Shubham Vanmali (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

A young man, who battled Learning Disability as a child and discovered purpose in swimming, is trying to complete one of the toughest challenges in open water swimming. This is his story; based on a conversation with his father. 

On May 29, 2018 the Navi Mumbai suburb of Nerul woke up to news of one from their midst completing a long distance swim in the US.

Twenty two year-old Shubham Vanmali had become the youngest person to complete the San Francisco Round Trip-Angel Island swim entailing a distance of 16.1 kilometers in the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

According to a statement from the North California Open Water Swimming Association (NCOWSA), the swim is reputed to be the most technically challenging in the Bay waters and has been attempted by more than 25 people over the past 40 years with only 12 completions. Besides being the youngest person yet to do it, Shubham is also the first Indian and the first to complete the swim under the newly formed NCOWSA. The swim starts and ends on the shared beach of San Francisco’s open water swim clubs, the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club. The course requires the swimmer to leave through the opening of Aquatic Park, swim past Alcatraz Island, swim around Angel Island through a body known as Raccoon Strait before returning past Alcatraz and back through the narrow opening of Aquatic Park. All this, while crossing three international shipping lanes twice, 12 ferry routes and swimming cross-current for the major part in 10-14.5C waters, the statement said.

May 29 evening, this blog caught up with Shubham’s father, Dhananjay Vanmali for a chat.

Shubham doing the San Francisco Round Trip-Angel Island swim (Photo: Pacific Open Water Swim Co)

He was due to leave for the US, the next day. Coming up was another swim, part of the main project Shubham has been working on. Over June 3-9, he will attempt swimming the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. According to Wikipedia the Molokai Channel aka Kaiwi Channel separates the islands of O’ahu and Molokai. The crossing of this channel is part of the Oceans Seven Challenge, which is the project Shubham has been working on for the past few years. The other crossings required for the Challenge are the North Channel (formerly called Irish Channel) linking the Irish Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, the Cook Strait between the North and South Island of New Zealand, the English Channel between Britain and France, the Catalina Channel in California, Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido in northern Japan and the Strait of Gibraltar connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The only Indian to have done the Oceans Seven yet is Pune’s Rohan Dattatrey More who is also so far the youngest and the first Asian on the finishers’ list. The first person to complete the Challenge was Stephen Redmond of Ireland. A former rugby player and triathlete, he completed the Challenge over 2009-2012, at times requiring multiple attempts at some of the channel crossings. The Oceans Seven Challenge is positioned as swimming’s equivalent to the Seven Summits of mountaineering, which entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The Challenge was conceived in 2008 by former professional marathon swimmer Steven Munatones who was world champion in the discipline in 1982 and coached the US national team for several years. Articles on the Challenge published in the media say that participants need to be hardcore endurance athletes with ability to swim in very cold and warm seas and be physically and mentally prepared to tackle adversity ranging from sea creatures to currents and strong winds.

Shubham; from the Dharamtar to Gateway of India swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Shubham comes from a family of sportspersons. His father is a former state player in volleyball, his mother used to play kabaddi and his sister used to be a competitive swimmer. According to Dhananjay, Shubham’s career in swimming commenced after an initial foray into football. Around 2001, Nerul Gymkhana started Mission 2010 seeking to train talented youngsters in football, swimming, hockey, cycling, tennis and athletics. Shubham was selected for football under Mission 2010. Born 1995, he was quite small and very likely would have not been well developed and competitive in the sport by 2010. “ So he was shifted to swimming,’’ Dhananjay said, adding that by around 2009, Mission 2010 ended for want of funds. Following this, Shubham moved to practising at the pool in the complex housing Nerul’s D.Y. Patil Stadium. However, from the point of view of becoming a competitive swimmer, he seemed to have a problem. Although he trained well, at the time of competition, all that hard work couldn’t be made to focus and deliver performance. By around eighth standard, Shubham was formally diagnosed with Learning Disability. It took a while to locate the correct doctors but eventually intervention by good psychologists and sports psychologists helped.

Shubham crossing the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Around tenth standard, Shubham’s approach started to change. “ In the tenth standard he was selected for the state championship. By the twelfth, he had secured podium finish in the state championship in 1500 meters freestyle,’’ Dhananjay said. During his time in eleventh and twelfth standard, Shubham trained at the pool belonging to Father Agnel Sports Academy. Gokul Kamath became his coach in swimming. By the time Shubham reached college, he secured bronze in 100 meters, silver in 200 meters and gold in 400 meters and 1500 meters at the inter-college meet, Dhananjay said. Besides clear evidence of his emergent ability to focus his energies, it also indicated that his strength lay in the longer distances demanding endurance. In Shubham’s first year at college, there was a competition in Thane he participated in. Dhananjay recalled that a couple of senior Channel swimmers had come to attend it as guests; they were watching from the gallery. A month and a half after this event, Shubham approached his father and said that he wished to attempt crossing the English Channel. After discussing it with his coaches, the family decided to take up the project. Shubham started training for it. Besides his regular swimming, every Saturday and Sunday he used to go to Uran and be taken out to sea in a boat to do open water swimming for three to four hours.  “ We also did swimming at night,’’ Dhananjay said. For stepping stone to English Channel, Shubham first swam from Dharamtar to Gateway of India in Mumbai, a distance of roughly 35 kilometers. Then, on August 4, 2014, he swam across the English Channel becoming the youngest to do so at that point in time.

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Given he was going all the way to Europe and UK for doing this it made sense to attempt the Strait of Gibraltar soon thereafter. Approaching bad weather restricted his window for the Gibraltar swim. It was complicated further by the fact that the swim had to done the same day he was reaching the start point from UK. However Shubham went ahead. For a prospective record, the family first thought of trying a to and fro swim. Shubham gave it some thought and told Dhananjay that there was another option – he could try and reach the other side faster than any Asian had done so far. That’s what happened on August 14, 2014 – he became the fastest Asian to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, doing so in three hours, sixteen minutes. Dhananjay believes that it was from this trip to Europe and interaction with swimmers and other people he met that Shubham picked up the idea of Oceans Seven. With two of the required crossings done, it seemed worth pursuing.

Shubham (in the water, next to the kayak); from the Catalina Channel swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In 2015, Shubham successfully accomplished the swim in the Catalina Channel. “ He began the swim one night and finished early next morning. It took him 10 hours and 42 minutes,’’ Dhananjay said. Shubham followed up Catalina with the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim on the US east coast, thus completing a smaller challenge in marathon swimming called Triple Crown – it is composed of swimming the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Then a reversal of fortunes happened. In 2016, Shubham travelled alone to Ireland to attempt the North Channel aka Irish Channel. His family searched on the Internet and rented suitable accommodation for him to stay in Ireland and prepare for the swim. The Irish Channel is rated one of the toughest swims in Oceans Seven. On the day of the attempt, after 13 hours of swimming and a mere two kilometers from successful completion, Shubham developed hypothermia. He had to abort the swim at that stage.  It left him feeling low for quite some time. “ He didn’t swim much. He was into cross-fit. Then last year, he began returning to swimming,’’ Dhananjay said. On the Internet, the Molokai Channel is described as the longest swim in Oceans Seven. The sea is deep here, nearly 700 meters. Early June, should the young man from Nerul accomplish the swim in the Molokai Channel; that would be four down, three to go in his pursuit of the Oceans Seven Challenge. He plans to go back to Ireland to attempt the North Channel again.

Dhananjay (left) and Shubham after the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Swimming at all these locations and the training required for it, requires financial resources. His family has funded Shubham so far. That was also among reasons, he felt bad after the North Channel attempt didn’t succeed; he apparently felt he had wasted his parents’ hard earned money. Dhananjay works with Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL); his wife works with Vijaya Bank. He tried getting sponsors. According to him, he would have repeated meetings with prospective sponsors but on the day of providing sponsorship they would offer an amount much smaller than what was originally promised. There were also other problems. Projects of this sort are PR intensive and securing such traction is not the forte of every athlete or his / her family. On the other hand, mileage in the media is what sponsors seek in return for their support. Further sponsors easily warm up to supporting games because that is a picture of team effort which is a popularly liked theme. It is also one that is in line with corporate imagination. Adventure sports and endurance sports are on the other hand, typically solitary pursuits. “ These things affect my motivation level,’’ Dhananjay said. He still looks for sponsors but in the meantime dug into his own resources to fund Shubham’s project. Among means of raising resources, he sold an apartment he owned. “ This is a unique feat and it is my son who is doing it,’’ he said at his house in Nerul, less than a day left for his flight to the US and opportunity for family to watch Shubham attempt the Molokai Channel.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dhananjay Vanmali.)


Grant Maughan; from the Everest expedition (Photo: courtesy Grant)

Grant Maughan is an experienced ultramarathon runner and adventure racer. Hailing from Australia, he is a freelance super yacht captain who also keeps a busy schedule as endurance athlete. He has participated in many ultramarathons including some of the world’s toughest. In India, he is remembered for his 2016 joint win – with Jovica Spajic – in the 333 kilometer category of La Ultra The High. In May 2018, Grant climbed Mt Everest successfully. In this interview done by email, he shares his thoughts about Everest, altitude, ultramarathon and plans he has around the theme of endurance and adventure.

Everest ascents happen from the Nepal (south) side and the Tibet (north) side. Was there any reason why you chose to climb from the north side? Did you want to be on that face or was that natural fall out of the group you chose to go with and their choice of route?

I chose the north side because inherently there are less people doing that route. I also find the history of Mallory and Irvine disappearing there in 1924 very interesting.

Can you briefly describe the climb? What were your testing moments therein?

Everything about the climb is difficult: the time it takes to acclimate, establishing camps and equipment at different levels, technical impediments, oxygen deprivation and fatigue. Your body and mind get worn down after weeks and weeks of ascending and descending. It becomes a real chore just to be there and accomplish some for the daily tasks. As you get higher on the mountain some of the technical sections become more difficult and your energy and focus at overcoming the tasks become harder to manage.

One measure often used to describe the challenge involved in an ultramarathon is cumulative elevation gain. Many ultramarathons have cumulative elevation gain exceeding the altitude of Everest. That is further complemented by the act of running and moving, often with little rest, to meet cut off times. Obviously you had a fascination for Everest despite the challenges in ultramarathons and adventure races. Can you describe the specific attraction / motivation you had for climbing Everest? Had you been thinking of it for long?

After some years of mountain running it became a natural segue to start climbing bigger mountains. It was a real fascination for me to get up some of the mountains. I spent years reading climbing books but never thought I would be able to achieve such things because I have a natural fear of heights. Even though I had flown hang gliders, tried free-fall parachuting and bungee jumping when I was younger I just figured high altitude mountaineering was for elite athletes and people much braver than I. My first big climb was Mount Rainier in the US and after that trip where I learnt some new skills and equipment selection, I was keen to try other mountains. I climbed Aconcagua in Argentina; then headed to Denali in Alaska where unfortunately we couldn’t make the summit because of a nine day storm that trapped us at almost 15,000 feet before we retreated due to lack of food and our permit, close to expiring. I have climbed Mt Shasta in California a number of times solo; Stok Kangri in the Indian Himalaya solo plus Mera peak and Imja Sja in the Nepal Himalaya. I really wanted to try an 8000 meter peak like Cho Oyu or Manaslu before considering Everest but this year after talking with a team leader I decided to just go for Everest and see how it turned out. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get the chance due to expense and the time required but everything fell in place and I only decided three weeks in advance to go on the expedition. Sometimes it is better that way so you don’t have much time to think about it and talk yourself out of it.

From the Everest climb (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

How would you describe your relation with altitude? How well do you cope with it? Does the reservoir of endurance, distance runners have, make them better at tackling it or is altitude, the great unknown that even the best of runners must approach respectfully? What was your experience on Everest?

I definitely think that endurance athletes have a bit of an advantage when climbing big mountains. Endurance and fitness are part and parcel of some of the most important aspects of getting to the top. I seem to be able to acclimate fairly well and without too much trouble. I have developed breathing techniques for distance running that I cobbled together from the sport of free-diving and by just thinking about the mechanics of gas exchange that have worked for me really well. I did notice that at about 7000 meters the breathing techniques still helped but were not as efficient as at lower altitudes. Above that height everything just becomes harder. We started to breathe bottled oxygen above 7000 meters using different volumes of gas per minute compared to height and difficulty of climbing at the time. It definitely made things easier but never the same as lower down. It was always an extra worry about running out of gas or having a regulator or mask fail. So it actually added to the stress.

Distance runners and adventure racers are used to getting pushed to their limits. How extreme is this in the combination of strain and altitude that is mountaineering? In your Facebook post, you have described what you experienced on Everest as quite challenging. What made it so?

The limits are a little different. Sometimes you are struggling carrying a large, heavy backpack on steep terrain or trying to focus on getting over a technical section using hardware, both of which are not common in distance running or mountain ultras. The physical aspects can be very similar though: being on your feet for days on end, sleep deprivation, fatigue. I also found the danger aspect to be way higher than anything I have done before in the sport. A combination of the terrain, altitude, weather and support; there was always stress in the back of my mind of what could go wrong and how I would deal with it.

Aside from the busy calendar of ultramarathons and adventure racing you maintain, did you indulge in any training that was specific to your attempt of Everest?

No. I didn’t have time beforehand. I spent four months working on a ship in Antarctica with no training over Christmas; then went straight to Alaska to do the Iditarod 350 mile and then straight to Tennessee for the Barkley. One week later I was in Tibet at Everest Base Camp.   Some would say this is crazy but I seem to have the capacity to do things like this with no training and hardly any preparation of any sorts. Next month I have the 315 mile Vol State race across Tennessee and then straight to Death Valley for my sixth Badwater 135 race.

