KIPCHOGE TRIUMPHS AGAIN IN LONDON, KOSGEI MAKES IT KENYAN DOUBLE

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge wins the 2019 London Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of London Marathon)

In a clinical demolition of competition, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge ran the second fastest marathon in history to claim top honors at the 2019 London Marathon.

He covered the distance in two hours, two minutes and 37 seconds, a new course record.

The current world record – 2:01:39 – also held by Kipchoge, was set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.  Among the World Marathon Majors (of which the London Marathon is one), Berlin is reputed to have the fastest course.

Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei won in the women’s category in London with a timing of 2:18:20. She was followed by fellow Kenyan Vivien Cheruiyot (2:20:14) and Roza Dereje (2:20:51) of Ethiopia. Finishing second among men in London on Sunday (April 28, 2019) was Ethiopia’s Mosinet Geremew (2:02:55). The third place went to Mule Wasihun (2:03:16), also of Ethiopia.

In the event’s wheelchair race, Daniel Romanchuk of US finished first among men while Manuela Schar of Switzerland took top honors among women.

Sunday’s triumph was Kipchoge’s fourth win at the London Marathon, making him the first person to do so. He previously won the race in 2015, 2016 and 2018. Adding to his formidable reputation was that when he set the world record in Berlin, he shaved off 78 seconds from the previous record. Further as per information on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) he was heading to London with a race record of 11 marathons won from the 12 he took part in, including the 2016 Olympic title. On the eve of 2019 London Marathon, a big question was – can competition check Kipchoge’s march? Even as eventual winner on Sunday was Kipchoge, a trio of Ethiopian runners kept him company in the lead pack; the three Ethiopians performed creditably keeping the group intact for almost three quarters of the race. As Kipchoge’s relentless pace began to bite, they dropped back one by one, leaving it to Geremew to chase the Kenyan athlete often described as the greatest marathon runner yet, to the finish line. The Ethiopian finished 18 seconds behind Kipchoge.

The winners from the women’s category; from left – Roza Dereje, Brigid Kosgei and Vivien Cheruiyot (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of London Marathon)

Mo Farah, whose presence (he along with Kosgei were winners at the 2018 edition of the Chicago Marathon) was billed as competition to Kipchoge ahead of the race, had to settle for fifth position. Only the second athlete in the history of the modern Olympics to win both the 5000m and 10,000m at successive Olympic Games, Farah with one World Marathon Major victory to his name has been having a tough transition to the marathon. Although the event’s publicity machinery drummed up a Kipchoge versus Farah race, the British runner came into the race with at least seven other participants having personal best (PB) superior to his. He finished in 2:05:39, to place fifth. The run up to the 2019 London Marathon was marred by a spat between Haile Gebrselassie, one of the all-time greats of marathon, and Farah. As reported in The Guardian’s live coverage of Sunday’s race, following his fifth place-finish Farah told the media that the controversial spat hadn’t been cause for distraction. “ I felt great at the start, felt great halfway, but when the pacemakers dropped out at 20 miles, they got a gap on me and that gap was hard to close … from 20 miles the wheels came off and I was just hanging in there, to be honest,” The Guardian quoted him as saying.

India’s Nitendra Singh Rawat, who ran in the elite section of the men’s marathon, covered the distance in 2:15:59 to place 27th overall. It was certainly fast by Indian standards but not among Rawat’s own fastest runs. In 2016, Rawat had set a course record of 2:15:48 at the Mumbai Marathon. In January 2019, at the same Mumbai event, he had romped home in 2:15:52. According to reports in the national media, Rawat is the first Indian athlete to run in the elite category of the London Marathon.

Reports ahead of race day said that over 40,000 people were scheduled to participate in the 2019 London Marathon.

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

2019 BOSTON MARATHON / TALKING TO SOME OF THOSE WHO PARTICIPATED

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

Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon. It is part of the World Marathon Majors. Entry to this elite list of marathons is mostly through qualification on the strength of timing.

At the 123rd edition of the Boston Marathon, 26,632 runners completed the race. As per the race website, this amounted to a finish rate of 97.4 percent.

Weather is one of the major factors impacting performance of participants here. This time around, initial forecasts did not augur well. However the scenario changed closer to race date.

The weather could not have been more perfect, some of the runners from India that this blog spoke to, said.

Over 50 runners from India participated in the 2019 edition of the marathon. “ It was a strong performance by runners from India,’’ Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath said. He was running his tenth Boston Marathon.

