WHAT IT MEANS TO BE USHA SCHOOL OF ATHLETICS

The lobby of Usha School of Athletics (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Almost seventeen years old now, Usha School of Athletics has come a long way. Yet challenges remain. A report, based on a visit to the school:

A Friday morning

Kinalur was some ways off from Kozhikode.

You turn towards Kinalur Industrial Estate from Balussery on the road leading to Wayanad. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Kinalur, next to small hills, was the Usha School of Athletics. It was set on land of varying elevation. At a lower level from the road leading to the school was a small circular ground with mud track. Just above it was a building under construction meant to house facilities, including the school’s gym. At near similar elevation as this building yet tad lower than the road, was the office and hostel complex. The school’s gym also currently resided there. The highest elevation, bordering one side of the road, was reserved for the emergent heart of the school’s infrastructure – a fenced, well laid out ground with 400 meter-synthetic track.  It was past 7 AM. The school’s trainees were already out on the track, training. They were dressed in blue colored shorts and T-shirt with USHA printed on the back.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

P. T. Usha was in the middle of the ground. Stopwatch in hand, she gave instructions to start training runs. At the end of each run by her wards, she shouted the time each one took. Her husband V. Sreenivasan, treasurer and one of the directors of the school sat on a bench to one side noting down the figures Usha was saying aloud. He diligently wrote it down against a list of athletes’ names. “ Don’t miss anything. These figures matter to me,’’ Usha, who was chief coach and mentor, reminded. The students did their training runs, taking turns batch by batch. Those coming off the track or waiting to get on to it encouraged those running.

It depends on how you look at it. If you are the sort that wants city and urban commotion at hand, then this corner of Kinalur is arguably far off; too quiet. But if you are the sort seeking something in life, wishes to train for it and desires no distraction – then, this is it. In the more than three hours I was at Usha School of Athletics, nothing from outside interfered in its ecosystem, except freelance journalist’s presence. It was as secluded as an end of Kozhikode could get. At the same time it was self-contained facility. Around 9 AM, the students – having completed their morning session of training; had breakfast at the hostel mess and changed into the uniforms of their respective schools – left for studies.

Training on Payyoli beach (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

The beginning

P. T. Usha is India’s most famous woman athlete yet. She is best remembered for her fourth place finish in the final of the 400m hurdles competition at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. She missed getting the bronze medal by wafer thin margin. A whole nation had hoped, sighed and then applauded her. “ In 1985, I happened to be at the Crystal Palace National Sports Center in London. They had good training facilities there. That was when I began thinking of an athletics school,’’ Usha said. The thought stayed in her mind. In July 2000, the media reported that Usha had announced her retirement. It was the second time she was saying so; the first had been after the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. But this time it appeared final. “ Athletics has been my life and it will continue to be so in the years to come in some form or the other,’’ The Hindu quoted her as saying at the meeting. Roughly two years before this press conference, in 1998, she had attended a civic reception in Koyilandy where people suggested that she train their children. She took it up. “ It was strenuous balancing that assignment with my regular work at Southern Railways,’’ Usha said. In conversations that followed with Sreenivasan and others, the contours of the school project started taking shape. The news report on her retirement decision mentions her hope that the proposed school would serve as launch pad for Indian athletes to get that Olympic medal, which she had come so close to getting but eventually lost.

Of help in furthering plans for the school was an opportunity to interact with Mohandas Pai, former director of Infosys and currently chairman of Manipal Global Education, at an event in Mangalore. In 2000, the school was registered as a charitable trust. In 2002, the school was inaugurated; it operated from make shift premises in Koyilandy, had a spruced up sports ground in town to train at and the beach at Payyoli to additionally run on. The local Rotary Club contributed to setting up a gym for the school. After screening 40 children, 12 were selected for the school’s training camp. Within a year, some of them were competing at the national level. In three years Tintu Luka – she was part of the first batch enrolled at Usha School – was a silver medalist at the Asian Junior Championships.

The synthetic track at Usha School of Athletics (Photo: Shyam G. Menon)

The new school

In 2006, the Kerala government allotted over 30 acres of land in Kinalur, to build proper facilities for Usha School. The land was provided on long term lease spanning three decades. NRI businessman P. N. C. Menon helped construct the school’s office and hostel complex. Besides Mohandas Pai, others from the Infosys family – Kumari Shibulal and Sudha Murthy – also helped. In April 2008, the school shifted to its current location. In due course, the synthetic track was added. Construction commenced on a new building for facilities including a proper location for the school’s gym. By next year, the school should also have a recovery pool. At the time of writing, only ten acres or one third of the allotted land had been developed. The rest was available for future development. The school can train students in track events ranging from 100m to 3000m steeplechase. Its hostel can totally accommodate 40 students. As of end-March 2019, it had 19 trainees including names like Jisna Mathew (she was part of the Indian athletics squad for 2016 Rio Olympics), Abitha Mary Manuel, Pratibha Varghese, Elga Thomas, Angel Sylvia, Sharika and Jessy Joseph. At the same time, in March 2019, news reports appeared that Tintu Luka (she holds the national record in 800m), after an illustrious career featuring many wins at the national and international level besides participation in two Olympics, may be planning to retire. For fans of athletics, that’s a measure of the distance traveled by Usha School and its students. Almost 17 years had gone by. By March 2019, the school’s training staff included two assistant coaches, two physiotherapists, a team doctor, a strength trainer, a group of masseurs and personnel experienced in Ayurveda.

Students having breakfast at the school canteen (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The school accepts girl students. They are recruited at age 11-14 years. The core quality looked for is speed. “ What defines athletic performance is speed. From that fundamental ability, we develop strength and endurance.  That is how athlete grows,’’ Usha said. Selection trials for admission to Usha School of Athletics are held every year in the first week of February. Admissions to the school are finalized by May. The trainees, in addition to training for their chosen discipline in athletics at the school, receive regular academic education at schools and colleges in the region. They also participate in cleaning and maintaining the community space they share. One of the biggest differences about Usha School is the seamless access to a range of athletic talent / experience under one roof.  Usha is chief coach and mentor. The opportunity to train under her is what draws students to the school. On her part, she tries to know each of her trainees well. “ Every Christmas I make it a point to visit the home of any one of my students to know her and her circumstances better,’’ Usha said.  Besides such access to Usha, the students – they range from inexperienced newcomer to somebody like Jisna who has been to the Olympics – live and train together at the school. This means, theoretically, a newcomer gets to be around elite athletes on a regular basis. There are no walls separating elite and upcoming. There is scope for mutual interaction. In as much as there is scope for interaction within the school, care is taken to keep distractions from the outside at bay. Mobile phones on campus are discouraged. Students talk to their parents once a week or as needed.

The building housing the school’s office and hostel (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As regards school fees, only a nominal fee is collected from parents. The rest of the expenses are borne by the school. However there is regular sieving of students in terms of athletic performance. There are goals corresponding to athlete’s potential assigned and if trainees fail to live up to those expectations, they have to move on. The athlete is groomed slowly and steadily. The school makes them ready to take the training load. They work on a cycle of 52 weeks of training, divided into eight distinct sessions. The training spans both volume and intensity. At the end of each session, there is an assessment. By the end of the sixth assessment, the student should have achieved the target she set for herself. The rate of elimination is high. The school works with the expectation that in four years’ time, it should see the athlete capable of participating at the international level. Besides this filtering, there are also instances of trainees quitting and going because their priorities in life changed. Indeed one of the big problems in Indian athletics – if grooming cutting edge competence is what you are after – is finding talent that is also dedicated to improving itself in the sport. That was main reason for the school having 19 trainees (at the time this blog visited) against carrying capacity of 40. Since 2002, an estimated 91 students have passed through Usha School. Besides the athletes of national and international caliber it produced, at least nine of its alumni are working as sports teachers and coaches. Approximately 23 are in government service, working with state and central institutions.

Regular training at the school (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

The challenges

Training in athletics is training to achieve a goal. The goal has no appetite for excuses. You have to do what the goal demands making as few compromises in training, diet, equipment and exposure to major events as possible. A good school must operate so. The needs of athletes – like gear and equipment – are quickly attended to at Usha School. An example cited was this – at the school you don’t wear out a shoe and then stay grounded for days while you wait for a new one to be procured. There is no intervening bureaucracy. A new pair is procured as fast as possible and the momentum in training is maintained. Most of the trainees joining Usha School hail from tough financial circumstances. A nominal fee is charged from the parents because what is offered totally free of cost may not be valued. When they perform well and win competitions, it is common for athletes to get monetary awards. A small share of this goes as contribution to the school’s funding. The rest is promptly deposited in each student’s bank account (every student has to compulsorily open a bank account in her name). The school used to incur an expense of Rs 96,000 per annum on each student in 2002. Now that has risen to Rs 2.75-2.9 lakh (one lakh = 100,000). It goes up to Rs 6-7 lakh depending on the potential of the student and her stage of evolution in chosen discipline. If it is someone competing at the national or international level, expenses incurred are commensurately higher.

The school’s gym (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A typical training cycle has three elements – talent identification, nurture and exposure to events. The first two are handled by Usha and her staff. The third is dependent on sports federations who manage the passage to major championships.  Nurture and exposure are also arguably, capital intensive. One is composed of such ingredients like cost of training (including cost of sports infrastructure), food, hostel facilities, apparel and gear etc. The other entails expenses like registration fee for events, travel and boarding etc. For any institution the fundamental challenge is financial sustenance. There must be sufficient income to meet expenses ranging from cost of building infrastructure to meeting the school’s need for working capital. Usha School gets some funds from the state. Private sponsors of the institutional type have been few. As mentioned, P. N. C. Menon and his company, Sobha Developers, pitched in to support in the early stage by constructing the school’s main building. More recently, the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board has offered assistance. But long term institutional support from the private sector, has been absent. In terms of support from the outside, what has been relatively consistent is the support of well-wishers who pitch in because they have faith in Usha and wish to see Indian athletics grow. Senior corporate executives like Mohandas Pai feature among them, Usha said. There has also been crowd funding. Last year, the school raised Rs 27 lakh through crowd funding. It is still going on.

Usha receiving the Malaysian team that visited the school (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

Well-wishers may be open to being approached every time a school they trust needs assistance. But ideally, the school should sustain by itself without having to bother supporters every now and then. “ Our biggest challenge is working capital,’’ Sreenivasan, who was previously an officer with the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and took voluntary retirement to help with the school project, said. The general practice at the school is to spend 85 per cent of whatever funds it receives and retain 15 per cent as deposit. It is now eating into the deposits, this blog was told. On her part, Usha channelizes her appearance fee for public functions and all other recognition she gets, back into the school. There are also other potential avenues of income opening up. For example, you can train those who can afford to spend and use the receipts to fund the school’s main work. Late March 2019, a development in this regard was the arrival of a team of students from Malaysia’s Putra University to train under Usha. It was a ten day-program.  There have been similar enquiries from Sri Lanka and the Middle East. Being an independent entity, Usha School is able to process such requests pretty fast. From enquiry to actual visit, it must have taken the Malaysian team two months.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

Of school and sponsors

Athletics is a strange animal. You are picked up for training on the strength of promise. There is no guarantee that years of training will make you a fantastic athlete of international caliber. For all you know, the training and progressive exposure to competitions, may merely show you limits you can’t breach. Even if you cleared all that and broke into the higher echelons of competition, in athletics, you are in an individual versus individual situation with the promised battle on track sometimes over in seconds. There is none of the hype, glamor and extended air time of team sports. Yet nothing symbolizes personal and national glory as much as triumphing in athletics does.  Given this matrix, it is difficult finding long term sponsors for athletics.

