Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In what is perhaps a sign of things to come in the fast evolving running scenario in India, one of the leading event organizers therein – NEB Sports, has formally announced a National Marathon Circuit (NMC) composed of five events it organizes.

These running events are spread across Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Delhi. If a runner signs up for NMC, he / she gets to run half or full marathons at all these locations. The distance is slightly different at Hyderabad where the longer races have been kept at 25 km and 50 km. “ The Hyderabad event is a new one for NEB. We tweaked the distance for the longer races to slightly more than the regular half and full marathon distances, so that people wishing for such a stretch get a chance,’’ Sunil Shetty, veteran ultra-runner and a senior member of the NEB team, said. The NMC will open with the Mumbai event in August 2017, followed by Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Delhi (the last two events in 2018).

NEB Sports was founded by Nagaraj Adiga, who is also its chairman.

According to Sunil, the concept of NMC was floated last year. It was given shape well into the second half of 2016. By then, the running season was already underway. Consequently it could be tried out only in a limited fashion. As per NEB’s 2016 intimation on the subject, four of their marathon events featured in that list – Bengaluru, Goa, Kolkata and Delhi. Mumbai missed the bus. The running season of 2017-2018 marks NMC’s formal announcement as a product from NEB with whole season ahead. This time, Mumbai is included as is Hyderabad. Goa does not feature on the list because NEB is not the organizer for the Goa River Marathon, this year. At three locations – Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai – IDBI Federal Life Insurance is the lead sponsor for the NEB-organized race. The title sponsor at Bengaluru is Shriram Properties, while (as of May 29, 2017) the search was on for a title sponsor at Hyderabad.

Beyond unique medal, customized T-shirt and certificate, a concrete incentive for runners to sign up for NMC was yet to be in place. Asked if a runner signing up for all five races under the new circuit would be able to do so at a cost that is cheaper than if he / she were to sign up for each separately, Sunil said that as yet, the organizers are unable to make that happen. What NEB can do for incentive at present, is help those signing up in finding hotel accommodation etc. Other details – like whether a single bib number can be used across races – would also need to be studied.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Indian mountaineer, Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, reached the summit of Everest for the sixth time on May 27, 2017.

A senior officer of the Border Security Force (BSF), Love Raj was on this occasion part of the ONGC Eco Everest Expedition.

He had previously climbed Everest successfully in 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013. The May 2017 expedition was his ninth visit to Everest.

“ Love Raj reached the summit of Everest around 6.10 AM on May 27,’’ Capt. S.K. Sagwan, leader of the expedition, said when contacted. According to him, a total of four team members (including Love Raj) summitted the peak on Saturday, May 27. Three other team members were slated to commence their summit attempt on Saturday night with hopes of reaching the top by Sunday morning. “ Following his successful summit, Love Raj is on his way back to base camp,’’ Capt. Sagwan said, Saturday evening.

At the time of writing this article, Anshu Jamsenpa, mountaineer from Arunachal Pradesh, who climbed Everest twice in five days in the 2017 climbing season, had a total of five successful ascents of the peak. While Love Raj’s successful ascents of Everest were along tried and tested routes, of his nine trips to the mountain, two were as part of expeditions attempting challenging faces – the Kanshung Face (1999) and the East Face (2001).

Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Love Raj’s sixth successful climb of Everest has happened after a long wait. It was originally slated for 2015. But that year, while Love Raj was at Everest Base Camp, the devastating earthquake that killed thousands in Nepal, struck. At Everest Base Camp, the earthquake triggered a massive avalanche with resultant casualties. The climbing season was terminated following the incident.

Love Raj is an Assistant Commandant with the BSF.

He was awarded the Padma Sri in 2014.

This blog has previously written on Love Raj and the Johar region in Kumaon that he hails from.

For more on Love Raj please try this link: . For an account of the 2015 avalanche including Love Raj’s experience, please try this link:

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Given where I was headed, I had told myself that the camera would be a definite no-go. So it stayed behind in the hotel room. At the gate of the establishment I needed to be in, off went my cell phone and bag as well. They had to be surrendered. I was allowed to proceed like a scribe from journalism’s early days – two writing pads and two pens clutched in my hand for pursuit of profession. I liked that situation. It restored purity and simplicity. Like early morning run; time with oneself and nothing else before world by restless cell phone, breathless TV, exploding traffic and a thousand expectations take over. “ Careful,’’ Siddesha Hanumantappa said as I almost fell onto a nearby patch of carefully manicured green thanks to my shin splint of a leg giving away. We were at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in Bengaluru. Siddesha found a quiet conference room for the interview he had promised.

