Wataru Iino (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Article on Wataru Iino, winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon in the US

Located in the north eastern corner of Tamil Nadu in southern India, Kancheepuram district is a mix of the old and the new. It has been part of ancient kingdoms, is home to old temples and has its name associated with some of the finest silk sarees woven in India.

Tamil Nadu is among the more developed states of India. In 2014-2015 its Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) was estimated at $ 150 billion. It is also a leading destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India. A considerable portion of FDI in the automobile sector dovetailed into Oragadam, part of Kancheepuram district, bordering Chennai. It was a little known spot characterized by flat, sprawling landscape till the automobile industry moved in. Oragadam is now an industrial hub. It is home to the manufacturing facilities of several Fortune 500 companies; among them – heavyweights from the global automobile industry. Early October 2017; it was warm at Oragadam but there was also an unexpected grey in the skies. “ It should rain today. That’s the pattern we have here,’’ Shina Satyapal, Manager, Corporate Communications, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV) said as we made our way to a building at the truck manufacturer’s factory, where the winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon had agreed to meet us.

Running in Nepal; at Namche Bazaar, near the finish line of the Everest Marathon (Photo: courtesy Wataru Iino)

Wataru Iino was born in Tokyo in 1979. In the just over 6400 km separating Oragadam and Tokyo, lay the Bay of Bengal, portions of Mainland South East Asia, southern and eastern China and a bit of the Pacific Ocean. He was a man from far away; runner of globalized world – born to one country, running in another and winning races in yet another. Japan is the original Asian economic miracle. It rose from the aftermath of World War II to be one of the biggest economies on the planet. The journey, characterized by a culture of hard work, also had its price. Seen from far, Japan was known for its industrial economy. But its people seemed draped in an industrial anonymity. Wataru’s father was a regular employee; one of many in a workforce crucial to the architecture of post war-Japan’s economic resurgence. He maintained a keen interest in kendo, the Japanese martial art descended from swordsmanship. Wataru’s mother managed the household; his sister currently works in Beijing. That was family. Through school and university, Wataru was into judo. Following studies at the Shibaura Institute of Technology, the young engineer joined Mitsubishi, the well-known Japanese conglomerate – erstwhile zaibatsu – that was also into the manufacturing of cars and trucks. “ In Japan, people don’t normally change the company they work for,’’ Wataru said. It was no different in his case. He stayed with the same company within Mitsubishi. However the company’s ownership pattern altered. The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first was a period of much churn in the automobile sector. In 2003, German automobile major, Daimler, acquired 43 per cent equity stake in Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation (MFTBC). That has since gone up to 89.29 per cent. MFTBC – where Wataru worked – became a part of Daimler AG’s Daimler Trucks Division.

From Marathon Des Sables. soon after finishing the race (Photo: courtesy Wataru Iino)

Daimler Trucks is the world’s biggest producer of commercial vehicles. In 2008, Wataru Iino moved for a few years to Stuttgart, where Daimler Trucks has its headquarters. The shift wasn’t easy on the then 28 year old-engineer from Tokyo. He spoke no German, the Germans spoke no Japanese and his proficiency in English wasn’t all that good. Further, although he liked to eat, German food was heavy. Wataru began to put on weight. He needed to do something to counter the situation and lose weight. The simplest thing to do was – run. “ Running is easy. It is an individual sport. All you need to start running is a pair of running shoes,’’ Wataru said. Notwithstanding that apparent ease of access to the sport, the Tokyo-born hadn’t been a serious runner before. Geographically, the Japanese predicament is interesting. According to Wikipedia, Japan is a composite of 6852 islands (four of them being the main ones – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu). Nearly 70 per cent of Japan is forested, mountainous and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial and residential use. Japan’s population is concentrated on the coastal areas. Density of population is thus high. Tokyo, where Wataru grew up, is one of the world’s biggest cities. The Greater Tokyo Area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. The city is home to one of the world’s biggest city marathons. The Tokyo Marathon is part of the World Marathon Majors. However, cities are not traditionally the home ground of great runners in Japan. According to Wataru, the best Japanese runners usually hail from the countryside. On the other hand, when you talk automobiles, you typically imagine flat land. Uniquely, the German terrain Wataru found himself in was quite unlike the synthetic, built-up spaces of a giant Japanese metro. “ It was more up and down,’’ Wataru said. Wikipedia’s description of Stuttgart complements his observation. Here’s what it said: Stuttgart is unusual in the scheme of German cities. It is spread across a variety of hills (some of them covered in vineyards), valleys (especially around the Neckar River and the Stuttgart basin) and parks. This is often a source of surprise to visitors, who associate the city with its reputation as “ the cradle of the automobile.’’ Both Mercedes Benz and Porsche have their headquarters in Stuttgart.

Given his difficulty in communicating, for the first year of his life in Germany, Wataru focused on work. In 2009, worried by weight-gain, he started to run. Initially, Wataru ran short distances. He didn’t run daily; he rested 2-3 days a week. “ I couldn’t find friends to run with. Germans are more into football and cycling,’’ he said. It is important to point out at this juncture that Wataru Iino, while being new to running, was no stranger to endurance sport. One of his friends at Mitsubishi had gifted him a Colnago road bike. Back in Japan, he used to cycle and had once covered 1000 km riding across Japan during one of the short sets of holidays, which is as big holidays get to be in work obsessed-Japan. When Wataru moved to Germany, he brought the Colnago with him. Amid the need to lose weight, it proved a boon, especially when combined with one aspect of German life Wataru liked – holidays here were longer. “ In Germany, you could take a month off. In Japan, you could take a week off at best,’’ Wataru said. During summer vacation, the engineer from Tokyo would take off on his Colnago to see Europe. Endurance gained from cycling must have stood Wataru in good stead when he took to running. By 2010, he was touching 40 km, sometimes more, on training runs. His first formal marathon was the Frankfurt Marathon; he took over three hours to complete it. By now, there was a method to the running craze. Wataru liked to visit new places. He also liked pushing himself. Traveling to various cities in Europe to run marathons there seemed a fine blend of both.

Scenes from Japan / Takeshita Street Market (Photo: Sastry Bhamidi)

Scenes from Japan / Fushimi Inari (Photo: Sastry Bhamidi)

The Frankfurt Marathon was followed by similar runs in Prague and Stockholm. A new angle cropped up. How about something adventurous in an ambiance totally different from city-hopping? As many in that frame of mind would have done, Wataru searched the Internet for the “ toughest race’’ around. One of the events that popped up was: Marathon Des Sables (MDS). It is a self-supported multi-stage ultramarathon run in the Sahara desert. “ The Sahara was among places I wanted to see,’’ Wataru said. He registered for the race. If you view the choice made from the average marathon runner’s perspective, MDS would be distinct as a totally different ball game. Over six days of running, it covers 251 km in the desert with the longest single stage on record being 91 km. It is also self-supported, which means that during every stage runners have to carry water and whatever else they need, in a small backpack.

Wataru didn’t dwell much on either the transition he was making at MDS from being a marathon runner to an ultramarathon runner or the dramatic change in locale, from city to wilderness. It seemed the stuff of what he had to do. He got some tips from a colleague at Daimler who had run MDS before. But otherwise he prepared mostly by himself figuring out how to train and what gear he required from the race’s website. He didn’t sweat to gather a tonne of information or stress for lacking it. What mattered to him was – he wished to do well. According to Wataru, he made two attempts at MDS. On his first attempt, he finished in sixteenth position. The second attempt was driven by his desire to improve. In the second attempt of 2012, Wataru finished ninth overall. That year – 2012, he moved back to Japan from Germany. It had been an engaging four years in Europe. He had not only become a runner; he was also into ultramarathons. “ I prefer running long distances. If it is just a marathon, the body’s condition is typically going downhill. When it is much more than a marathon, it is never downhill all the time. You go down but then you recover. It is a series of ups and downs. I like that,’’ Wataru said. That was only one reason for liking the ultramarathon. As his journey in the discipline progressed, another significant reason for liking the ultramarathon would surface.