What makes it particularly difficult for institutions like Usha School is that even though it has the required approvals for receiving funds domestically and from overseas, its position as an independent academy does not make it a natural destination for funds from government (which has its own training institutes) or CSR funds from corporates. One of the first corporates the school approached for funding wanted the school to sport its name and not Usha’s, in return for financial assistance. That’s a bit like saying: the money we give you is more important than your experience in athletics, fourth place at Olympics and all. Another company gifted the struggling school, a bus. It certainly helped move people around but it also incurred fuel and maintenance cost, which were taxing on a small institution desperate for working capital. The bus was eventually given away. There is mismatch between how corporates imagine athletics and athletics schools, and how the same are seen by senior athletes / mentors like Usha. Having come up through the ranks, the latter knows what training ecosystem works for athlete. Usha School for instance, is now an accepted venue for national camp. Corporates on the other hand, are usually motivated by bang for the buck; return on investment. Patience – critical to growing athlete slowly, steadily – may be in shortage, in such environment. In the past, sports agents have offered to handhold the school into the world of corporate funding and branding.  The problem there is, the agents not only seek a percentage of the funds raised but they also expect the school to support them in the interim. That is not possible when the effort is to secure funds because the school is short of working capital in the first place. Sport seeks understanding for just what it is without having to pose as things it is not. Unfortunately, that is elusive.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

Sample a suggestion the school received: why not project Usha School as women’s development and women empowerment? Usha couldn’t digest the idea of athletics packaged as something else. “ This is an athletics school. When a woman becomes an athlete is that not automatically empowerment? These girls are confident and know how to take care of themselves,’’ she said pointing to her students.

So what qualities should a potential long term sponsor for the school have? The response received highlighted the following: such a sponsor must (a) not tamper with the school’s work culture (b) not alter the school’s public image founded around P. T. Usha and her contribution to athletics (c) be somebody that understands the gestation period for high level athletic performance and (d) be somebody that understands the nature of sports. “ This is not a game of instant results,’’ Usha said. The promoters wish the school to survive after them as a beacon in Indian athletics. Finally, there is a very peculiar issue for independent school to tackle in the ecosystem it functions in. Independent schools founded by experienced athletes like Usha are relative newcomers in an athletics ecosystem traditionally dominated by large state owned establishments. Irrespective of parentage they all work in the same field, wishing their wards to make it to the same events, through the same selection route. In practice, it is not always level playing field. Will the existing big institutions allow independent schools to grow and produce good results?

P. T. Usha with her collection of medals (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

Promise begins in person

The quest for an Olympic medal is among reasons why Usha School exists. In the years since Usha missed that bronze medal at Los Angeles by a whisker, a lot has changed in Indian athletics in terms of sports infrastructure, opportunities and overall funding. Given sports – like all sectors – requires investment, this overall view of economy is useful to illustrate the change: according to Wikipedia, India’s GDP (measured in terms of PPP) in 1984 was $ 583.3 billion. By 2017, this had grown to $ 9.4 trillion. Amid this, that fourth place in Los Angeles in 1984, is the closest the country got to, to a medal at the Olympics in track athletics. Asked if she has as yet come across anyone from her trainees who reminds of the commitment and drive she showed years ago, Usha said “ no.’’ As India changes, human generations are also becoming different from one another. “ If my teachers pointed out mistakes in how I was doing something, I would work diligently to correct it. Previously, it was 75 per cent athlete’s work and 25 per cent that of the coach. With the current generation it is reverse. It is 25 per cent athlete and 75 per cent coach. You have to be after them to do things. You have to remind them to do the corrections; you have to remind them to hydrate well, so on. They have many distractions and they always want others around. In contrast, I used to train alone. I competed against my own timing. I proceed with the school in the hope that someday I will find someone who is very focused,’’ Usha said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with P. T. Usha and V. Sreenivasan. Except for the photos taken by the author, the rest were provided by Usha School of Athletics and have been credited so.)

AN ONLINE SPORTS APPAREL BUSINESS, MANAGED FROM THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Rakesh Rajeev (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In Kerala, being successful matters. Students are encouraged to excel at studies. Having done so, they are expected to do well in a professional career of their choice, typically one picked off the existing list. Entrepreneurship does not command premium. It is risky. Where is the guarantee that you will succeed? Rakesh Rajeev had the desire to do something on his own.

Thiruvananthapuram’s emergent growth engine is in its northern suburbs. This is where Technopark – India’s largest IT Park in terms of developed area – is. April 2019; a late evening: the bypass leading from Kazhakoottam to Kovalam was filled with traffic. By the side of the road; crowds of people leaving work for home, waited for buses. Rakesh Rajeev drove carefully. In that IT environment, he was odd man out. Things were common to the point that all companies – including the majors at Technopark – owed their origin to entrepreneurs. Rakesh was one. But the field he elected to be in wasn’t IT although he was once located in Technopark and now worked nearby.

Rakesh grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. Upon completing his B. Tech from College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET), he and two others commenced a partnership – Cares Renewables – in the field of renewable energy. The company functioned from Coimbatore. A year down the line, Rakesh, having cleared the Common Admission Test (CAT), was accepted to do his Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. He turned over his shareholding in the newly floated company to his partners and proceeded to do his MBA. Following his first year of studies at IIM, he was selected to do an internship with Johnson & Johnson, partly in Japan, partly in Mumbai. Once he finished this assignment and completed his MBA, he decided to set up his own enterprise. It had to be in the field of sports or education and it had to do with products. That was his resolve. “ I was always a product person,’’ Rakesh said. He was born 1989. His father, Rajeev Madhavan, used to work with the Harbor Engineering Department of the Government of Kerala. His mother, Latha P. K, was once a national level track athlete. She had been part of Kerala’s 4×100 relay team; this was in times when P. T. Usha was also part of the quartet.

One of the modules Rakesh did, while at IIM Ahmedabad, dealt with sports marketing. He did a study on the market for sports apparel. He also looked into the intriguing aspect of most major home grown sports apparel brands being from North India. There were very few in the South. A technical reason for this was the concentration of synthetic textile-processing facilities in the north. A secondary reason could be – a lot of India’s sports venues and sports administration is based there. It was these brands from the north that sold around the country. Later, Rakesh also spent time working in Tiruppur, the leading hub for apparel manufacturing in South India. He used the opportunity to study the apparel manufacturing business and explore the place. “ I decided to create an apparel brand, hopefully one with potential for international presence at some stage,’’ he said. That aim is easily articulated. The bigger question is – how do you navigate your way to getting there? The immediate challenge therein was finding unique relevance for his product to gain toehold in a market with hundreds of brands; big MNC brands on top. Rakesh zeroed in on customization as his chosen niche. The underlying logic for this was the rising interest in sports in India and the proliferation of teams, right down to teams representing schools, colleges, housing societies, clubs, companies and workplaces. People were organizing events. Nothing identified a group of people as team, as much as identical attire replete with same logo and artwork did. But Rakesh was neither first in the space nor the only one around. Although gaining momentum, customization had been around for long.

Given customization was already market-play featuring several entrants Rakesh delineated three specific traits to characterize his enterprise. First, he decided to make customization available online. Anybody from anywhere can place an order. Second, he would have no minimum order size; he would cater to any size of order. In fact, he decided to give ten per cent discount to orders that were less than Rs 1000 in size. Third, he allowed “ 360 degrees customization,’’ which meant the customer had freedom to choose everything from collar of T-shirt to logo and artwork. Two categories of fabric finish were offered – standard and premium. For any relentless devil’s advocate, this business outline may not seem safe enough for success. Rakesh explained his approach, “ the business idea is secondary. The primary concern is how you go about doing it. The idea is itself not as important as execution.’’

Rakesh’s project for a sports apparel company was among five ideas selected by IIM Ahmedabad to incubate at their Center for Innovation, Incubation & Entrepreneurship. Although he was allotted funds he didn’t take it; he wanted to set up his company in Kerala. “ I always wanted to do something back home,’’ he said. It was both unusual and apt. Unusual because most Indians excel academically as means to escape the Indian environment and in Kerala, escaping the Kerala environment has been fashion for long. On the other hand, Rakesh’s decision was apt because if not to apply what you learnt in challenging circumstance, what else did you study for?

In 2016, Rakesh’s company made its debut operating from a garage at his home near Kumarapuram in Thiruvananthapuram. It promoted Elk as brand name for the apparels it made. For initial investment, he had some money from his savings plus capital contributed by his brother and parents. The whole family pitched in to help. Very simply put, the process entailed the following – the basic raw material was white fabric (it had to be shipped to Thiruvananthapuram); the images required by customization were transferred to it using machines, the fabric was then cut to dimension and finally, stitched. During his days in Tiruppur, Rakesh had learnt techniques related to image transfer and fabric cutting. Once he set up his own enterprise in Thiruvananthapuram, he procured and installed the required machines in the garage at his house. He taught his parents and brother the relevant techniques. The family did image transfer and cutting. For stitching, which requires more skill, Rakesh took the cut fabric to Tiruppur. This was the initial pattern. It wasn’t long before he realized the merit in being able to do everything under one roof. The reason was simple – a lot of the customization centered on sports events and was therefore time sensitive. You had to be able to turn around orders fast. But to invest and get everything under one roof a business had to first show promise and acquire some scale.

Rakesh with his team (Photo: courtesy Rakesh Rajeev)

The early days were a struggle. “ In the first six months, we had less than six orders,’’ Rakesh said. But the online model showed him interesting things about the market. One of his first orders was from Jammu & Kashmir, for customized cricket apparel. A football team from Bengaluru placed orders; a women’s volleyball team from Goa placed orders. Slowly the business picked up. The Internet linked orders to garage in Thiruvananthapuram and in a few days shipment – after processing in Kerala and Tiruppur – commenced journey to customer. In Thiruvananthapuram, even as it operated from the garage, Rakesh’s project was selected for support by the Kerala Startup Mission. It was a bit unexpected because the Mission’s tastes are generally associated with products related to sectors like IT, automation and robotics. The Mission gave him office space at the city’s Technopark, one of India’s biggest IT parks. He now had small office space with desk and couple of chairs for address, the garage for one half of manufacturing and contract work in Tiruppur to finish orders. Meanwhile there were angles pertaining to business economics to address. The fast drying white fabric, which was the fundamental raw material for Elk apparels, was reaching Kerala from outside. Image-transferred and fabric cut in Thiruvananthapuram, it traveled to Tiruppur for stitching. That wasn’t efficient logistics, cost-wise.