Nelamangala is a town in Bengaluru rural district. It is around 25 kilometers away from Karnataka’s capital city, towards Tumkur. This is where Siddesha was born in March 1959, one of nine siblings. His mother who was illiterate stayed a housewife. His father managed a job in the police for a while, then, he resigned and commenced a business in Nelamangala. The income generated was barely sufficient to support the family. “ Of the nine siblings, six survive. Now I am the youngest,’’ Siddesha said. Educated at a government school, he studied in Kannada medium up to the eighth standard. “ From fifth onward, I learnt English. I moved to English medium when I was in the eighth standard,’’ he said. Twelfth standard was a turning point for young Siddesha. His father, who had supported the family, passed away. His mother struggled to keep things going. Siddesha therefore decided to work. In May 1978, an opportunity emerged to join the Indian Air Force (IAF). He grabbed it. After initial training in Bengaluru, he was posted to Lucknow. There an incident happened that altered his fortunes in life. A colleague wished to desert the IAF and while doing so, he left the books he had purchased to do an engineering course, with Siddesha. It sparked an idea – why not study engineering? The IAF provided perfect room for continuing education. Alongside his regular work, Siddesha enlisted to study electrical engineering from Institution of Engineers, Kolkata. He was a dedicated student. He finished the AMIE engineering course in two and a half years. “ I gave my first exam in May 1980, the last one in December 1982,’’ he said. Next, he enlisted for M. Tech at Harcourt Butler Technical Institute (HBTI), Kanpur.  He was about to finish his first semester, when he got an offer from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to work at their Engine Division. “ Following my selection by HAL, IAF allowed me to leave,’’ Siddesha said. He joined HAL in March 1985. Two years later, seeking a change of scene, he shifted to ADA, a premier institution just established by the Government of India to design and develop the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). “ I am one of the oldest employees of ADA,’’ he said.

In his days at school decades ago, Siddesha was an active individual. He participated in any sport that entailed running. Football, kho-kho and kabaddi were his favorites. “ It wasn’t anything competitive; it was more of staying active,’’ he said. Things changed when he joined the IAF; the most significant shift perhaps being the early onset of responsibility given his father was no more by then. The young man needed to find a trajectory to move up in life. Despite the military being popularly associated with physical activity, Siddesha’s IAF days were quite different. Coming across those engineering books had rekindled the desire to study and with his joining the engineering course and completing it double quick in two and a half years, most days were spent studying. “ I would work eight hours and study up to twelve hours a day,’’ he said. During exam time, study hours increased further. Sleep wasn’t much. “ If I take up something, I become very serious about it,’’ Siddesha said. It was a trait that would show up in his running too.

Photo: courtesy Siddesha Hanumantappa

While he had all along been a sports loving person, it wasn’t until September 13, 1994 (he recalls the exact date) that running as the running it is these days for most of us, visited him. That day his wife who is an agricultural scientist and senior professor, went on outstation duty. The couple’s son, who was in nursery, was set to have an internal exam. Meanwhile, design work at office had also peaked leaving Siddesha a tired, exhausted man by the time he got home. “ The routine was to go home tired, eat and crash out,’’ he said. As alternative, he decided to seek time in the morning to spend with his son for his studies. Doing so, they woke up early and went for walk / jog together from 5.30 AM to 7.30 AM, from home to Cubbon Park and back. During this peaceful, private time, Siddesha, who would have prepared notes the previous night, taught his son what he required to know for his exams at school. The family stayed near Cubbon Park in Bengaluru. This early morning routine went on for a few years. As the days went by, the walking inched towards a mix of jogging and running. Siddesha’s son became fond of cricket. He ended up training at the Brijesh Patel Cricket Academy in 1998. When that happened, Siddesha’s daughter stepped in to fill the vacancy in the early morning walks. In due course she got selected to represent Karnataka in field hockey at the sub-junior level; she went on to play for the state at senior level too. According to Siddesha the drift to running from walking / jogging, happened mainly because of his fancy for return on investment. Running gave back much more than walking did. Even if he was teaching his children, he could jog or run alongside. “ Luckily my son and daughter were game to join me on those early morning walks. That was my biggest strength,’’ he said. From 2005 onward, with his children having made their own choice in sport, Siddesha started running solo. He would run from home to Cubbon Park and back. The distance run used to be six kilometers initially; that progressively increased to nine kilometers by 2009.

In 2009, while running at Cubbon Park, he met Rishikesh Basu and Amritha Mitra. They were part of the running group called BHUKMP. Said so, that abbreviation reminds of the Hindi word for earthquake. In the running world, it is expanded as Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ultra, Kaveri Trail, Mumbai and Puducherry. Rishikesh and Amritha pulled Siddesha into BHUKMP. “ With that, my running became really serious. Even now I train with Rishikesh Basu and Amritha. Three days a week I run with them. The remaining four days, I run alone,’’ he said. In 2010, Siddesha participated in the Kaveri Trail Marathon; he ran the full marathon. He not only completed the race but to his utter surprise he also placed first in his category. “ I was stunned,’’ he said. Thereafter podium finishes have been regular for Siddesha. On the average, he participates in roughly six full marathons a year. “ By now I would have run 48-49 marathons,’’ he said early May 2017 at ADA, “ I am not too ambitious as regards targets in running. I don’t care much for timing. I worry only about distance and remaining injury-free. If you want to run injury-free, you must stay stress-free.’’