Scenes from Japan / Mt Fuji (Photo: Sastry Bhamidi)

At 12,389 feet, Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain. It is roughly 100 km south-west of Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see the mountain from Japan’s capital. The mountain is surrounded by five lakes; their names according to Wikipedia are: Lake Kawaguchi, Lake Yamanaka, Lake Sai, Lake Motosu and Lake Shoji. Japan’s biggest ultramarathon event involves running loops around these lakes. In accordance with the number of loops run, the sub-events therein range from the Fuji 3 Lakes ultramarathon to the Fuji 5 Lakes. Attempting the Fuji 5 Lakes in 2013, Wataru finished the single stage race in fifth position overall. He wasn’t happy with the outcome. So he returned in 2014 and not only earned a position on the podium but also the first place overall; his first such win in running. That brings us to the second reason why Wataru likes the ultramarathon. Well-known running events get their share of elite professional athletes. As Wataru pointed out, the professionals are “ expected to win.’’ But a good amateur can pull off a surprise and the potential to pull off such a surprise is higher in the ultramarathon. To underscore the point, he recalled an instance from an ultramarathon he ran in Germany. “ It was a 78 km-ultramarathon. At one stage, I was overtaken by a 58 year-old lady. That was humbling and insightful,’’ he said. Additionally, when you listen to Wataru and factor in the quiet commitment he brings to racing (staying amateur but aspiring for professional benchmarks); you also notice that he hasn’t shrunk the breadth of his running through focus on the ultramarathon. He still goes for the running world’s 10km, 21km and 42km disciplines. Amid the push for distance, he also does his speed training. In fact, by the fourth year of his foray into running, he was running the full marathon in timings like 2 hours, 27 minutes.

Scenes from Japan / Ginza Street (Photo: Sastry Bhamidi)

Scenes from Japan / Otemachi business district (Photo: Sastry Bhamidi)

The three point-Mercedes star is a mark of German engineering known in India since long. When India’s leading business group, Tata, rolled out its first commercial vehicle in 1954, it was through a joint venture with Daimler Benz. In fact, until March 2010, the German company maintained a small equity stake in Tata’s automobile company, which had grown to be both India’s biggest automobile company and also its biggest manufacturer of commercial vehicles. In 2008, Daimler signed a 60:40 joint venture agreement with India’s Hero MotoCorp to build medium and heavy trucks. Following economic downturn this joint venture was dissolved in 2009. The company formed for the purpose became a 100 per cent subsidiary of Daimler AG and was renamed, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV). It set up manufacturing facilities at Oragadam near Chennai; the factory has an annual production capacity of 72,000 units (depending on pattern of shift adopted) and along with related infrastructure straddles a 400 acre-complex. It is the only site in the world producing trucks, buses and engines under three brands – BharatBenz, Fuso and Mercedes Benz. DICV provided a sneak preview of the first BharatBenz truck at the January 2012 Delhi Auto Expo. The medium duty-trucks it produced were based on the Fuso Canter and Fuso Fighter platforms, both of Mitsubishi lineage. Like Daimler Benz, Mitsubishi trucks too had previous history in India. Years ago, Mitsubishi light trucks were rolled out in India through a partnership between Eicher Motors (since entered into a joint venture with Volvo) and the Japanese company. Amid the making and unmaking of alliances in the global automobile industry, the Indian market for commercial vehicles has stayed among the world’s biggest. As Daimler Trucks’ emphasis on its Asian strategy grew, Daimler Trucks Asia (DTA) combined the strengths of two distinct legal entities – MFTBC and DICV. This helped them collaborate in areas like product development, production, exports, sourcing and optimizing research and sales and market development activities. It wasn’t long before the ripples of these measures reached Mitsubishi Fuso in Japan and the upcoming ultramarathon runner in its Research & Development (R&D) wing, Wataru Iino.

From a run in Ooty, Tamil Nadu (Photo: courtesy Wataru Iino)

The toughest ultramarathon on the planet – that is a popular, if inaccurate title many races vie for. Around the same time Wataru stumbled upon MDS he also came to know of the Badwater Ultramarathon in the US. California’s Death Valley, through which this race passes, is home to some of the hottest temperatures recorded on the planet. Badwater had been playing on Wataru’s mind. It was a race he wished to go for. Two things held him back. It was expensive and it required a support team. In 2014, he had placed second in the 250 km-Madagascar Race. At that race he became friends with some Japanese runners who had turned up to participate. They heard of his desire to run Badwater and offered to be his support crew. “ I was lucky to find them,’’ Wataru said of his support crew – Maki Izuchi, Takashi Okada and Keisuke Sato. He registered for the 2017 edition of the Badwater Ultramarathon. There was also another decision to make. In June 2016, Wataru’s boss, Mathew Oommen, had suggested that he shift to Daimler’s truck operations at Oragadam in India. Wataru approached the offer positively as an opportunity to work with people from another Asian country. But of all things, what tipped the balance in favor of shifting to Chennai was its weather. In India, Chennai’s hot, sultry weather finds few fans. For Wataru, dreaming Badwater and training for it, hot and sultry Chennai seemed a better spot to be in compared to temperate Japan. On arrival in India in January 2017, he was advised that staying in Chennai and commuting every day to Oragadam, some 50 km away, would probably be sensible option. Being a metro, Chennai has all the facilities a foreign employee may need. Wataru looked at the traffic and the commute and decided staying in Oragadam made better sense; he would save time and time thus saved is time for training. He decided to stay in an apartment complex not far from DICV’s factory in Oragadam. The old Colnago had in the meantime been replaced with a Merida road bike. It accompanied him to India and became his vehicle for commute between apartment and factory.

Oragadam offered straight flat roads exposed to the sun, for the Badwater aspirant to train on. “ There was one problem though. In Japan if you wanted a sports drink or some such item while running, you could always step into a store and buy it. At Oragadam you have self-contained communities and nothing but open road in between,’’ Wataru said. On weekdays, Wataru ran for an hour before sunrise and another hour, after sunset. On weekends, he ran during the day to get used to running in hot conditions; summer temperature in and around Chennai is known to touch 40 degrees. Back in Japan, Wataru’s monthly mileage had been around 900 km. In Chennai’s testing weather, that dropped to around 500 km. He typically ran about 20 km daily, occasionally cranking that up to 30 km. “ Once I ran all the way from Oragadam to Kancheepuram, a distance of 40-45 km. By the time I reached Kancheepuram I was so dehydrated that I had to hire a three wheeler for the ride back,’’ Wataru said laughing. Thanks to Merida and excursions on it, he already knew the way to Kancheepuram. The race of July 2017 was to be Wataru’s first outing at Badwater. Yet he did not hesitate to set himself a goal. “ I wanted to finish in the top three,’’ he said. As it turned out, he won the race, finishing it in 24 hours, 56 minutes and 19 seconds. He felt he was lucky to win for although he had wisely kept his energy in reserve while others cruised ahead, what also helped was that those who were leading the race started to tire and slow down. Among those who slipped by so was Pete Kostelnick who held the course record with his 21:56:32 finish of 2016. Eventually this July, as the punishing race progressed through Death Valley and on to Whitney Portal beyond, Wataru found himself alone and ahead; a finish line in the distance. According to him, the point where potential victory dawned was the 120 mile-mark. “ I heard that the second placed runner was 30 minutes behind me. The last 15 miles is hilly; it is difficult to catch up,’’ he recalled. Into that last stage, he realized – he was actually winning at Badwater!

From 2017 Badwater, just after finishing the race (Photo: courtesy Wataru Iino)

MDS, Badwater – all these are iconic races. But the race that is Wataru’s favorite and keeps calling him back is Tor des Geants Trail, a 330 km endurance race in Italy’s Aosta Valley. Wataru had attempted it in 2015. But that year the race was interrupted on the third night due to bad weather and finally stopped on the fourth night with only six runners completing the whole distance. A lover of trail running, he wants to try it again. “ My preferred mix is training on trail and racing on road,’’ Wataru said. Also on the list to go for are Spartathlon and a second visit to the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). From races in India, Wataru said that he was curious about La Ultra The High, the 333 km-ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. He was familiar with the region, having been to Ladakh to train, ahead of the 2017 Everest Marathon. Further, among top ten finishers at the 2017 Badwater, were Grant Maughan (he finished sixth) and Ray Sanchez (he finished eighth) – both of them have previously participated in La Ultra The High, with Grant being joint winner in 2016. Wataru’s employers now financially support his participation at various races. For any runner, this is a dream come true. Given this emergent piece of good fortune, Wataru has decided to try the more expensive races first. Races like 4 Deserts for instance. You sense him wondering whether he is making the right decision, whether he is picking the right races. But then there was also that bit he mentioned in the context of Badwater: he does not like too much information, too much asking around for a perfect decision. It is important that every journey be new and feel, just what it is.