Excerpts from conversations we had with runners:

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Anjali Saraogi

In India, Kolkata-based amateur marathon runner, Anjali Saraogi, often ends up on the podium in her age category in the races she participates in.

2019, at Boston, she was the fastest woman among Indian runners who participated in the iconic marathon held on April 15, 2019.

She finished the race in three hours, fourteen minutes and thirty-three seconds, achieving a personal best across marathon races she has run so far.

Anjali was on the verge of not running the race because the weather in Boston worried her. “ When I landed here a week ahead of race day, it was freezing cold with temperature around 1 degree Celsius,’’ she said. She went out for a training run but felt very cold. Her finger joints hurt. “ My feet and hands felt like stone. It was as though I was barefoot. My pacing went awry. I lost track of hydration,’’ she said.

She had her eye on the weather forecast, which kept changing but mostly appeared bleak.

Disappointed, Anjali decided that she would not run the marathon. But on Saturday, the weather showed signs of improvement.

On race day, when she left home there was torrential downpour. “ Visibility was low. I had loads of clothing on me,’’ she said. By the time she got to Hopkinton, the start point of the marathon, the downpour had reduced to mild drizzle.

“ Boston Marathon features fast runners because of the stringent qualification norms for entry. You have to run at the pace of the runners or you could be tossed around,’’ she said. Anjali was very troubled and stressed thinking about it. But after 32k, the roads open up. Also, the sun was out.

During the second half of the race, she cramped because of inadequate hydration. It stemmed from days ahead of the marathon lost to cold weather.

“ Boston is a hard race. There is not one moment of rest. It is continuously up and down. But the volunteers are so cheerful and helpful, they take the race to a different level,’’ Anjali said.

Her meticulous training helped her a great deal. Equally helpful was the marathon experience. “ The fast runners of Boston Marathon helped me achieve a personal best,’’ she said.

Anjali called Boston Marathon a glorious race. However, she is doubtful if she will repeat it given the logistics, travel expenses and most important of all – the unpredictable weather of New England.

Anubhav Karmakar (This photo was downloaded from Anubhav’s Facebook page)

Anubhav Karmakar

When you browse the results of Indian runners at 2019 Boston Marathon on the race website, the name that tops the list is that of Anubhav Karmakar.

Anubhav crossed the finish line at Boston Marathon in 2:45:45.

His target was to finish within the range of 2:43-2:46 and he achieved it. Once a corporate employee, Anubhav is now a coach for endurance races and has set up his own outfit, Athloft, offering training for running, cycling, triathlon and duathlon.

At the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Anubhav had finished third in his age category of 30-34 years with timing of 2:52:30.

Anubhav’s first foray into fitness was joining a gym but he found it unsustainable. He started running in 2013. Cycling engaged his mind more. He got into bicycle racing and slowly moved to the triathlon. He went on to do three half Ironman events.

It was in 2015 that Anubhav adopted a more structured approach to running. At the 2014 edition of Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), he had finished the full marathon in 4:22:53. In five years, he was able to chop off an hour and thirty minutes from that. Mid-April, 2019, he was at the starting line of Boston Marathon. He knew well that the course won’t be easy.

He commenced the race strong and continued to feel strong mid-way through the marathon. He did the first half very clinically, ensuring that he did not overdo. During the second half Anubhav decided to go by “feel.’’ He had heard about Heartbreak Hill, an incline that appears roughly around the 20 mile-mark on the route. Running through it was not that tough. But there were several other downhills, which proved to be difficult. “ It is difficult to pace yourself through the downhills,’’ Anubhav said.

Weather is a major challenge at Boston. On the morning of the marathon, there was heavy rain. Runners getting ready to leave for the start line had to carry a lot of waterproof stuff.

“ While we were on the bus traveling to Hopkinton, it was raining heavily. By the time we reached the start point the sun was out. I discarded my fleece jacket. After some time my gloves went off and soon after my arm warmers too came off,’’’ he said.

Anubhav finished strong. He topped the list of runners from India.

Himanshu Sareen (Photo: courtesy Himangshu)

Himanshu Sareen

Mumbai-based Himanshu Sareen was running Boston Marathon for the second year in a row. In 2018, he completed the run in 2:58:50, a timing considered quite good as race day-weather was brutal with heavy rains, strong headwinds and temperatures that were the coldest in three decades.