In 2017-2018, Elk was reserved for use as the company’s retail brand. The growing customization business was promoted under a new brand name: Hyve Sports. Two more developments happened. A small design and manufacturing unit was set up at the KINFRA International Apparel Park in Thiruvananthapuram. Another manufacturing unit was commenced in Tiruppur. All processes owned by the company meant, faster turnaround time for orders.  “ We now ship in seven days. We have dispatched to all states and take orders from all over the country,’’ Rakesh said. He also looked into the economics and nature of his manufacturing locations. Although the three primary steps – image transfer, fabric cutting and stitching – are available at both units, the Thiruvananthapuram unit is progressively becoming more partial to tasks requiring creativity and design.  Tiruppur is being positioned to take on more of the manufacturing load. Viewed so, that may also be where the business around Elk could get centered as the branded retail business is very much about manufacturing; its efficiency and cost. “ It isn’t as simple. There are other angles to study as well. So we have kept all options open,’’ Rakesh said. In 2018, his company was selected to supply apparel that year for all Kerala state teams, spanning track and field disciplines to games. Elk is planned to debut in the retail market around end-2019. Before that Rakesh hopes to test the waters, selling it through online portals like Amazon and Myntra.

It was April 2019; a late evening. As we negotiated the traffic on the road back to Thiruvananthapuram city from the apparel park in Kazhakkoottam, Rakesh’s phone rang. It was his mother. The erstwhile sprinter, now actively helping her son with his sports apparel enterprise, had called to discuss business details.

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

AT A GLANCE / APRIL 2019

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Boston Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono, Ethiopia’s Worknesh Degefa win Boston Marathon 2019

Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono won the men’s race at the 2019 edition of Boston Marathon in a very tight finish. He crossed the finish line just two seconds ahead of two-time Boston Marathon winner Lelisa Desisa.

Cherono finished the race in two hours, seven minutes and 57 seconds. Desisa finished two seconds later.

Kenneth Kipkemoi finished in third position with a timing of 2:08:07.

In the women’s race, Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia was the winner with a timing of 2:23:31.

In second position was the 2017 champion, Edna Kiplagat of Kenya, with a timing of 2:24:13. American athlete Jordan Hasay came in third at 2:25:20.

Desiree Linden, winner of the 2018 edition of Boston Marathon, came in fifth with a timing of 2:27 hours.

Both, Lawrence Cherono and Workesh Degefa were making their debut at Boston Marathon, media reports said.

Ethiopians win both men’s, women’s races at Paris Marathon

Ethiopia’s Abrha Milaw won the men’s race of Paris Marathon covering the course in two hours, seven minutes and five seconds.

Asefa Mengistu, also of Ethiopia, came in second with a timing of 2:07:25 hours. Defending champion Paul Lonyangata of Kenya finished third with a timing of 2:07:29.

Among women, Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka emerged winner with a timing of 2:22:47. Azmera Gebru finished second (2:22:52) and Azmera Abreha finished third (2:23:35).

According to the organizers, the official number of participants was 49,155.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Boston Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

Over 50 runners from India likely to run 2019 Boston Marathon

Over 50 runners from India have registered to participate in the Boston Marathon this year.

The event is held every year on Patriots’ Day, the third Monday of April.

Begun in 1897, it is the world’s oldest annual marathon and among the most coveted in the six events constituting the World Marathon Majors. The course runs from Hopkinton in southern Middlesex County to Copley Square in Boston.

Entry to Boston Marathon is mostly through qualification on the strength of timing.

The number of Indian participants has been steadily increasing over the years as running and training for the marathon gain popularity in India.

Kartik Joshi, winner 250k, Hennur Bamboo Ultra (This photo was downloaded from the event’s Facebook page)

Kartik Joshi wins 250k race at Hennur Bamboo Ultra

Kartik Joshi was the winner in the men’s 250 kilometer-race at Hennur Bamboo Ultra held at the end of March 2019.

He finished the race in 42 hours, 52 minutes. Two hours later the first runner-up, N.V. Suresh, crossed the finish line (44:56 hours), followed by Manas Ranjan Khilar, who covered the distance in 48:55 hours.

The cut-off for the 250k was 59 hours.

In the 210k men’s category the winner was Manuj Sharma. He completed the run in 33 hours. Ram Ratan Jat finished second with a timing of 39:59 hours and Ashish D. Kasodekar came in third with a timing of 41:31 hours. Among women, Shyamala S was the sole winner, finishing the race in 38:50 hours. Overall, she was second after Manuj Sharma.

The cut-off timing for 210k was 48 hours.

In the 161k men’s category the first three finishers were Vinay Bhushan (29:51 hours), Shailesh Nayak (30:15 hours) and Murali (30:40 hours). Among women, the winners were Soumya (35:12 hours) and Shylaja Arun, who was just one second behind (35:12:01 hours).

The cut-off timing for 161k was 36 hours.

Kamalaksha Rao (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Hennur Bamboo Ultra)

Geeno Antony was the winner of the men’s 100k race, finishing in 11:50:50 hours. Lakhan Meena came in second with a timing of 12:40 hours and Vinay Sharma third in 13:46 hours.

Among women, the winner in 100k was Aparajitha Kavanoori who finished in 17:12 hours. Rashida Bawahir came in second with timing of 19:26 hours and Sneha Samarth came in third with timing of 20:42 hours.

The race is held every year inside the Hennur Bamboo forest.

While the arrangements at the trail-ultra came in for praise, the heat was a spoiler with temperatures touching as high as 41 degrees Celsius, 72 year-old Kamalaksha Rao said. He completed the 100k race within cut-off time.

No finishers at Barkley Marathons for second year in a row

For the second year in a row there were no finishers at Barkley Marathons.

Barkley Marathons, an ultramarathon trail race, is held in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, sometime towards the end of March or early April. The full course is 100 miles or 160 kilometers and runners are required to complete it in 60 hours. Covering 60 miles or 97 kilometers is called “ fun run.’’

Every year, 40 runners attempt the race. Since it began in 1986, only 15 runners have finished it.

In the 2019 edition, none of the 40 participants were able to complete the race.

For more on Barkley, including a first person account of what it is like to attempt it, please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/04/05/barkley-2018/

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM’S FIRST IRONMAN

Dr Madhav Manoj (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A narrow, long state, Kerala’s rivers are comparatively small.

They engage for the tiers of elevation they straddle despite short length.

The Karamana River which cuts through Thiruvananthapuram falls in this league. Wikipedia estimates its length at a mere 66 km; by then it reaches the Arabian Sea.  Its source is however pegged at around 5250 feet in the nearby Agasthyakoodam hills (the Agasthyakoodam peak, second highest in Kerala after Anamudi [8842 feet] is around 6128 feet high). How many cities can boast of such variety in landscape? All that uniqueness is now, stuff of the past. There was a time when the river looked like one.  Now, within the city, it stands hemmed in by Thiruvananthapuram’s growth. Its waters have begun ailing from urban pollution. Once in a while when it rains hard; the Karamana – as indeed other rivers in the region – swells. Floods happen. That is when city remembers river in its midst. Water’s capacity to damage and threaten is also when humans are reminded of the value in knowing how to swim.

In Dr Madhav Manoj’s childhood, there was one such devastating flood when the Karamana breached its banks submerging adjacent settlements. Madhav’s father K. Karunakaran – an advocate; in the early 1970s he served as mayor of Thiruvananthapuram – observed how depressing it was to see people rendered helpless before the deluge. His wife decided that their son should learn swimming.  For those aspiring so in Thiruvananthapuram city, the place to train at was the Water Works Swimming Pool in Vellayambalam. Established in the early 1960s, the pool is an integral part of Thiruvananthapuram. Madhav who stayed at Nanthancode, not far from Water Works, headed to the pool to learn swimming. It would be the beginning of a journey.

From left: Rajashekharan (Raj) Nayar, Madhav and Santhosh J. K (Photo: courtesy Dr Madhav Manoj)

Born 1973, Madhav was seven or eight years old when he commenced swimming classes. He was good at the sport; good enough to be a competitive swimmer. His first national level competition was while he was still in sub junior category. By the time he got to juniors, he was South Zone champion and a silver medalist at the national level. His specialty was the butterfly stroke. But he was strong across styles in the short distance swims ranging from 50m to 200m. In his early years in college, he was a regular podium finisher at inter-university competitions. The going was good enough for the Indian Railways to spot him and enquire if he would be keen on a career in sports with them, job and all. But he opted to study further. He cleared his entrance exam to study medicine and joined the local dental college. With that, swimming took a backseat.

The hours offered by the city’s pool – 6 AM to 8 AM – didn’t work well for the schedule his studies followed. The evening hours on offer too, didn’t work. “ That was depressing because at the time I commenced studies to be a dentist, I was swimming 12-13 km at the pool daily. That sort of training and studies were difficult to manage. I had to choose,’’ Madhav said. He shifted from swimming to playing cricket. National level swimmer became captain of the dental college cricket team. A few years later, that too ground to a halt. It was: goodbye to serious pursuit of sports.

After completing his post-graduation, Madhav joined PMS College of Dental Science & Research at Vattappara near Thiruvananthapuram. There, he got around to playing cricket with his students. Meanwhile he got married and settled into the process of raising a family. “ All of a sudden, I found myself aged 42 and with two kids. I didn’t know what happened in between,’’ he said. It is typically around this time of life lost to established pattern that the odd blips and signals emanating from the human networks we are invested in; catch our eye.  Madhav had kept in touch with his old school mates. As is typical in Kerala, many of them were overseas; some were in the US. From this lot, Santosh J.K, who was living in the US, was into running marathons.  Madhav was aware of it. But a marathon is 42 kilometers done one kilometer after another – that’s a lot, especially when viewed from the perspective of middle age blues. At a get together of his batch-mates from school that followed, Madhav reconnected with one of his classmates – Rajashekharan (Raj) Nayar. Raj used to be a plump person in school. Those days, Madhav – he was regularly swimming at the pool – was utterly fit. Now in his early forties, Raj was lean while Madhav seemed out of shape. Raj had gone into long distance running and martial arts. What he didn’t tell Madhav right then was his journey into the triathlon alongside; he had already completed two Ironman events.

In Goa; from the swim in the sea (Photo: courtesy Dr Madhav Manoj)

The meet-up with Raj prompted Madhav to participate in the annual marathon in Thiruvananthapuram. He did a ten kilometer-run with his friend P. Vijayakumar who kept him company, advising him to run slowly. Santhosh then connected Madhav to Vishwanath Harikumar, a software engineer in Thiruvananthapuram who was into long distance running. Later, through Trivandrum Runners Club, Madhav also met Dr Kiran Gopalakrishnan, an ophthalmologist originally into cycling and then taken to running. During one of the runs they were on, Vishwanath introduced Madhav to the idea of attempting Ironman. The reason was simple.  The triathlon – which is what every Ironman event is – is composed of swimming, cycling and running. In India, most people are familiar with running and cycling. Swimming is not only less popular; the ones who manage to perfect the technique are fewer still. Madhav was strong in swimming. From the perspective of triathlon that seemed more than half the prerequisites in place. The way in which the Ironman idea cropped up encapsulates the predicament.

“ During a conversation with my friends, we discussed the need to train for swimming. I offered to coach because I knew swimming. That was when the whole Ironman idea fell into place. I seemed well placed to try it. I talked to Raj also about it. We decided that the best approach would be to first attempt a triathlon in India. There was a triathlon organized in Chennai by Chennai Trekking Club. It had triathlon of Olympic dimension and half Ironman dimension.  I decided to try the half Ironman distance,’’ Madhav said. Now he had to train.