From the Everest climb (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Personally, what was it like for you to be on the summit of Everest? What did you feel right then or at the first instance you had to reflect on it?

I spent 14 minutes on the summit. It was blowing around 40 knots of wind and bitterly cold though the sky was a beautiful deep azure color. I was scared. It had taken 10 hard hours of climbing through the night to get there (we arrived at 8:50 AM on May 19th). I remember looking back down at the ridge line we had traversed in the dark and knowing how long it would take me to get back to any sort of safety at high camp number three and feeling the dread. I really just wanted to get started down to find out if I could make it back safely and get far enough down the mountain to get out of the death zone. My three cameras were all frozen as well as all my water. I didn’t know if my oxygen bottle would last and how hard it would be to descend the technical sections while being extremely tired. It was very stressful. Just after leaving the summit one of our team members got snow blindness and had to be helped all the way down. It was very difficult to manage to overtake this group on the narrow section we were on. So I lost a lot of time waiting and getting cold.

Do you have any other dreams similar to Everest and away from the world of ultramarathons and adventure races you are regularly associated with? By profession you are a seafarer. The sea is a magnificent medium; it too is wilderness. Do you have any projects on that front?

I plan to row solo across the Atlantic as well as climb some other 8000 meter mountains in the future. Lots of things to think about and plan…

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai For more on Grant Maughan please try the following links:


Krishna Prakash (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

An Inspector General who is also Ultraman – that is a rarity. This is the story of Krishna Prakash, IPS. It is also window to the change a city marathon can spark.

The Mumbai Marathon, long sponsored by Standard Chartered bank and now Tata, has been a life-changer for many people. In 2013 it changed the life of Krishna Prakash, at that time heading the police force in South Mumbai and thereby tasked with overseeing security arrangements for a host of sporting events ranging from cricket matches of the Indian Premier League (IPL) to the city’s annual marathon.

A second generation police officer, he hails from Hazaribagh in Jharkhand. Located roughly 2000 feet above sea level, Hazaribagh – the name means land of a thousand gardens – features a landscape of hills and forests. On a more somber note, it is also home to the second highest coal reserves in Jharkhand. Krishna Prakash’s father served in the police, retiring as a Deputy Superintendent. One of five siblings, Krishna Prakash – born 1971 – attended St Robert’s school and later St Columba’s College, from where he majored in history.  During all this time, his interest in sports was never exceptional. In his free time as a child, he ran around in the local hills, swam in the local river and the reservoir of a nearby dam – like many children do. At school, an institution blessed with adequate playgrounds and providing room for sports in the curriculum itself (there was time specifically allotted for sports), he stayed as active as anyone growing up in such circumstances would. “ I played but I was not a sports person per se,’’ he said, outlining his nature from those days.

Following college, he spent two years with the Nehru Yuva Kendra (NYK) doing social work. In 1995, he decided to appear for his civil services exam. The exam has a three tier selection process. His first two attempts took him past the first two stages of selection. On both occasions he lost out in the third, the interview stage. On his third attempt, he cleared all three stages and placed second among candidates qualifying from Jharkhand. Selected for the Indian Police Service (IPS) and awarded the Maharashtra cadre, he trained over 1998-99 at the Sardar Vallabhbhai National Police Academy in Hyderabad. In 1999, he moved to Maharashtra with his first posting at Gadchiroli. The second least populous district of Maharashtra, Gadchiroli is partly hilly terrain and has a strong tribal component to its population. It is also among districts affected by the extreme left movement. In the following years, he worked at Nanded, Malegaon, Buldhana, Amaravati, Sangli and Ahmednagar before shifting to Mumbai as officer in charge of South Mumbai’s police. Through these postings and transfers on work, he maintained interest in sports but as at school and college long ago, it stayed in the background. “ I used to play football and badminton regularly. I also participated in work-outs with my team from the police, to stay fit. But that was it,’’ Krishna Prakash said. Posted to South Mumbai, sports drew closer. The bulk of the Mumbai Marathon route, including its start and finish lines, are in South Mumbai. Given charge of security arrangements for the Mumbai Marathon, the IPS officer found it hard to keep his curiosity for the event and the experience it offered, under check. It was tough to merely watch from the sidelines and not run. Especially given an instance from the past that hinted he had what it takes to be in endurance sports – during his training days, at a competition at the police academy in Hyderabad, he had been runner up in cross country running, swimming and yoga. Knowing that, how do you keep the attraction of the Mumbai Marathon at bay? He succumbed.

Cycling at Ultraman Australia (Photo: courtesy Krishna Prakash)

In 2013, Krishna Prakash’s superiors approved his request to participate in the event on one condition – his running should not affect the duties expected of him at the Mumbai Marathon. That year Krishna Prakash ran the half marathon segment of the event without any prior training. “ I ran it because I wanted to. There was the wish to run the half marathon. There was no preparation,’’ he said. He covered the 21 kilometer-distance in two hours, seven minutes. Immediately on completion, he changed his attire and resumed his work monitoring security arrangements; it is typically around the time the half marathoners finish that the Mumbai Marathon’s seven kilometer-Dream Run segment featuring the largest chunk of participants, commences. The switch over from half marathon to official duties, worked neatly. Krishna Prakash has participated in the Mumbai Marathon every year since that debut in 2013.Not just that, like many in the city bitten by the bug, he began running at half marathons elsewhere – in Delhi, Pune, Kolkata and Satara. “ This was how things were; till 2016, then everything changed,’’ Krishna Prakash said.

Thanks to Mumbai attracting people from all over India and thanks in part to the Hindi film industry locating many of its stories in the city, some of Mumbai’s suburbs are as well-known in India as the city itself. Dadar is one of them. More than a century ago it had gained distinction as the city’s first planned suburb. In the years that followed, it has been a popular backdrop for Mumbai life in media and conversation. Today Dadar is a busy and noisy convergence of people, shopping, rail and road transport. Its bylanes are comparatively quiet. It was late May 2018. We were at Krishna Prakash’s office in one of the bylanes of Dadar. He was now Inspector General of Police, overseeing VIP security. The change of 2016 he referred to, had happened some 260 kilometers away in an altogether different city and district – Satara. Surrounded by hills, Satara is home to the annual Satara Hill Marathon. The route features gradients. By then, a regular runner of the half marathon, Krishna Prakash ran the half marathon at the event. He ended up with severe pain in the knees. The doctor he consulted painted a gloomy picture – surgery appeared solution and running seemed finished. “ It was October-November 2016,’’ Krishna Prakash said of the incident.

Like many searching for more views than one on life’s troubles, he looked up the Internet to see what it had to say on knees made painful through running. He came across information indicating that problems with knees could be overcome by strengthening muscles directly and indirectly related to their functioning. He also came across information that highlighted the importance of food and food habits for runners.  There was a third angle he required to address. His uric acid level was up; that had to be brought down. According to Krishna Prakash he is largely self-taught in matters of training for sport. He proceeded to address the new options discovered. A longstanding practitioner of yoga, he also worked out regularly at a gym near Churchgate. Should he go with the medical assessment of his knees or should he go with what he felt about himself? – That was the question. Notwithstanding the doctor’s verdict, Krishna Prakash continued his running. “ I kept running despite the knee pain. Slowly I recovered,’’ he said. At the Mumbai Marathon of January 2017, he ran and completed the full marathon.

From the Vichy Ironman (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Krishna Prakash)

As the crow flies, the forests and hills at the tri-junction of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are some 1600 kilometers away from Hazaribagh. For two decades this region was backdrop for the activities of Koose Munisamy Veerappa Gounder aka Veerappan, notorious forest brigand. By the time Krishna Prakash was training at the national police academy, the infamous Palar blast in which Veerappan used landmines to kill 22 members of a team of police and forest officials – his single biggest mass killing – had already occurred. Through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Veerappan stayed elusive, even hogging media attention with the kidnaping of Kannada film star Rajkumar. The bandit was eventually shot dead in October 2004, by the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force headed by IPS officer, K Vijay Kumar. In 2017, Vijay Kumar’s book on the rise and fall of Veerappan – Veerappan: Chasing the Brigand – was published. There was a book release function in Mumbai and among those who attended was, Krishna Prakash. The last chapter of the book is titled ` Shootout at Padi.’ In it Vijay Kumar wrote of the bandit, “ Even at fifty two, he was sinewy and extremely fit. Forensic specialist Dr Vallinayagam, who later examined his body, told me he was in the shape of a twenty five year-old, apart from the problem with his eyes.’’ The observation set Krishna Prakash thinking – if that is the fitness level of a bandit evading the law, then police officers tasked with the job of bringing such people to justice have to be as fit, if not better.

Among the places Krishna Prakash had served at, was Malegaon. It is a city that has had phases of communal unrest. Three to four days after the book release function, Krishna Prakash attended a ` Peace Run’ in Malegaon. At this run, he met a young doctor who spoke to him of the half Ironman. Spurred by his recent thoughts on the subject of fitness and its relevance for the police, Krishna Prakash resolved to do a full Ironman. That’s a big leap; four years into distance running, the full marathon just done for the first time, no dedicated training had in swimming and cycling and here he was, planning full Ironman! Asked if he was taking a chance, he replied with an emphatic “ no.’’ According to him, once he takes up something, he gives it his all. In Mumbai, those who heard of his plan advised him that the route to full Ironman lay through patient training – first triathlons at home, then the half Ironman and eventually the full. Krishna Prakash chose to overlook the suggestions. “ I believe that if a person is confident then he can do what he applies his mind to,’’ he said. A triathlon involving distances greater than what is used for the discipline at the Olympics, Ironman events are held overseas. As yet, India has no Ironman event.

Soon after that introduction to Ironman at Malegaon, Krishna Prakash registered for the full Ironman scheduled for August 2017 at Vichy in central France. Vichy is located on the banks of the Allier River. He chose this event partly because the dates were convenient for his family – wife and daughter – to go along. From registration to event, he had roughly two and a half months to prepare. While he had graduated to running the full marathon in January 2017, his swimming was strictly functional in style and in cycling, he hadn’t ever endured long hours in the saddle. To guide him, Krishna Prakash contacted Pune’s well known triathlete and coach, Kaustubh Radkar. The triathlon – which is what Ironman is – has three disciplines: swimming, cycling and running. Radkar provided the police officer his training schedules and also told him that cycling is 50 per cent of Ironman; swimming and running together constitute the balance 50 per cent. That latter remark, encapsulating the effort and energy cycling takes up in the mix of disciplines that is Ironman, was a gentle reminder of how much work needed to be done.

With wife Sanjana and daughter Shaurya at Ultraman Australia (Photo: courtesy Krishna Prakash)

A full Ironman entails 3.86 kilometers of swimming, 180.25 kilometers of cycling and 42.20 kilometers of running – raced in that order. The rules of service for IPS officers provide you leave to participate in sports. What is difficult for a top cop is finding time to train for a city like Mumbai and a state like Maharashtra are never short of issues to keep the police engaged. Post his Ironman resolution, Krishna Prakash’s day commenced at 3-3.30 AM. By 4 AM he would start training. Being a senior police officer must have helped. To swim, he had access to the swimming pool at Garware Club House at Wankhede Stadium, the Mafatlal Swimming Pool on Marine Drive and the pool at the Police Gymkhana, also on Marine Drive. At all these places, the management was kind enough to open the premises very early for Krishna Prakash to train. In the pool though, he was soon battling his own swimming style. His old survival swimming was a composite of several styles, none of it capable of efficient, sustained passage through water. He gradually nudged himself towards freestyle and focused on acquiring strength in it. His running was usually done on Marine Drive with interval training either at the city’s University Stadium or Mahalakshmi Race Course. Much of his cycling happened on the Eastern Express Highway, which still retains a fairly long stretch of service road used by walkers, runners and cyclists. He also acquired a Fuji road bike. While the triathlon’s three disciplines could be worked on separately, the triathlon itself challenges because they are done one after the other, almost seamlessly. Krishna Prakash earmarked his Sundays to get a feel of that. Some of his training sessions for open water swimming were at Pune’s Manas Lake. Early Sunday morning, he would drive to Pune; in the vehicle would also be his cycle. Reaching Pune by around 7 AM, he would spend the next two hours swimming. Swimming done, he would get on his bike and cycle from Pune to Navi Mumbai, reaching there by evening. Then he would run for about one and a half hours in Navi Mumbai; among the places he frequented so was the jogging track at Jewel of Navi Mumbai in the Seawoods-Nerul area. With most amateur athletes, time spent training is usually time borrowed from family. Krishna Prakash’s daughter Shaurya had to accommodate the reduced time she got to spend with her father. The reality of official life is such that a senior police officer like Krishna Prasad can’t always be left alone. His bodyguards had the option to tag along while he trained. On many occasions, they did.

For Krishna Prakash, the full Ironman at Vichy went off well except for one mishap. To cycle, he had brought along his trusted Fuji. Ironman rules, Krishna Prakash said, don’t allow a cyclist to ride close to another for long. The reason is simple and in a different context – that of the peloton; used exactly for the advantages it offers. When you ride close to another (typically behind), it is called `drafting’ or `slipstreaming.’ The practice reduces drag considerably. Krishna Prakash found himself riding close to another and to escape staying so for long (thus inviting disqualification at Ironman), he tried to overtake. Doing so, he courted a smooth patch of green by the road side. What he didn’t know was that lurking below that green was a small ditch. The cycle’s wheel hit the ditch and he fell. This episode aside, Vichy was an encouraging experience. He completed the full Ironman in 14 hours, eight minutes.