Many runners had dropped out of the race because of the deteriorating weather. Despite the conditions, Himanshu’s timing was not very far from his personal best of 2:49 hours, which he achieved at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

At the 2019 edition of Boston Marathon, Himanshu finished in 2:54 hours. Having set a target of sub-2:50, he started the run well. He was able to complete the first half of the marathon in 1:23 hours but the downhills in the second half slowed him down a bit prompting him to take a minute’s break at one of the aid stations.

“ For the last six months I have not been going all out in races because of a recurring hamstring problem,’’ he said. Recently he started training with Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath. He has begun to see the benefits of Ashok’s method of training and is confident of the coach’s guidance playing out in races ahead.

Himanshu started running about six years ago. Sometime in August 2013, looking for a holiday, he decided to travel to Brisbane with a friend; the latter had enrolled to run a half marathon. Himanshu did all of the three practice runs for this event – 5k, 8k and 11k. He finished the actual race in 1:47:46. By Indian amateur running standards, this is good timing for a first run.

Himanshu succumbed to the running bug.

Within a short time he ramped up to ultra-marathon distances. In 2014, he ran the 250k Fire and Ice Ultra in Iceland. The very next year, he did an ultra-run in Zermatt, Switzerland and then followed it up with UTMB. “ After these experiments with the ultra-marathon, I decided to focus on the full marathon distance,” he said.

Boston now done and dusted, next week, Himanshu will be attempting London Marathon, another of the World Marathon Majors. When that is completed, Himanshu would have run and finished all the World Marathon Majors.

Himanshu has been running marathons in various continents including Antarctica. With running, he has been able to also fulfill his passion for traveling. So far, Himanshu has traveled to 70 countries.

Purushottam Kulawade (Photo: courtesy Purushottam)

Purushottam Kulawade

In the early years of the Mumbai Marathon, Purushottam Kulawade, then a student staying at Sydenham College hostel, would walk over to Marine Drive to watch celebrity runners go by.

Enthused by the sport, he took to running. But in his first outing at a 10 kilometer-race in Pune, he ended up Did Not Finish (DNF). All the same, running continued; in 2009, he ran his first half marathon at Hyderabad and in 2010 his first full marathon at Auroville in Pondicherry.

A TCS employee, Purushottam now lives in Philadelphia. In 2018, he ran the Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon in Pennsylvania. He got a personal best of 3:08:46 hours in that marathon. His entry to the 2019 edition of Boston Marathon was secured. But his training for it was not up to the mark as he was suffering from shin splints. He had set a target of 3:05 with the aim of bettering his personal best. His run went well but as it progressed the rising temperatures became a bother. “ I had not trained for such weather,’’ he said. He finished the run in 3:14:48.

Having completed Boston Marathon, Purushottam has just one of the World Marathon Majors left – Tokyo Marathon. That opportunity may come through in 2020.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok)

Ashok Nath

For the last few years, one name has consistently figured among Indian runners attempting the Boston Marathon. The 2019 edition was Ashok Nath’s tenth outing at the event.

“ I started running Boston Marathon with no intention of doing it so many times. After I completed it seven times, I thought I might as well do it ten times as ten is a nice number,’’ he said. To run Boston Marathon he has to block the month of April for it. It rules out the possibility of participating in Rotterdam Marathon, London Marathon and Paris Marathon, he said.

“ There is something about Boston Marathon. As 80 percent of the entrants come through the qualifying route, you end up running with runners of high caliber,’’ he said. The entire city comes out to support the runners.

He also pointed out that weather was a concern. On the morning of the run, skies were cloudy and there was heavy rain. “ My shoes and socks were wet,’’ he said. But as time went by, the weather improved.

The Bengaluru-based runner and coach wanted to finish strong and therefore did not want to push too much, early in the race. “ I was supposed to pace somebody. For the first five kilometers, I was searching for this runner but I could not find him. I then continued running at my pace,’’ he said. Ashok finished the run in 3:10:09 hours.

The uniqueness of Boston Marathon may prompt Ashok to go for it again. He has time to decide until September when registrations open for the next edition. At one level, he also wants to shift to shorter distance obstacle races.

In June 2019, he will be attempting his fifth Comrades Marathon, the ultra-marathon in South Africa.

Sharath Kumar Adanur (Photo: courtesy Sharath)

Sharath Kumar Adanur

Entry norms for Boston Marathon are tough and yet runners, who are able to achieve the qualifying time, come back time and again to attempt it.

At the 2019 edition of Boston Marathon, Sharath Kumar Adanur, currently a resident of Jamshedpur, was attempting the race for the second time in a row.