Siddesha’s commitment to running is absolute. He runs every day no matter what. If he doesn’t run, he said, he felt his day gets spoilt; the body becomes too stiff and lethargic. A day after I met him, he was due to travel on work; catch a flight at 6 AM. He said he would make sure he got up at 1.30 AM and log in his daily run. “ I can sleep in the aircraft. Sleep is not a priority. In my case, whatever sleep I put in, it is deep sleep’’ he said, adding he didn’t need an alarm to wake up at the hour he wished to. For his weekly long run, which starts at 4 AM, he wakes up at 2.30 AM. He ensures he warms up before the run and cools down after it. In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 he used to additionally cycle up to 70-80 kilometers per week. But that old obsession with return on investment saw him revert to full time running for it felt like more calories burnt per unit of effort. “ End of the day I am looking for returns and certainly, that feeling called runner’s high. Cycling is side dish. Main course is running,’’ he said. Siddesha does not follow any popularly tracked training protocols. He has designed his regimen himself. “ Basically, your joints should be working well and for endurance, you need a strong core,’’ he said. From September 2009 to February-March 2010, for seven days a week, he ran 30 kilometers every day. Then he got fatigued and reduced it to 22 kilometers for about nine months. Tweaking it further, he reached the norm of about 100 kilometers per week. Over two days in a week therein, he does a long run and a medium run totaling 50 kilometers. The balance 50 kilometers from the total of 100 kilometers is spread across the remaining days of the week.  “Nowadays I run a minimum of 100 kilometers per week. At times it has gone up to 150-160 kilometers a week,’’ he said.

Siddesha likes the fact that he is designing his passage through running himself. There is an element of science in listening to one’s body and making the required adjustments to keep running. Early morning, his hours spent running are an oasis of peace during which, he consciously manages the activity and strategizes for the day ahead. In some vague fashion, this private time spent running with the body sensing the challenges it is pushed into, it sending messages to the brain and the brain processing the data and transmitting instructions, harks of modern aircraft technology. Many fighter aircraft, including India’s LCA, work on digital fly by wire technology. A team of computers instantly analyzes control inputs made by a pilot, evaluating the aircraft’s speed, weight, atmospheric conditions and other variables, arriving at the optimum control deflections to achieve what the pilot has requested – this is how NASA’s page on the subject describes fly-by-wire. Multiple computers eliminate the possibility of computer failure and many computers participating in the voting exercise to decide, means an optimum decision made.

Photo: courtesy Siddesha Hanumantappa

From a design standpoint, there is an interesting paradox here. In the earlier days of aircraft evolution, emphasis was on creating a stable aircraft. However a stable aircraft means difficulty in complex aerial maneuvers, most of which are an invitation for instability. With fly-by-wire, it doesn’t matter if the aircraft is unstable. The resultant superior maneuverability promised is delivered by unstable aircraft using multiple computers for doing the real time math to meet pilot’s request. It reduces the pilot’s workload with respect to flying and allows him to concentrate on his mission. This is what makes fly by wire aircraft versatile. The personal time one finds while running, Siddesha felt, is somewhere similar to this. The body as stable platform is something we make it by conditioning it to only limited circumstances. Like in aircraft, that conditioning reduces its maneuverability in dynamic environment. As we challenge the body and it becomes unstable, the brain and its network of neurons and nerves engage furiously to make the body adapt and perform in altered conditions. Did you fly by wire today? – might as well be another way to ask: did you go for a run? That said Siddesha is clear that running is not all about pushing one’s limits. For example, after the 2010 Kaveri Trail Marathon, he participated in the Bengaluru Ultra completing its 50 kilometer-category. He didn’t enjoy it and chooses to see distances beyond the full marathon as probably not his cup of tea.  The full marathon distance is his sweet spot in running. “ After 33-35 kilometers in a marathon I am really tired and hit a wall. From 35-36 kilometers onward, all hell breaks loose. That is where I enjoy the most,’’ he said laughing.

In April 2016 and 2017, Siddesha was among those who travelled from India to the US to run the Boston Marathon. “ It was not something planned, It just happened,’’ he said attributing the participation to the Boston Qualifier time he returned at the 2015 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), where he had finished first in his age category. He had completed the Mumbai race in 3:29. Training systematically and doing it enjoyably, he reserves his best for events. His personal best so far in the full marathon was 3:24, clocked at an event in Delhi in February 2017. “ I am always content with whatever is my performance. I keep modest targets. That helps me enjoy my running. In running, you should not be over ambitious,’’ he said. At ADA, Siddesha Hanumantappa is Project Director (LCA-Mark 2) and Technology Director (Propulsion). “ I maybe a scientist by profession but running is my first choice,’’ he said.

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


Samim Rizvi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was early May 2017.