The Ultraman memento (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Krishna Prakash)

According to Krishna Prakash, in the days following the Vichy Ironman, his sole wish was to try and improve the time he took to complete the event. At a minor level, beside the fall while cycling there had also been another mistake, this one likely fallout of his newness to the whole Ironman format. In the marathon segment which was run in loops with each loop marked by a wrist band given to the runner, he had ended up running four kilometers extra because he thought the run concluded at the place where the band was being distributed. All this required to be smoothed out and a clearer picture of performance had. So he registered for the half Ironman in Bahrain. But in the background there were other pulls and comments seeking to influence. One of it was the observation that his timing at Vichy was actually better than what some famous folks who did the Ultraman, got in their Ironman. Why not then, Ultraman next? – So went that line of reasoning. “ Somehow it came to my mind that I should attempt Ultraman,’’ Krishna Prakash said of his eventual drift towards Ultraman. As before, he wasn’t graduating gently in his goals. He was leaping. According to Wikipedia, the first Ultraman was held in Hawaii in 1983. This was followed by similar events in Canada, UK and Florida in the US. In May 2015, Australia commenced its edition of Ultraman; the first edition was staged at Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and saw 37 participants. Krishna Prasad signed up for the May 2018 edition of Ultraman Australia. Unlike Ironman, which is over in a day, Ultraman spans three days. Each day’s activity has a cut-off time of 12 hours. On the first day, triathlete does 10 kilometers of swimming and 146 kilometers of cycling. On the second day, it is 275 kilometers of cycling. The event concludes with a double marathon; 84 kilometers of running. As with Vichy, the IPS officer’s choice of Ultraman Australia was partly driven by the fact that it coincided with school vacation in India; it meant his wife and daughter could go along.

At the cycling event in Ahmednagar where Krishna Prakash marked his return to cycling after the accident he suffered during the 2017 Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Krishna Prakash)

Given he had registered for the Bahrain Half Ironman Krishna Prakash initially visualized his progression to Noosa via Bahrain. Then disaster struck. To get stronger at cycling, he had enrolled for the Deccan Cliffhanger scheduled for November 2017. It is an annual 643 kilometer cycle race from Pune to Goa. During the race, Krishna Prakash collided with his support car and crashed. Apart from cuts and bruises, he fractured three bones in his left shoulder. It was bad enough for him to be briefly hospitalized. “ I was left quite frustrated. It upset my plans. I had planned to do sea swimming near Palghar to get ready for the open water swimming due at Noosa,’’ he said. Yet again, surgery was recommended as an option. Krishna Prakash chose the normal, natural course of healing instead. December 2017 and a part of January 2018 went by without any training. Meanwhile the main sponsorship of the Mumbai Marathon had changed from Standard Chartered bank to Tata; the 2018 edition of the event was called Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). On January 20, 2018, his injured shoulder and arm wrapped in bandage to restrict movement, Krishna Prakash ran the TMM full marathon. He completed it in four hours, twenty six minutes. “ That gave me some confidence,’’ he said. With that, one third of prospective triathlon had stirred alive again. In March, there was a 100 kilometer cycling event in Ahmednagar. Krishna Prakash was supposed to inaugurate it. He decided to cycle the distance. Once that was done, he knew he could commence distance cycling as training for Ultraman. Regular bicycle trips from Mumbai to Pune and Nashik started. Not surprisingly, sea swimming followed. That latter bit couldn’t be ignored for the swimming at Vichy had been in a river while at Noosa, it would be the Pacific Ocean. For guide to Ultraman, he had Deepak Raj, Australia-based triathlete and coach. Sunil Menon, Hyderabad based-triathlete and coach, also offered helpful advice. Amid accident, the Bahrain Half Ironman had to be however given a miss. It was now straight from accident to Ultraman.

At the finish line of Ultraman Australia (Photo: courtesy Krishna Prakash)

For Krishna Prakash, the three days of May chasing Ultraman in Noosa, were challenging. The quantum of activity each day was sizable and draining and it had to be repeated back to back. But he persevered. He finished the 10 kilometer-swim in four hours, fifty four minutes. The full component of 421 kilometers cycling – first day’s 146 kilometers and second day’s 275 kilometers, combined – was done in 18 hours, seven minutes. He wrapped up the double marathon in 11 hours, 20 minutes; Shaurya ran the last two kilometers with him encouraging him on. In total, he took 34 hours, 21 minutes to complete Ultraman Australia. According to the event’s website, he placed 43 on the finishers’ list. Vichy’s shadow made its presence felt down under too. Krishna Prakash chose to leave his trusted Fuji behind in Mumbai and use a borrowed time trial bike in Noosa. In retrospect, that was a bad decision. The bike fit was far from perfect; the aerobars were short for his arms and although he adjusted the seat as best as he could, he found himself bunched up. Further, the cycle’s brakes decided to play spoil sport; they ran tad lose. Result – on a portion of road close to the city, he swerved to avoid a vehicle and crashed into a wooden fence. His left shin was cut and it swelled up. The area around his right toe also swelled up. The remaining part of the bike ride was therefore cautiously executed. Worse, the injured legs affected his performance in the double marathon. We asked him if he had fully recovered from the fracture to his shoulder before he left for Australia. “ Yes. After all I was swimming,’’ Krishna Prakash said. Then he moved his left shoulder as though to be surer. “ There is some stiffness still, you know,’’ he said smiling. On plans ahead, he preferred to stay quiet, except for a general resolve mentioned to attempt more triathlons.

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


Team India at the 2018 IAU Trail World Championship. From left: Sampath, Lokesh, Aakriti, Ajit, Kieren and Ullas (Photo: courtesy Kieren D’Souza)

At the recently concluded IAU Trail World Championship in Spain, the Indian team placed 26th in a field of 34 teams.

At the individual level, Kieren D’Souza broke into the top 100. He placed 98th as against 195th in 2017. Ullas Narayana similarly moved up from 143rd to 118th. The 2018 edition of the championship was held at Penyagolosa, Castellon de la Plana. According to an official statement from the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), 331 runners from 49 countries participated in the 2018 edition of the event. India was represented by Ullas Narayana, Lokesh Meena, Ajit Narwal, Sampathkumar, Kieren D’Souza and Aakriti Verma.

IAU stands for International Association of Utrarunners.

As per information on the event website, the course was 85.3 kilometers long with positive elevation of 4900 meters and negative elevation of 3690 meters. There was overall cut-off of 15 hours with separate stage cut-offs. Luis Alberto Hernando of Spain topped in the men’s category, completing the race in 8 hours 38 minutes. In second and third positions respectively were Cristofer Clemente of Spain and Thomas Evens of UK. Among women, the winner was Ragna Debats of Netherlands who finished in a time of 9 hours 55 minutes. She was followed by Laia Canes of Spain and Claire Mougel of France. Kieren, who was the fastest among the Indians, completed his run in 10 hours 59 minutes. The top three teams in the men’s category were Spain, Great Britain and France in that order. In the women’s category, the corresponding teams were Spain, France and USA.

The race was technical, and for the Indian runners it was a great experience, the AFI statement said. While 49 countries were represented at the 2018 World Trail Championships, the number of teams was 34 because it takes a minimum of three people to be a team. The consolidated timing of the top three finishers from each team is taken to decide team ranking.

Kieren at the 2018 IAU Trail World Championship (Photo: courtesy Kieren D’Souza)

The race in Spain was only the second instance of Indians participating at the IAU Trail World Championship. In 2017, two runners had taken part. To select the Indian team, AFI banked on the points runners had accumulated under the points system of the International Trail Running Association (ITRA), Peter D’Souza, who is a member of the AFI committee overseeing trail running, said. A minimum of 600 points was set as cut off for an Indian male runner to be eligible to join the team and 550 for a woman. To accumulate ITRA points, runners have to run at races registered with ITRA.

Aakriti Verma, from Bengaluru who took part in the 2018 edition is as yet the only woman from India to have participated in the IAU Trail World Championship. A HR professional working with Infosys, she has been into distance running for the past three and a half years. Over the last one year her affection has been more for trail running and in that time, she ran seven to eight races on trail at various places in India. She accumulated the ITRA points required to join the Indian team, from these races. The world championship was an eye opener for her. “ It was a great opportunity to learn,’’ she said. She and Lokesh couldn’t complete the race while Ajit completed the race 13 minutes after overall cut-off. Aakriti put her experience in perspective. According to her, the race in Spain was quite technical; the terrain was rocky. In contrast, much of her training and regular running had been on the trails of southern India, which tend to be less rocky and gnarly. As she put it, we typically bring in the addiction for distance borrowed from other formats of distance running and look for a good trail to execute it on. Compared to Europe, technical terrain is less in the trail races of India. This lack of familiarity with technical terrain was the biggest difficulty she faced in Spain. Further, trail races have stage cut-off and at the world championship, the cut-off timings are understandably stiff. In Spain, after more than half the race done, Aakriti had to come off because her pace didn’t indicate that she would be meeting the next cut-off. Her experience in Spain has strengthened Aakriti’s resolve to improve. To add variety to the terrain she runs on, she plans to spend time in Manali, do hikes in the Himalaya and maybe, run in the US. She hopes to take part in trail races in India and overseas.

Asked about the visible improvement in ranking he showed (from 195 to 98) in Spain, Kieren said that this year there had been greater clarity in terms of participating at the championship with consequent room to plan and prepare in advance. Running ultramarathon distances on trail is yet very nascent in India and the sport is therefore little known. Participating in events like the world championship requires official representation routed through relevant national sports bodies. New disciplines take time to be understood and backed. In 2017, participants from India got to know that they are going for the championship only two to three months in advance. Full clarity came still later. That limited the time available to train. This year, with the ice broken in 2017, there was greater certainty of participation. “ I was mentally prepared,’’ Kieren who spends most of his time in Manali, said. He not only used the mountain ambiance he lives in to train for the world championship, he also made sure that the event in Spain would be the first overseas event he goes to in his 2018 racing calendar.

Sampathkumar at the 2018 IAU Trail World Championshp (Photo: courtesy Kieren D’Souza)

Sampathkumar who hails from Hosur and lives in Bengaluru has been into running since the past three to four years. He works at Infosys. The first trail running event he participated in was the 2015 edition of Javadhu Ultra organized by Chennai Trekking Club (CTC). Save a race or two, he said he never missed any of the trail events organized by CTC; he credits Peter Van Geit with introducing him to the sport. Since the 2015 Javadhu Ultra, Sampathkumar has run at various trail races in India at locations as varied as Kutch, Dehradun, Shimla and Malnad. He shared Aakriti’s observation that the biggest difference in Spain was the technical nature of the terrain. It wasn’t so much elevation –  the ups and downs – as it was terrain. He believes that the closest he came to a similar situation earlier, was at one of the editions of Paradise Trails in Goa (Race Director is Dan Lawson), wherein runner had to navigate by oneself and some portion of the course was technical. But then again, that was a limited stretch. Sampathkumar believes that if Indians are to be ready for courses of the sort seen at the 2018 IAU Trail World Championship, then domestic trail races must begin embracing technical terrain. Further, compared to events overseas, cut-offs at Indian races are lenient and the gap between aid stations are designed to contain stretch. He felt that there are Indian race organizers willing to put together races that are technically challenging but the trail running community has to support such shift and that happens gradually. In India, the tendency to persist with prevailing comfort zone is high. If at least some races in India mimic the conditions found at races overseas, then the possibility of domestic trail running becoming relevant to perform well overseas improves. In Spain, Sampathkumar was the last of the Indians to complete the race within cut-off; he finished in 13 hours, 25 minutes. “ I am happy I finished within the cut-off time,’’ he said. He was no stranger to the distance involved. Almost as long as the course in Spain was the 80 kilometer-trail running race in Vagamon he had gone for earlier and which, he covered in approximately nine hours. “ Spain was a great learning experience,’’ he said.

Ullas Narayana at the 2018 IAU Trail World Championship (Photo: courtesy Kieren D’Souza)

According to the AFI statement, the participation of the Indian team was an athlete-funded event. The athletes had to pay for their travel while the AFI ensured their accommodation. It is understood that this format had to be resorted to because disciplines like ultramarathon and trail running are not part of the pantheon of Olympic sports. In the awarding of funds and their subsequent allocation the `Olympic’ tag typically decides priority. At the Olympics, the longest distance currently run is the marathon. In contrast, the world of ultramarathon and trail running is filled with distances that are far longer and terrain that is more varied than what is seen at the Olympics. It is learnt that such funding challenge is not specific to India. Athletes from several other countries too, seek help from sponsors because the sport lacks the Olympic halo. For the 2018 IAU Trail World Championship, Azani Sports came forward to provide the Indian team with kit and Unived provided the nutrition supplements and hydration. Support crew is most essential at an ultra-running event and this year, Renu Narwal and Kapil Malik (thanks to Ajit Narwal), provided such assistance to the team, the AFI statement said.

The 2019 IAU Trail World Championship will be held in Portugal.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Kieren D’Souza please click on this link:  


Joby Paul (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Triathlon is challenging. You have to work hard at three disciplines and be motivated to sustain yourself from training stage to executing the project successfully. Aspiration to try Ironman events follow. This is the story of Kochi’s Joby Paul; woven into it are the experiences of others too, who did the triathlon.