“ I would like to come back to Boston. It is a challenging run,” he said.

With near perfect weather prevailing, Sharath had a very good run finishing the marathon in 2:51:28. He emerged second fastest from among the runners from India. However, he fell short of his target of sub-2:50. “ I trained well but I feel I should have put in more downhill training,’’ he said.

Last year, he had finished Boston Marathon amid difficult weather conditions. Sharath covered the distance in 3:17 hours; he ended up with hypothermia. He wanted to return to Boston and enjoy the race.

On a quest to complete the World Marathon Majors, Sharath will be returning the U.S. to attempt Chicago Marathon, later this year.  In 2017, he had completed New York City Marathon finishing the race in 2:57 hours.

Seema Yadav (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Seema Yadav

For Seema Yadav, it was her first time running the Boston Marathon.

She was mentally prepared for challenging course and weather.

Standing in her corral at the start line, Seema could only feel a sense of elation at the fortune of getting a chance to run the world’s most iconic marathon.

“ It was like a dream run for me,’’ she said. Yet, the race was not without challenges. “ Every hour the weather was changing. From cloudy, rainy, cold weather to humid and hot conditions, you experienced everything in those few hours,’’ she said.

Seema was nursing injuries. Three weeks prior to the marathon, she suffered Illiotibial band (IT band) and Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL) insertion injuries.  Her training got hampered.

“ It was extremely painful. I could not bend my knee. If I bend my knee I would have shooting pain and my knee would lock,’’ she said. She visited the physiotherapist daily until she left for Boston.

But the pain remained. Having got entry to Boston Marathon through qualification, she did not want to give up.

“ During the run, the support from volunteers and local residents was so amazing that it helped me divert my mind from my pain,’’ she said. The pain kept worsening and Seema wondered if she should stop for a while but decided against it. She continued running.

“ So many thoughts were going through my mind as I ran. I kept repeating a mantra to help me calm down. A famous Hindi film song, Ruk Jana Nahi was also running through my mind. I was feeling so overwhelmed that I could come here and run this marathon in which 80 percent of runners are selected through qualification,’’ she said.

When she finished the race, she was in no position to stand. She was in severe pain; her blood pressure had also dropped. She was escorted to the medical camp where she spent some time before she began to feel better. Despite all these problems, Seema finished Boston Marathon in 3:26:46, a personal best.

A recent entrant into amateur running, Seema had finished overall fifth among amateur runners and first in the age group of 35-39 years at 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon. Her timing was 3:30:01 hours.

Tanmaya Karmarkar (Photo: courtesy Tanmaya)

Tanmaya Karmarkar

At Boston Marathon, Tanmaya Karmarkar was among runners from India who completed the race in less than three hours, thirty minutes.

She finished the run in 3:29 hours, a personal best for her.

“ At the start line, I was completely drenched and cold. Soon it started to get so humid and hot,’’ she said. The second half of the run was a little tough for her.

Tanmaya has been running for the past four to five years. She has finished on the podium at some of the races she participated in, in India. A Pune resident, she trains under Ashok Nath. At Boston, her target was sub-3:30 and she was able to achieve it.

She completed the Berlin Marathon in 2018 and is scheduled to go for the Chicago Marathon later this year.

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Sandeep Kumar

In the 2018 edition of South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, Sandeep Kumar became the fastest Indian to complete the 90 k ultra-marathon, in the downhill version of the event. He completed the run in seven hours, thirty minutes.

A podium finisher at many of the races that he participates in, Sandeep works as an engineer with L&T in Surat. His preferred terrain for running is trail.

Originally from Haryana, he forayed into long-distance running in 2014. “ When I started running, I had heard about the stringent qualifying time required for entry into Boston Marathon,’’ he said. April 2019, at Boston, his run went off very well.

In 2018, Sandeep had participated in the 30th IAU 100k World Championship held in Croatia. He has also represented India at World Championships in South Africa and China previously.

Sandeep’s training for Boston Marathon was impacted as he was called by Athletics Federation of India (AFI) to attend a certificate course for coaches (to train those in the under-16 age category) at Patiala. He lost two weeks in March, a month ahead of Boston Marathon. The positive side was that he topped the course and stands a good chance of being called for the next level.

In November 2018, Sandeep met with an accident that resulted in hip dislocation. Recovering from that, a month later, he set a course record in the 33k Chambal Challenge in Kota, Rajasthan, with a timing of 2:32:44 hours.

At Boston, the logistics to get to the start point can be quite an ordeal. Also, the fatigue of jet lag was weighing him down.