Isn’t that what adventure is?

WATARU IINO / SELECT RACES (first column indicates position secured)

3rd        Germany              69 km             Allgäu Panorama Ultra-trail / 2011

4th        Germany              50 km             Schwäbisch-Gmünd / 2011

2nd       Germany              50 km             RLT Rodgau / 2012

9th        Morocco              250 km             Marathon des Sables / 2012

1st           Japan                   112 km             Challenge Fuji5lakes / 2014

2nd        Japan                    100 km             Yatsugatake Nobeyama / 2014

1st          Japan                   100 km             Iwate ginga Challenge / 2014

2nd       Madagascar        250 km            Madagascar Race / 2014

7th        Hong Kong         100 km             Hongkong Trail / 2015

1st           Japan                   118 km              Challenge Fuji5lakes / 2015

2nd         Japan                   100 km             Hida-Takayama / 2015

         Italy                       330 km             Tor des Geants Trail / 2015 *

24th      France                  167 km              Grand Raid Reunion / 2015

9th        Hongkong            100 km             Hongkong Trail / 2016

1st        Japan                     230 km             Little Edo Oedo / 2016

1st        Namibia                250 km             Namib Desert Race / 2016

—        Japan                     165 km             Ultra- Trail Mount Fuji / 2016 *

2nd       China                    168 km             Ultra-Trail Three Gorges / 2016

1st        Thailand                100 km             Ultra-Trail Koh Chang / 2017

7th        Nepal                      65 km               Everest Marathon / 2017

1st        USA                         217 km             Badwater135   / 2017

*Race was stopped owing to various reasons

Source: Wataru Iino

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Wataru Iino. Timings are as provided by the interviewee. The author would like to thank Sastry Bhamidi for allowing the use of his photographs with this article.)


Nagaraj Harsha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On May 2, 1927, when The Stevens Hotel opened in Chicago, it was the biggest hotel in the world. It had 3000 rooms. Its first registered guest was Charles G. Dawes, then vice president of the US and in 1925, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace. History however had other plans for the hotel. The Great Depression ruined its owners and the property went bankrupt. The government took the hotel into receivership. According to Wikipedia, in 1942 the US Army purchased the hotel for use as barracks and classrooms. Two years later, the War Department sold the property to a private businessman, Stephen Healey. In February 1945, as World War II drew to a close, Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel from Healey. With that, The Hilton, Chicago, was born.

A day in August 2014, two young men from India; both of them longstanding friends – one freshly arrived from Bengaluru; the other staying in Chicago – reached the hotel. The Chicago resident dropped the visitor off at the hotel and drove away. Nagaraj Harsha kept his emotions in check as he made his way to the hotel’s restaurant, where a meeting was due. Neither party had met each other before. This was their first time face-to-face. Thanks to photographs periodically exchanged; from far, from their table in the restaurant, the family he was seeking to meet, recognized Nagaraj. It was a meeting over two decades in the making.

From the Colombo half Ironman (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

Sometimes the earlier chapters of one’s life gather clarity only as the later ones unfold. It was late evening in Bengaluru; actually night, the hour when day rolls up its cuffs, loosens its shirt collar and relaxes over a cup of coffee or a mug of beer, delighting in finding sense or the lack of it, in all that went by. Just outside the café we were in, at the corner where Church Street met Brigade Road, two prominent shops – one selling Nike products, the other selling Puma; the reflection of their glowing logos on glass facades nearby amplifying their presence – kept endurance sport in the frame. “ I am 27 years old now. It was only a year or two ago that I got convincing explanation for what I used to be in childhood and early youth. Things are clearer now,’’ Nagaraj said. His face betrayed joie-de-vivre, restless energy visible in his wiry build and the passion with which he spoke of his life in sports. For a minute his ways and nature of speech reminded me of a friend in Ladakh. Youngster full of energy, he had turned entrepreneur and was mellowing down with the process. How is he doing? – I thought.

Nagaraj was born April, 1990, in Bengaluru. He grew up in the city. He did his schooling at Methodist Kannada School, studying there till tenth standard, before moving to Kripanidhi College to do his eleventh and twelfth. These years are very important in how they define Nagaraj’s sense of self and life. His mother brought up her children single handedly. The family was poor; life was a struggle. They needed help. Looked up in mid-October 2017, Wikipedia’s page for Compassion International did not mention India among countries it works in. The agency is described as “ a Christian humanitarian aid, child sponsorship organization dedicated to the long term development of children living in poverty around the world.’’ Back in the 1990s, it was this NGO that came to Nagaraj’s assistance. They sponsored his education, all the way to college. The person who sponsored his education was Gladys Downey, a benefactor from Canada. “ She has been like a second mother to me. I owe so much to her,’’ Nagaraj said. The school he studied in catered mostly to under-privileged children. On that island of education, Nagaraj was sometimes topper. He doesn’t beat his chest on that attribute. He viewed it in perspective as the natural fallout of being good at studies in a financially challenged backdrop where many students in class may have been similarly struggling and good was sufficient to top the lot. What should engage in Nagaraj’s case is that he achieved such result despite behavioral traits challenging the ability to sit down and study. He was hyperactive.

From the Ironman competition at Zurich (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj Harsha)

The condition – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – is not easily diagnosed. Information on ADHD available on the Internet, hints at a period of observation and study of subject eventually leading to the conclusion that a person may be having ADHD. This was the explanation, Nagaraj got later in life. In school, long before the diagnosis was made; it was plain struggle to focus. He had boundless energy. He wanted to play, participate in sports and be good at it. But unlike other children, he couldn’t master the art of channelizing his energy to achieve an objective. “ I would try taking part in sport and end up failing,’’ Nagaraj said. A further problem and a potential solution also presented themselves. Everybody needs something that makes them happy. One reason sport has its following is because physical activity releases endorphins; the resultant high is a nice feeling to have. Unable to focus his energy properly in sports and games, Nagaraj found happiness in eating. The more he ate, the more he put on weight. Chubby youngster was typically target for bullying. Around this time, his mother got him a gift for topping studies at school – it was a bicycle. By the time he joined Bengaluru’s Christ College to do his graduation, that cycle had become his mode of commuting to college. Physical exertion and sweating, he understood, skimmed off the excess energy creating havoc in his system. It helped him focus. The family didn’t have money to send Nagaraj to a good college. Realizing the family’s difficulties, once again, Gladys and Compassion International intervened. They decided to foot the bill for Nagaraj’s college education. According to Nagaraj, he was the first student from his school sponsored by the NGO all the way to college education.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

First year at college was normal except for a sartorial issue. Like most courses oriented towards eventual work in the business and corporate sector, the graduate program in commerce at Christ College required its students to dress formally. Nagaraj was a good student but he turned up in what dress he could afford. It went on for a while till his teachers took him aside and asked why the streak prevailed. They realized it wasn’t any rebellion on show; it was plain difficulty to afford. According to Nagaraj, the faculty raised money for him to buy a set of formal clothes. By the second year, Nagaraj’s mother had to stop working. This made it imperative for Nagaraj to look out for a job. He had joined Global Gym at Adugodi in the city to work-out and lose weight. He approached the gym management and offered to work for them, cleaning up the premises. On their part, they told him to take three months’ time, learn the ropes and be a trainer at the gym. The arrangement brought purpose to his life. He started waking up at 4.30 AM; he would open the gym at 5 AM, work there till 9-9.30 AM and then proceed to college. He worked at the gym again in the evening, from 5 PM to 10 PM.  “ This was my schedule Monday to Saturday. On Sundays, I worked from 5 AM to 12 PM. Through much of second and third year of college, I therefore had little social life,’’ Nagaraj said. At the café, the man and woman at the adjacent table got up to leave. A new couple took their place. Outside, Church Street was its usual self; plenty of young people, ambiance of imminent dinner, conversation and catching-up and amid it all, the city’s much loved book shops. While historical places abound, every Indian city has its post economic liberalization hotspot. This patch of Bengaluru – MG Road, Brigade Road and Church Street – had for long been the city’s postcard to the world. In the 1980s, it was where you went to see a phenomenon called `pub.’ I remembered my own pilgrimage from college days long ago, to that strip of road, traffic, neon signs and shops selling branded goods. Pubs have since become passé. But new generations still throng this area to engage in what Nagaraj shuttling between home, gym and college missed out on – socializing.