We were at a restaurant in Whitefield, Bengaluru.

Meeting Samim Rizvi had been in mind for quite some time. Putting it off to a more convenient instance wasn’t difficult. My job is to chronicle every subject’s past. The past doesn’t change if a meeting in the future is delayed – does it? That view changed on account of two developments. First, a chance perusal of a crowd funding website revealed that Samim was heading back to the US for another shot at Race across America (RAAM). Second, when I called him up to schedule a meeting, he seemed headed into the record books, albeit only `headed’ for the paperwork had been submitted and no official confirmation had been received yet. At the time of writing this article, the farthest distance cycled by anyone in a month was 6455 km by Janet Davison of UK. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this was achieved over July 24 to August 22, 2015 with Janet daily cycling a 215 km circuit around Cheshire. The 2017 RAAM would be Samim’s fourth visit to the iconic race.  When he commenced preparations for it, his team felt he could make an attempt at breaking the above mentioned record as well, using the daily training sessions for the purpose. “ I managed to cover 7777 km in a month,’’ Samim said. He decided to stop at that figure for it seemed a tidy number.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Although Bengaluru is home now, that isn’t where Samim’s story starts. His childhood was in Dongri, Central Mumbai, a suburb, infamous for its links to the Mumbai underworld. “ My father stuck to the right path,’’ Samim said. In his younger days, Samim’s father used to be active in the Scouts and the National Cadet Corps (NCC) but following an accident, which brought him to hospital, he was diagnosed with diabetes. His mother was a good shooter and Samim believes she used to run, for he has seen an old podium photo from her college days. Both parents were post graduates in organic chemistry. Samim’s father ran a perfumery business; his mother was a teacher and eventually principal of a school.  Born July 1969, Samim was the youngest of five siblings; three brothers and two sisters. While he didn’t delve much into it, he did say that growing up in Dongri was a testing experience. It was a tough neighborhood with potential to go astray lurking in every corner. By age four, he was learning martial arts, starting with karate. “ That brought discipline into my life,’’ he said. His first attempt at distance cycling happened when he was just ten years old. It was a trip from the Mumbai Central area to Borivali and back. As a school student, he read about leading sports personalities and dreamt of achieving something. He was also inspired by lines of poetry penned by Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Closer to cycling, he was in awe of some of his seniors at school who used to participate in the Mumbai-Pune cycle race. “ I don’t know why I liked distance cycling. Maybe it was the chance to be alone, no one to tell you anything, that feeling of being free. It was also perhaps closer to my personality; at home I was usually playing by myself. I was a loner – you could say,’’ he said. While that may have been perception at individual level, distance cycling has its teams. It is teams that make up the peloton of endurance races. Teams were prominent in sports magazines with articles on cycling. At age 16, Samim formed his first cycling team in Mumbai. In tune with the approximation of the entire exercise, the team was aptly called Errors. It was also occasion for Samim’s first pair of cycling shorts – it was made of satin; he had it stitched with sponge within for padding. “ Everything about Errors smacked of mistake. Thanks to what we read and saw in the media, it aspired for international but fell woefully short due to lack of gear, circumstances and experience,’’ Samim said.

Mumbai days; with the Flying Pigeon road bike (Photo courtesy: Samim Rizvi)

In the history of bicycles – indeed the history of personal transport –`Flying Pigeon’ is famous. On the Internet, it shows up as the name of a bicycle company located in Tianjin, China. Its Flying Pigeon PA-02 model (based on the Raleigh roadster) – Wikipedia says – sold more than 500 million units over 1950-2007. The next highest sold vehicle is the Honda Super Cub, which by 2008 had passed 60 million units in sales. So sought after and ubiquitous was the Flying Pigeon in China that Deng Xiaoping is reported to have once described prosperity as “ a Flying Pigeon in every household.’’ Samim’s elder brother was a strong cyclist and the brothers used to compete with others, cycling loops around Marine Lines in the city. Samim’s parents gifted his brother a Flying Pigeon road bike. Soon enough, the younger sibling took it over. Samim loved riding it fast. He obtained an eight speed gear set from a friend and for a brief while managed to make it work on the Flying Pigeon. When the gear set had to be returned, Samim converted the Flying Pigeon into a fixed wheel bike. “ Those days it was largely riders riding on tracks who used a fixie,’’Samim said. The absence of freewheel behind meant that both accelerating and decelerating the bike depended on one’s legs and cadence. It is not easy to master. Samim however adapted well to the fixie. “ Looking back, I suspect my bike handling skills and smooth peddling motion probably came from using that fixie,’’ he said. In 1986, Samim’s father and his elder brother shifted to Bengaluru. A year later, the whole family followed. Samim had his trusted Flying Pigeon along. “ It was an extension of my being that I couldn’t part with,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