“ There was so much energy in Boston. I began to feel very positive. I initially started quite fast and then cut back on my speed. I ran four minutes per kilometer until 30k and then slowed down a bit,’’ he said. He finished the marathon in 2:56:07 hours, a personal best. He was one among five runners from India who secured sub-three hours finish this year at the event.

Subhojit Roy (Photo: courtesy Subhojit)

Subhojit Roy

Subhojit Roy’s training for Boston Marathon went off fairly well.

However, he feels that it could have been better.

After running Chicago Marathon in 2018 where he finished in 3:15:25, he ran the full marathon at Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) in January 2019.

“ It was a mistake to run the full marathon in Mumbai. Also, I did not drink adequate water or consume gels. Race day was hot. It took me about two to three weeks to get back to training for Boston Marathon,’’ he said.

Nevertheless, the run at Boston was “ fantastic.’’ He finished it in 3:14:33, a personal best.

At Boston, Subhojit was to be paced by his coach but the two of them could not meet. “ I ended up running the first half faster than expected,’’ he said.

In his youth, Subhojit played badminton on a regular basis. As the years went by, the regularity declined and the sport became confined to weekends. Soon friends also disappeared for various reasons; some laid low by injury.

“ I realized that I have to continue my fitness regimen solo. I started running and towards the end of 2013 I enrolled for a race,’’ Subhojit said. He ran that race without any training.

He enrolled for more long-distance running events. With each race his efficiency kept improving. “ I was also committed a lot of mistakes. I learnt from them,’’ he said.

At the 2016 edition of Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), Subhojit ran the full marathon. He finished in 4:30 hours. The timing was not bad for debut but he had to walk the last 10 kilometers to complete the run.

A friend suggested that he attend a workshop conducted by Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath. “ I attended his workshop in 2016 in Mumbai and learnt a lot about the technique of running,’’ he said. He also realized that if he has to run a full marathon, he has to approach it seriously. He enrolled to train with Ashok Nath.

With guidance from the coach, he was able to correct his errors and systematically improve his timing. Participating in the 2017 edition of Berlin Marathon he finished the race in 3:22 hours; this enabled him to qualify for Boston Marathon. For his age group, the qualifying time required was 3:25 hours.

At the 2018 edition of TMM, Subhojit bettered that time to 3:20 hours and a month later at the New Delhi Marathon (NDM), improved it further to 3:16. “ I used the NDM timing to register for Boston as the margin was better,’’ he said.

The race experience in Boston was fantastic with great crowd support. “ When I finished I felt good. I would definitely like to go back to Boston,’’ Subhojit said.

Lata Alimchandani (Photo: courtesy Lata)

Lata Alimchandani

When she crossed the finish line at 2019 Boston Marathon, Lata Alimchandani had reasons to be happy.

With this run, she completed all the six World Marathon Majors.

Her timing at Boston (4:04:43) was a new personal best (PB).

“ I could have finished the run in 3:59,’’ she said with a hint of regret. At mile 24, she saw a young woman runner being picked up by the medical team. She lost some time there. “ I also don’t run with my eye on the watch. Had I done that I could have finished in better timing,’’ she said. Nevertheless she is happy with the outcome and the new PB.

On the morning of race day, there was a lot of confusion over what to wear for the race. “ We got a message that it is going to be stormy and windy with heavy rains. I had to wear layers and cover my shoes in plastic. But by the time I reached the start line the weather had changed. There was a scramble to remove some of the layers,’’ she said.

The Boston Marathon course is tough. But the organization was excellent, she said. This was her seventh international run; she has run marathons at Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Chicago, New York, Tokyo and Boston.

She ran the Tokyo Marathon in March this year.

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

SLOW TRAIN TO NORTH PARAVUR

Photo: Vijayan Pillai

If I am along for a run, it typically tends to be slow. A slow train huffing and puffing along, valuing the sights and thoughts along the way, as much as it does, progress to destination. Here’s another one from this blog’s slow train series – this time a run in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, from Edappally to North Paravur via some lovely islands. It was a run against the backdrop of Vishu, Easter and elections.

Sleep took a while coming.

The only other occupant of the dormitory located at KPCC Junction, Ernakulam, talked endlessly on his cellphone. I was in a mood to sleep. I craved quietness. Our argument reached nowhere.  After a while the man heeded my request and went out to continue speaking. The room was now quiet.