Louisville Ironman (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

During his second year at college, at the athletics meet connected to the annual sports day, a friend challenged Nagaraj to a run, saying he wouldn’t be able to manage five kilometers. In the impromptu race, his friend gave up after a kilometer; Nagaraj completed the full course. He was exhausted by the effort (next day he was down with fever) but it showed that with determination and will power, he can accomplish goals in endurance. Nagaraj graduated in commerce with job in hand; he secured it via campus selection bagging alongside the second highest pay package in his batch. Job meant end to his career at the gym. He had been there for over two years, earning in the process his own cachet of long term trainees. One of them had even gifted him a bicycle – a Firefox MTB. He bid goodbye to all that and moved to Usha International’s office at Gurgaon near Delhi, working in finance and accounts. The year was 2010. You can take the man out of Bengaluru; you can’t take Bengaluru out of him – that was true in Nagaraj’s case. He didn’t like Delhi. Now armed with a decent cash flow of his own, he took to drinking, catching up on the socializing he had missed out earlier. He put on weight. Luckily for him, post-probation, his company understood his predicament and gave him a posting in Bengaluru.

During this phase, Nagaraj started to look up blogs related to adventure. The IT industry, after its sunrise stage of the 1990s, had matured into a predictable quantum. There was a sea of young people in Bengaluru, many had studied or travelled overseas. Craving for engaging activity was high. Both trekking and cycling were catching on. Nagaraj decided to try cycling 100 km on the Firefox MTB. The plan was to cycle to Nandi Hills and back. One night he started out. About 15 kilometers away, in Hebbal, he got mugged. “ They took away my cell phone. Luckily they spared the bicycle,’’ he said. He continued his journey and reached the top of Nandi Hills, taking an hour and forty five minutes to get from the base of the hill to its top on his seven-speed MTB. Encouraged, he started to cycle and trek regularly. His next big outing was a three day-cycle trip from Pollachi to Munnar via Athirapally. This time he had a new bike, bought with newly acquired credit card – a Cannondale SL 5. In 2011, in what was his second run since that race with friend in college, he ran his first TCS 10K in Bengaluru, covering the distance in 58 minutes. He paid for the lack of preparation. He was in terrible pain after the run. “ The whole idea was to participate and get a dry-fit T-shirt,’’ Nagaraj said.

With Gurudev and Jay, who helped raise some of the funds Nagaraj needed to participate at the Lake Tahoe event (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

Nice is the second largest French city on the Mediterranean coast, after Marseilles. It is home to an Ironman (triathlon) event. When Nagaraj met Dipankar Paul while socializing in Bengaluru, the latter was planning to attempt the Ironman in Nice. The idea intrigued Nagaraj. Isn’t it worth trying? After all, he was capable of running and cycling. While Dipankar went on to participate in the Ironman, Nagaraj joined a swimming pool in Bengaluru to train. In August 2011, a half Ironman was announced in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The half Ironman entails 21 km of running, 90 km of cycling and 1.9 km of swimming. Two months later, in October, Nagaraj signed up for it. Soon thereafter, he also acquired his first road bike – a Bianchi Nirone 7. He started training for the Half Ironman in earnest. Initially he couldn’t do more than 100-200m in swimming. However, he was consistent, reporting to the pool for a session from 7 PM to 8 PM, every day. All the same by November, he was still short of confidence. Deepak, another regular swimmer at the pool had been observing Nagaraj’s daily sessions. He asked if Nagaraj was preparing for something and upon being told of the upcoming Colombo event, offered to help. Under Deepak’s guidance, Nagaraj improved the daily distance he covered in swimming to 1500m. In December 2011, he went to Puducherry to try his hand at open water swimming (the swim leg at Colombo was to be open water). He co-opted a local fisherman into his scheme. The fisherman took Nagaraj a kilometer out into the sea in his boat and kept him company while Nagaraj swam back to shore. Back in Bengaluru, he biked on weekends and ran 10-15 km. None of this training had any structure.

From the Lake Tahoe-Ironman (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

In February 2012, accompanied by a group of friends, Nagaraj reached Colombo for the race. He completed his first half Ironman in six hours, 37 minutes. It was also his first half marathon and the first time he swam 1.9 km. “ I felt a sense of achievement,’’ Nagaraj said. He decided to attempt a full Ironman; the location he chose was Zurich in Switzerland. Europe is a dream destination for many Indians. It is also expensive. Nagaraj lacked the Rs 2.5 lakhs he required to visit Zurich and participate in the Ironman. He took a bank loan. Some of his friends, conscious of his family backdrop, reminded him not to throw money behind his new found craze for the triathlon. In 2012, he had also quit Usha International and joined Toyota Kirloskar Motors in sale and marketing. It was period of transition with funds crunch at personal level, to boot. Very few people encouraged him. “ In India desires of this sought end up as solitary pursuits. We live to make money and once we make money, it all goes to the family – that is the dominant mentality. Doing something for one’s own pleasure or personal growth is the stuff of guilt,’’ Nagaraj said. Stretched for resources, Nagaraj decided to attempt the Zurich Ironman with the same gear he had assembled for the Colombo half Ironman. To obtain visa, he needed to show Rs 100,000 in the bank, something he didn’t have. Dipankar, who too was attempting the Zurich event, came to his rescue, loaning him the amount. In July 2013, Nagaraj completed the Zurich Ironman in 13 hours, 17 minutes. “ I told myself – this is the life I want to lead,’’ he said. He decided on 2014, as year for his next Ironman competition. For location, he chose Louisville in Kentucky, USA. There was a reason for this – Ganesh, his old friend from Christ College; the one who had challenged him to that 5 km-run long ago, lived in Chicago. Ganesh wanted Nagaraj to stay with him. Louisville was 300 miles away from Chicago.

With Jaymin Shah, Country Manager, Scott Sports India and Beat Zaugg, CEO & President, Scott Sports SA (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

That year – 2014 – was also the starting year of the Bengaluru Marathon. Ironman events were news in India and with a half and a full Ironman done, Nagaraj had been featured in the media. Nike extended him support for more than a year; taking care of his need for apparel and shoes. With interest in the triathlon slowly picking up in India, Nagaraj with Nike’s support became one of the athletes featured in publicity around the 2014 TCS 10K. So when the 2014 Bengaluru Marathon drew close, its organizers chipped in, sponsoring his air ticket to the US, for the Louisville Ironman. Nagaraj completed the US event in 11:55. The full Ironman entails 3.8 km of swimming, 180 km of cycling and 42 km of running. With Louisville, where the swim leg was in a river, Nagaraj felt happy to have swum in the sea (Colombo), a lake (Zurich) and a river at various Ironman events. It was Ganesh who dropped him off for that meeting at The Hilton Chicago. The meeting was the first time Nagaraj came face to face with his sponsor of many years, Gladys Downey. Right from Nagaraj’s childhood, sponsor and student had written to each other periodically. Photos were also exchanged. Hearing of Nagaraj’s participation at the Louisville Ironman, Gladys and her family had flown to Chicago from Toronto to meet him. They were staying at The Hilton. As he walked into the spacious restaurant, they instantly recognized him. “ It was initially an emotional meeting,’’ Nagaraj said of the first time he came face to face with the person who had funded his entire education. He spent three days with Gladys and her family.

Team trial winners at Bangalore Bicycle Championship (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

From the 12 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

Post-Louisville, back in India, Nagaraj was financially in troubled times. He was in debt. That didn’t stop him from signing up for the full Ironman at Lake Tahoe, California, in 2015. Lake Tahoe is the largest Alpine lake in North America; it is situated at an elevation of 6225 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and straddles the state line between California and Nevada. Gurudev, who lived in the US and who Nagaraj had met on the Internet, helped raise some of the funds required to participate in this event. Another source of support was sports gear manufacturer, Adidas. They put him on a one year sponsorship contract (since renewed thrice; it was in its third year at the time of this interview) and backed him with apparel and shoes. For the 2015 Bengaluru Marathon, Nagaraj was once again among athletes featured in their publicity for the event. Nagaraj completed the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 11:58. This was also the Ironman where he accomplished his first sub-four hour-marathon, covering the 42 km-distance in 3:55. By now some more support was becoming available. With three years spent working at Toyota-Kirloskar, his financial difficulties had eased. In November 2015, bicycle manufacturer Scott Sports offered sponsorship. They gave him a Scott Plasma 20 TT bike; a model designed for triathlon competitions. To train, he got a Scott Solace 30 road bike.