At the café we walked into, Joby Paul seemed known from previous reports about him in the local media. Well-built and driving a Skoda SUV, he was considered the first person from Kochi (based in Kochi, that is) to complete an Ironman event. It was late summer evening and a drizzle graced the road leading to the cafe near Thrikkakara. It reminded me of how similar and yet dissimilar, places on the Indian west coast are. Both Kochi and Mumbai are port cities. That’s all the similarity there is. As ecosystem, I suspect, Kochi is closer to the sweep of green, coastal ambiance that terminates at Goa and southern Maharashtra. You sense it in the setting of these new cafes – motifs of modern lifestyle tucked into what are otherwise longstanding, residential neighborhoods. Closer to Mumbai the greenery and intimacy vanish. How long, Kerala’s greenery and ecosystem? – I often wonder.  Freelance journalist drew out note pad and pen and settled for a cup of his regular – coffee.

Triathlete on the move; with bike bag at Port Elizabeth airport in South Africa (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

Joby was born 1982 at Onakkoor, a village tad south east of Kochi, some 35 kilometers away from the state’s commercial capital.  He hailed from a well to do family; his father owned land with rubber trees on it. Kerala accounts for the bulk of India’s rubber production with the district of Kottayam, adjacent to Ernakulam in which Onakkoor is, contributing the most within the state. In terms of geographical positioning, rubber is usually grown in the lower hills. Joby was an only child. Active at sports in school, from the eighth standard onward was into martial arts. Moving on, at BPC College, Piravom, he was “ Mr BPC’’ for three years. “ I was conscious of physical fitness,’’ Joby said recalling his days in school and college. He didn’t smoke or drink. Following MSc from a college in Tamil Nadu, he took up his first job at OCL Informatics (at that time, part of OEN Connectors; since taken over by Ideonics) in Kochi. After seven years there and a MS (Software Systems) done as off-campus corporate program from BITS Pilani, he commenced his own company – Reference Point Technology Services. Building his company, Joby used to travel to the US on work assignments. On one occasion he was there for a month, based in Puerto Rico, which is an unincorporated territory of the US. “ That was the first time I became aware of a culture of endurance sports,’’ Joby said. The idea of localities and communities supporting endurance sport was not only new to him; it also lingered in mind, a growing fascination.

Joby with Milind Soman (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

On return to Kochi, Joby started to run. To sustain the effort, he asked around for a group. He found Soles of Cochin. He joined them around November-December 2014. When he was in the US, Joby weighted approximately 90 kilos. Around the time he joined Soles, he was in the region of 80-85 kilos. Soles introduced him to the finer aspects of running. It wasn’t just getting up and going off for a run, there was the stretching, training, handling of injury, cross-training. There was a world around running. It opened up. Then, there is the never ending debate if which is better – running with shoes or without? Joby got into barefoot running. To cross-train, he got into cycling. “ Soles has groups for all this,’’ Joby said. In 2015, at a barefoot marathon in Coorg, Joby met Milind Soman, a versatile individual who has been model, actor, swimmer, triathlete and ultramarathon runner. The latter spoke about Ironman. Joby got hooked to the idea. On return to Kochi, he commenced collecting information on the triathlon and therein, Ironman. He had working knowledge of running and cycling. Swimming was weak spot. The swimming he was used to was learnt in the pools, ponds and rivers of Kerala. It was strictly functional and had no elegance to it. Kicking and splashing water all around was integral to this style. Elegance may smack of avoidable embellishment but in swimming, good style is what reduces friction and makes you hydrodynamic. His old swimming technique took Joby a maximum of 50-100 meters. When you have to swim long distance as you do in a triathlon, evolving a good style that cuts drag, saves energy and helps you keep going, is important. The first challenge in swimming therefore was to unlearn whatever he had picked up so far.

With fellow runners from Soles of Cochin (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

In the time that lapsed since he joined Soles of Cochin, Joby began identifying more and more with the group. “ Crazy’’ – he used that word often to describe Soles; another word being “ hyperactive.’’ It appeared to paint the image of a group that was dynamic, wanting to attempt things, supportive of its members and encouraging them in what they wished to do. Joby’s first half marathon happened roughly a year after he joined Soles. It was the half marathon segment of Spice Coast Marathon, an event commenced by Soles and since grown into one of South India’s major marathons and a Boston qualifier to boot. He completed this run with a timing of 2:06. His first full marathon was the 2016 edition of TROT (The Run of Raramuri Tribe) Marathon in Bengaluru, which he completed in 4:50. In India, land based sports have always enjoyed upper hand. For various reasons, affinity for water and certainly the sea therein, has been less. Thus while many people readily take to running and cycling, fewer numbers embrace water and sea. It is a puzzling scenario for geographically, India has a seacoast that is 7500 kilometers long. That’s nearly three times longer than the mountains up north dominating the subcontinent’s imagination. There is also one aspect about swimming, which strikes you as you behold it in Indian context, where the tendency of people to be in groups is very high. Swimming, even when practised in the restricted confines of a pool, envelops you in a private cocoon. In contrast, it is very common to find runners out in groups; often running and talking at once.

Swimming at the Bahrain Half Ironman (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

In January 2016, Naushad Asanar, who is a longstanding member of Soles of Cochin, completed a triathlon in Goa. It was the first time somebody from Soles did a triathlon. Naushad grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. His house there was close to the local swimming pool. While in the fourth or fifth standard at school, he had been packed off to attend coaching classes (they happen during the summer vacation period) offered by the Kerala State Sports Council at the pool. That and living in proximity to the pool enabling frequent swims, laid a strong foundation to his competence at swimming. However, as an adult – now working in Kochi – his interest in swimming hibernated. Till; his daughter enrolled to learn swimming. The venue for instruction was the Periyar River and with parents expected to accompany their children, Naushad went along. It was opportunity to brush up his old skills. In due course he accomplished a crossing of the river. It made him confident to do open water swimming. That was how Naushad’s journey to the triathlon in Goa, commenced. Following that triathlon, Naushad became Joby’s initial tutor on how to tackle swimming. To practise, they chose Thirumuppam kulam, a large public pond, in Varapuzha, some 15 kilometers away from Ernakulam.  “ It is a fairly large pond. Thanks to the interest of local authorities, it is also well maintained,’’ Naushad said. A perimeter swim here is roughly 350 meters long. Becoming competent to swim those 350 meters was Joby’s first target. For company, he had Naushad and other runners from Soles who had embraced swimming to cross-train. Naushad remembered Joby from those days. “ Joby was physically strong. But his swimming technique was inefficient. What works in his favor is that once he sets his mind on doing something, he goes after it systematically. He worked on dismantling his old style of swimming and acquiring a better one. He works hard,’’ Naushad said.

With finisher’s medal at the Bahrain Half Ironman (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

During this phase, Joby had a client in Bahrain. He used to travel to Bahrain on and off on work. Bahrain had a half Ironman event – it entailed swimming 1.9 kilometers, cycling 90 kilometers and doing a half marathon. Naushad suggested that Joby attempt it. The event was in December 2016. In one of those unexpected supportive twists of life, the Bahrain-based client, upon learning of Joby’s plan to attempt the local half Ironman and consequent need to train for it, offered to buy him a road bike so that he could train while in Bahrain on work. Joby registered for the event. “ Once you register for an event, there is no turning back. You are committed,’’ he said of the approach he has since come to believe in. However, that predicament of no turning back wasn’t something he intentionally did. Fact is – after he registered, his friends at Soles started talking about it. “ Now there was genuinely no going back,’’ Joby said laughing. The registration also made him more focused during his swim sessions at Varapuzha. In a month’s time, he managed the 350 meter-circuit of the pond. Still, swimming was what he required to work on. “ I was confident I will somehow manage the running and cycling. Swimming – I had no option but to train and improve,’’ Joby said. Meanwhile, every month for four to five days, he was in Bahrain. There, he cycled in the morning and evening on the Scott road bike that the client – Vin Technologies – got him. In Kochi, he trained on a Scott hybrid. Two to three months after registering for the Bahrain Half Ironman, Joby was managing 1-1.5 kilometers nonstop at swimming. “ It made me confident,’’ he said.

Working at the specific disciplines – running, cycling and swimming – which triathlon entails, wasn’t the only thing Joby had to do. Broadly speaking, 50 per cent of emphasis went into training volume to build up endurance with the balance 50 per cent, divided equally between strength training (including gym, yoga and stretching) and nutrition. Joby cut out junk foods and sugar. For the morning half of his day, he made his food intake carbohydrate-rich. The evening half, he made it protein-rich. He also took vitamin supplements. The Bahrain Half Ironman was scheduled for December 10, 2016. That day, it was relatively cold and windy. Minor details in preparation started to worry. For instance, all of Joby’s training – including swimming – had been in warm conditions. He had acquired a wet suit specifically for the event; it was bought by a client in the US and dispatched to him. He had tried it out at the pond in Varapuzha. But in the warm weather of Kerala he couldn’t wear it for more than ten minutes. So the wet suit was also in many ways, an unfamiliar quantum. Mercifully, the 1.9 kilometer-swim at the half Ironman went off alright. It was in cycling that Joby suffered setback. He came down a bridge fast. There was tailwind and as he turned right, the wind knocked him off balance. He crashed. The front wheel of the bike was bent, a tyre was punctured and one of the aerobars broke. He suffered injuries. It was kilometer 45. He rested for ten minutes.

Cycling at the Bahrain Half Ironman (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

The quickest way to inflate a punctured tyre is to use a carbon dioxide cartridge. They are small and easily carried by rider. However, the procedure has to be managed carefully. Since the gas is stored under high pressure in the cartridge, when released, it fills the tube fast. If the tube has been stuffed back in improperly, chances of rupture are high. There is also the need to handle the cartridge carefully. As the gas escapes from cartridge to tube, the cartridge can turn painfully cold. Joby inflated the tyre afresh with the carbon dioxide cartridge he had and fixed the wheel back. Because it was still slightly bent, the rim kept rubbing against the brake pad. To overcome the problem, he removed the front brake. The rest of the ride was therefore slow. The running that followed the cycling was painful because sweat kept pouring into all the scrapes and skin abrasion he had suffered in the crash. He finished the half marathon in two hours, four minutes. On finishing, his friends from Vin Technologies took him straight to hospital to get his injuries addressed. Overall, Joby completed the Bahrain Half Ironman in six hours, 40 minutes. The half Ironman boosted Joby’s confidence. “ At Soles people started encouraging me to attempt a full Ironman,’’ he said.

At the Florida Ironman (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

2016 saw Joby run full marathons in Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Next year he did the same in Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai. Not long after the half Ironman in Bahrain, Joby acquired a new road bike – a Focus. He complemented the purchase with accessories sent him by supportive clients in the US (in his narrative, clients supportive of his interest in the triathlon are a fortunate occurrence, more than once). It was time to try a full Ironman. He set his eyes on the Florida Ironman of November 8, 2017. For the full Ironman distances are longer. The swimming spanned 3.86 kilometers, cycling – 180.2 kilometers and running – a full marathon. Training commenced six months in advance. This time, Joby had Ironman focused-company for training. Shiva Subramanian is an IT engineer, who as of 2018, worked with Cognizant Technology Solutions at their Kochi office. He hails from Kalloorani, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district. In his school and college days, Shiva was a keen swimmer. He was good enough at the sport to represent Madurai Division at state level swimming competitions. After becoming an IT engineer, Shiva joined Wipro, eventually moving to Kochi. In 2015, at a ten kilometer-run organized by Wipro, he discovered his running legs; thanks to other runners he met, he also discovered Soles of Cochin. He started going out with the group. When Joby’s half Ironman journey unfolded at Soles, it inspired Shiva and provoked his curiosity. He was a good swimmer but in the years gone by when he had been a competitive swimmer, all focus had been on speed. Endurance; how good can I be at it? – That ate his curiosity. Shiva decided to embark on his own journey to Ironman.

Shiva Subramanian and Joby (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

When the Florida Ironman set in as Joby’s next goal, Shiva became his training partner. “ A training partner is important. Having someone along helps break the mental inertia,’’ Joby said. Training started at 4 AM. Monday was reserved for long bicycle rides from Edappally in Kochi to Alappuzha and back; a distance of 100-110 kilometers. Tuesday featured a 60 kilometer-bike ride and a 10 kilometer-run. Wednesday saw the duo swimming (one Wednesday they swam long distance; the next Wednesday, they did interval training in swimming). Thursday was spent running; usually hill runs with Soles of Cochin around the campus of Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) in Thrikkakara. Friday saw them back to long rides on the bike (here too variation with interval training prevailed). Saturday was dedicated to sea swimming; the Florida Ironman entailed open water swimming in the sea.

Joby with his wife, Sweety who is a runner. Their daughter also runs (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

Given its proximity to backwaters and the sea, swimming may seem commonplace and easily done in Kerala. Fact is – it was, when pressure on land was less, the water of its backwaters and rivers was cleaner and many traditional homes had access to sizable ponds that served as captive swimming pools. Kerala is a narrow state. It may have successfully contained population growth rate. But that doesn’t mean population in absolute terms has remained stagnant. Growing population, high density of population and impact of human activity has affected the quality of water in Kerala’s rivers and lagoons. Hunger for real estate has also meant hundreds of those old ponds covered up and lost; it has even meant loss of traditional farm land. Today, beneath that canopy of green which still graces the state, Kerala is consumerist and largely urban; quite different from how it must have felt like 50 or 60 years ago. For their Wednesday swim, Joby and Shiva first tried the backwaters of Poothotta, approximately 20 kilometers from Ernakulam. But they found the water quality to be bad. So they shifted to swimming in the Periyar River; the spot they chose was Manappuram in Aluva. In a big river, the water is at least flowing; effluents – if any – don’t linger. They identified a half kilometer-stretch which they could repeat as laps. One advantage of swimming in a major river that is flowing to meet the sea is that if you do your swimming as laps, on the return lap you are swimming against the current adding thus to overall work out. Still, neither river nor backwater can fully substitute conditions at sea. To become good at sea swimming one has to do just that. In the transition from the Bahrain Half Ironman to the full Ironman in Florida, there was a change in character to the component of open water swimming happening. In Bahrain, the swimming had been in a protected bay; in Florida, it would be sea. This couldn’t be ignored. Given they were not expert at sea swimming, Shiva and Joby decided to be careful in their training at Kochi. They reasoned that one of the angles to address while learning sea swimming, would be – how to handle an emergency should there be one. After all, you are some distance from land. Someone who knows the sea, alongside, would be helpful.