Thiruvananthapuram has never lacked sports facilities. But probably due to the high importance given to academics and well settled life, the vast majority of people around conduct their life without ever setting foot in the city’s stadiums, its swimming pools or stepping on to its athletics tracks. Once described as apt place to settle down after retirement, Thiruvananthapuram has since, slowly changed. It is still very much in the grip of the old but new generations and the presence of IT companies in the neighborhood have contributed to shaking off some of the inertia. For sure it isn’t Kochi, which is more free spirited and has made a popular movement of running. Thiruvananthapuram is comparatively regimented. Free running on its roads for example, is still a distant second to appointment based running at locations like the local museum and zoo. Now slowly, in bits and pieces, the city is learning to relax, breathe free.

From the Langkawi Ironman (Photo: courtesy Dr Madhav Manoj)

From the Langkawi Ironman (Photo: courtesy Dr Madhav Manoj)

Madhav bought a Scott Speedster road bike from Crank, a newly opened bike store in Thiruvananthapuram. For cycling, he and his friends counted on stretches of road like the one from city to Kovalam. Up and down that amounted to a circuit of roughly 40 km. Such outings came, courtesy Madhav’s association with Trivandrum Bikers Club. For swimmer, running was the toughest activity to get used to. “ I found it really difficult,’’ Madhav said of the impact-free sport he loved and the impact-filled sport running is. One day, Madhav ran ten kilometers and then ended up in the pool for a swim. For the heck of it he swam 1500 meters that day.  It was a wake-up call. He was doing breast stroke. Trying such distance after a long time, he got tired. “ Every 300 meters, I had to take rest. I felt very bad because these are distances I used to swim at a stretch in the past,’’ he said. The predicament also presented him with another issue to tackle. A triathlon requires sustained use of one’s legs across three disciplines. You can’t have your legs fried up doing one discipline and then crumble doing the next one.  He needed to be efficient and good at a swimming style that spared his legs too much strain and kept them alive for the disciplines that followed.  At this time, Madhav was teaching at PMS College. He was also consulting at a clinic in Male, Maldives. He cycled, ran and swam in Thiruvananthapuram; he ran whenever he could in Male too, at the local stadium.

Raj, who had taken on the role of planning Madhav’s training schedules, would mail it from the US. Problem was finding adequate time for training. Madhav worked from 7 AM to 7 PM. On weekends he managed long runs of 15-17 km and 60-70 kilometers of cycling. Weekdays were a struggle.  At the event organized by Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), he developed cramps while cycling. Then he briefly lost his way. Eventually he managed to complete the 1.9 km of swimming, 90 km of cycling and the half marathon in approximately seven hours, 20 minutes. After the CTC triathlon, Madhav spoke to Raj and communicated his decision to go for the full Ironman. Raj reminded that the full Ironman isn’t the half doubled but much more for that is how the ramp-up works. Starting with training, it will consume significant chunks of time. Raj recommended that Madhav first talk to his family. They are the people closest to him; they are the ones he would be sparing less time for when training starts. Madhav’s wife Manju is also a dentist. At that time when Madhav was contemplating the full Ironman, their daughter was in the eleventh standard. Having secured his family’s support, Madhav committed himself to the training. For event, he chose the Ironman in Langkawi, Malaysia because he reckoned, the weather there should be similar to what prevailed in Thiruvananthapuram. He had roughly seven months to prepare.

From the Langkawi Ironman (Photo: courtesy Dr Madhav Manoj)

Fitting the training schedule for the full Ironman into his teaching and travel schedules was difficult. By now, Madhav had also begun swimming in Male, where there was a pool marked out from the sea. He swam there after work. “ The first time I swam in that pool I felt very uncomfortable because unlike in an artificially lit pool where you see all the way to the bottom, here it was dark. Then I got used to it,’’ Madhav said. In March 2017, he went to Goa for a five kilometer-swim in the sea. This was his first real taste of open water swimming. He covered the distance in roughly 105 minutes. By June-July the monsoon was in full force in Thiruvananthapuram. So he acquired a trainer and did his cycling indoors.

Of all three disciplines required for the triathlon, cycling was toughest to train for in Thiruvananthapuram. Its undulating terrain makes the city great for training to do endurance sports. Aside from general apathy to the active life, the main problems are narrow roads and the growing Malayali propensity to announce well-being in the form of more and more vehicles purchased (some recently published figures of state-wise automobile sales, available on the Internet, position small Kerala among the biggest vehicle markets in South India). Result – roads fast choking with traffic. The city’s roads – especially ones like the highway to Kollam, which Madhav used for long cycle rides – tend to fill with vehicles. Cars and buses squeeze out room for cyclists. “ It was risky, cycling on such roads,’’ Madhav said.  On some of the long bicycle rides, he had family tagging along in a car behind, offering hydration support. In the last month leading up to Langkawi, PMS College allowed him to report for work an hour late so that he could use that extra time for training.

From the Langkawi Ironman (Photo: courtesy Dr Madhav Manoj)

Three days before the event in November 2017, Madhav and Manju left Thiruvananthapuram for Malaysia. “ It was a well-managed event,’’ Madhav said of the Langkawi Ironman. The full Ironman entailed 3.8 km swim; 180 km cycling and a full marathon. The swim went comfortably for Madhav. Cycling in the hot sun was tough. The hydration he planned was inadequate. The run was alright. “ Some parts of the course were dark and tad depressing. Otherwise everything was cheerful. In the end, they announced: Madhav Manoj, you are an Ironman – that was fabulous to hear,’’ he said.  Madhav took 15 hours, 50 minutes to complete the Ironman. Of 13 Indians who turned up that year for the event in Langkawi, six finished.

In the media, Madhav has been reported as the first person from Thiruvananthapuram to complete a full Ironman. According to him, in the months that followed, Sam Chandy, a chartered accountant from the city, completed the Ironman in Copenhagen. “ I am not keen on repeating an Ironman because it is too expensive especially for somebody from India. An exception would be – if it can be combined with a family holiday. The triathlon definitely interests me,’’ Madhav said. Going ahead, he would like to take up the full marathon as a distinct discipline, know more about the world of randonneuring in cycling and try his hand at swimming in the Masters Championships.

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

THE LONG WALK TO TOKYO

K. T. Irfan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In April 2018, K. T. Irfan was at a low point in his career in sports. Roughly ten months later, in a return to form, he became the first Indian athlete to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “ I am very happy,’’ he told this blog at his house in Kuniyil in Kerala’s Malappuram district. This is his story:

Race walking is a little understood sport.

Actions like running, jumping and throwing are well-defined; they highlight ability. To our minds, walking has never been in the same league as running. If you walk fast, it remains just that – a fast walk. Leveraging that to mean high sport is tough on the imagination. Unless you get down to attempting a 20 km or 50 km walk and complete it in times that would put most amateur long distance runners to shame. Which is what, race walkers do. But then all sports have become so wrapped up in their private ecosystem that imagining what it’s like being in someone else’s shoes is a fading talent.  The uniqueness of running is that it is not as common as walking. Who will empathize with what’s perceived as less?

That’s why the news of mid-March 2019 engaged. Six years earlier, in September 2013, Tokyo had been selected as host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics. In the time since, a lot changed with regard to rules for athletes to qualify for the Olympics. While the jury is still out on how apt the revised qualifying norms from International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) are, the general impression is that qualification by timing has been tightened further while some cushioning (as additional route to qualify) has been provided courtesy an international ranking system in each discipline. At the beginning of 2019, there were three major events looming before elite athletes – the Asian Athletics Championships in Doha (Qatar), the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The qualifying mark got tougher as one moved from the first event to the last. The Sixth National Race Walking Championships held in Chennai in February 2019 was to serve as platform for Indian race walkers to qualify for the world championships in Doha. None made the cut.

Following the race walking competition in Chennai, the sport once more sank from media attention. Then a month later, race walking provided a story worthy of national attention – K. T. Irfan had placed fourth in the 20 km race walk at the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan. More important, at one hour 20 minutes and 57 seconds, his timing was within the qualification standard of one hour 21 minutes assigned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Race walking had produced the first Indian athlete to qualify for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. For Irfan, already a veteran of two Olympics in his 29 years on the planet, it was more than qualifying for Tokyo; it was much awaited return to normalcy.

K. T. Irfan (Photo: courtesy Irfan)

Roughly ten days after the event in Nomi, it was very hot in Kozhikode, north Kerala. The state, battered by heavy rain in 2018, was now in the grip of a heat wave.  Health advisories were out. “ Are you sure you don’t want an air conditioned room?’’ the front office manager at the hotel asked. “ Absolutely,’’ I said. There are certain things you are sure of when surviving on freelance journalist’s income; type of hotel room is one of them. Over an hour later, the trip by transport bus to Kuttoli in adjacent Malappuram district was surprisingly tolerable.  I attribute that to vegetation, still alive and offering shade in these parts.  The region was hilly with ups and downs, not pronouncedly but definitely so. From Kuttoli, one took the road proceeding to Kuniyil. Wikipedia provides further insight into the geography of this area. Kuniyil falls in Kizhuparamba panchayat; the latter in Malayalam means low lying land. Essentially the valley between nearby hills, some parts here are susceptible to flooding when water levels rise in Chaliyar River during monsoon. Kuniyil is where Irfan grew up.

Born February 1990, he was one of six children. His father’s work entailed aggregating coconuts from the region and drying it to copra for onward supply to oil mills. Financially, it was hard times for the family. They struggled.  Irfan studied at Kuniyil’s Al Anvar High School up to tenth standard. For eleventh and twelfth he attended Government Vocational Higher Secondary School at Kizhuparamba. Traditionally the more sport loving part of the state, north Kerala is crazy about football. “ This is football country,’’ Irfan said. Like any other youngster he too ran and played in school. There was nothing remarkable in that engagement with sports. Sole incident recalled was a fall during high jump that left him with a cracked arm. Things changed when Rebas Mosahi entered the frame.

Race walking’s origins date back to the nineteenth century, to competitive long distance walking events generally called pedestrianism. According to Wikipedia, it was a popular working class past time in England and America. The first English amateur walking championship was organized in 1866. Race walking first appeared in the Olympics at the 1904 Olympic Games as a half mile walk in the all-rounder category, a precursor to the modern decathlon. From 1908 onward it has been at the Olympics as a distinct, stand-alone event. Women’s race walk made its Olympic debut in 1992. At senior level, the distances tackled are usually 20 km and 50 km but this, the IAAF has said, is set to change (for more on these changes please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/02/07/race-walking-iaaf-committee-recommends-changes/). By the time Irfan was growing up in Kuniyil, race walking was already a discipline included at school and college level athletics competitions in Kerala. Rebas – he was senior to Irfan and a friend of Irfan’s brother – was a competitive race walker. He trained under their school coach, Jose. Race walking is not a sport featured frequently in the media. In rural Kuniyil, there wasn’t much information available on race walking. Jose was window to the sport.

It was generally felt that Rebas would benefit from having a training partner. That is how Irfan came into the picture, as did another friend, Salman K.P. The trio trained to race-walk at school and on the local roads. Typically, it was jogging in the morning; race walking in the evening. Race walkers have always been an oddity for their peculiar style of walking. It is a style that takes walking to as fast as it can be while respecting two critical conditions – (a) the athlete’s back toe cannot leave the ground until the heel of the front foot has touched the ground (b) the supporting leg must straighten from the point of contact with the ground and remain straight till the body has passed over it. Walk so and it is often a peculiar gait to behold. With three local lads into the sport, Kuniyil got used to the sight of them race walking on local roads. But in a sport where logging miles is part of training, reactions weren’t the same everywhere they went to. “ When we crossed from Kuniyil to other places in the region, it was common for people unfamiliar with race walking to make fun of us. You ignore it and carry on,’’ Irfan said. As the months went by, the boys logged miles on the region’s ups and downs. The first break through for Irfan came in 2006. At a school meet in Palakkad, he finished fourth in the state in 20 km race walk. Salman placed fifth.

