half marathons and three full marathons and has had podium finishes in 21 of these races. He got a podium at the BMO Vancouver Marathon 2016 (second position with timing of 4:18:04). On January 15, 2017, Chauhan topped his age category (70 years to less than 75) at SCMM. “ It was a good run. I was satisfied with my performance (4:16:31) though it was not as good as it was last year (4:10:36). I ended up first once again. This time around I developed cramps at 38 kilometers and had to take a minute’s break. But when I restarted I was fine. I had trained very well this time. Every alternative day I ran a 20 k in the month before the marathon. My long runs would be of the distance of 30, 35 and 40 km,’’ he said. About 35 runners from Chandigarh participated in the 2017 SCMM. Amar Chauhan said that he likes running SCMM as there is a lot of enthusiasm, cheering and good support for runners. His next two runs are in Mohali and Chandigarh. He has already signed up for races in Canada and the US.

Savio D' Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Savio D’ Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A Coach’s Satisfaction

Savio D’Souza: Savio is among Mumbai’s best known coaches. A former national marathon champion he makes it a point to participate in SCMM. He finished second in his age category of 60 years to less than 65, in the half marathon at the 2017 edition of the event. “ It was a good run. I finished with a timing of 1:38 and ended up second in my age category (60-64). I was targeting 1:35 but could not manage that. Humidity was a bit high,’’ he said. Savio is also coach to the team of runners from Ladakh who have been regularly visiting Mumbai for SCMM. Based on past performance, in 2017, two of these runners were elevated to the elite category. “ As a coach it was a satisfying experience. Many of my wards ended up with places on podium. The performance of the team from Ladakh was good. This was a major race for them as elite athletes. They ran well, they did not get intimidated by anything and handled the pressure well. They have the potential to do better and improve their performance as they are quite young. They came here one month ahead of the race to get acclimatized to Mumbai’s humid weather. They have years ahead of them as marathon runners usually peak at the age of 28-32 years. I have been training them for the last two years. Many of my wards in amateur groups also ended up with podium finishes. Among them are Disket Dolma in the open half marathon category for women, Ankita Mittal and Neha Grover in the 30-34 age group of the half marathon, Vidhi Sheth in the below 35 years age group in the full marathon, Sanjay Jadhav in the 55-60 years age group of the half marathon, Elsie Nanji in the 60-64 years age group of the half marathon and Pervin Batliwala in the 60-64 years age group of the full marathon,’’ he said. According to him, SCMM is a very well organized event, one that has mobilized the entire country into running. “ It is evident in the number of people coming into marathon running,’’ he said.

Vaijayanti Ingawale (Photo: courtesy Vaijayanti Ingawale / Facebook page)

Vaijayanti Ingawale (Photo: courtesy Vaijayanti Ingawale / Facebook page)

A Podium Finish at Her First Full Marathon

Vaijayanti Ingawale: A podium finisher at many of her half marathon appearances, Vaijayanti Ingawale ended up with a third position in her maiden full marathon attempt at the 2017 edition of SCMM.

“I really had no clue how this run would go as it was my first full marathon. I had no target,’’ she said, noting alongside that one of the differences between the half marathon and the full is how some of the cheering and support dies out by the time the amateur full marathon runners straggle in to complete the distance. But there are exceptions. “ In many places residents were offering snacks and hydration to runners. One of the residents ran along with me for quite a distance offering me chocolate. The weather was a dampener this time,’’ Vaijayanti said. A medical doctor (she is a pediatrician), she started running in 2012 when a friend suggested that she try something new – she chose running. The bug caught on and soon she found herself signing on for the 2013 edition of the Thane Hiranandani half marathon. Later that year she got her first podium at the Goa River Marathon. She wasn’t aware of her podium status until she got home a few days later. A resident of Thane, Vaijayanti loves to travel to running events. Her husband Deepak Ingawale is also a runner. Recently, she participated in the Nilgiris run where she did a 25 k. Having crossed the finish line of a full marathon at SCMM, Vaijayanti now wants to explore ultra-distances. She is not a fan of SCMM as it is very crowded with runners now. She was also tad surprised at the lack of hydration support at the end of the run. “Further, the post-run refreshment that is offered is not up to the mark. However, the camaraderie among runners makes up for the shortcomings. It was also great to see the elite athletes running past us at such a close distance,” she said.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar Tidke)

A Good Run but Short of Personal Best

Dnyaneshwar Tidke: Among the best amateur runners in the Mumbai-Navi Mumbai region, Dnyaneshwar’s aim was to get a personal best at the 2017 SCMM. The marathon ended well for him as he finished with an officially recorded net timing of 2:55:14. However, it fell short of his best, which remains 2:53. “I had some stomach issues, which impeded my run.  But overall the run was good.  This time around support was excellent with adequate water and electrolyte, sponges and oranges,’’ he said. Unlike many runners at SCMM, Dnyaneshwar was not impacted by the humid weather. A major dampener for him was running into a wall of half marathon runners, particularly on Peddar Road and towards the end. Unfortunately, Dnyaneshwar did not figure among podium finishers initially although his timing within his age group indicated that he finished third. “I have written to the organizers to rectify it,’’ he said. The error has since been rectified and his podium finish is now official. Dnyaneshwar loves the energy at SCMM. His plan going forward is to focus on training and strengthening and bring down his timing.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The photos taken from Facebook were downloaded with the permission of the runner concerned.)