In Bengaluru, Samim’s first memorable adventure in cycling was with his Indian-Chinese classmate from college, Yang Yen Thaw.  The latter had just taken delivery of a BSA Mach 1 bicycle and the two decided to head straight for Nandi Hills. It was to be a night ride. “ It was buying the cycle and heading out immediately. We had a torch but no money for the road, no food, no water,’’ Samim said. Lashed by rain, the duo were soon cold, hungry and shivering. An old lady, who took pity on them, shared some bananas. By 3 AM or so, they reached the top of Nandi Hills, where Yang ran to Nehru House and sought help. They got a warm bed and slept for two hours. Then they headed back to Bengaluru. The descent was particularly difficult for Samim, given his Flying Pigeon with a fixie. “ I was thrown all around on the road,’’ he said. That outing to Nandi Hills – nowadays the trip is a regular fixture for Bengaluru’s cycling community – was Samim’s first real taste of distance cycling. Following that first trip, he began to cycle to Nandi Hills frequently. “ I have this crazy bonding with that place,’’ he said. If you believe in the 10,000 hours-paradigm, then what followed must have contributed much to making Samim the endurance cyclist he is today.  Approximately 50 km south west of Bengaluru is the small town of Ramanagara, famous in India as the location where the block buster movie Sholay was shot in 1975. It is additionally well known as a destination for rock climbing. Samim’s father wanted him to be an engineer. In 1989, he joined an engineering college in Ramanagara. From where he stayed in Bengaluru to the college, it was a distance of 67 km. For the next four years, most working days, Samim cycled up and down logging 134 km daily. He soon became quite proficient at this commute. “ Sometimes I feel sad I passed my engineering course in four years,’’ Samim said laughing. In 1993, he joined Jet Airways on the engineering side, working there for the next two and a half years. During this period, he got side tracked into body building. “ That was the worst decision I made. My cycling suffered. I became top heavy and all that,’’ he said. A small group of men walked into the restaurant. “ My support team,’’ Samim said, introducing them. It included his son. They left agreeing to wait in the neighborhood till we finished our chat. There was a ride scheduled early next morning for which a team meeting was necessary that very evening.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Pogostemon Cablin is the botanical name for patchouli, a bushy herb of the mint family. The heavy, strong scent of patchouli has been used for centuries in perfumes and more recently in the manufacturing of incense. Karnataka (of which state, Bengaluru is capital) is a major center of India’s agarbati (incense) industry. These were among reasons Samim’s father shifted his business to Bengaluru. Besides being a perfumer, he was also local agent for a French perfume company. In the early 1990s, there was a period when the price of patchouli oil ruled high and supply was low. Someone told Samim’s father of a container load of the highest quality available. The deal was almost finalized, when Samim took a sniff from the sample bottle and warned his father that it wasn’t top quality oil; he was being swindled. Alarmed his father sent the sample for testing. It turned out to be low grade oil. Samim seemed to have a nose for fragrances. His father suggested that the engineer move to France to do a formal course in perfumery sciences. He did so, spending time in Grasse in southern France for the purpose. Being in France meant something else too – cyclist side tracked into body building and regretting the decision, got back into cycling. No better country to make that homecoming, than France. On his return to India however, his family failed to use his newly acquired skills in the perfumery trade. They put him instead into the agarbati business, where Samim set himself up to make niche, high end products. Just as this enterprise was taking off, his father lost his longstanding business with the French. That restricted cash flow. Amid this, Samim’s mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. The large family, living together, was shaken up. They managed to find alternative accommodation. But debt started piling up. The agarbati business was shut down. Their original house was taken over by the bank. It was a desperate time. What helped Samim at this juncture was what he had learnt since age four – martial arts. In the years that followed, he had become a first degree black belt in karate and judo and a second degree black belt in taekwondo. He had also won a silver medal in boxing for Karnataka at one of the National Games. Plus he was into cycling. In 2005, putting all this together, he set himself up as a personal trainer. This was a turning point for the better. Clients seemed to like his work. Income was decent; Samim’s wife had also begun working by now.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

RAAM was started by John Marino in 1982, as the Great American Bike Race. The first race featuring four riders commenced at Santa Monica in California and concluded at the Empire State Building in New York. Lon Haldeman was the winner in 1982 cycling the distance in nine days twenty hours and two minutes. The race has always run from the US west coast to the east; it covers roughly 4800 km. Unlike the better known Tour de France, which is composed of multiple stages, RAAM proceeds as a single stage with an overall cut off time. Winners typically complete the length of the race in eight to nine days. Given near continuous cycling (very few breaks are taken), sleep deprivation has always been one of the major challenges on RAAM. As a result, riders may hallucinate. According to Wikipedia, in 2006, a solo enduro division was added to race categories, which requires racers to take rest at specified points for a total of forty hours. These changes were made to improve safety and shift the emphasis from fighting sleep deprivation to long distance cycling speed. Interestingly, affection for this format faded over time and it was eventually removed from RAAM. The official RAAM champion now is the winner in the traditional format. On the average, participants make do with around one and a half hours of sleep every day. In 2014, Austrian cyclist Christophe Strasser won his second RAAM cycling 4860.2 km in seven days, fifteen hours and fifty six minutes, translating to an average speed of 26.43 km per hour. A year after RAAM commenced its experiment with the now defunct enduro division; back in India, Samim was having a tryst with something different from cycling. Although committed cyclist and having sound endurance thereby, he hadn’t got into running in the real sense of the word. Yet in September 2007, at the prodding of his friend Arjun, he ran 1100 km from Bengaluru to Mumbai (some deviations en route included) over 22 days. Then, he cycled back to Bengaluru in three and a half days. It was at the end of this trip that Samim did an Internet search for the toughest race in the world. Among the results that popped up was: RAAM. It had a qualifying norm – you had to ride 675 km in 24 hours.

