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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)