Joby with Prakashan (center) and Naushad Asanar (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

It is now ten years since Prakashan, who hails from Varapuzha, has been a lifeguard at Cherai beach. Cherai is some 25 kilometers away from Kochi’s city center. Prakashan has taught others to swim although never for a project like an Ironman event. According to him, Joby and Shiva heard of him through a common friend; they first met at Munambam. The duo apprised Prakashan of their need to be good at sea swimming for the Ironman event. “ They used to come to Cherai every Saturday morning by 6 AM. Then we would go about a kilometer out to sea and swim laps. The training would usually go on for three hours; we would wind up by 9 AM,’’ Prakashan recalled. While the duo swam, the lifeguard kept watch, moving alongside the swimmers on his surf board; he would lie on it and paddle with his hands. The surf board also served to carry a couple of bottles of water for hydration at sea. According to Joby, Kerala’s warm and humid conditions caused dehydration pretty fast. When monsoon arrived and Kochi disappeared behind the season’s veil of rain, Joby resorted to training at home. For cycling, he had special trainers – dispatched from the US by his clients – installed. Typically, for Joby, cycling is the most challenging discipline. He attributes that to Kochi not being a great place to train in cycling given the city’s narrow roads, traffic and inadequate street lights. “ If you are out cycling very early in the morning, then the hours till sunrise can be difficult for want of street lights. Once the sun is up, your next problem is growing traffic,’’ he said.

Running at the Florida Ironman (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

As the Ironman event drew close, his clients in the US came forward to book Joby’s accommodation. November 2017, in Florida, both swimming and cycling went off well. Unexpectedly, the challenge happened in running. At the 25 kilometer-mark of the full marathon, Joby felt quite tired. The last 10-12 kilometers went off very slowly. He completed the full marathon in 4:44. Overall, he took 13 hours and 43 minutes to complete the Florida Ironman. A momentum had now set in. Joby started looking around for his next Ironman event. He decided on the one at Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa; the decision was partly influenced by a Kochi based-IT company called Litmus Seven seeking visibility in South Africa and therefore agreeing to sponsor Joby. Training for the South Africa event required a strong component of hill training. He did that on the home trainer. “ It was a busy period at work. So overall preparations weren’t as structured as I would have liked it to be,’’ Joby said. The Ironman event, which happened on April 15, 2018, was fantastic. “ The course in South Africa was spectacular, especially in the biking segment’’ Joby said. He completed the full marathon part in 4:10 and the Ironman event overall, in 14 hours, 16 minutes.

Cycling in South Africa (Photo: courtesy Joby Paul)

In the time since he started training for the triathlon, Shiva has steadily gained experience in the sport. In 2016, he finished a triathlon featuring half Ironman distances in Chennai. In 2017, he completed a similar event in Mysore. Then, over that year and 2018, he completed two events in Goa featuring distances equivalent to the Olympic triathlon. For his next Ironman, Joby has selected the event at Langkawi, Malaysia. It is scheduled for November 2018. Shiva will also be there for it; he said that people at Soles have been very supportive of his desire to attempt an Ironman. Training began in May. Additionally, at the time of our chat, Joby had registered for full marathons in Hyderabad and Delhi. “ I would like to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Running is my strongest discipline,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G. Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Timings at races are as mentioned by interviewee.)                 


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

INSV Tarini has returned to Goa completing its voyage of circumnavigation.

The sail boat, belonging to the Indian Navy, had a crew of women.

This is the first time a crew of women from India has completed circumnavigation in a sail boat.

According to a recent statement from the navy, the vessel reached back on May 21, 2018. It had embarked on its voyage from Goa, in September, 2017. The voyage spanned 254 days; the Tarini covered over 22,000 nautical miles.

On arrival back in Goa, the Tarini was received by Defence Minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman.

“ During the course of her voyage, the vessel met all criteria of circumnavigation,’’ the statement said. According to it, the required criteria include crossing the Equator twice, crossing all longitudes and touching all the three great capes – Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope. The expedition was executed in six legs with halts at five ports – Fremantle (Australia), Lyttleton (New Zealand), Port Stanley (Falklands), Cape Town (South Africa) and Port Louis (Mauritius).

The Tarini’s crew comprised Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi (who was skipper), Lt Cdr Swathi P, Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal, Lt S. Vijaya Devi, Lt B. Aishwarya and Lt Payal Gupta.

The Tarini is essentially a copy (with a few modifications) of the older INSV Mhadei, veteran of two circumnavigations. Like the Mhadei, she was built in Goa, at Aquarius Shipyard.

The latest circumnavigation too is part of the navy’s Sagar Parikrama program. Earlier in Sagar Parikrama, Capt Dilip Donde (Retd) had completed the first solo circumnavigation by an Indian in a sail boat while Cdr Abhilash Tomy did the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian.

For more on the Sagar Parikrama program and articles related to sailing, please click on Sagar Parikrama in the categories section of this blog.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, who holds the Indian record for successfully climbing Everest the most number of times, has added yet another ascent of the peak to his tally.

At 6.50 AM on May 20, 2018, he reached the summit of Everest for the seventh time.

He was leading an expedition by the Border Security Force (BSF).

Love Raj is currently an Assistant Commandant with BSF.

The 2018 climbing season also saw Kami Rita Sherpa of Nepal set a new overall record for the most number of successful ascents of Everest.

In May 2018, he reached the summit of Everest for the 22nd time.

A mountaineer who has climbed several peaks in the Indian Himalaya besides multiple ascents of Everest, Love Raj was awarded the Padma Sri in 2014.

The 2018 expedition was Love Raj’s tenth visit to Everest.

He had successful ascents of the peak previously in 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2017.

Last year, he had reached the summit of Everest on May 27. The 2017 summit followed an aborted expedition in 2015, when Nepal was rocked by earthquake and an avalanche slammed into Everest Base Camp, claiming significant number of casualties.

This blog has previously written on Love Raj and the Johar region of Kumaon that he hails from. For more on Love Raj, please try this link: For an account of the 2015 avalanche including Love Raj’s experience, please try this link:

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


Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuition classes are common throughout India. For many, they provide the bridge to decent scores in academics, which are in turn crucial for professionally secure future in society valuing `well settled’ life. As common as tuition, is the practice of cycling to tuition. That ritual religiously done and exams passed, student on bicycle goes on to enjoy successful career in one of the lucrative professions. Its role in transport completed, bicycle fades from memory. Steed is mere extra in life’s cast. Academics is star. As a school student, Sreenath Lakshmikanth too cycled to attend tuition. In the years that followed, he became one of Kerala’s most promising bicycle racers. This is his story:

April, 2018.

The view from the promenade along Kochi’s Marine Drive has always been intimate. Willingdon Island and Bolghatty appear closer from here. The ship at the berth meant for oil tankers, bang in the middle of the backwaters, estuary for backdrop, loomed big like a truck parked in one’s driveway. We were an hour or so from sunset; the promise of its approach already embedded in the quality of light and the ambience caused by evening sky and water. The young man seated next to me on the park bench was built lean. Two hours earlier, we had begun the appointment looking for a café to sit and chat. With one of the fancy cafes he knew closed, he decided to dispense with embellishment and cut to the chase: what do we need? We need a place to sit and talk; period. There seemed no doubt in his head of the eventual, functional choice – park bench by the backwaters. There was the ship, the port, the calmness of water and if freelance journalist still sought stimulation for grey cells, a vendor or two always in the neighborhood, selling tea. I guess if you want to do something in life – much as, all that good conversation needs is a quiet place and occasional stimulant for wakefulness -you have to weed away the distraction and focus on that which matters. Sreenath Lakshmikanth knows it. Among attributes that strike you about Kochi is lack of space and heavy traffic. Sreenath is cyclist despite that.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

Born in May 1996, Sreenath hails from a Konkani speaking-family settled in Cherthala, a town some 30 kilometers south of Kochi. His father is an astrologer; his mother, a housewife. His brother works as a chef. Although keen on sports at school, his progression was hampered by his size – he was small. “ I used to play games. But when it came to being selected to play for the school or go for tournaments, emphasis was always on size. I never figured in selectors’ imagination,’’ Sreenath said. There was however a quirk in Sreenath’s geographical location. Cherthala was part of Alappuzha district; therein Cherthala lay to the north, bordering the adjacent district of Ernakulam. According to Sreenath, Alappuzha is popularly reckoned as the district with most cyclists in Kerala. He doesn’t know the reason for this belief but it is apparently there in background chatter in the state’s cycling circles. Cycling is human powered transport. From cycling’s perspective, there is one aspect that engages about Alappuzha. Its natural beauty as a district of rivers and lagoons also makes it a geographical oddity in Kerala. According to Wikipedia, except for some scattered hillocks to the east, the district has no mountains or hills. The terrain is largely flat. For Sreenath, life changed when he moved to eleventh and twelfth standards. He joined TD School at Thurvaoor; the place was 12-15 kilometers away from home.

For many years in South India, BSA SLR – a model of bicycle made by Chennai based-TI Cycles – had been popular. Sreenath’s father owned one. When Sreenath commenced attending school at Thuravoor, he began using the cycle for commute. Like in the case of many students, the commute by cycle was triggered by the need to attend tuition classes; he had classes in the morning and evening. That was how cycling crept into Sreenath’s life. It was collateral experience to the more important task of attending tuition. For Sreenath, sidelined at sport and needing an activity to call his own; cycling engaged. More than classes, it was the means of getting there that grew on him. As his interest in cycling evolved, the first graduation up the product chain happened. At a cousin’s house in Kayamkulam, he came across a road bike – a BSA Mach 1. Originally owned by the cousin’s neighbor who shifted to riding a motorcycle and later parked with cousin who didn’t use it, the cycle was idling. Already a tinkerer adept at dismantling and reassembling his bicycle, Sreenath packed up the road bike and shifted it to his house in Cherthala. It took him about a week to get used to the Mach 1 and its capacity to be ridden more aggressively compared to the SLR. By now Sreenath was also working at a coaching center that trained students appearing for entrance exams. The Mach 1 became his ride for trips to both school and coaching center.

Riding a fixed wheel bike (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

Kerala’s highways are a natural extension of the state’s overall layout, complicated however by explosive growth in automobiles. Roughly 600 kilometers long, Kerala is a narrow state with sea to one side and a spine of hills to the other. Save a few districts like Alappuzha, it is a land of ups and downs. In geographically narrow state with high density of population, roads are starved for space. The highway linking Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi (NH-47) is narrower than similar roads elsewhere. It hums with ever growing traffic. It was on this highway that Sreenath rode his Mach 1 daily. His morning session started at 5.30 AM; evening session was at around 8.30 PM. Regular cycling seems to have stretched his limbs in the growing up years. “ I put on some height. That was my first incentive to continue cycling,’’ he said.   The sessions at the coaching center were on Saturday and Sunday. It meant he was occupied through the week. The rigor was stepping stone to evolving a work culture, something that would come handy as the cyclist in him grew to proportions he couldn’t ignore anymore.

Following school, Sreenath joined Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam (Ernakulam refers to the eastern mainland portion of the city of Kochi) to do his BSc (Physics). He was determined to participate in sports. Still unsure of what to do in cycling, he tried his hand at running instead. For this, he and his runner friend George frequented the college’s well known ground in the city. One day, when he went to meet the physical education teacher, he noticed some bicycles kept in the room. They were track cycles sporting fixed wheel. The teacher was hesitant to let Sreenath use them. However during this phase, Sreenath was already cycling twice or thrice a week from Cherthala to college in Ernakulam and back. That’s a distance of 60-70 kilometers. His friends mentioned this to the teacher who relented and allowed Sreenath to have the bike. But on his first trip with the new bike, there was a chain-slip and Sreenath crashed injuring himself badly. Luckily the teacher didn’t see the mishap as reason to demand the cycle back. Instead, he gave Sreenath the name of a local coach in cycling – Louis Thomas.

Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth

Kerala’s potential in industry was for long stunted by its brand of politics. With the advent of new sectors like information technology, the trend is now changing. But for years, what industry survived lay clustered around Ernakulam (including the borderlands shared with Alappuzha and Thrissur), the bulk of it near Kalamassery.  The Kalamassery area was synonymous with factories like Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) and Premier Tyres (now part of Apollo Tyres). Unlike its attitude to industry, Kerala has always been sports-crazy. Some of Kerala’s companies were known names in sport. Premier Tyres and the Thiruvananthapuram-based Travancore Titanium for instance, were known all over India as good at football. Sreenath started training with Louis at the ground belonging to FACT. His companions during training were Louis’s daughters. Faster than Sreenath on the bicycle, they had represented their university and state. Louis advised Sreenath to stay in Ernakulam so that he would have more time to train. To set him up so, they needed to get the cyclist from Cherthala, a job in the city.