At Kalmar (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

According to Nagaraj, the primary factor that decides his choice of Ironman events is cost. Also influencing choice are attributes like location, elevation and weather at given time. Kalmar is a city in Sweden. It is situated on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In 2016, Nagaraj signed up for the full Ironman at Kalmar. In the middle of that year – in June – he turned up for the 12 hour-stadium run in Mumbai, an ultramarathon held on the running track at University Stadium. It took some convincing for the organizers looking for proven ultramarathon runners, to let a triathlete participate. That’s probably an indication of how little understood the triathlon is, in India. Nagaraj covered 110 km in the assigned duration and finished first in the event. The Kalmar Ironman took place in August 2016 and proved to be Nagaraj’s fastest Ironman yet. He finished it in 11:17; he got a personal best of 5:44 in cycling and 3:53 in the marathon. “ The Ironman is now a lifestyle for me. I can’t imagine life without it. It helps me stay motivated, nothing gives me more happiness. Triathletes support each other. It is one event where an amateur gets treated like a professional,’’ Nagaraj said. Further one of the fallouts of being a triathlete is that you become very focused and disciplined; it teaches you time management. “ I like competition and I am competitive to the extent that I wish to better my performance. Once upon a time, the goal was to somehow finish. Now the goal is to improve. I also try not to give up when doing each of the disciplines. If it’s a run, I don’t walk,’’ Nagaraj said. That said, at Lake Tahoe where he managed his best finish to date (he thinks it was 195 / 1500 participants) he collapsed after completing the event; not at the finish line but a while later, walking into the medical tent and then collapsing. He had to be administered IV fluids. Does his mother empathize with her son’s Ironman craze? “ At first, she wasn’t quite appreciative especially because the family needed resources and my interest in the triathlon was eating into it. Now that we are financially a little better off, she has begun to understand,’’ Nagaraj said. His sister also works now.

Nagaraj with Gladys in Canada, 2015 (Photo: courtesy Nagaraj)

From his first half Ironman to the several full Ironman events that followed, Nagaraj’s training pattern has changed. “ It has definitely become more structured,’’ he said. On the average, he trains two to three hours per day. Every week, he does 6-8 km of swimming, roughly 250 km of cycling and up to 60 km of running. Waking up at around 5 AM, he trains for one discipline in the morning and another in the evening. This mix of disciplines which works like cross training is a gift the triathlon provides. Nagaraj’s last injury was in 2013. “ That was my first and last injury,’’ he said. For his fifth full Ironman, he was scheduled to attempt the event at Busselton, Western Australia, in December 2017. Between Ironman competitions – which for him is typically one every year – he participates in other events. At the 2017 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (now Tata Mumbai Marathon) he finished the full marathon in 3:04. He also had a podium finish in cycling as part of a team participating in team time trial at the Bangalore Bicycle Championships. His team covered 50 km in 1:08. “ That is dream come true for any amateur,’’ he said. Meanwhile on the job front, he has shifted from Toyota-Kirloskar to Fast & Up; he joined the latter in March 2016 and oversees business development in India’s southern, western and eastern regions.

At the time of writing this article, Gladys Downey was 94 years old. Nagaraj visited her a second time after the Lake Tahoe Ironman. He flew to New York and after spending time there with his friends, he took a bus from New York to Toronto. Gladys’s daughter came to pick him up at the bus stop. Although still independent and capable of driving her car, Gladys stayed at a senior citizen’s home. Of all the children, whose education she had sponsored, Nagaraj said, he was the only one who had got around to actually connecting with her. This was their second meeting. He spent a week with the family. “ I believe education is very important. Had I not been educated well, I don’t think I would be heading in the direction I am going now,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with the interviewee. Timings and positions at races are as provided by the interviewee.)


Venugopalan Arunachalam (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Venugopalan Arunachalam, senior runner based in Chennai, is no more.

He passed away at around 11.30 AM today (October 22, 2017), an update on the Facebook page of Chennai Runners informed.

A wonderful person to interact with, Outrigger had interviewed him in early 2017.

That article can be accessed on this link:

Venu (that’s how he wished us to address him) last wrote in to the blog’s authors two days ago, on October 20.

In that mail he referred to age catching up and said, “ Time just slips through without me realizing it!’’

Outrigger will miss him and his gentle personality.

Our condolences.

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


Lourdes Irudaya Bosco (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This article is on Lourdes Irudaya Bosco, who works with Indian Railways and is among Chennai’s senior runners. He grew up in the neighborhood of the city’s Loyola College, studied there, trained on its running track and continues to author his life in running with that track at its center. Into running since 1985, Bosco also trains others.

For Lourdes Irudaya Bosco sport was sole option.

Born December 1967 at Nungambakkam in Chennai, the youngest child of a teacher-couple, he had that one problem which usually spells calamity in India – Bosco was weak in studies. He studied at St Joseph’s School in Nungambakkam and later at Santhome Higher Secondary School. At the latter, during his tenth standard exams, he failed in a couple of subjects. Eventually clearing matriculation, he did his eleventh and twelfth grades privately. Bosco used to play a lot of football. By the time he was nudging college that interest in sport was all he had to shape his future.

Bosco looked up to his elder brother, Maria Xavier. The latter had commenced a snack bar business, where Bosco worked. It was a struggling enterprise. Amid his challenges on the business front, big brother also realized that Bosco was desperate for something to latch on to for rudder in life. Maria Xavier and his friend Cyril took Bosco to meet Nedunchezhiyan, a former national level athlete in the 800m. Nedunchezhiyan in turn introduced them to Sathoor, coach at Chennai-based athletics outfit: Star Track Club. With Star, Bosco began running 5000m, 10,000m and cross country races. Training sessions were at the 400m-track of Loyola College and at the local YMCA.

Photo: courtesy Bosco

Maria Xavier was into karate. Along with his friend Philip Francis, Maria Xavier used to go for daily runs. The duo allowed Bosco to accompany them on these extended runs, covering a fair amount of distance. That was when Bosco discovered that he liked long distance running. Star Track Club had groomed him in middle distance running. Those days, distances longer than middle distance, weren’t as popular as today. Moving into long distance running typically entailed personal journey. After completing his stint at Star Track Club, Bosco began training individually. His brother stood by him. “ The level I reached in sport is only because of my brother,’’ Bosco said. They evolved their own training program. Bosco trotted behind his brother on his bicycle. That way they covered 30-40 km. For three crucial years, from 1985 to 1988, Maria Xavier helped keep the flame of distance running alive in his younger brother.

Bosco joined Loyola College to do his BA. As you talk to him, you realize that Loyola College means a lot to him. According to Bosco, Satyaseelan, Physical Education Director at Loyola College, offered him support and guidance including use of the college ground for training. Bosco still stays in the neighborhood of Loyola College. Having become a regular fixture at the college’s running track he now trains others there. “ I am thankful to this college,’’ Bosco said. Loyola was also source of other memories. A gentleman called Shivdevan, used to frequent the Loyola premises for walks. He noticed Bosco training regularly. He became a supporter of the upcoming athlete, sponsoring his shoes. Also sponsoring shoes was Rajkumar Subramaniam of Chrompet Cheetah Runners. Chinnadurai, Director of Panimalar Engineering College, who was yet another benefactor, supported Bosco for two years, letting him access nutritious food for his running. The rest of the support came from his brother (Maria Xavier now runs a food products business in Puducherry).