K. T. Irfan (Photo: courtesy Irfan)

Following the Palakkad result, Jose suggested that Irfan appear for trials to secure admission to the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) regional training facility in Kozhikode. The trials were due at the city’s Devagiri College. When they first reached the scene, both Irfan and Salman turned back owing to sheer nervousness. But they felt guilty; Jose had invested time and effort in them and they couldn’t let him down.  So they returned to the trials, where Irfan made the cut and was accepted as a day trainee. Given Kuniyil was some distance from Kozhikode he stayed with his aunt in the city and attended training. At SAI, his coach was Bose. In 2007, at Puducherry, Irfan set a new under-20 South Zone record in the 10 km race walk, covering the distance in 46 minutes 46 seconds. At the next level – the inter zone meet – he finished sixth. “ I was tense. It was my first national meet,’’ Irfan said. After that South Zone record, he was provided hostel accommodation at SAI, Kozhikode. He also gained admission under sports quota, to study at Devagiri College. “ One reason I persisted with sports is that I wanted my education to be self-supported and not be a drain on my father’s income,’’ Irfan said.

For three years – 2007, 2008 and 2009 – Irfan competed in university level competitions (he represented University of Calicut). In 2007, he did his first 20 km race walk, completing it in two hours five minutes.  In 2008 and 2009, he secured gold medal at these contests. Given the timings reported by race walkers in their discipline, they would seem good candidates for crossing over into the world of distance running. For instance, the timing reported for 20 km race walk compares well with timings at half marathons (the half marathon is longer by a kilometer) while the timing for 50 km race walk (as of early 2019, the world record in the discipline was held by Yohann Diniz of France; 3:32:33) sits comfortably in full marathon territory despite 50 km being longer than a marathon. Irfan said, he never had any inclination of that sort. “ I was never in doubt or wanting to shift to another sport,’’ he said. One reason for this was his cadence; he called it “ frequency.’’  He has very good frequency in this movement, critical for race walking. “ I had faith that I would do well,’’ he said. In 2009, as SAI started weeding out over-age trainees, Bose told Irfan that it was time he looked for a job. Around this time, there was an inter-state athletics meet held in Kochi. At this meet Irfan met the race walking team from the Indian Army’s Madras Regimental Center (MRC). Their coach P. S. Jalan, took note of his performance and asked if he would be interested in joining the army. Following trials at MRC, Irfan was selected. After the required medical tests in Bengaluru, he formally joined the Indian Army (Madras Regiment to be precise) on March 15, 2010. He reported to MRC in Ooty.

MRC had a sports company, which had in it the regiment’s sports stars. It was coached by Subedar Ram Kumar. In September-October 2010, Irfan participated in an army sports meet featuring athletes drawn from its units in South India. He got gold in the 20 km race walk. After this, he moved to Hyderabad where the Southern Command maintained its sports team.  At the inter-command sports meet, he finished first in 20 km.  Selected to represent the army, Irfan next participated in the Services Meet where again he finished first. Thereafter at the 2011 National Games, he placed fourth. At the behest of Gurudev Singh, coach at the national camp, Irfan reported to the national camp in Bengaluru in June 2011. After about ten days of training under Gurudev Singh, on June 12, he secured silver at an inter-state championship in Bengaluru. That was his first medal at the national level, in senior category. Following this he shifted to National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala for the remaining period of the national camp. In September 2011, at the Open National Athletics Championship in Kolkata, Irfan secured gold.

At Gurudev Singh’s suggestion Irfan was continuing on at NIS, when he was called to Ooty by the army to prepare for their internal competition. At this time, selection for the Asian Championships was on at NIS; two of his compatriots qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. Irfan missed out. Meanwhile Irfan hit gold at the army area meet. In March 2012, at the Federation Cup held in Patiala, Irfan resolved to do well. He set a new meet record of 1:22:14 in the 20 km race walk, which also sufficed to see him qualify for the London Olympics. Interestingly at four race walkers qualified and destined for London, race walking had significant representation in the Indian athletics squad for the event. Conditions were good in London. Irfan set a new national record in 20 km race walk at the Olympics; 1:20:21. He finished tenth in a field of 56 participants. He recalled warm, welcoming receptions in India after this achievement. Then it was back to national camp in Bengaluru.

In May 2013 at the IAAF World Challenge Meet in China, Irfan finished in 1:20:59 placing fourth. This gained him entry to the World Championships in Moscow in August 2013. In Moscow, he was disqualified; at the time of disqualification he was in fourth position in the race. Disqualification (it follows a series of cautions) is for losing leg contact with the ground and for not keeping the supporting leg straight. “ Such mistakes usually happen due to the pressure of competition. The first warning does not affect you. The second one makes you conscious. It slows you down,’’ Irfan said of how the process elicits toll on athletic performance. In 2013, Indian authorities commenced a national championship for race walking. That year Irfan didn’t participate. He did, at the 2014 edition in Kochi, where he finished second in 20 km and qualified for the Asian Championships despite pulling his hamstring at around eighteenth kilometer. At the Asian Championships, he topped among participating Indian race walkers covering the distance in 1:21:41. In April, at the Federation Games, he returned a timing of 1:24:21, tad outside the qualifying mark for the upcoming Asian Games. Nevertheless based on previous performance, he made the cut. The training that followed was in Dharamshala. Somewhere during this phase, probably due to over-training or vitamin deficiency or maybe, both – he developed a stress fracture on his right ankle. Not realizing the gravity of injury he participated in the Asian Games at Incheon, South Korea and finished fourth in his discipline with a timing of 1:23:14. “ There was pain. After the Asian Games, I rested for a month and then resumed training. But the pain came back. It was then that stress fracture was diagnosed,’’ he said.

K. T. Irfan (Photo: AFI Media)

Of help in this phase was his signing up with Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ); it had happened two years earlier in 2012. OGQ assisted with medical treatment.  Recovery took time. Post Asian Games, Irfan was coached by Alexander Artsybashev, a Russian coach who had been working with the Indian race walking team. The next major event for Irfan was the 2016 Rio Olympics. The qualification for it was hoped to be achieved at the Open Race Walking Championships in Jaipur. Irfan placed fourth in Jaipur but he still made the cut for Rio; he clocked 1:22:45 against the qualifying mark of 1:24:00. According to Irfan, at Jaipur, as many as nine Indian race walkers made it home within the Olympic qualifying time. Then fortunes nosedived for the athlete from Kerala. The old hamstring injury he sustained in Kochi returned. Irfan couldn’t participate in the Asian Championships; he also had to avoid the Olympics. But he continued at the national camp doing off-season training.

In 2017, he participated in the Open Race Walking Championships held in Delhi, where he finished first. At that year’s Asian Race Walking Championships he secured a bronze medal. “ It was my first medal at the international level,’’ Irfan said. He followed that up with good timing – 1:21:45 – at the World Championships in London. But his position in the field wasn’t as good. In 2018, he secured gold at the Open Race Walking Championships in Delhi with a timing of 1:21:31. It was good enough to qualify for both the upcoming Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. The first of these events was the Commonwealth Games held in Gold Coast, Australia in April 2018. The weather was terribly warm. Irfan didn’t do well. He finished thirteenth in a field of 16. He got a caution in the first two kilometers; then a second. It rattled him and inhibited his performance. “ It is my habit to spend the first three quarters or so of a race with the leading group. Given the cautions, I got scared, slowed down and missed being part of the lead group,’’ he said. However, the worst was yet to come. Some days after the above mentioned race, news appeared of two Indian athletes – triple jumper Rakesh Babu and race walker K. T. Irfan – asked to leave the 2018 Commonwealth Games for violating the no-needle policy. The said policy was part of measures to weed out doping. According to published news reports a cleaner alerted Games officials to a used needle found in a cup in the room shared by the two athletes; a second needle was later discovered in a bag belonging to Rakesh Babu. The athletes said they had no idea how the needles got there. Games officials were not satisfied with their explanation. On April 17, 2018, Times of India reported that the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) had challenged the decision to remove Irfan from the Games village. But the damage had already been done. Public perception of athlete altered with the media reports from Australia.

The 2018 Commonwealth Games was the lowest point in Irfan’s career. “ It was a difficult period,’’ Irfan said. The first competition after the Commonwealth Games was the World Team Cup of May 2018. “ I was mentally depressed after the Commonwealth Games. My timing at World Team Cup was quite bad,’’ Irfan said. Three months later at the Asian Games in Jakarta, he was disqualified. “ It happened at 15 km. Till that point I was in contention for bronze,’’ he said. According to the media, four Indian race walkers including Irfan suffered disqualification at the 2018 Asian Games. It was a major setback for the squad. After the Asian Games, Irfan took a break for about a month. Around December 2018, he started training again. His coach now at the national camp in NIS, Patiala was Harminder Singh, former race walker and bronze medalist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. For coach and ward, ahead was the National Race Walking Championship scheduled in Chennai for February 2019. “ It was a good competition. But the weather was very warm,’’ Irfan said of the event, where he defended his national title in 20 km for the third time in a row but failed to qualify for the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championship due in Doha. However, his timing in Chennai was good enough to earn him a berth for the upcoming Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan.

K. T. Irfan (Photo: courtesy Irfan)

Located in Ishikawa Prefecture on Honshu, the largest among the islands constituting Japan, Nomi has a humid continental climate characterized by mild summers and cold winters with heavy snowfall. According to Wikipedia, Nomi’s average annual temperature is 14.1 degrees C. The temperatures are highest in August at around 26.8 degrees C; it is lowest in January at around 2.7 degrees C. The 2019 Asian Race Walking Championships were scheduled for March. “ The weather was really good,’’ Irfan said of conditions on race day in Nomi. One hour 20 minutes and 57 seconds after commencing the 20 km race walk, he was once again the stuff of positive news in India; he had become the first athlete from India to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On March 17, 2019 the Press Trust of India (PTI) reported: National record holder K. T. Irfan on Sunday became the first Indian from athletics to qualify for next year’s Olympics while finishing fourth in the 20 km event of the Asian Race Walking Championships in Nomi, Japan. A huge load was lifted from Irfan’s shoulders. The long shadow of the 2018 Commonwealth Games seemed to recede. “ I hadn’t gone to Nomi hoping to qualify for the Olympics. I was looking to meet the qualifying standard for Doha. I am very happy with the outcome,’’ Irfan said.

Irfan’s personal best (also national record as of March 2019) was the timing he returned over 20 km at the 2012 London Olympics – 1:20:21. The world record for the same discipline (at the time of writing) was 1:16:36 held by Yusuke Suzuki of Japan. According to Irfan, in the 20 km discipline, the weakness of Indian race walkers is usually the last five kilometers. “ For 15 kilometers we manage to stick with the leading group. Thereafter we begin to fade while the stronger race walkers in the field get quicker. If we try to go faster, we risk disqualification,’’ he said. It highlights the points to focus on in training, as race walkers try to honor the sport’s technical rules and still push pace despite exhaustion. With the means to identify loss of foot contact and bending of support leg, set to become more sophisticated and accurate, race walkers have their work cut out. It was now noon in Kuniyil and K. T. Irfan, glad for Nomi, was not looking that far into the sport’s technological future. He was just happy to put all that bad press from Gold Coast behind, enjoy his days at home on leave from the national camp and when the break gets over, return to training for Doha and Tokyo. Just as we left the sturdy brick and mortar house that was now his home, he pointed to a small crumbling building on the edge of the compound. “ That is where we used to live,’’ he said. Half an hour later, I was on the bus back to Kozhikode.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with K. T. Irfan. Timing at races are as provided by him.)       