Training youngsters in martial arts (Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi)

By now Samim was participating in cycle races in Bengaluru and long distance rides. Among popular distance trips from the city is the Bengaluru-Ooty-Bengaluru ride. Samim’s fastest time on this route, riding a Trek alloy road bike, was roughly 27 hours. Dinesh Reddy, owner of Red Rooster Racing, was among those who tracked Samim’s Bengaluru-Mumbai run. He offered to help out with RAAM. Samim shifted to racing with Red Rooster briefly. Although Red Rooster provided him with a Specialized Tarmac road bike, the arrangement didn’t last long. So it was with Bulldog Sports that Samim got through his RAAM qualifier. It was done on the Nandi Hills road (using the Specialized Tarmac); he notched up 701 km in 24 hours. According to Samim, he was the first Indian and the third Asian to qualify for RAAM. Of great assistance were folks from the local arm of Cisco. Some of them were his clients (as personal trainer) and they had come to cheer him on the qualification ride. Accepted for the 2010 RAAM, Samim estimated his total costs at Rs 30 lakhs (three million rupees). Cisco helped raise funds. For the race in the US, he bought a new bike using part of the resources Cisco provided – a Specialized S-Works Roubaix. To train for RAAM, besides his regular sessions, Samim spent 25 days cycling in Ooty.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Samim’s first RAAM was a bad experience. The race commenced at Oceanside, California. Past Flagstaff in Arizona, on a long downhill section, his support vehicle came up alongside and inadvertently pushed him against the hill on one side of the road. As it did so, the front wheel of the spare bike mounted behind the vehicle, clipped against Samim’s shoulder. Given the incident was happening at speed, he flew off the bike. For about 15 minutes he was unconscious. Then he pulled himself up and resumed cycling. “ At that time I knew my RAAM was over. I had hit my head on the ground and my body was badly bruised. I kept going but the problem in RAAM is that just going on is not enough. For instance, there is enough uphill in this race that is equivalent to doing Everest thrice back to back,’’ he said. He somehow reached Mexican Hat, typically associated with nasty weather. When the rains hit and temperature dropped to two degrees, he found that the team hadn’t packed in rain gear. He was reduced to cycling wearing a plastic bag. “ I rode 100 miles like that,’’ he said. At Durango, Colorado when he got back on to the bike after a brief rest, he was seized by vertigo. Then he fell unconscious and was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. It was the end of the 2010 RAAM for Samim. Durango was roughly a third into the race. Returning to India, Samim busied himself with distance cycling on the local circuit; he kept doing Bengaluru-Ooty-Bengaluru and Bengaluru-Chamundy-Bengaluru.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise….

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free….

In 1968, the year before Samim was born, British rock group The Beatles released their ninth studio album named after the group. The album also came to be known as the White Album. Many of the songs in the album were written over March-April 1968 during the band’s time at a transcendental meditation program in Rishikesh. One of the songs therein was Blackbird; Samim liked this song. Samim returned to RAAM two more times, on both occasions supported by Globeracers. In 2011, by day four, his sleep deprivation was causing hallucinations. Among what he imagined was, a blackbird following him. That year, he completed RAAM’s entire distance. According to the write-up submitted for his 2017 crowd funding campaign, the finish was “ just outside the 12 day cut-off.” The completion however made him eligible for a permanent bib number; his is 400. It also spared him need to re-qualify for the race. “ That was my best year,’’ Samim said. The phone rang; a reminder of team meeting due. In situations like RAAM and preparing for RAAM, every cyclist’s team has as much say on matters, as cyclist himself.