The combined might of the air conditioner and the ceiling fan, spread a fragile cool around. It was relief from Kerala’s punishing summer of 2019. I remembered the events of morning gone by. Athey, aane medikunnathinu munpe thoti medikkanam – the old man’s quip had smacked of quintessential Kerala. There are many such proverbs and observations in Malayalam that sieve out clutter for clarity.

Hours earlier, we were three runners tackling a lovely route – just over a half marathon – from Edappally to Paravur amid heat wave in Kerala. Before long I was shades of wilting.

Vijayan Pillai (left) and Naushad Asanar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Truth be told, the weather that April morning was a bit forgiving. The preceding days had felt like sauna – hot and humid. The morning of the Paravur run was tolerably warm but the humidity remained.  My friends – Naushad and Vijayan – had done a superb job designing the route. We began close to Edappally, on the new highway linking Edappally to Guruvayur. At the Cheranellur signal junction, we turned on to the Container Terminal road leading to Kochi’s Vallarpadam Transhipment Terminal (the road is also host to the large hospital complex called Aster Medcity). Some distance up this road, we veered off well-built highway and made for the first of the ferries that would take us to a couple of islands and the rather intimate experience of running on their narrow roads. It was ambiance distinctly slow in pace compared to Ernakulam. In fact, one of those islands didn’t have a proper road. It had instead a broad cement path. For a significant portion of the whole way, we were in the vicinity of Kochi’s backwaters as well as places hosting shrimp farms, locally called chemmeenkettu. Naushad, who was my classmate in school, had visited some of these farms just days earlier, when the end of a season of farming was celebrated with food festival for the public. After the farming contractors have taken their share of the catch, the rest is available for the food festival, including opportunity for the public to catch shrimp. Vishu – the Malayali New Year – had just gone by and Easter was approaching. Prayer meetings were underway at the churches we passed as we ran across those islands.

Early morning; two men paddling by in a canoe (Photo: Vijayan Pillai)

The 2019 Lok Sabha election made its presence felt through posters on boundary walls and party symbols drawn on the road. We – as well as every passing pedestrian stamped on those symbols. Vehicles drove over them. The logic behind painting symbols to be trampled upon so, is beyond my grasp. As the day warmed up, reaching a ferry was opportunity to rest for my progressively wilting self. Ferries on these small islands where people seemed to know each other, were an informal affair. Sometimes, the boat is there, the customers are there but the driver is absent. You look around puzzled. Everybody is waiting. You ask and the explanation is provided: oh, he has gone to his house for breakfast. You could imagine window somewhere nearby, beyond which, sat the ferry driver sipping tea, having breakfast, watching his customers gather.  He knows the limits of their patience. They know he will come; eventually. For city dwellers like my friends and I, ferries are romantic, reminiscent of a slower past when Kerala felt like Kerala. The view from the islands is different. They have longstanding demand for bridges. At one place, the ferry operated like threatened species for the bridge, nearly complete and awaiting finishing touches loomed some distance away. What would happen to ferry when bridge becomes functional? Asked, a man on the ferry retorted, “ the bridge is not entirely complete. If it was, the ferry wouldn’t be there. Would it?’’ Two men on a canoe rowed by, unhurriedly. There was neither the noise of ferry engine nor the arrogance of traffic to be, in their passage.

Following the first ferry, we passed through Pizhala. The island’s history as provided on Wikipedia, made it interesting in the time of our run. The heat wave accentuating Kerala’s summer of 2019, assumed prominence because it highlighted vagaries in weather following as it did, torrential rains and massive flooding in 2018. Many news reports around that period of heavy rainfall recalled previous instances of flooding, among them the time a great flood is said to have choked the ancient port of Muziris near Kodungallur, leading to its eventual decline. According to Wikipedia, Pizhala – it is composed of sedimentary sand – was born in that flood of 1341 AD. Some more running interspersed with a couple of ferries, took us through Cheria Kadamakkudi and Kadamakkudi before touching Chathanad on the mainland, about ten kilometers away from Paravur. We met the old man at the final ferry between Kadamakkudi and Chathanad. A big, hefty concrete bridge straddled the backwaters here. It stood high above water and short of land at both ends. The government – so the old man said – hadn’t yet worked out details of land acquisition for the bridge to truly connect. He was utterly cynical about the bridge and similar others around. “ Every election they make tall promises. We get taken for a ride,’’ he said before launching into the earlier cited proverb, which when translated means: before you buy an elephant, you should get an elephant goad (bullhook). “ What is the point in having a bridge that doesn’t connect? They should have secured land first and then built it. Now it sits there like an elephant,’’ he said.