KEEP ON RUNNING

Shibani Gharat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ I am not obsessed with completing the Marathon Majors. I am not obsessed with anything actually. I just enjoy running.’’

For those working in the media, general elections are usually a period of hectic activity.

In India, 2019 dawned with elections around the corner. Political parties in the fray attached much expectation to it. A familiar litany of heated discussions, exclusives, poll forecasts, exit polls and election analysis would roll out across television channels and publications. Having covered elections before, Shibani Gharat knew what would head her way in April-May, which was when polls were due. Before the decibels peaked, could she squeeze in a challenge? It was a journey, as yet six years old. Unlike elections, this one was her own. Canberra? – She wondered.

January 2013. Among those lined up for the year’s Mumbai Marathon was a young woman clad in Bermuda shorts and T-shirt. Apart from her daily half a dozen loops around Shivaji Park in Mumbai’s Dadar and weekend mileage of as many kilometers, she had run all of one long run – 17 km – as preparation for the marathon she was set to attempt. She was neither familiar with the right attire for running nor aware of the training required for a marathon.

Running at Saratoga Creek, San Francisco (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

It was sometime in the second half of 2012 that a friend pushed her into enrolling for the half marathon at the 2013 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). By the time she decided to enroll, slots for the half marathon were full. The half marathon segment of Mumbai Marathon is hugely popular with recreational runners. Without any hesitation she enrolled for the full marathon (42.2 kilometers). The full marathon at Mumbai starts in the southern part of the city, moves towards suburbs in the north-west and then returns. On race day, at Haji Ali, during the return leg of the marathon, a friend called out to her: tu zinda hai ya mar gaya (are you still alive or dead)? She completed that maiden marathon in four hours 58 minutes. By the standards of recreational running, that is good timing; certainly for a first timer.

Running in New York (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

The erstwhile textile mills of Lower Parel are now among Mumbai’s bustling business districts. The old mills have transformed to shopping malls, office spaces; even apartment complexes. As if that injection of perceived modernity is not enough, you have vertical lines of high rises – some of them, among the tallest buildings in India – stretching into the sky. Yet typical of India, no scene is sanitized to favor a single attribute. The old and the new co-exist. The roads of Lower Parel also have plenty of old buildings. The streets are congested and oozing at every twist and turn, the hallmarks of high population and densely packed life. It was December 2018. The television journalist we were to meet wasn’t hard to spot as she walked in. She wore a bright red dress and there was make-up from the studio, still on her face. It was late evening; the closing hours of another working day. The café in Lower Parel was packed with people, mostly young. “ During my school years, I was quite fat. I used to eat my classmates’ lunch,’’ Shibani Gharat, now trim and athletic, said recalling her past. She may have looked the consummate rookie, Bermuda shorts and all, that early morning of the 2013 SCMM. But she was no stranger to the active life. During her undergraduate studies, she had enrolled in a self-defence course and been subsequently introduced to taekwondo by coach, Bhaskar Karkera. Shibani went on to represent Mumbai in the sport at the state level; once she competed at the nationals too. She started running as part of her training for taekwondo.

Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat

Born 1985, Shibani is the only child of her parents, both of them retired bankers. She grew up in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park area; heart of the city and quite centrally located if one imagined a portrait of town by sports facilities. Following her studies at the city’s Sophia College for Women, Shibani aspired to be a journalist. It was an uphill task. She could write well; she was already contributor at Asian Age and Times Journal of Photography. But the completion of studies and search for a job coincided with economic recession. There were no openings immediately available. Her parents, hailing as they did from banking circles, knew nobody in newspapers or TV channels to request for opportunity. Shibani’s first job therefore was as copywriter at an advertising agency. This was followed by a stint working at the publishing arm of Network 18. In no time employment elicited its first casualty. In her college days, she used to practise taekwondo in the morning and evening. “ The odd working hours meant that there was no time for taekwondo and running,’’ she said. The impact of declining physical fitness came sooner than expected. She suffered severe backache and ended up in hospital. Medical investigation showed vitamin deficiency among causative agents (vitamin deficiency is now widespread in India’s white collar workforce). She endured vitamin injections for a month. “ My condition was so bad that my mother had to come and lift me from bed. Compounding matters was my travel schedule. It was a wake-up call. I had to take my fitness into my hands. I went back to my old discipline of going for a run around Shivaji Park,’’ she said. She ran slightly longer distances on the weekend.

With Sunil Lahigude; from a stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

The jogs at Shivaji Park brought her face to face with other runners from the region, like Sayuri Dalvi, who is among Mumbai’s well-known woman marathoners in the amateur category. It was at the behest of one of them that Shibani tried registering for that half marathon in 2013 (she was between jobs at this stage; on her way to joining CNBC), ending up eventually in the full. After this unexpected debut in the full marathon in Mumbai, Shibani enrolled for the full marathon in Hyderabad. It was a tough race and took a lot out of her. “ I suffered reaching the finish line,’’ she said. Between SCMM and the Hyderabad Marathon, there had once again been no formal training; the longest distance she ran in training was 20 km. On the bright side, she was into yoga and strength training. Notwithstanding the experience in Hyderabad (in amateur running circles the event is recognized as a tough but well organized marathon), she found herself signing up for the 50 km-category at the Bangalore Ultra. That was a jump from marathon to ultramarathon led by curiosity. Next on the cards was the Nilgiris Ultra where she covered a distance of 100 km. Here, for the first time, she met some of the known names from ultra-running in India, including Aparna Choudhary. There was little by way of structured training and progress in this journey from jogs around Shivaji Park to first marathon and ultramarathons; all in relatively short period of time. But by the end of that eventful year after participating in events far from home, Shibani got round to doing what she should have perhaps done earlier – she met runners from Shivaji Park Marathon Club. They provided her a sense of what training for the marathon entailed.

With Arun Bhardwaj; from a stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

It didn’t take long for television to notice runner in its ranks. In December 2013, Star Sports contacted her seeking to track her run during the 2014 edition of SCMM. “ The magnitude of having completed the full marathon hit me only when Star Sports approached wanting to cover me for 2014,’’ she said. The channel tracked her run at the 2014 edition of the Mumbai Marathon. It ended up being a personal best (PB) for her. She covered the distance in four hours 36 minutes. In February of 2014, she attempted the 101 km category at Run the Rann. But it turned out to be a disappointment. She quit the run at 65 km after she found herself going around the same loop several times. In August 2014, after training with Milind Soman (he was heading for the 12 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru), she ran the 12 hour-Mumbai Ultra. It was her first run of such duration. That year, Bengaluru-based ultra-runner Dharmendra Kumar told her about Khardung La Challenge, the 72 km ultra-marathon held as part of the annual Ladakh Marathon. She promptly registered for the ultra-run in 2014. “ As part of my training I did stair workout, running up several floors. I also avoided alcohol for three months before Khardung La,’’ she said. She made sure to acclimatize well ahead of race in Ladakh. The race was a fantastic experience for Shibani. She became the first non-Ladakhi woman to complete the ultra-marathon. Completing the Khardung La Challenge helped build her confidence. The same year, she enrolled for 100 km at Bangalore Ultra and completed the run in 18 hours. By now, she was quite well known in running circles as an ultra-runner.

At that time, the ultra-running community in India was still small. As a recreational sport, the discipline was just picking up. The first stadium based ultra-run was organized in Bengaluru in 2014. In August 2015 the second edition was due. The organizer, NEB Sports, was inviting ultra-runners for the event. Shibani was among those invited. Running for 12 hours, she managed to cover a distance of 87 km. “ Stadium run is like a party with friends around. There is food and hydration every 400 meters,’’ she said. Stadium based ultra-runs are now held in many Indian cities including Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chandigarh and Hyderabad. A week after the stadium run in Bengaluru, the 12 hour-Mumbai Ultra was scheduled. The course was in and around the same region in town as Shivaji Park. Shibani was among key runners at this event in Mumbai; she covered a distance similar to what she covered in Bengaluru, during the allotted 12 hours. Before the year was out, in November, she also ran the 2015 edition of the Istanbul Marathon.

Running in Amsterdam (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

When it comes to courses for running, Shibani prefers undulating terrain over flat ones. “ I have never felt motivated to apply for races like Berlin, which are famous for their flat, fast courses,’’ she said. Yet, she has participated in a number of stadium ultras run on flat, synthetic track. “ Stadium runs, though on flat course, offer a different challenge. The challenge in stadium runs is combating the boredom of running on the 400 meter-track, loop after loop. It is mentally challenging. Further extended running in loops casts greater pressure to one side of the legs; race organizers address that by shifting from clockwise to counter clockwise and vice versa every few hours. That said, the nicest part of a stadium run is that you are assured of food and hydration at regular intervals. The stadium runs in Bengaluru are great fun. Plus the weather there is fabulous,’’ she said. In 2016, the stadium ultra in Bengaluru introduced a new 36 hour-run. Entry for this segment was by invitation and many ultramarathon runners were invited to participate. Held in August 2016, Shibani was one of the participants in the 36-hour run. “ The first thing I went and asked the organizer was how many hours of the 36 hours I could spend sleeping. I was told six hours. I slept for five hours,’’ she said. For this run, she attempted running with shoes sporting different types of soles; she also ran 40 km barefoot. She covered a distance of 184 km and ended up in the third position after well-known ultra-runners, Aparna Choudhary and Meenal Kotak. The 36 hour-run, according to Shibani, is challenging because of sleep deprivation. However, challenge or none, she doesn’t appear to have slowed down in the momentum of participating in events. A week after that 36 hour-run, she ran the 12 hour-Mumbai Ultra held on August 15, 2016. That outing was followed by a 100 miler in September 2016 in Singapore. “ I like to register for a race. It gives me a goal to chase,’’ she said. In the weeks following the event in Singapore, she placed first in a 12 hour-race organized by Oxfam. Then, she took off to Finland alone to see the Northern Lights.

Running in Prague (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

In 2017, among the many runs that she enrolled for, Shibani attempted the 24 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru. According to her, from the pantheon of stadium based-distances in ultra-running, it is the 24 hour-category that challenges her the most. As regards distances in road running, she finds the half marathon more challenging than the 10 km or the full marathon. “ I find the 24 hour-ultra-run much more challenging than 12 hour and 36 hour-ultra-runs. The 12 hour-run is easy. The 36 hour-format is tough sustaining. The challenge in 24 hour-ultra to me is akin to that of running the half marathon. I really like ten km-races because they typically get over in an hour. The half marathon stresses me because two hours is deemed respectable timing. That element of respectable timing makes some distances challenging. I want to get better in the 24 hour-run. I feel I have not given my best in the 24 hour-ultra-run yet,’’ she said. Along with her ultra-runs, she also added several marathons to her list of races, not to mention the occasional 10 km events and half marathons. In 2018, she ran the New York City Marathon, one of the six Marathon Majors of the world. The high point of her running so far has been participating in the 2018 International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) 24 Hour Asia & Oceania Championships held in Taiwan. The run did not go as well as she would have wanted it to. “ On the day of the run, the weather was boiling hot,’’ she said. Her mileage suffered on account of the weather. “  It was great opportunity to get a chance to participate in this event, I had to change my training overnight from marathon training to ultra-marathon training with only a couple of weeks left for the event. I had barely any time to get the mileage required for ultra-marathon, under my feet. I could have trained better. Ultra-marathoners can’t really complain about the weather,’’ she added as afterthought. She followed that with another 24 hour-stadium run in Delhi, her last run of 2018.