Kick boxing (Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi)

Grasse, the commune in southern France, where Samim went to do his course in perfumery sciences is often called the perfume capital of the world. Home to a prosperous perfume business since the 18th century, it is the center of the French perfume industry. Its microclimate is said to have been apt for flower farming, the place is sheltered from sea air and water availability is good thanks to its location in the hills. Several tonnes of jasmine, a flowering plant originally brought to these parts by the Moors in the 16th century, are now harvested annually in Grasse. Roughly 675 km north-west from Grasse is the French capital, Paris. This great European city is base for the oldest long distance road event in cycling; participants pedal some 600 km westward from Paris to Brest in Brittany and back. In the world of cycling, it is called Paris-Brest-Paris or PBP. In cycling parlance, it is a brevet event meaning the cyclist is unsupported. Riders can buy supplies along the route but support by motor vehicles is prohibited except at check points. There is a 90 hour-limit and the clock runs continuously. In 2011, three months after his successful completion of that year’s RAAM, Samim reached France to attempt PBP. He hadn’t trained specifically for the event, trusting things to work well after a good RAAM. It did. He completed PBP’s 1230 km-stretch in 72 hours, 15 minutes. As of May 2017, it was still the fastest time by an Indian. The 2011 event was topped by Christophe Bocquet of France, who zipped through the distance in 44 hours, 13 minutes. But one swallow does not a summer make. Two years later, it seemed 2010 all over again for Samim, albeit differently. Returning to RAAM in 2013, he was forced to give up half way through the race. This time, he acknowledged, his training had been quite inadequate. “ I wasn’t prepared at all,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Getting ready for the 2017 RAAM, Samim and his team decided to include in preparations; that crack at breaking the record for maximum distance cycled in a month. He logged up 7777 km; according to him, the ratification process, which takes time, is underway. Samim feels he would have covered more distance were it not for the state of Indian roads and his bike giving up in between, forcing him to cycle a couple of days on a heavier, slower mountain bike. The preparations for RAAM haven’t been without challenges. While returning from an outing in Nandi Hills, Samim suffered a road accident. One of his Specialized bicycles was mounted on his car’s rear when it was rammed from behind. The bike was completely damaged. As replacement, the guilty party presented the RAAM cyclist with an ordinary Indian roadster. One day he arrived for work at a client’s house on the roadster. The client, who was supportive of Samim’s passion for cycling, offered to help. RAAM in mind, orders were placed for a Look 695 road bike. Further, a crowd funding campaign was underway to meet the expenses of the US trip. The support crew is drawn from friends he has known for long in Bengaluru. He was scheduled to leave for the US in June. “ The goal is to eventually complete RAAM in ten days,’’ Samim said. It had been a long chat. Bill paid; we stepped out of the mall in which the restaurant was located. A quick couple of photos and Samim took leave, hurrying off into a nearby lane to join his waiting team.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with the subject. Details are as provided by him. Except the first photo, the rest have been downloaded from the subject’s Facebook page and used with his permission.)     


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Not far from where I stay is a ground.

To one side of it is a skateboard rink taking shape; to one corner is a volleyball court. The rest of the space hosts cricket and football matches and once in a while that Indian weakness for elaborate marriages and prayer meetings.

One day, my friend Prashant informed that work seemed underway on a proper football field. The following Sunday, we went to take a look. There were laborers toiling in summer heat at its worst. The supervisors on site confirmed that the objective was a football field. Near the entrance to the ground, a board installed by the municipal corporation mentioned work completion by October 2017, when the FIFA under-17 World Cup is due in India with a well-known stadium in my neighborhood, among hosts. What we were witnessing appeared a practice field being built. Still, it isn’t a small thing for a community to get a good quality football field.

The suburb I stay in is part of India’s declared smart city projects. I am skeptical of `smart’ from smart phones to smart cities. If happiness is what matters, I am yet to see happiness multiplied because we have more smart phones or shifted everything to digital. I get happiness from a morning run, a climb or cycling. In several parts of India, running has acquired the dimension of a popular movement. Organize a marathon and a few thousand turn up. Why is there no push for sport cities in India?

The trick is to have this born from within and not as an imposition capable of commerce, which is what smart city does. Or yoga packaged as right / righteous living did. Thanks to branding, both `smart’ and yoga now possesses the character of divide; you are with it or against it, which isn’t how it used to be. The idea of sport city should be as organic as your morning run. You get out and run not because somebody organized a marathon or you want to be seen running but because it feels nice to begin your day with a run. Sport city must be a state of mind first, a state of infrastructure building only next. To indulge in sport is to indulge in physical and mental regeneration. I respect this regeneration. It restores one’s brain to where it belongs – one’s head.

One’s brain in one’s head is apt setting for human creativity. Instead of trends deciding your life, you live your life. Maybe you even author a trend. Urban regeneration includes creatively reusing already used spaces. You don’t always have to build anew to find space for sport. Acquiring land, building afresh – that is what the real estate lobby wants. That is also when sport becomes expensive for somebody has to pay the bill for fresh capital cost incurred. How about negotiating with authorities and convincing them for a grant of space, long term lease instead of land purchase and imagining with depreciated assets instead of newly made ones? Redesigned and spruced up, an abandoned garage or warehouse can become home for a climbing gym. A road closed to traffic or road in community given less to motoring, attracts joggers. Reduce the number of cars in a housing society and erstwhile car park can be a shuttle court. A community agreed on less pollution, accidents and congestion will automatically bring forth the cyclists in their midst. Check sea pollution, clean up rivers and backwaters; imagine what all water sport blossoms on it. Indeed an aspiring `sport city’ has to do no more than state that it wants to consciously promote the active lifestyle; that it will stand by citizen’s initiatives in that direction.