Bosco on stage; at one of the editions of the Wipro Chennai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Bosco)

In 1989 Bosco ran his first full marathon, the YMCA Madurai Marathon. He finished in sixth position with a timing of 3:13. By the Pune International Marathon of 1989, he had that down to 2:42:15. Maria Xavier’s faith in his brother was paying off; Bosco the distance runner had arrived. Around this time two other things happened – Bosco began representing the state at long distance (half marathon, full marathon) and cross-country running events; from 1991 to 1993 he participated in distance running events as an invitee of the Indian Railways. A secure future and employment was priority. Indeed, Bosco’s journey into sport had been partly fueled by his lack of other options to sculpt a life. He tried to join the army. Although good athlete with track record to show, he was over-age to be army recruit. In January 1994, having finished his BA course but ahead of giving his exams, Bosco joined Indian Railways. There he has remained since. Four years after securing employment, another change happened. From 1985 to 1998, he used to train in shoes but run at events, barefoot. Following new rules by sport administrators in India, Bosco’s barefoot-running at events, ended. “ I used to train in shoes. It took a little while getting used to racing in shoes. Overall, the transition wasn’t a big problem,’’ he said.

Once Bosco joined Railways, he came under the wings of coach, H.K. Seetharama, a former army person and silver medalist at the Asian Games. Seetharama, who hails from Shimoga, was the first proper coach in Bosco’s life. “ He guided me. I learnt to be disciplined from him. That is how I improved,’’ Bosco said. The young runner was introduced to training camps in Mysore and Ooty. There were around 15 people, including women, in the distance running team of Southern Railways, spanning middle distance to marathon. The weeks went by in a blur. It was the sort of schedule Bosco had long wanted. Mondays were typically reserved for pace running. Tuesdays in Chennai, he ran on the city’s flyover, they being the best way to mimic hill running in urban landscape. Wednesdays he spent running on the track. Thursdays he went to run on the beach; he ran on varying textures of sand ranging from sea shore to beach sand. Friday was devoted to speed running. Saturdays were kept for long, endurance runs. On Sunday, he rested. Again, within this schedule, broadly speaking – mornings were spent running on the road while evening usually found him doing track work-out at Loyola College. Bosco’s narration was littered with many names that he said he owed much in life to. There were his “ advisors’’ on the Loyola track: Ranjith Narayanan (former 100m runner) and M.E. Rajasekhar (former 110m hurdler); there was John Britto, a former Loyola student whom he included among supporters, there was Nandakumar,…it was a long list.

Bosco at one of the editions of the Bengaluru Marathon. Also visible in the photo are Siddesha Hanumantappa, Sabhajeet Yadav and Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Bosco)

Someone who has been running for long needs milestones revisited to recollect and remember. Bosco has been running since 1985. At his house not far from the boundary walls of Loyola College, he sat with a fat file of certificates accumulated over the years. For this author, newcomer to running (and still struggling with it) it was like a dive into running’s history in India; not the really old chapters but old enough given a robust running movement in India is still quite nascent. The certificates provided data and timings; Bosco’s nature made sure he remembered his benefactors. Strung between certificates and supporters, Bosco’s story continued. Before joining the Railways, Bosco used to run several marathons a year. After joining the Railways that all-out participation was replaced with more judiciously chosen events. Slowly over the years, podium finishes accumulated. There were certificates from the Mavana Sugars Marathon and podium finishes from Kaveri Trail Marathon, Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM; now Tata Mumbai Marathon), Allahabad Marathon, Chennai Marathon and Hyderabad Marathon. As Bosco aged and slowed down to that extent, the podium finishes have gradually shifted from open category to podium position within age category. His personal best in the full marathon was around 2:30. And while he may have slowed down over the years, he can still pull off a mean timing. The week before I met him in Chennai, at the 2017 Coimbatore Half Marathon, Bosco had finished second in his age category with a timing of 1:31.

Of all the events he has participated in, one event has stayed close to his heart. On August 8, 1998, he ran at the Fourth National Travancore Marathon & Track Meet in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He finished the full marathon in 2:34:50 to secure second place. He got Rs 50,000 as prize money. Twenty days later that money helped him fund the expenses of his wedding. On August 28 that year, he married Jenacious Priya; they have a son Andrew Jose. Then there are the amusing side stories: once he mistook reference to ` cross-country’ in the advertisement for an outstation event to mean running and landed up ready to run. He was taping his feet to help it tackle cross-country terrain when the organizers asked him what he was doing. That was when runner realized what he had walked into – it was a cross-country bicycle race. He borrowed a cycle and completed the event, finishing in fourteenth place. The organizers gave him Rs 150 to cover his travel expense to the venue and back.

Photo: courtesy Bosco

In his long career in running, Bosco has run several marathons in sub-2:45 timing. When I met him, he said that he was now in the realm of three hours and above. As age and experience mount, he has been playing the role of coach. During 2014-2015, he was a fitness trainer with Reebok, training people on Saturday and Sunday. Talking to Lourdes Irudaya Bosco you notice the subtle yet major questions faced in runner’s life. For instance, there was a phase long ago when recommendation was strong that Bosco specialize in middle distances like the 1500m. Reason – he ran with long strides. That didn’t happen because for the most part he trained alone. A significant factor for this training style was his closeness to his family, something you sense in the many years he has stayed in the familiar vicinity of Loyola College and the respect and affection he showed his brother. For person courting solitude to train, there is rarely coach at hand to effect transition and transformation. So for most part Bosco trained himself; he trained for what he liked – long distance running. That gift of long stride, sensible perhaps to capitalize on in runner’s younger years, was overlooked. Then there is Bosco with his wealth of running in Chennai as chronicler of a city’s changing ambiance in running; it’s changing face. “ When I started running, there were very few distance runners out on Chennai roads. Now that number has risen. There are also many running clubs, events and competitions. In the years gone by, there would be an event once every three months or so. In all, Chennai would have less than five races a year. Now there is a race almost every week, there is prize money too,’’ Bosco said. That is good but it also needs a word of caution as regards indiscriminate participation.

Two things are very important for runner, according to Bosco – rest and diet. “ There is no point in continuously training and running; you spoil the body doing so,’’ he said. What worries however, is the state of Indian roads; Chennai’s roads included. “ In 1985, the roads were relatively free of traffic. Early morning runs were easy, enjoyable affairs,’’ Bosco said. Thanks to exploding vehicular traffic and congestion, veteran runners like Bosco are now scarred warriors. “ Now, that early morning enjoyment of running has faded. You cope with pollution and heat,’’ Bosco said. Over the years, he has endured burning eyes and dust in the air. In his effort to escape traffic and run peacefully, his morning runs have been starting earlier and earlier. He goes to sleep at 11 PM and sometimes wakes up at 2 AM to train. Traffic is a problem unraveling across Indian cities for runners and cyclists; they are shifting to being the moving shadows of pre-dawn hours in cities still lit by streetlights. Sunshine has become traffic’s privilege to enjoy.

Photo: courtesy Bosco

A couple of other points also stood out in the conversation. Like many runners – rank amateurs and those from the elite category – Bosco envied the runners from India’s defence forces. They have discipline, good coaches, proper training and proper diet. They also have access to high altitude training camps, something every athlete wishing to push limits aspires for. “ They get to focus on what they wish to do,’’ Bosco said. That was him looking back on the years gone by and commenting. From that same sweeping gaze, which he is entitled to given his experience of three decades plus in running, he also suggested that races and running events make it standard practice to recognize and encourage the top ten finishers in every age category. Don’t cut off encouragement at the top three or top four-level; encourage some more – he felt that makes sense.

Courtesy a little confusion over where exactly Bosco’s house was in Nungambakkam and my decision to walk and explore my way to the venue of our meeting, our chat had begun a bit later than scheduled. Past 6 PM, there were phone calls landing up every ten minutes or so from trainees on Loyola’s track, seeking instructions from their coach. Bosco guided them on the phone extracting that much more time to spend with me. Around 6.40 PM or so, I could sense we had probably reached breaking point; those trainees needed their coach on the track. Bosco dropped me off on the main road. I headed for a quiet dinner at Besant Nagar beach; he headed to the running track at Loyola.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

What am I?

The question fascinates us no end.

I had a phase as an outdoor educator.

In that period, I was introduced to a method used by experiential educators in leadership and team building sessions. My memory is a little foggy around the edges but I think it involved using personality and temperament – as stated by participants and corrected by fellow participants where required – to assign people to four quadrants showing distinct leadership styles. These four quadrants (we would create them on the ground using trekking poles or ropes) were deemed essential for a good team. Initially the exercise engaged for it answered the question of what I am, like a case of self-discovery. Oh…so this is what I am – there was enough in that nascent discovery, however questionable, to ruminate and reflect upon. Then problems with self-image set in.