Pai Dosa in Ernakulam. This photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

There is only so long freelance journalist can stay without tea or coffee. Our conversation on the park bench at Marine Drive had progressed nonstop. Additionally when the tea vendors came, it had been at moments when the train of thought couldn’t be broken. When the chat ended, we went hunting for tea and snacks. As before Sreenath knew where to go. We crossed the road before the GCDA shopping complex, got onto Broadway, navigated the lanes between it and MG Road and eventually crossed MG Road. “ Here, this road,’’ Sreenath said leading me to a modestly big restaurant tucked inside. In Ernakulam, Pai Dosa is a well-known eatery. Much mentioned in local media, it offers several dozen varieties of the South Indian delicacy – dosa. We placed our orders and when I offered to pay, it was roundly refused. The eatery did not let Sreenath pay either; the meal was on the house. Back when he was looking for a job in Ernakulam so that he could train properly in cycling, it was at Pai Dosa that Sreenath found work. Over time, he served at tables, managed raw material supply and handled billing. Initially he stayed at the Maharaja’s College hostel. Work hours at Pai Dosa spanned 6 PM to 1 AM. Louis’s training started at 6 AM. Given the late hours he put in at Pai Dosa, Sreenath could report for training only by 7 AM. Training happened at the FACT ground and on Willingdon Island, home to Kochi’s port. Automobile traffic was less on Willingdon Island compared to bustling Ernakulam.

Following a district level camp in cycling, Sreenath headed for his first university meet held at S.D. College, Kanjirappally. According to him, M.G. University, to which Maharaja’s College belonged, didn’t have a robust cycling scene. The goal therefore was to somehow form a college team and take a shot at finishing well. As it turned out, Sreenath secured podium finishes in both the one kilometer and four kilometer-mass start disciplines. It was his first time on the podium in cycling. Finishing after Sreenath in the four kilometer-mass start was a cyclist from Aquinas College, Kochi. Milan Josy and Arun Baby, top cyclists from the region, belonged to Aquinas. Their coach, Jaison Jacob, took note of Sreenath and offered him a chance to train with Milan and Arun. In 2014, ahead of the state road cycling championships due in Thiruvananthapuram, an event called Tour de Kerala was held around Sabarimala. The circuit was approximately 80 kilometers long. Sreenath’s friend, Mario participated in it; Sreenath tagged along to support. It was Sreenath’s first exposure to a proper road biking event replete with the support infrastructure that goes with it.

Soon after this event, the state MTB championships happened at Malankara in Thodupuzha. Riding a rented Mongoose, Sreenath finished sixth in the under-18 category. However what he relished here was that he finished ahead of those dispatched by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training wing in Thiruvananthapuram. It was window to a small contest, one that is probably still on. You glean it in Sreenath’s conversation – an underlying tenor of competition with cyclists from Thiruvananthapuram, perceived as the lucky lot with training infrastructure provided by the state. In his mind, Kochi’s cyclists are underdogs doing well for exactly that – they are better at exploiting what they have and are fueled by the need to go out and discover what is missing. In the state road biking championships that followed the MTB event, Sreenath finished outside the podium, in seventh or eighth place. Jaison was watching from the sidelines. By now Louis had retired from coaching. Sreenath joined Jaison’s group; the coach there was Chrisfin Vincent, working with State Bank of India (SBI) and hailing from Thiruvananthapuram. Sreenath was now at that stage wherein he required a good road bike to practise seriously. Towards this end, he had been saving the money he was getting at Pai Dosa. It wasn’t enough. Jaison, some teachers from Sreenath’s college and a few well-wishers also contributed additionally. What they needed now was a bicycle retailer who would understand Sreenath’s requirement and budget.

The Bike Store; this photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

In 2009, Shuhaib Abdul Rehman – he was businessman, cyclist and founder of Cochin Bikers Club (which brought together cycling enthusiasts) – started a shop retailing high end bicycles. It was called The Bike Store and was located at Palarivattom in Ernakulam. It also had presence in Chennai. While Cochin Bikers Club still exists, by 2013, Shuhaib was close to shutting down the bicycle store. The Chennai outlet was eventually closed. The one in Ernakulam had by then become a hangout for the city’s cyclists. It had grown to something more than just shop; it was community. The Bike Store received a fresh lease of life when Paul Mathew, Vinshad Aziz, Pradeep Kumar Menon, Shagzil Khan and Abraham Clancy Ross  – all members of Cochin Bikers Club, came together as Velocity Ventures to keep the shop afloat. In 2015 Velocity Ventures was transferred to Verdant Outdoor Sports World. In due course The Bike Store moved to larger premises near Ernakulam’s Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium. Also coming aboard as investors at the store were Abhishek Das, Yakkub Shabeer, Dinesh Rajendra Pai, Ajith Varma and Abhishek Kashyap. Currently, The Bike Store is among leading retailers of high end bicycles in Ernakulam. “ Interest in cycling has picked up. When we started we had about 30 bicycles. Now we stock between 60 to 100 cycles,’’ Paul Mathew said. Jason used to get his gear from The Bike Store. Mario had also bought his bicycle from there. When Sreenath wanted to buy a road bike, it was to The Bike Store that he headed. “ That was the first time I met him,’’ Paul said. According to him, the shop helped the young cyclist identify the right model for his needs. They provided Sreenath a Lapierre road bike at a discount. “ It felt good. For the first time I had a proper road bike,’’ Sreenath said. It was the beginning of a meaningful association with The Bike Store.

Training with Jaison brought a twist; it was unavoidable. Because the training commenced at 6 AM and he had to present himself adequately rested and fresh for it, Sreenath was forced to quit Pai Dosa. He also shifted to staying in a house where some of the employees from Paul’s main business – he is a distributor for Godrej heavy equipment – lived. In 2015, Sreenath started training systematically. The training was on NH-47, to be specific, the stretch of highway between Ernakulam and Cherthala. Around this time, Sreenath, Milan and Mario went for a “cyclothon’’ in Chandigarh.  They packed their bikes and set off for Chandigarh completely overlooking the fact that it was January and North India lay bathed in winter’s cold. The trio from Kochi had no jackets, warmers or gloves. In Chandigarh they bought a pair of gloves and gave it to Milan, who was the best rider. The pace at the event was fast. Sreenath and Mario retired early. Milan hung on for most part of the race before suffering a crash. The trio returned to Kerala realizing the gap that existed between what was happening elsewhere and the level of cycling they had at home. Chandigarh was reality-check. Two things happened following this visit. They started participating in more competitions; they began attempting to complete all the races they participated in. It yielded result. At a competition in Coimbatore, Sreenath ended up fourth in the elite category. At the same event, one of his friends – Faizal P.J, finished third in the under-18 segment and was picked up by Scott Bikes for their team in India.

Sreenath (second from right) with other members of Scott’s cycling team in India. At extreme right is Nigel Smith, their coach. This photo was downloaded from the webpage of Scott Owners Club and is being used here with the company’s permission.

Towards the end of 2015, the state championship was held in Kozhikode. There, Sreenath secured a third place in mass start road race, in the under-23 category. It was the first time in several years that somebody from Ernakulam was getting a medal. Mario also gained selection in the under-23 category. The two of them proceeded to Thiruvananthapuram for a 20 day-training camp ahead of the nationals. Given their selection to camp, The Bike Store also pitched in – they were given carbon frame Carrera road bikes. The training at Thiruvananthapuram was held on NH-47 and MC Road; the latter proceeds from Kerala’s capital city to Kottayam. Beginning of 2016, the nationals was held at Nilakkal in Pathanamthitta district. In team time trial, Kerala finished fifth. In mass start, Sreenath unfortunately suffered a puncture and couldn’t complete the race. His first nationals; like that trip to Chandigarh earlier, was occasion to introspect and focus afresh. At a race in Lucknow which followed, he finished with the group – in top 15 – in the mass start. He was beginning to get a hang of things. He commenced training with the nationals of 2017 in mind. At the state championships held in the beginning of 2017, Sreenath secured first place in road race mass start, in the under-25 category. In January 2017, he also secured podium finish at two privately organized events in Gujarat and Chennai. At the MTB state championship, he finished third. Between MTB and road racing, Sreenath’s preference is the latter. But the 2017 road biking nationals was yet again a disappointment; he couldn’t complete the race with the group. Things changed however with a race in Coimbatore. At the MVS Criterium held there, he secured first place. Following this, in April 2017, Sreenath signed up with Scott Bikes to be part of their team in India.

Cycling in the hills of Kerala (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

His first race for Scott was the Trivandrum Cyclothon, where he placed first. He secured podium finish at a competition in Bengaluru; he was also part of Scott’s winning team in time trial. At the nationals, which took place towards the end of 2017 he managed to finish with the group in the mass start road race. Following the nationals he went for an inter-university road cycling meet in Rajasthan, where he finished fifth. “ That gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Sreenath said. Then in December 2017, a setback occurred. At a MTB race in Ernakulam, he had an accident and fractured his arm. He was out of action for about six weeks. “ Nigel was great support then,’’ he said of Nigel Smith, who coaches the racing team at Scott. Until Nigel came along, Sreenath’s go-to person for information on how to train had been Chrisfin. In that stage, the focus had been on distance and speed. Nigel introduced the upcoming cyclist to several new things – among them, heart rate-based training, which showed Sreenath how to sustain an effort. He was also introduced to power training. During the phase of recovering from the fracture he suffered, all his training was done on a stationary bike. Emerging from injury, Sreenath’s first race was a time trial up the Thamarassery Churam (mountain pass) in Kerala’s Wayanad district. He finished first, representing Scott. That win was also Sreenath’s last outing with Scott. He shifted to Ciclo Team Racing, the bicycle racing team backed by TI Cycles and anchored by Bengaluru-based cyclist, Naveen John. Sreenath now rides a Ridley Fenix SL road bike. According to Paul, the initiative for Sreenath’s move to Ciclo came from Rajith Rathiappan, who runs a Track and Trail showroom (retail outlet for TI Cycles) in Ernakulam. Having cut his teeth cycling overseas including in Belgium, Naveen had told this blog earlier of how he thinks the road to Indian cycling’s future lay through racing in Europe (for more on Naveen John please try this link: April 2018, seated on the park bench by Kochi’s backwaters and beholding an estuary traversed by ships sailing the world’s oceans, Sreenath was looking forward to his first trip to Europe with Ciclo.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

“ My wish is to be a professional cyclist. In India, it is difficult to earn a livelihood from that,’’ he said thoughtfully. Attempting to be a professional cyclist is a courageous move. Those who know Sreenath well said that he does not hail from strong financial background. He also has a long way to go in cycling; for instance, he hasn’t yet had a podium finish at the nationals. The fifth position he secured at the inter-university meet in Rajasthan is the highest Sreenath has placed yet at the national level. Immediate focus therefore, is on improving his performance at the nationals. His heart seems to be in the right place. “ He is committed. If he has to train for certain duration on a given day, he makes sure he does that. I also remember him mailing leading cycling outfits overseas – all by himself and despite the challenges he faced in language – telling them of his interest in the sport and seeking advice on what to do,’’ Paul said. The Bike Store has been integral to Sreenath’s journey so far. Their technician Murukan T. R, is the one who tunes Sreenath’s bike. He accompanies Sreenath to all his races. The two are close. Given shortage of funds, Sreenath was requiring assistance for his planned trip to Europe. It is understood that help has begun coming in. In Ernakulam, Sreenath trains every week for 15-20 hours, of which 15 hours is the real training duration. From June 2018, he planned to ramp it up to a proper 20 hours. His weekly mileage in training averages 350-400 kilometers. My mind was still on how he trains, given Kerala’s roads and traffic. “ You can’t complain about it. There is no other way,’’ he said, adding that cyclist chooses the best available option and goes with it. According to him, Ernakulam’s traffic starts building up from around 7.30 AM. By then, a committed cyclist should have wrapped up his training for the morning. The bulk of Sreenath’s training now happens on the city’s Container Road, a long and fairly wide road used by trucks headed to the port’s Vallarpadam Container Transhipment Terminal.

In 2016, Sreenath completed his graduation. He majored in physics. Science courses require students to attend classes at the lab. Popularly called “ practicals,’’ they are unavoidable. On the other hand, spending more time in class is difficult if you are athlete devotedly training for sport. For his next step – post graduation – Sreenath thought with cycling in the frame. He decided to enroll for MA in Hindi; the choice was deliberate: a course in Hindi has no sessions in the lab. It means more time to train. “ Cycling is not just physical, it is also mental. It is among very few sports where a certain level of performance has to be maintained for a long period of time. That is what attracts me to it,’’ Sreenath said explaining why he continues to court the challenge and sweat for it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Positions secured at competitions are as mentioned by the interviewee.)        


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For some time now, the emergent norm in weather worldwide has been – unpredictable. April 2018 hosted two well-known marathons. The events at Boston and London were separated by less than a week. The contrast was sharp. Boston featured one of its coldest race days while London offered one of its warmest. This year too, there were runners from India participating at both these events. We spoke to some of them about their experience.   