From the IAU 24 Hour Asia & Oceania Championships (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

Shibani is one of those runners whose participation at events has been so prolific that specific instances escape quick recall and details tend to blur. Along the way there have been multiple editions of the Vasai Virar Mayors Marathon (VVMM) participated in. There was the Saputara Summit run, the Saptashringi Parikrama run. “ In 2017, there were only two months that I didn’t do a full marathon. I really like registering for a race. It keeps me focused on fitness. My work is such that you get sucked into it. Ultras challenge you to do well amid this predicament. I like challenges. I like races that offer some amount of challenge,’’ she said. Shibani has had her share of podium finishes, some in tune with her known strengths, some pretty unexpected. “ It comes as a real shock to me when I get a podium finish in a half marathon,’’ she said. Starting with the FICCI Flo Run in September 2015 in Pune, she has also been a pacer at running events. Given her approach of running and the distances she loves to tackle, some of these assignments are challenging on Shibani. “ Pacing is a tremendous responsibility. You have to think about others. I don’t normally drink water in the early part of a run. But there are others who need to. There are so many such details about your running that you have to change when pacing,’’ she said.

Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat

With her running gaining volume and frequency since 2015, a lot of things have changed. There is more structure to her training; there is a dedicated long run of 50-55 km on weekends, there is also greater focus on yoga and Pilates. Now, a familiar face on television, work does interfere with Shibani’s running. “ At any given point of time, my biggest challenge is work. I am passionate about whatever I do. When I work that has my entire attention. When I run, that is all that matters,’’ she said. Shibani often travels on work. When she does so, she makes it a point to make time for running. “ I make sure that happens. My works hours are crazy. Even if I am in office for 14 hours, I am out running at 6 AM. I have my lunch and dinner at the desk. Dinner at the desk because I can go home and sleep; it makes waking up early next day possible. Every 10-15 minutes saved thus gets added to my bank of time for running,’’ she said. There are also other angles. While registering for a race gifts her goal to focus on, she is also someone who digs solitude (she does a lot of her training alone). That is one reason she likes the long haul the ultra-marathon represents. But then it should be designed such that nothing distracts from the trance of being in an ultra. In 2016, she came off feeling not so good about the 100 miler in Singapore precisely because of this. There was an element of treasure hunt built into that race; it wasn’t a clearly marked course, she said. “ I like getting into a trance. Ultra-running is a lot about being in such rhythm after a certain amount of distance covered,’’ Shibani said. And so Canberra it was.

At the event in Canberra (Photo: courtesy Shibani Gharat)

She enrolled for the 24-hour race at the Canberra 48 Hour Race, a track and field ultra, scheduled for March 15-17, 2019. “ I wanted to do a race in March to keep up the mileage as in the following two months I may have to travel on election related work,’’ Shibani said. It was a fantastic experience. She found the camaraderie from Australian runners warm and helpful. She was running without any crew. Her run was from 9 AM to 9 AM; it was for 24 hours. “ For the first 15 hours, my run went off well and I was in fourth position among women. During the second half of the run, I started to face stomach issues and was unable to eat anything at all. For the last ten hours of the race, I just survived on water,’’ she said. At around 3 AM, with six more hours to go for the finish, Shibani started to feel a bit faint and decided to approach the medical team. She was advised rest for about 20 minutes. Barring this 20 minute break, she was pretty much on her feet all through and as the hours rolled by, she kept improving her rank moving up from fourth to third to second and finally first position. She ran 343 laps covering a distance of 142.2 kilometers during the 24-hour period, finishing first among women and eighth overall, as per official results. “ The most amazing thing was the help I got from other runners. They cheered me and offered me their crew members for assistance,’’ she said.

Among plans for 2019, Shibani had registered for the Chicago Marathon. “ I am not obsessed with completing the Marathon Majors. I am not obsessed with anything actually. I just enjoy running,’’ she said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Shibani Gharat. Names of events and timing at races are as provided by her.)

REGULATION SHOULD MAKE ADVENTURE SAFE, NOT RESTRICT IT / TALKING TO STEVE SWENSON

Steve Swenson (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In February 2019, Steve Swenson, well-known mountaineer and former president of American Alpine Club was in Mumbai to accept the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award for his book: Karakorum – Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict. Besides giving two talks that dwelled on his book and drew upon his wealth of experiences in climbing, Steve also participated in a panel discussion on risk management, safety and regulations pertaining to adventure sports. Thanks to accidents, litigation and complaints of environment degradation, the issue of regulating adventure tourism and adventure sports has been slowly gaining traction in India. On the other hand, poorly imagined regulation, harsh regulation, excessive regulation – these can stifle adventure.

In India, as rules and regulations for adventure sports are framed, some of the emergent concerns include how restrictive they would be of personal freedom and where the trained and experienced amateur sportsperson would be positioned in the pantheon of subjects to be regulated. Each location has its own matrix authored by population, natural spaces and resident empathy for adventure. India has to find its way. The US has one of the most active and evolved climbing scenes in the world with regulations to match. This blog met Steve after the Himalayan Club meeting for a chat on a range of subjects; among them – regulation of climbing, the US experience with regulations, the adventure point (as Steve put it), what he has learnt as a veteran climber now partnering young climbers on expeditions, the need for the young to be patient and of course, his book. Excerpts:

Denali; view of the summit from Wonder Lake (Photo: Ted O’ Callahan)

In the US, how well do you distinguish between adventure-seekers going out on their own assuming responsibility for their safety and conduct, and guided trips? Do individual adventure-seekers, doing so after years of training and frequenting the outdoors, also get caught up in the same rules and regulations as applied to guided trips?

In North America, amateur climbers going climbing in public lands which would be mostly parks – they have to observe the rules of the park. They have to pay the entrance fee and in some of the parks there may be restrictions on the number of people allowed to visit certain areas. Amateur climbers have to fall within those rules. Some of the national parks on big mountains like Denali; they have a thorough permit and registration process even for amateurs. On Denali you have to register 60 days ahead, you have to go through an interview with a park warden who is an expert climber. On a big mountain like that, they like to make sure that the people who are coming are people who know what they are doing and won’t get themselves into trouble. They can’t tell them they can’t go. They try public education to minimize people who are clearly going to get themselves into trouble.

I think the climbing community has done a good job educating people about issues like safety, environmental protection and stewardship and providing information about concerns like avalanches. There is a lot of education in the community to ensure that when you go out you have enough information to make a sound decision. There is a pretty big network on these matters. However, as the sport becomes more popular, I do see increasing numbers of inexperienced climbers out there. This is putting greater demand on the different climbing clubs and professional guides to try and make sure that all these enthusiasts are getting their outdoor education needs met.

On the guided side – wherein people pay money to be taken on trips – there is much more regulation. The land managers at different parks, they need the companies involved to have permits to take clients climbing on public lands. They demand a certain level of certification to operate. If you don’t have certification and permits and they catch you for illegal guiding you will be in big trouble.

Canyon Lands (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

When it comes to ensuring technical competence, In India, there is always the contest between the organic route featuring climbing clubs with you learning from others over a period of time and assigned institutes where you undergo an adventure course and receive a certificate. What do you follow in the US?

There are multiple paths you can take to learn those skills. There are some people who never take a course, they climb with friends, read books, refer videos – they sort of do it organically. Then, there are clubs that teach outdoor education but these are formal courses. You have to sign up, pay for the course and you are taught by experienced volunteer instructors.  It is a course with a curriculum and you have to complete it before you get a certificate. Then there are schools like NOLS or Outward Bound – those would be similar to the institutes you have in India. Then there are those who learn by hiring private guides and once they have acquired the required skills, go out with climber-friends and eventually, go on their own.

From a land manager’s perspective – if you went to climb in a park for instance – is any one of these approaches deemed more acceptable officially than the other?

No, no they wouldn’t do that. However, there will be caps on the number of people allowed in per day based on the land manager’s study of each valley’s carrying capacity. For example on a weekend, when many people turn up to climb, the land manager may say – this guiding company gets five, this other company gets ten and the amateur club over here, you get 15. They will be limited that way. But the land manager is not going to show any preference as long as everybody is following the rules.

Half Dome; Yosemite National Park (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

You have been president of the American Alpine Club. How important is it for you to keep the amateur category alive; how important is the amateur flame – if I may describe it so – to the sport? I ask this because increasingly in human predicaments like India, it is very tempting to conclude that guided trips are the way to go….

I think that if land managers decided that anyone who is climbing has to be part of a guided party, there will be this huge protest against it. People would go completely crazy if they ever did anything like that. Land managers would be flooded with protests. Elected representatives would be flooded with complaints. For people in North America, a lot of the appeal in going to the mountains is to experience that personal freedom, have your own adventure. If the government was to come in and restrict the kind of adventure that you are going to have, then, people would be really, really upset. That would never happen.  Different things work for different people. I believe the land managers recognize that there has to be a variety of options. In some places, restrictions are stiff – rafting in the Grand Canyon being an example. The number of people wishing to do that often exceeds the carrying capacity of the place. If you are an amateur river rafter you can get a permit to go there but it is a lottery. When you get the chance you better go because it may be another decade before you win the lottery again. Some amateurs may argue that in such instances the permit regime is partial to commercial operators because they give permits every year to them to operate a certain number of boats. Your chance of winning a lottery is small but you could sign up with a commercial operator because they will be running boats that already have permits.

How important is it for land managers in the US to be familiar with a sport in question? That is a challenge we face in India because administrators designing policy and implementing them are often not familiar with the sport.

In the parks in the US, the people that are administering a climbing program – let’s say Denali, Yosemite or Mt Rainier, you know any place where climbing is a big part of what goes on – they are climbers. And they are usually good climbers. When you go to the ranger’s office you are talking to a fellow climber; someone who knows the mountain, knows what current conditions are and is familiar with all the rules and carrying capacity of the place. I have friends who are climbing rangers. On off days, we go climbing together. So they are as much a part of the climbing community as all the amateurs, guides and everybody else. They are very knowledgeable.

Is there a lot of interaction and exchange of information that happens between the climbing community and the land managers?

Oh yeah. Sometimes it is very co-operative, sometimes it can be a little bit contentious. In Canada, where I go ice climbing in winter; one of the biggest hazards up there is avalanches. If I want to know what snow conditions are like and if after my research I am still unsure of exactly how things are, I can just pick up the phone and speak to the park’s safety specialist and ask him.

El Capitan from the meadows; Yosemite National Park (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

For the sake of clarity I wish to ask this: the tenor on the part of whoever is answering that phone is not to stop you from climbing….

No, no, that’s not their job. However if the rangers thought that where I was going is a bad idea, they would tell me. They can’t tell me: don’t go there. That’s not part of why they are there. But they may tell me: we think that’s a really bad idea and if you went there then the possibility of an avalanche killing you is quite high. So we would avoid that.