I debuted in a quadrant meant for those who value human relations. That felt good, except – what I wished to be was something else. I wanted to be a doer. The rules of the exercise were pretty clear. A quadrant, diagonal from where you were placed would be toughest to transition to. The doer lot was diagonal to where I was. Adjacent quadrants were easier accessed. Given the model accepts that you tend to change with time, in several subsequent instances of exercise repeated, I found myself in the adjacent quadrants – some showed me up as an information gatherer and analyst of data; a few other instances showed me as a motivator.  Not once was I a doer. Damn!

To an extent the analysis was correct. The most powerful sport I ever engaged in was rock climbing. As lead climber, placing protection and opening the route, I was weak. As follower, I was good. Climbing doesn’t lie. I found myself enduring the notion – repeated for my benefit by friends – that I was adventurous only because I knew others better than me. The description denied me ownership of initiative shown. Even a hitchhiker owns his / her journey. Why deny me mine? We never spare an occasion to rub into someone that he / she achieved because they were lucky followers.  On the other hand, during the several instances when I was travelling alone or the decade I have been freelance journalist surviving on tight budget, I was a quiet doer, executing things as needed. It never landed me in anyone’s doer quadrant. Who thinks of writing and freelancing as challenge or doing?

Quadrant for membership is an easy way to address life’s pressing question: what am I? The experiential education method I was familiar with is but one of many such approaches to temporarily categorize people. Books have been written and movies made on the premise that everybody belongs to some category. And almost always the quadrant of the action hero – the doer – is a coveted spot to be in. He gets all the pretty girls. In due course, I accepted the fact that life didn’t find me a doer. Accepting it allowed me to move on. Sometimes the categorization business was fun. Once on a hike that I worked as a junior instructor, our students – all fans of the Harry Potter universe – deliberated on what maybe my house at Hogwarts. I was touched. Not because they gave me a house in the Harry Potter universe but because somebody bothered to think about me that deeply and for that long. Thank you.

J.K. Rowling isn’t the only author who dabbled in the politics of categories. The search for a category pervades all walks of existence now. One of the factors that made this tendency widespread is the rise of technology and organization; the latter triggered the ascent of management science. The combination – technology and management science – unleashed the regime of everything as measurable. Most job applications are precise, well defined exercises. If there are multiple responsibilities involved, then each is segregated and shown as a percentage of the whole. An enrollment process is designed to find the best fit for an opportunity. That automatically births the notion of right mental type and category. I am uncomfortable with such certainty in the meeting grounds of technology and management science. Not for me, this use of us as emotionally dead building blocks. I am sure that in their own discreet way, organizations later seek to retain talent by allowing people to move across functional capacities. However if you want to know yourself by confronting that which you are genuinely not good at, you may need to give up employer-organization.

There is only so much any employer will be willing to lose. So you quit and go solo. Solo keeps risk and loss restricted to you. My hunch is – soloing while difficult, will amaze you by what it reveals. Personally, I think we have the potential for all those quadrants wired in us. We deliver as circumstances require. In a lifetime we journey through different circumstances. The question to pose would be: are we journeying enough to realize our potential for all the quadrants; or houses and factions as the world of fiction elects to call them? And if you can pass through all those separating walls, what are you? If that’s what you are and you are still dubbed loser, what does it say of world declining room for you?

That’s why the Divergent series engaged. Written by Veronica Roth, the trilogy was made into three movies; the last one of the series Allegiant, released in March 2016. I haven’t read the books; I saw the films. There have been many movies that leverage the interplay of what we are and what we are expected to be. The Divergent series caught my eye immediately because its premise of a dystopian citizenry assigned factions to belong to, instantly reminded me of my experiences with that experiential educators’ model to teach leadership. More important, it helped me assuage my grudges against that method by creating the idea of divergent as category, a rebel category. I am not a fan however of the purity-impurity angle built into the story with the divergent protagonist positioned as most evolved. I tap into the idea of divergent as relief from the need to be a fixed somebody.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.

I had waited long to hear this.

I thought of a similar moment earlier at the peak of my research and subsequent confusion over what bicycle to buy. That was expenditure heavy to shoulder on freelancer’s income. Unable to throw money around as the consumerist market expects, I had worked on understanding bicycle models and component specifications to find the bicycle model suited for my needs, at my price point. Problem was – my price point was too low for the specs I sought. Suddenly a slightly old bicycle model of right dimension and specs, at price tad discounted given its age and outmoded wheel size, materialized. It was perfect fit for freelance journalist lacking a fortune to spare. A source of considerable enjoyment since, it is now parked six feet away from my work table.

The dust on that purchase had hardly settled when the government threatened my comfort zone with all out drive to go digital. I use an old Nokia feature phone. What it can do is all I need. It also suited my interface with universe, which is quite tactile. Back in 2002, it was nice seeing Tom Cruise swishing his hands this way and that as he shuffled data on virtual screen in Minority Report. I didn’t ask to live it. I also have difficulty viewing large sections of geography on small screen. Where am I? – is a more important curiosity for me than destination guaranteed. We don’t mind small screen for maps because we value destination guaranteed with pointer showing you the way. Besides, your typical smartphone keeps beeping with messages from this app and that. I don’t like it. I have zero appetite for some of the messages floating around, particularly the troll type. Further, once I started going on expeditions, I grew accustomed to switching off phone and being out of contact. The digital epidemic however meant more angles than the above, affected. Unlike the phone of old, now our money, bank transactions, passwords – all have dovetailed into the smartphone. The world around me was being prompted to transact its business in a certain way and if I hung on to my old phone, I risked getting deleted from existence. The epidemic triggered hunt for a smartphone.

In both bicycles and smartphones, trends appear similar although it is particularly entertaining in the case of phones given that simple argument – if you spend for a bicycle as much as you spend on a smartphone; at least you gift yourself an active lifestyle.  Needless to say, one of the most hilarious sights I witnessed recently was a fellow commuter on a Mumbai local train taking selfies with his tongue sticking out. It amused to think that moments like this get official patronage through policy favoring smartphone while the bicycle battles daily with growing traffic hell bend on denying it space. Don’t these trends speak something about us? Anyway, the nature of market evolution I noticed from my search was somewhat like this:

First you take an innovation that has at heart a relevant and clear proposition. None can dispute the clarity in what a bicycle or a phone means.  A bicycle takes you from place to place at modest pace with zero pollution and physical exercise included. Motorized transport beat the bicycle in terms of speed. But in days of present lost to smog and sedentary life, the bicycle has been reborn absolutely futuristic. To think that it was introduced in the late nineteenth century and its relevance remains strong – now that is a product. A phone helps you talk over long distances. Do you need one? The answer is yes. But that isn’t good enough from a manufacturer’s point of view. So in the second stage of evolution by manufacturers and market, you dismantle given product into its several constituent parts and start tinkering with the parts, such that you are developing capabilities in apparent isolation. This is a departure from the unquestionable relevance of a product at debut stage. In the second stage, either industry players are many or more players are seeking to muscle in. In both cases fresh raison d’etre needs to be manufactured. The plain vanilla cellphone, which catered to clear, fundamental needs, gets touch screen, camera and apps (none of which are the sort we died for lacking) and becomes a smartphone. During marathons you hear technology’s automated voice speaking with robotic love: congratulations, you have completed a kilometer; the time taken was….Or, there is the selfie generation, which has grown so big and omnipresent that of the smartphone’s two cameras, the one facing user is gaining more megapixels than the one facing world.