Bridge to nowhere (Photo: Naushad Asanar)

The most visible worries about Kerala grew similarly; promise transformed to errant elephant. Through the 1970s and 80s even as Kerala gained on social indices, the state’s politics damaged its capacity for enterprise. In direct proportion to poor employment opportunities at home and the then prevailing hostility towards entrepreneurship, the Malayali traveled out to work. Remittance economy took root. In the years since, thanks mainly to remittance economy and to a lesser degree – sectors like tourism and IT flourishing in Kerala, not to mention incomes rising in general; quality of life improved. But alongside, the state has lifestyle problems related to affluence; high degree of consumerism, reluctance to work unless it is high paid or socially respectable (a growing share of Kerala’s workforce is now from outside), garbage disposal issues, environmental degradation, lonely households and families caught between tradition and change. This overall predicament is the biggest errant elephant of all. Tackling it will find no mention on anyone’s election manifesto. Over the almost two months I spent in Kerala (from late February 2019 to mid-April), political controversies were several. They became fuel for election campaigns. Yet few of these issues seemed the sort that genuinely mattered to human life or Kerala’s future. Perhaps there is reason after all why political symbols end up drawn on the road. One of the candidates in the fray in my cousin’s constituency had promised to address garbage. “ If he wants to clear garbage why can’t he do it right away? Why wait to win elections before doing that?’’ she asked angrily.

Metro Pod (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The ferry driver, who had gone home for tea, appeared. The old man drove his scooter on to the ferry – essentially a platform on two canoes with rusty engine for propulsion. We moved by the side of the bridge, like an ant in water next to elephant cooling off in the heat.  Roughly a kilometer into Chathanad on the other side, we plonked down at a restaurant for a small serving of fantastic puttu (steamed rice cake) washed down by black tea. “ Not on cycles today?’’ the lady who served us, asked. The road in front was apparently regular route for Ernakulam’s cyclists. “ We know them. They are our friends. But we are into running,’’ Vijayan explained. Both he and Naushad are members of Soles of Cochin, the biggest running group in the region. A man, the owner of the place, appeared. “ Next time you come, bring your friends too. You must halt here for refreshments. This place gives you a feel of village life. We have developed some facilities for visitors to stay as well,’’ the owner said. Past this restaurant, yours truly slowed down progress. The heat was beginning to get me. I had to run slowly; even avail a few stretches of walking. We halted again for lemonade. Naushad and Vijayan were patient with me. The laid back-feel of the islands receded as we drew closer to Paravur, which is a bustling town. Shaded roads became few. Traffic increased. At the town’s main junction, we officially concluded the run and headed for breakfast. “ We ran a half marathon but have eaten to compensate for a full,” Naushad joked. A brief visit to my uncle’s house in Paravur and then we took the bus to Aluva, followed by the metro to Ernakulam.

The dormitory (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By evening, it was my turn to play elephant in water; escape the summer heat. I checked into Metro Pod, a new air conditioned dormitory for backpackers at Ernakulam’s KPCC Junction, called so after the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC). The Congress party’s regional office has functioned from here since 1957. Until recently, it used to be in the same building as Metro Pod. Once the party vacated, the third generation owners didn’t want to pull down the building or alter its structure. They elected to work around it and find suitable function. That’s how a dormitory for backpackers materialized (a regular hotel instead would have meant changing existing structure). The well-kept dormitory fetched me sleep and respite from the heat. The KPCC office, I was told, had shifted to another building nearby.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is the longer version of a small piece written by the author and published in Telegraph newspaper in April 2019)

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

Founder of Satara Hill Half Marathon dies in road accident

News reports today (Sunday, April 28, 2019) said that Dr Sandeep Lele, 48, one of the founders of Satara Hill Half Marathon, passed away in an accident.

The mishap occurred on Saturday morning while Dr Lele was cycling on the Pune-Satara highway. According to one report, the exact nature of the road accident was being investigated as it was unclear if the cyclist was hit by a moving truck or he rammed into a stationary one.

Dr Lele, who sustained injuries to his neck in the accident, was rushed to hospital in Satara but was declared dead on arrival. He was a runner, cyclist and swimmer.

Satara Hill Half Marathon is among best known races in Maharashtra.

Nitendra Singh Rawat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Impressive line-up for 2019 London Marathon / Nitendra Singh Rawat among those at start line

Kenya’s world record holder in the marathon and London Marathon defending champion Eliud Kipchoge will have fellow countryman Wilson Kipsang and UK’s Mo Farah for company at the start line of the 2019 edition of the event scheduled for April 28.