The world’s oldest annual marathon provided much to think about with its 2018 edition. The weather on race day was terribly cold and damp. Boston this year became a proposition to know running in the context of its weather as opposed to merely viewing running as methodical execution of race strategy under ideal circumstances. Yuki Kawauchi of Japan finished first among men; Geoffrey Kirui of Kenya finished second. Desiree Linden of US was top finisher among women. The 2018 Boston Marathon triggered an interesting debate on whether women handle adversity better than men. According to a report in The New York Times, the winning times for both men and women were the slowest since the 1970s and mid-race drop-out rate was up 50 per cent from what it was last year. But significantly, the drop-out rate for men was up 80 per cent from 2017, while it was up only about 12 per cent for women. Similarly, overall, five per cent of men dropped out during the 2018 edition of the race while only 3.8 per cent of women did the same. While it would be tempting to attribute this trend amid cold weather to the thicker layer of sub-cutaneous fat women have, fact is, in 2012 when the Boston Marathon was run in very warm weather, the finishing rate for women had been higher than for men.   

Kavitha Reddy, at an event in Pune (Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy)

Kavitha Reddy

On race day as runners scrambled to board the bus taking them to the start point of the 2018 Boston Marathon, the mood was not one of celebration.

The weather was dreary with howling winds accompanied by rain and snow. It was a depressing scenario for Kavitha Reddy. Doubts began to creep into her mind if she would complete the marathon she had come all the way from India to attempt.

“ I was confused. I was unsure whether I should run in light clothing or add warm layers. Finally I just followed the herd and added some more layers of clothing. So there I was, ready for my most awaited marathon, dressed more like a resident of the Arctic than a runner,’’ she said. Kavitha had hand warmers, three layers of clothing, tights and a plastic wrap on top. Despite all this she felt frozen to the bone when she stepped off the bus. At the race venue, runners huddled together, clad in layers of clothing.

Near the four kilometer-mark, she threw away her zipper jacket. At the seventh kilometer, Kavitha is used to taking salt tablets. At Boston she was unable to do that as her fingers were too numb to open the zip of her waist pouch. “ For the first time in my running career, I ran an entire marathon without any salts or energy gels,’’ she said adding that she picked up a bottle of Gatorade from a volunteer, but could not drink as it was too cold.

As she continued her run, the weather got progressively worse and many runners quit the race.

After Heartbreak Hill, at the 34th kilometer, she took a sip of water and threw away her hand bottle. The worst was yet to come. Over the last seven kilometers the weather deteriorated further. “ The wind and the rain were so bad that I felt I was running in the same place and not moving forward. The last mile felt like a marathon in itself. Even though I could see the finish line, it felt like the wind was pushing me away,’’ she said.

Kavitha finished the race with a timing of 3:34:26, a little over a minute more than her personal best of 3:33:05 at the New York City Marathon of November 2017.

In 2015, Kavitha ran the Bangalore Marathon completing it with a sub-four hour timing of 3:53 hours. That was when she learnt about the possibility of qualifying for Boston Marathon; she also realized that she was quite close to the qualifying timing required for the iconic race.

In November 2017 she completed the New York City Marathon and followed it up with half marathon at the 2018 Mumbai Marathon where she finished first in the age group of 40-44 years among women.

For Boston, her coach added some more mileage and tweaked the workouts to make her stronger to tackle the marathon’s route. “ He prescribed undulating routes for my training runs. I did my tempo runs on roads that went up and down. I also included some hills in the second half of my long runs and did some fast finish-runs,” she said.

Going ahead, she will be attempting the Berlin Marathon in November 2018.

Mahesh Londhe (Photo: courtesy Mahesh Londhe)

Mahesh Londhe

A couple of days ahead of the Boston Marathon, the weather turned bad. The run ended up being extremely challenging for Mahesh Londhe. “ We are not used to running in such weather conditions where temperatures are at zero and sub-zero levels. Nevertheless this race taught me that as runners we have to be prepared for any eventuality,’’ Mahesh said.

At the race expo, Mahesh had to buy a whole range of running clothes that he would have to get into if the weather failed to improve. He had to buy thermals, gloves and raincoat. “I have never run wearing a raincoat,” he said.

According to Mahesh, many of the American runners also found the weather quite challenging.

The night before the race was terrible as it rained through the night. At the start point at Hopkinston Village, runners were milling around under tents attempting to protect themselves from cold winds and rains.

“Up until the 13th mile, I was able to keep up my pace of sub-3 hour finish. But the cold started to get to me and I had to slow down,” said Mahesh.

By the 19th mile, Mahesh had to slow down and was almost on the verge of giving up. However he decided to continue.

“The most amazing thing was the number of people who came to cheer the runners in such atrocious weather. There were children too among them, handing out hydration. People had come with raincoats for the runners. It was such a heart-warming sight,” Mahesh said.

Along the route, Mahesh could see that runners were quitting. At the finish line, Mahesh was in quite a bad shape with fever. He was rushed to the medical center. He finished the run in 3:59:17 hours.

Born in Mangalore, Mahesh was into cricket in his early years. He moved into running later and then got into triathlons. He has completed several triathlons including two Ironman competitions in Australia and France and a half Ironman in Sri Lanka.

A certified coach for Ironman, Mahesh was aiming for a sub-three hour finish at Boston. But what Mahesh ended up with was an experience that will be forever etched in his memory – running an iconic marathon amid severe cold, howling winds and lashing rain. “ It was the experience of a lifetime,’’ he said.

Karthik with K.C. Kothandapani (Photo: courtesy Karthik Anand)

Karthik Anand

Bangalore-based runner Karthik Anand kept an eye on weather reports in the run up to the Boston Marathon. He was mentally prepared for hostile weather.

Still it was extremely tough. “ I did not expect it to rain so heavily for the entire distance. I was hoping that the rain would taper but it just kept getting worse,’’ he said adding that strong winds made things really bad.

On race day, for the 11:15 AM race-start, Karthik left his hotel at 9 AM. “ That meant I was drenched for two hours even before the race started,’’ he said. He started his race much slower than planned. With heavy rains and winds, maintaining constant pace was important.

“ My hands were numb and I could hardly remove any gels from my pockets. The toes of my feet were all numb. I was shivering and my jaws were quivering from the cold. Because of wet clothes I also had to experience lot of chaffing,’’ Karthik said. He had to use extra jackets and track pants for protection from the cold weather. The jacket and track pants were thrown away before the start of the race. He used gloves to keep his hands warm but discarded them after the fifth kilometer.

Race Day, 2018 Boston Marathon; Karthik all layered up (Photo: courtesy Karthik Anand)

Karthik finished the race in 3:57 hours. “ The happiness of finishing Boston marathon under such tough conditions gives me immense pleasure,’’ he said.

Karthik’s training for Boston Marathon was under K.C. Kothandapani, among Bengaluru’s best known coaches. The training featured mileages of 90-100 kilometers every week, incorporating speed workout, tempo runs, hill runs, recovery runs and long runs apart from strength training.

Karthik started running in 2008. “ I had enrolled at a local gym. One of my friends who used to often run on the road forced me to join him. There has been no stopping since,’’ he said.

After some years of running, Karthik decided to attempt the world’s major marathons. He has already completed Berlin, Tokyo and Chicago apart from Boston. “ I will be running the New York Marathon in November 2018 followed by the London Marathon in April 2019. If I get an opportunity I will surely do Boston once more. It’s a beautiful course with a lot of crowd support,’’ he said.

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom

Ramesh has run before at Boston, he has also run the Chicago Marathon. The third big marathon of North America – New York – has evaded him because its dates are very close to Kochi’s Spice Coast Marathon, which is managed by Soles of Cochin, the running group Ramesh identifies with.

This April, the Boston Marathon happened in very cold conditions. “ The weather in New England is dynamic. There is a saying there that if you don’t like the weather, you should wait for five minutes. That’s how fickle it is. Seasoned runners from Boston tell you of it,’’ Ramesh said. The marathon’s 2018 edition witnessed one of the worst weather conditions in its history.

“ I reached the US a week earlier. I ran a half marathon in Virginia, near where I used to live. It was cold but the run went off well. I could handle the cold. Until about two days before the Boston Marathon, the weather forecast spoke of mildly windy and wet conditions. Then it suddenly changed to strong wind and rain,’’ Ramesh said.

Three years earlier, in 2015, he had experienced near similar conditions in Boston, although not as bad as it was manifesting now. Running the race’s 2015 edition, he had slipped into hypothermia. He had then walked randomly into a building, where people took good care of him, covering him in a warm blanket and feeding him hot soup. Cold and Ramesh don’t seem a great combination; in 2010 too, he had ended up shivering and experiencing hypothermia after a marathon in upstate New York.

Luckily in 2018, while in the US to run the Boston Marathon, Ramesh stayed with a friend whose son was into rowing. The son had a collection of warm clothes Ramesh could borrow to layer himself for the race. Additionally, his friend offered to be at the finish line with more warm clothes, just in case that was needed.

Ramesh reached the start line of the Boston Marathon wearing four layers of warm clothing. “ Still it wasn’t enough for me, given the wind,’’ he said. The running was miserable; he took it slow and easy. Playing in his mind were memories of previous runs in cold weather. “ I was cautious. I was dreading what lay in store at the end,’’ Ramesh said.

He knows the Boston race route well. He knows how to strategize his passage; what objective difficulties to anticipate on the course and how to tackle it. Yet none of that past experience helped to elevate his spirits. All through, the bleak weather lingered in mind, a persistent annoyance.

“ The beauty of Boston is its crowds. This time the crowd was thinner than usual. But those who came cheered and supported the race as best as they could. The event’s volunteers also went out of their way to encourage runners,’’ Ramesh said. Despite the encouragement, runners pulling out of the race, electing not to finish – were many.

Ramesh finished the marathon in three hours, forty minutes; he last saw such timing was in 2013 or so. That was how much the weather slowed him down. On the bright side, he completed with no shivering or hypothermia. The multiple layers he wore helped. Thermal blankets were distributed and this year, the blankets were better than before. His friends who met him at the finish line brought hot chocolate.

Ramesh said that he wasn’t surprised at all by the race results dominated by North American runners. Given the weather, he had an inkling that such outcome lay in store. “ Having said that, Yuki Kawauchi of Japan finishing first among men shouldn’t seem out of place. He is known to do well in cold weather,’’ Ramesh said, adding, “ one thing did surprise me – notwithstanding the cold weather, the timing returned by some of the podium finishers is really good.’’

Looking ahead, Ramesh said he would like to run the London and Berlin marathons.

Brijesh Gajera (Photo: courtesy Brijesh Gajera)

Brijesh Gajera

Brijesh Gajera has been running for the past ten years.

About four years ago he realized that it was possible for him to qualify for one of the world’s most competitive marathons – Boston Marathon. He was edging close to the qualifying time of 3:10 hours assigned for his age category.

At the 2017 edition of Mumbai Marathon, he finished the full marathon in 3:03 hours, thereby qualifying for Boston.

Brijesh – he works with Cisco – commenced his training for Boston in November 2017. “ I trained as per my plan,’’ he said. After training under Bengaluru-based coach K.C. Kothandapani for several years, he spun off on his own; he evolved both his own training plan and group.

At Boston, he found the expo well organised.

On race day, the holding area where runners were milling around was slushy as it had been raining since early morning. “ I had four layers of clothing until the start of the race. Once the race began I discarded the top two layers,’’ he said.

Despite the weather conditions, for about 24-25 kilometres, Brijesh’s run progressed in tune with his target of bettering his personal best of 3:03 hours. “ At that point there was heavy downpour. We are not used to such conditions. I was quite cold and shivering,’’ he said.

Even though the weather kept deteriorating, the thought of quitting the race did not cross his mind. “ This was my first run overseas. So, there was no question of quitting. I wanted to complete it at any cost,’’ he said.

Brijesh realized that timing and similar other personal targets would have to be chucked out of the window; the focus had to be on completing the race.

(From left) Brijesh, Gurudev Nagaraja and K. C. Kothandapani (Photo: courtesy Brijesh Gajera)

“ At the 38 kilometer-mark, a runner from Peru asked me to run with him as he was also finding the going tough. This was his first run overseas. We ran the rest of the distance together,’’ Brijesh said.

He completed Boston Marathon in 3:40 hours.

Brijesh then went on to run the Big Sur International Marathon, held annually along the Pacific Coast. He completed that event with a timing of 3:55:59 hours. “ This marathon was spectacularly scenic. It was fun with people singing and dancing along the route. I took it easy as I wanted to stop and take pictures. Along the way, it did rain and that brought some worry,’’ he said.

Back from his running and hiking sojourn, Brijesh intends to rest a while and then focus on filling his running calendar with suitable events.


For UK, the winter of 2017-2018 was unusually cold; the media named the cold spell: The Beast from the East after the causative weather pattern spanning from the Russian Far East to the British Isles. By April 2018, it appears to have been another story. Held annually since 1981, the London Marathon witnessed its hottest race day ever for the 2018 edition. According to reports, extra water was provided and more cooling showers added along the route to combat the heat. The organizers told runners to leash in their appetite to push themselves for improved timing; they were also advised to avoid fancy dress clothing, which could lead to over-heating. The results at warm London were a sharp contrast to Boston. Of the top ten finishers among men, barring one runner – Mo Farah, the rest are all from Africa. In the women’s segment, six of the top ten hailed from Africa, while one person was from Bahrain. Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya topped among men; Vivian Cheruiyot also from Kenya, topped among women.  

Pervin and her husband Kushru, at the 2018 London Marathon (Photo: courtesy Pervin Batliwala)

Pervin Batliwala

Standing at the start line of the 2018 London Marathon, all Pervin Batliwala could see was a sea of humanity. “ There were people and more people,’’ she said.

For her, the race was not easy for two reasons. First, it was very warm. The race day of 2018 was the warmest in the event’s history with temperatures touching 24.1 degrees. “ The sun was very strong. It hit you really hard,’’ she said, adding that unlike in India where races start early, in London the start was around 10:30 AM. This meant the average marathoner is running through late morning hours and into the afternoon hours.