The third stage is the strangest stage, when the focus is no more on overall product relevance but marketing gimmicks promoting the technological advances in specific components used, quite often at the expense of larger harmony among components. It is the Popeye stage, when brain and body live in the shadow of outsize bicep. In my search for smartphone, I came off wondering why someone is selling an imbalanced product. A typical review: this smartphone does this, this and this. But the cost of having all these functions is – it heats up and may not run that long on a single charge. When was the last time a decade ago, that your phone claimed to be smarter than you and died every day for want of power? Equally confusing are the product reviews. Online retailers in their effort to empower customers with information, host plenty of reviews, many of which seem rants or half baked analysis. Not to mention, there is nothing in the identity of reviewers to prove that they are really customers and not paid PR by brand or competitors out to put a spanner in the spokes of a brand. Given this, my hunch is brick and mortar will return for those valuing tangible product before buying. But it won’t be as the regular brick and mortar of old. Its new avatar could be in line with trends articulated at the end of this article.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Meanwhile, business is brokered by how you look at a problem. The above mentioned lacuna of inadequate power opened up room for phones with massive batteries. Not all massive batteries are sold to you with quick charging devices alongside. If you want your own private power station that takes a lifetime to charge, you pay a certain price; if you want the same with quick-charge, you pay a bit more. And no matter how huge your battery, few of these phones with ever increasing apps and expectations riding on them, match a good old feature phone in terms of reliability. The old phones were rugged; they survived in rain and cold. They used all the power they had for two primary functions – talk and text. The new ones are comparatively fragile and born of proximity to power sources. You can make up for absence of power source nearby by carrying a variety of portable power sources and charging devices, all of which merely add to the stuff you truck around. With required gadgetry stashed on self and backpack, you could call yourself a smartphone-commando, a smartphone-marine or member of the elite squad of communications-special forces. Point is – this third stage is all about confusing the customer and milking him. Do you want to make a phone call or do you want to look like a commando?

A good instance of third stage in the bicycle market, in my opinion, was the confusion over wheel sizes in MTBs – 26 inches, 27.5 and 29. It had nothing to do with the happiness you found, cycling. Cyclists had managed to reach most places on the planet. The 27.5 and 29 were not going to reach you some place humanity hadn’t. Yet you paid for industry’s eccentricity because industry was desperate for a reason to energize its business. A case of overlapping domains in cycling and communications technology would be using smartphone for navigation, weather forecasts etc. Yes they are absolutely relevant. They work. But setting out on a ride only if you have all this is a bit like retracing the footsteps of Marco Polo or Fa Hien and knowing all along that they ventured out despite not having any such technology in their times. With capital backing technology, there is no great wave seeking to restore the adventure in adventure. Instead, there are isolated moves afoot. For example, the upcoming 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), which is a race to circumnavigate the world solo and nonstop in a sail boat, has banned all kinds of modern electronic gadgetry aboard participants’ boats. They want you back at technology levels matching the year of the first GGR – 1968.

Not surprisingly, the fourth stage is clarity rediscovered and restored. I greet it with as much hope and affection as Ice Age’s sabre toothed-squirrel does his prized acorn. It celebrates relevance, aptness and perfect fit. Sounds like fundamental rights. Isn’t this what buying a product always meant? Transpose this to the idea of democracy. If a democracy deemed fundamental rights luxury you would be quick to say it got things wrong. What would you then say of a market where relevance is luxury or matter of circuitous rediscovery? Overall therefore the simple description for this evolution by market is: wild goose chase. There is a saying that you can either touch your nose from front or you can take your hand behind your head and try touching the nose from behind. Smartphone’s discovery of simplicity harked of the latter. How else would you birth bloatware, sell a tonne of it and then acknowledge it as dispensable?

My friend Prashant owns a couple of smartphones including the sort that currently dominates sales in India: 3GB & 32 GB, 16 MP & 4 MP, quad core Snapdragon at 1.3 GHz and 3000 mAh battery. Prashant likes to climb and cycle. He is into yoga. Recently I found the old Nokia smartphone with Windows operating system back on his table. “ How come?’’ I asked. “ If I can live without all these apps, this much of phone is enough for me,’’ he said bluntly. I know he was saying it prematurely for there are facilities from the smartphone’s recent past he has got used to and which need a different phone to run. But he had a point. If I go by specs from six years ago archived by Wikipedia, the old phone should have 512 MB RAM-16 GB internal storage, 1.4 GHz single core processor, 1450 mAh battery, 8 MP rear camera and no front camera for selfies. Between this phone and returning to this phone, were a couple of other phones owned and got tired of. One discussion Prashant and I often have is whether money can be the answer for everything. If you look at the market, it would seem – you fix the problems you are facing at a given state of life by being capable of affording a better one. But we moved from sophisticated phone to more sophisticated phone and after screwing up the phone market with a plethora of transient twists in technology, we are gifted a simple, uncluttered phone. It harks more of starting line than finish.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well to Latha and me: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.


There is one thing though: simple phone doesn’t come cheap yet.

You still have to pay the premium for industry’s return to simplicity after many intervening phases of delusion by technological opiates. Like that ` carefully worn careless look’ from the pages of fashion glossies, this is ` simplicity redefined’ and expensive. The same will shape brick and mortar’s return too. Prices there are already not as low as prices quoted online. They have a valid reason – you are getting to touch and feel a product before buying it. It is an argument that wasn’t there earlier. A precious part of the data our brain uses to decide – the sense of touch – has got monetized. That’s one of the legacies of wild goose chase – all aspects of our existence get monetized. Meanwhile big data has been compared to what oil was in the twentieth century. Shareholders and equity markets must have liked that. By the same yardstick, I would assume parallels between the legacy of oil and the evolving legacy of big data. The new legacy will unfold even closer to our physiological and psychological make up for when I look around I find the smartphone’s impact on human behavior to be profound. Through smog and climate change – both legacies of the oil age – the smartphone’s fans stay glued to the mesmerizing device. This time, whatever smog and storms are due, will be in the human head. No wonder gurus and babas have a roaring business teaching us how to install delete buttons in the brain.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There is a new rain in town.

You have to walk, run or cycle to feel it.

Actually it is a rain that has been around for long.

What is new is its ferocity.

Unlike climate change which bewilders with its unsteady, erratic nature of incidence, this one has been systematically growing. We do nothing to merit the rain of nature and its life force. Yet we receive it every year, like God sent; sometimes more, sometimes less. In contrast, the new rain has thrived under our active patronage.

I like a morning run or a round of cycling. The number of runners and cyclists has gradually grown over the years. However, what has increased more visibly is traffic. It is a barreling flow. There was a time not long ago when the roads I frequent early morning were relatively quiet. Service roads (a narrow road parallel to an existing big one) featured almost no traffic. The air was clean. Now that is gone. Traffic starts building up from 7 AM. Traffic rules are also broken that early. Engine powered-mobility has scant respect for self-powered-mobility. Might is right. Runners and cyclists on the road have to be careful. Its raining vehicles.

There was a time in my days as employed journalist, when I wrote on the automobile industry. I wasn’t one finding vehicles sexy or magnetic. I wrote on the industry; I did so for a decade. At that time, the automobile industry with its basket of ancillary manufacturers and dependent service providers was the world’s biggest. I have since lost a lot of my fascination. I outgrew it. Further, when I got into running and cycling and had my taste of what it is like to be at ground level sensing a tonne of metal hurtling by, I saw myself looking at automobiles differently.

Like many other industrial sectors, the automobile industry was encouraged with investment sops. I haven’t seen similar encouragement offered in India for the active, healthy lifestyle. Let me be clear: the idea of healthy lifestyle is not to be confused with support for the medical care / hospital industry.  Like the auto industry, this industry too feeds off our purse. I am talking of communities enjoying adequate open space, green environment and easily accessed facilities for sport.

I haven’t seen one city, municipality, district or state that declares itself keen on supporting a physically active, healthy lifestyle for its citizens. States and districts bought into literacy; they have missions to ensure cleanliness. They haven’t bought as well into what constitutes an interesting life. Its like a crisis of the imagination. We put up a hospital with maternity ward quicker than we would anything to make the life that follows birth, interesting. Isn’t that contradictory? We don’t design our environment to be sufficiently engaging. We don’t plan our cities and living spaces for it. Many housing societies have space for a swimming pool. Just that nobody wants a swimming pool when that space can be used for parking. Even then, quarrels erupt over parking slots usurped because the number of vehicles is going up. So it isn’t just new rain. There is the flooding too.

The Indian approach is – money is king. In its durbar, sedentary imagination dominates. That imagination percolates down to everything. Its terrible as theme for life. Merely accumulating money never made anyone happy. Often when I find myself muscled out by vehicle on road, I wonder: does the driver hate me because I am living the life I like? You know what? – I suspect that is the case; especially in cities. Strange as it may seem the few instances I received room as cyclist, were in the hills and mountains. His loaded truck laboring up a steep slope, driver, upon seeing cyclist powering self and baggage on same road with no engine for help, would give a wave. Or a passing car driver would stick his hand out and show a thumbs-up.

On hopes of such moments visiting us somewhere, back in the city, we weather the new rain of an old order.

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