But there are other situations, where historically the park managers and climbers have had a testy relationship. Take a park like Yosemite. It is an iconic rock climbing Mecca. That park is very crowded. They have all the problems that you would find in a big city, there. What the rangers have to do in a park like that is law enforcement. There’s not enough room in Yosemite Valley to accommodate all those who go there and camp. The climbers that go there, they want to live there; they want to stay there for months at a time. But the rules say you can camp there for only two weeks at a time. If you exceed, you deny others their opportunity. Rangers don’t allow that. The climbers then end up camping illegally. The rangers don’t like that. They go out at night to find them and then give them a ticket or they kick them out. Situations like this can create tensions between land managers and the climbing community because you are dealing with a limited resource – camping space. And climbers can sometimes be iconoclastic, you know be very adversarial towards rules and regulations and people in positions of authority. The rangers don’t like that. In the past in places like Yosemite, relations have devolved to being very poor. Now in such situations, organizations like the American Alpine Club do things to foster better relationship between the land manager and the climbing community. For example, in the past, the American Alpine Club has done things like pay for Sunday morning coffee and biscuits for the rangers. They are at the camp with the climbers and it becomes an opportunity for both sides to meet and interact, get to know each other better.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the Himalayan Club meeting, you would have heard about how the need for Indian states to frame rules and regulations for adventure sports, commenced. In one instance, a case was filed over a fatal accident by the aggrieved party and from there the process started. In India, generally speaking, we are also at that stage where if tomorrow a marathon is held and somebody dies attempting it, the negativity of death outstrips the underlying fact that the person expired trying something he wished to, valued or liked. The US is a country strongly associated with litigation. How are fatal accidents in the outdoors dealt with in the US? Is there a strong cultural empathy for adventure, which works as bedrock in such situations or is there the tendency to stop adventure because somebody died?

I am not a lawyer, so I wouldn’t be able to answer that in detail. You should ideally talk to a lawyer in the US who has experience dealing with recreation. At my level, my understanding is that in the past there have been instances like somebody put a harness on incorrectly, they fell out of the harness and died and their family sued the harness manufacturer. This did happen some thirty years ago. When that happens, the whole community sort of rallies around the gear manufacturer and offers assistance to defend the business because they don’t want the litigation shutting down their sport. And they don’t want that litigation leading to a situation where nobody makes harnesses any more. There have been a number of such cases in the past. Most of the time, the gear manufacturer or the guide service provider – they are able to successfully defend themselves.  In the US, there is probably enough case law by now (for such defence)……unless there was gross negligence (involved in given case). There is also over time a legal standard that the gear manufacturers and service providers have to live up to. If they live up to that then the case law sort of kicks in to protect them. Guiding services, clubs – anyone who enrolls (at these facilities) has to sign waivers, which recognizes the sport they are getting into as dangerous and potentially fatal. Everybody participating is required to read and sign waivers. If you go to any indoor climbing gym there is a whole waiver process you have to go throw. Waivers have to be renewed every year. It’s a requirement in everyone’s insurance that they go through this to establish the legal standards of what they got into.  I think all this has got pretty standardized in North America that people feel they are protected. It doesn’t hold the sport back. It’s the same with access.  In America we have something called Access Fund, which helps put in place the necessary standards so that the land owner does not have to worry (about being held liable in case of accident) if climbers access his property to pursue their sport.

Would you say that there is also this angle of how each culture – maybe human predicament – relates to adventure? For instance, at the Himalayan Club discussion on risk management and safety, there was this observation or something very similar: lower the risk, increase the adventure…..

I don’t agree with that observation. I don’t think it is adventure if the risk is low. I have given talks on adventure and risk. I often speak of something called the adventure point. For me the adventure point is – on one side you have risk and on the other side you have ability. If your ability is high then the risk is low and that is not quite adventure. If I go and climb a rock that is really, really easy for me it is not going to be that much of an adventure. If my ability is low compared to what I am trying to do, then the adventure is high but so is the risk. I could kill myself. So to me, what I call the adventure point is where you have these factors in balance; where risk and ability sort of balance each other. You push yourself as hard as you can to be reasonably safe.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There is a video on the Internet of you giving a presentation to The Mountaineers in which you speak of the growing number of gym climbers and the need to acquaint them with the outdoors. Can you elaborate on this issue?

I’d say clubs like The Mountaineers are old fashioned clubs, like the Himalayan Club. They offer these basic courses and take people outdoors. It is a bit like what probably happens in India at any of your institutes – they teach you a basic course that is a mile wide and an inch deep. In other words, they teach you a little bit about a whole bunch of different things ranging from camping to rock climbing to snow and ice climbing to crevasse rescue to navigation – all that stuff. You get to know a little bit about a lot. And then what happens is that when you take an intermediate course, it would be like layering up. When you do that for many years, you actually end up knowing a lot about a lot of things. In North America now, nobody learns like that. It’s got flipped on its head. It’s completely upside down. People now learn a lot about a narrow part of that information base. Like rock climbing – they start in a gym; they get really strong, they know how to train, they know how to clip bolts, they are way stronger and have more technical skills. But if you took that person outdoors and asked them to navigate their way through difficult landscape from point A to point B, they would have no idea how to do that. In North America, all these people coming out of gyms – their outdoor IQ, if you call it so; is low. There are special courses now that clubs are teaching, knowing that they are really strong in some areas and weak in these outdoor skills. They teach these outdoor skills, they don’t try to teach them stuff they already know. Gyms in the US now offer a course called Gym to Crag. It is just teaching people how to go outside. It isn’t just about sport climbing outdoors it is also about aspects like taking care of the environment, stewardship, dealing with human waste, handling pets etc. The only people learning the old basic courses are a small number of people at old fashioned outdoor clubs.

Photo: Shyam G Menon

So in retrospect there is value in the old basic courses….

There is value. But at the same time it is important to recognize – you can’t be somebody who is wishing for the past. I say: wake up. This is not how young people do it now. We have to adapt and change to how people learn now. If you can’t, you just need to accept it and go away. I would say that for ninety per cent of people in North America who are getting into climbing, their first exposure to the sport would have been at a climbing gym.

During your talk at the Himalayan Club, you mentioned about your experience climbing with young people. You spoke of how you hold yourself back on climbing trips and intervene only when needed; you also spoke of things that you learnt from young people. Can you tell us some more about what it is that you learn from them given you have already spent almost five decades in climbing?

One of the big changes in climbing is that climbing has become much more of a mainstream sport. People are now developing sophisticated training specifically for what we do. In the past you couldn’t go to a shop and buy a book on how to train for climbing. Today you can not only do that, you can also buy books specifically on how to train to be a boulderer or sport climber or alpinist. You can also hire a trainer. That kind of formal training for the sport is new to me. The young guys grow up with these training programs. When I hang out with them, they give me insight into these programs or provide me tips on what to do to improve. One of the things I am not good at in climbing is – power. You must have noticed this – when you are climbing in the high sixes you can do things pretty statically. But to break into the sevens, you have to be comfortable making dynamic moves. To do that, you have to be able to pull hard. So one of the things young people helped me with was – Steve you got to work on your power; here’s how you do that. When we climbed Saser Kangri II, in 2009, it was very difficult on a mountain like that to find a place to set up your tent at night. Everything around is tilted up or down. There is no flat place. In the past, we spent time looking for a place. There was nothing; we just wasted time looking. When we went back in 2011, the young guy said: we are not going to do that. We are not going to waste time. We will keep climbing and when it gets dark, we will camp. We will just figure it out. And he was right – we did figure it out. Another thing I learnt from young people is – how to go lighter. Equipment is always changing and it’s hard keeping up with it. It isn’t just technical climbing equipment it is also clothing. The young guys are really into it. If I want to get a new piece of gear, I just ask them.

Steve, your book Karakorum – Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict won the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. Can you tell us how this book came about?

I never really had an opportunity to reflect on my many expeditions spanning some thirty five years. When I came home from a trip, I would get busy with my profession and family. So I wanted to go back and examine what that was. I think that was the primary motive – see what we were doing, what it was all about. It was all these things that I had done but I really didn’t know much about. One of the big things that I realized during the writing process which I didn’t know going into it, for example, was that – when we were on K2 in 1990, we had a big dispute on our team between the four climbers and these two support guys. The two support guys – they came from Australia, they were the friends of one of the climbers – they were quite inexperienced.  They didn’t have proper footwear for instance. As soon as we saw that, the remaining three climbers said, they are not going up. It turned into a big dispute. At the end of the day, we came up with a compromise. We let the two guys climb up to 7000m using fixed ropes we put there. There were also restrictions like they shouldn’t use the food we had brought up. We compromised so because we were a four person team and we wanted all four climbers working. The process of reaching that compromise felt a little bit ugly at that time. It felt so particularly when juxtaposed on the traditional idea of the brotherhood of the rope. I left it there.  But when I started writing the book, I began thinking more and more about it and you know – that was a really good team. In reality these trips aren’t about people sitting around holding hands. You got to work through tough situations and work out compromises to keep teams together. Until the writing process, I hadn’t thought of it and figured it out. The tragedy is that we didn’t know it then.  Now we can look back and say: we made a good team.

You have spent over fifty years in climbing. You mentioned at the Himalayan Club meeting that you waited a decade for your first major summit. You said it in the context of reminding the younger generation to take things a little slow, be more patient. Can you elaborate on this point?

There is this young guy that I climb with in the Canadian Rockies. He has only got three years of experience and he is doing expert level stuff. He is a very talented athlete. He is a classic example of someone who is very strong, has a lot of athletic skills but he does not have the commonsense – you know practical knowledge of the entire landscape he is practising in – to be safe. So I am worried about him. Just last week, he took a hundred foot-fall and broke his scapula. He was lucky; he could have got hurt way worse than that. It doesn’t surprise me. I try to communicate that at least for me, it took a long time to learn how to be safe in a complex environment. Maybe I am a slow learner. But you are not going to do it overnight. The word I use a lot is patience. You got to learn to play the long game. When you are young, you are playing the short game. If you want to live to being an old guy like me, you know, you got to take it a little bit slower. Realize that you can’t learn everything that you need to know about what you are doing in a very short period of time. It is the nature of what it is. It is complicated.

Climbers on The Nose; El Capitan, Yosemite National Park (Photo: Dinesh Kaigonhalli)

Looking back, at any point in your career, was climbing ever a proving ground for you? That you got to prove that you are somebody by doing it?

No. It never felt to me like a proving ground. One of my favorite expressions is: every day is a school day. To me, it has always felt like a learning environment; never proving ground. If I felt that it was a proving ground, I’d be dead by now. That is not a sustainable way to be doing things. It is like this kid who took a hundred foot fall. He is desperate to be recognized by the climbing community as this tough guy. If he doesn’t get over that, he will get killed. I have told him so. The sport is not about that. I have written about it in the book – you know we were putting tremendous amount of effort into these trips that were not getting us to the summit. But every one of those trips was getting us closer. We did this one better than we did last time. We didn’t quite get to the top but I really feel better about how I did it. I could see that if we stayed on that trajectory then eventually we were going to succeed. We were going to have success in a way we felt in control. You know, not like – I made it to the summit but I almost died. That to me would feel like failure. I wanted success to be the result of a learning process and not the result of being crazy. That learning process – I really enjoy it.

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