The second factor that bothered Pervin was the crowd. There were far too many runners and it was very difficult to make one’s way through the crowd.

Nevertheless, Pervin’s outing at her second world marathon major – her first was Boston Marathon in 2017 – went off well. She finished in 4:16, largely within her expectations.

“ I achieved what I had planned and trained for,’’ Pervin said, adding that her GPS device showed that she had run about 500 meters more as she had to wind her way through gaps in the crowd of runners on her path.

“I worked very hard for this run. I have not taken a break at all starting with the race in Delhi late last year followed by Mumbai Marathon in January this year, Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon in February, Navi Mumbai Half Marathon, also in February and now the London Marathon,” she said.

The London Marathon, according to her, starts at three points and converges at the 5 km-point. “ The roads are narrow. Over and above that many runners kept throwing bottles,’’ Pervin said.

Following a holiday overseas, Pervin’s next race will be her third from the world marathon majors – the 2018 New York City Marathon scheduled for November. Following that, she will be doing her fourth major at Tokyo in February 2019.

“ I now want to focus on strength training, where I have shortfall to bridge,’’ she said. Pervin does not plan to do London or Boston in the immediate future. Her focus is now on completing all the six marathon majors.

Kiran (orange T-shirt) at one of the editions of the Chicago Marathon (Photo: courtesy Kiran Kapadia)

Kiran Kapadia

For Kiran, running the London Marathon was an awesome experience despite the downsides of 2018 race day. “ It was quite hot and because the race starts late we had to bear the brunt of the sun,’’ Kiran said.

Kiran finished the marathon in 3:50 hours, tad outside his target of around 3:40 hours. “ After the 12th kilometre or so, my legs started to feel very heavy probably because of the heat. I immediately slowed down my pace so as to help myself to go the entire distance of 42.2 kilometers,” Kiran said.

He had a fairly good training season ahead of London Marathon although the unusually warm temperatures of March in Mumbai did impact some of his Sunday long runs.

Kiran, 58, has been running for the past ten years. “ I did my first full marathon at the age of 52,’’ he said, adding that he has run many of the marathons at overseas destinations including New York, Chicago, Prague, Rotterdam and twice at Berlin.

He was involved in sporting activities through his school and college years but his foray into running happened much later. “ When I hit my mid-40s I realised that I was leading a sedentary lifestyle and with it came demons in the form of cholesterol and triglycerides edging above acceptable levels,’’ he said. This was his wake-up call and he immediately plunged into walk-run activity graduating to running.

All in all, the London Marathon was a great experience with awesome crowd support. It was a well-executed race, he said.

Mehlam at the 2018 London Marathon (Photo: courtesy Mehlam Faizullabhoy)

Mehlam Faizullabhoy

Record high temperatures on race day at London probably hit the targeted timing of many runners. But Mehlam Faizullabhoy ended up with a new personal best of 3:38 hours.

He attributes it to his strength training.

In training, Mehlam’s mileage also fell short because he travels on work very often. “I travel a lot and therefore miss out running days. But I do a lot of strength training. Wherever I travel to, I use the gym seriously,” he said. Mehlam believes that strength training is what helps runners get through the last 10 kilometers of a marathon.

London marathon was an enjoyable experience for Mehlam. “ It is a very well organised race with great atmosphere and fantastic crowd support,’’ he said.

Mehlam has had an active sporty life through school and college and the years after that with sports such as rugby, cricket and badminton being his preferred choice. Knee injury forced him to give up badminton and move to spinning. Eventually he moved to running.

He did his first half marathon at the 2009 edition of Mumbai Marathon. The very next year, he graduated to the full marathon and from then on has run a total of 12 full marathons, two of them overseas in Barcelona and Rotterdam.

“ My training this time was quite good. Actually, I had started way back in July 2017 as I was scheduled to run a race in Tokyo in October 2017. But the run there got cancelled because of a typhoon,’’ he said. That training came in good stead for the Mumbai Marathon in January 2018 where Mehlam scored a personal best of 3:42:53.

Mehlam is due to participate in the Chicago Marathon later this year.

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


View from the top of Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tucked away in the deep south of Kerala is a delightful little run; from Thiruvananthapuram to Ponmudi. I am an amateur runner. This article is a personal account. Treat it as such. For more on Ponmudi and its neighborhood please try this link to a three part series published earlier on this blog:

I have a strange relation with Kerala.

Decades ago, when I was in school, the state’s language – Malayalam – was taught with a vengeance. Born Malayali, I was expected to be a master of Malayalam, including Malayalam literature, pretty early in life. I dislike anything shoved down my throat. Consequently, I grew up hailing from the state but with no identity founded in mother tongue. Instead, I rediscovered Kerala on my own terms, loving it in adulthood for its natural beauty; the sheer magic of being a land where you can travel from 600 km-long coastline to an equally long spine of high hills in three to four hours or less. Few places have such diversity, so easily accessed. For bonus, it was all green although a green battling to hold its beauty amid the state’s emergent bane – the garbage of its rampant consumerism ranging from an explosion of automobiles to trash piled at every turn. As for Malayalam, I won’t say I rediscovered it with the same fervor as bonding with the state’s geography. I am told I speak and write it better than before. The improvement amazes others; the effort I make to articulate well amazes me. Maybe back at school, the curriculum should have set aside linguistic chauvinism and let me explore geography first, as reason to know land and language.

As part of rediscovering Kerala, most trips home include a visit to the seashore, hills, backwaters or forests. At the very least, an extended ride stitching together a clutch of state transport bus routes. On such trips along state highways or between towns, from my bus window I watch mansions and properties priced beyond my wallet, pass by. That has been another route to banishment from home state – I can’t afford a place there. Elsewhere in the state, I soak in the greenery knowing well that its ownership is domain of wealthy agriculturists and where it isn’t, belonging to government. I am therefore visitor; sometimes I think, visitor everywhere. Even visitor in life, for as we are prone to say in our wakeful moments: who is going to haul all these assets along, when they die? But humans are empire builders. Try preaching the virtues of living light to emperors! Life is as you choose to live it.

From the last uphill stretch to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

One trip I often make from Thiruvananthapuram is to Ponmudi, a 3600 ft-high hill approximately 60 km away from the city. Positioned as a resort, it was once home to a healthy tea industry; the southernmost tea plantations of India. Now there are portions of neglected tea estate and an industry that is a ghost of its former self for a variety of reasons. What continues to attract people like me to Ponmudi, is the prospect of getting away from city, even getting away from ourselves. You take a bus from the Thampanoor bus stand, reach Ponmudi in two to two and half hours, spend some time on top and then take another bus back. Years ago, it was a quiet place. It is still relatively quiet on weekdays but with Thiruvananthapuram’s growing army of cars and bands of youngsters on motorcycles, the peace has begun crumbling.

On April 14, 2018 – the day before Vishu, the Malayali New Year – I ran to Ponmudi from my home in the city. I am sure there are many who did this before me; many who continue to do it. I did so for a few reasons. First, all my previous trips to Ponmudi had been in a bus or a car. I had long wanted to do the journey on foot. Second, I know my limitations as a runner. I am not cut out to compete or chase podium positions. I like the act of moving. I like running as a means of moving. I am also ready to mix running with walking when required; even walk if that be all I can do. A journey – as opposed to a race – appealed. Third, I find it increasingly difficult to make sense of the world I live in. I like it when I can shut out thoughts in the head. A long run helps you do that. I had imagined doing this run in advance. So before I left Mumbai for Kerala, as part of my regular running, I ensured that I did a few modestly long runs. Frequently prone to injury, this trip happened luckily in a phase wherein I kept injury at bay.

On April 14, I left my home in Thiruvananthapuram at 3 AM with just one goal in mind – don’t injure yourself. I promised myself to run slowly, be gentle – maybe even walk – on uphill and downhill sections and I pinched myself to remember well, the care to avoid injury my friend, Ramachandran of Coimbatore had described in his article about running 80km in Kodaikanal (please click on this link for that story: I had a hydration pack with one liter of water, a few bars of chocolates, phone, wallet and a change of clothes. The pack had reflector strips; roads in Kerala are narrow and people tend to drive fast. I wore a bright red T-shirt and until the sun showed up, used a headlamp. As much as the run was self-supported, I was also determined to pause at roadside tea stalls for fuel and conversation. I wanted to get a sense of local life. The first such pause was on the outskirts of Nedumangad, where a tea shop that was just opening for business gave me a big glass of water to drink (the water in the hydration pack, I reserved it for use on the final ascent to Ponmudi). Twenty minutes later at another tea shop, I had a quick glass of tea. At Tholicode, roughly 30 km from Thiruvananthapuram, I bought a bottle of ice cold water to drink and wash my head and neck with, for the April heat had set in early and strong. I reached Vithura, about 37 km from Thiruvananthapuram, by 7.15 AM. There I took a half hour-break. The tea shop I went to was already bustling with customers digging into their breakfast and it took fifteen minutes for my tea to manifest. Leaving Vithura around 7.50 AM, I again halted some distance away at a fruit shop. Its owner, who had just opened the shop for the day, said he would give me an orange. Thus fueled, I headed for Kallar at the foot of Ponmudi.

Road to Ponmudi. This picture is from near the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By now I was a little tired and needing effort to produce good running form. I must have been a sight, for one person from a group of laborers gearing up for their day’s work, trotted towards me imitating the hunched shoulders and slouch of an old man. It triggered laughter. I am happy I provided them reason for mirth although right then, I chose to ignore the group. About five to six kilometers before Kallar, a woman looked up from what she was doing and said loudly for all to hear, “ look, there is somebody running in from some far off place.’’ Her brief broadcast made me feel important and happy. I put on my best running form, jogged past the settlement and out of sight, relapsed to journalist’s slouch born from too many hours before the computer. In general, all through the run people left me alone. But deep down, knowing how much well-settled life and its frills count for social standing in Kerala, I suspected my running self was an oddity. Middle aged and pointlessly sweating it out on foot to Ponmudi; one man I checked with for road directions asked: why don’t you take the bus?

I reached Kallar by 9 AM. The sun was now out in full force and it was blazing hot. Kallar is approximately 45 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. The road from the capital city till Vithura is mildly hilly, from Vithura to Kallar it gets hillier, and from Kallar to Ponmudi, it is completely uphill for 15km. I had been mixing running and walking from just ahead of Vithura. From Kallar, given the heat, I decided to walk the uphill portion and not run. For the first eight kilometers or so of this final stretch, there are no small shops you can visit for a drink of water. I sipped from the hydration pack. Past this portion, you have small stalls opened by tea estate workers. At one of those shops, I met Muniyandi who busied himself making two glasses of lemonade for me while his friend, Appukkuttan, regaled me with great conversation. I love these small shops filled with produce from the local tea estate and the land these people live on. They sold tea, guava, rose apples (locally called chambakka) and, my favorite – sliced green mangoes served with salt and chili powder. I paid twenty rupees for the two big glasses of lemonade Muniyandi gave me. According to Appukkuttan, neither he nor Muniyandi had received salary for their work at the tea estate for the past several months. I remain utterly grateful for the lemonade they generously gave me notwithstanding their own troubles. It was a very warm morning.  These two men – the lemonade and conversation they provided – made my day. A little ahead, I met a group that had stopped to have tea. They said they had seen the running group I belonged to – Soles of Cochin. I was aware of Thiruvananthapuram based-Iten (another group of runners), who run up Ponmudi on a regular basis. I wasn’t aware of Soles of Cochin joining in. I told them that I didn’t belong to any of these groups and had come alone. We had another nice chat.

Ponmudi, view from the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

I was on top of Ponmudi, at the restaurant operated by Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), by 11.53 AM.  Technically they call this the lower portion of the apex of Ponmudi. But having witnessed the traffic congestion that sometimes happens in the upper half on previous visits, the KTDC restaurant had been my destination right from start. I sat down, took my shoes off and nursed my left sole, where a large blister was beginning to form. It woke me to a mistake in preparations – I should have packed in an extra pair of dry socks. Two youngsters who were speaking to the restaurant’s security guard (he knew all the running that had happened that day; he asked me for my account too) came to speak to me; the mother of one of them had been part of that day’s team run from Kallar to Ponmudi. The view from the top was an eye opener. My ever distracted brain held no memory of rolling hills from past visits to Ponmudi and I was staring exactly at that. Water, coffee and lunch later, I caught the 2PM bus back to Nedumangad and from there another bus to Thiruvananthapuram. With last fifteen kilometers walked, would I call my outing a run? Years ago one of the gifts Thiruvananthapuram gave me was introduction to blues music. Trains found mention in some of these songs – from just “ train” to “ lonesome train” and “ slow train.” With my huffing and puffing, I have always felt like a train engine on my runs. On the road to Ponmudi with people on cars and bikes whizzing past, I think I was slow train. One day, I will sing the blues.

Then, I committed a blunder.

After two days of rest, I returned to my daily running. Happy with my outing to Ponmudi and enjoying the roads of Thiruvananthapuram, quite empty early in the morning, I ran at a pace faster than sensible. Vanity got the better of me. I forgot that what had worked for me on the trip to Ponmudi, was being slow train. I forgot the caution Ramachandran had wisely shown. One hour later, I was home nursing a very familiar shin pain from the past. I knew I would be grounded for a month, at least.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All distance and elevation mentioned herein are from the Internet. All the photos used with the article were clicked a few days after the run, when I returned to Ponmudi for some solo time.)