Question is – do we genuinely want it?

Aside from active lifestyle parceled as real estate opportunity or event management I haven’t yet heard of any Indian city genuinely promoting sport. None saying we are committed to becoming a center of excellence in sports. None saying we love having residents who are into the active lifestyle. None that put up boards cautioning traffic to be sensitive towards joggers and cyclists on the road. It is the absence of a certain instinct. It is like the question I am frequently posed – nobody asks why I blog or what I write as blogger; they all want to know whether I make money. “ What is your business model?’’ – That precedes interest in subject. To those sticking on past my silence, I usually say: this blog has no specific purpose except contribute in what small way it can to sustain the life interesting. The day life stops being interesting, I wouldn’t know what to do.

Life interesting – that’s the promise in that football field.

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


What drives people to climb; what makes them climb the way they do? – The question has fascinated writers.

Back in 2011, Bernadette McDonald’s ` Freedom Climbers’ was an unusual book for the way in which it juxtaposed the top notch ascents Polish mountaineers essayed in the Himalaya, against the backdrop of political and economic changes that happened in their country.

The author’s latest offering in the same genre is `Alpine Warriors,’ a study of Slovenian mountaineers, who though arriving late on the scene (like the Poles), left an indelible impression on Himalayan climbing with some terribly difficult routes accomplished. In paradigm and narration, the book is similar to Freedom Climbers. The angle explored in the earlier book was the effect of life in Poland post World War II, on that country’s brand of mountaineering. Being a good climber and getting selected for expeditions overseas was a way to escape the Iron Curtain. Climbing in the Himalaya, they took incredible risks and credited to their names a repertoire of tough routes and winter ascents. The reputation this initial batch of Polish climbers – they included names like Jerzy Kukuczka, Wojciech Kurtyka and Krzysztof Wielicki – garnered in Himalayan climbing is unparalleled. On the other hand, as Poland shifted from being a regulated economy within the Iron Curtain to an open country with a free market, the subsequent brand of alpinism it manufactured appeared to lack some of the drive that had characterized its earlier lot of climbers.

Slovenia’s predicament played out tad differently. For much of the twentieth century, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia. Living in the mountainous part of erstwhile Yugoslavia, Slovenians have long considered it almost a national duty to ascend Triglav, the highest peak in the region and the highest peak in the Julian Alps. In April 1941, Yugoslavia was overrun by the Axis powers. Post World War II, the Yugoslav monarchy was abolished and a Communist government headed by Josip Broz Tito took over. Although socialist, Yugoslavia under Tito stayed largely independent. It was adjacent to but separate from the Iron Curtain Soviet Russia cast across East Europe. With love for mountains strong at home and socialist economy to cope with, Slovenian mountaineering’s situation during its years as part of Yugoslavia likely resembled Poland’s under the Iron Curtain. There was scarcity of resources and they were arriving late on the world’s mountaineering stage. In their early expeditions to the Himalaya, Yugoslav teams sought challenging routes to define themselves. They climbed faces and untamed ridges, achieving these goals with strong team work. During this time appeared the poetic writings of Nejc Zaplotnik, among Slovenia’s best climbers and a member of some of these expeditions. His book `Pot’ (translated and quoted in Alpine Warriors), inspired fellow countrymen to take up mountaineering.

As region denoting the cultural overlap of Europe and Asia, memories ran deep in the Balkans. Old victories still counted, old defeats still rankled. Revenge lurked below the surface.  Following Tito’s demise, Yugoslavia descended into internal conflict. In some parts, it was a madness lasting a decade. Slovenia acquired stability early but in places like Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia – the killings continued. Getting away to the Himalaya became an escape from ideas of nationhood played out to the extreme. Bernadette McDonald’s latest book commences with the early Yugoslav expeditions to the Himalaya noted for their team effort. It then takes you through the intervening years of Yugoslavia’s break-up, war in the Balkans and eventually the rise of names like Tomo Cesen, Tomaz Humar and Marko Prezelj who stunned the world with their climbs; the first two – Cesen and Humar – famous for their solo ascents. In the process it tells the stories of several top Slovenian mountaineers from the country’s years as part of Yugoslavia; its pioneering expedition leaders, the tenacity these climbers brought to expeditions, shows us the working of big expeditions, alpine style climbs and solo climbs and provides an idea of how Slovenia’s new generation of climbers perceive mountaineering.

As in Freedom Climbers, Alpine Warriors explores its chosen theme and leaves you with pointers to continue inquiring. A good book is like a mountain you wish to climb. There may be answer or summit but what endures is the journey.

If you liked Freedom Climbers, Alpine Warriors won’t disappoint you.

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