Kipchoge’s personal best (PB) over the 42 kilometer-distance is 2:01:39; that of Kipsang and Farah – 2:03:13 and 2:05:11 respectively. Others from the start line (as per race information available on the event website) with PBs ranged between Kipchoge and Farah include Ethiopian runners Mosinet Geremew (PB: 2:04:00), Leule Gebrselassie (2:04:02), Tamira Tolat (2:04:06), Mule Wasihun (2:04:37) and Tola Shura Kitata (2:04:49). Among women, defending champion Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya (PB: 2:18:31) will be joined by fellow Kenyan runners Mary Keitany (2:17:01), Gladys Cherono (2:18:11) and Brigid Kosgei (2:18:35) at the start line.

Indian elite marathon runner Nitendra Singh Rawat will be one of the participants. He was the winner among Indian elite runners at Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) 2019, finishing the race in 2:15:52 hours. He has a personal best (PB) of 2:15:48. A report in Mid-Day informing of his departure for London said he would be looking to complete the run in 2:12-2:13. According to the report, Procam International – they are the organizers of TMM – have sponsored his passage to London. For more on Nitendra Singh Rawat please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/11/13/an-afternoon-in-ranikhet/

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Rohit Yadav sets new under-18 national record

Rohit Yadav placed first in the under-18 age category for boys at the second National Javelin Throw Open Championships held mid-April 2019 at the SAI Regional Center in Sonipat.

According information available on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), Rohit unleashed two throws over 81 meters – 81.37m and 81.73m – in the final. His other legal throw was also well past the 73.01m notched up by the athlete placed second.

Earlier at the same event, in the run up to the final, Rohit had set a new under-18 national record with a throw of 81.75m.

Rohit is the son of well-known amateur runner, Sabhajeet Yadav.

For more on Rohit, please try these links:

https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/09/a-javelin-for-rohit/

https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/14/rohit-yadav-new-javelin-new-phase/

https://shyamgopan.com/2018/08/01/rohit-yadav-training-abroad-on-the-cards/

Climbers perish in avalanche on Howse Peak

Climbers David Lama, Jess Roskelly and Hansjorg Auer died in an avalanche on Canada’s Howse Peak (10,810 feet).

Members of the Global Athlete Team of The North Face, they were attempting a 3280 feet-climbing route called M16 on the peak’s east face, Outside magazine reported. “ The line is considered one of the most difficult in the area,’’ the magazine said.

The climbers were reported overdue on April 17. Subsequently, officials surveyed the area – it falls in Banff National Park – and found signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing gear.

The bodies of the three climbers were recovered on April 21.

It is believed that they successfully summitted the peak and died on the descent.

India places fourth in medals tally at 2019 Asian Athletics Championships

At the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships held in Doha from April 21-24, India finished fourth in the medals tally with 17 medals overall, including three gold.

While China bagged the most number of medals (29 including nine gold medals), Bahrain took top honors with 22 medals overall including 11 gold.

For India, P. U. Chitra (1500m / women), Gomathi Marimuthu (800n / women) and Tejinder Pal Singh Toor (shotput / men) secured gold. Other medal winners included Sapna Barman (silver / heptathlon); Avinash Sable (silver / 3000m steeplechase / men), Ajay Kumar Saroj (silver / 1500m / men), Gavit Murli Kumar (bronze / 10,000m / men), Jabir Madari Palliyalil (bronze / 400m hurdles / men), Shivpal Singh (silver / javelin throw / men) Dutee Chand (bronze / 200m / women), M. R. Poovamma (bronze / 400m / women), Parul Chaudhuary (bronze / 5000m / women), Sanjivani Jadhav (bronze / 10,000m / women) , Sarita Gayakwad (bronze / 400m hurdles / women) and Annu Rani (silver / javelin throw / women).

Additionally Indian teams secured silver in the women’s 4 x 400m relay and the mixed 4 x 400m relay. The men’s 4 x 400m relay team, which finished second was unfortunately disqualified under rule 163.2 (causing impediment to an athlete by jostling or obstructing), a report on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI) said.

Overall India won three gold medals, seven silver medals and seven bronze medals at the Doha meet.

Largest ever athletics exhibition commences in Doha

The world’s largest ever athletics exhibition has opened in Doha, Qatar.

According to information available on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the IAAF Heritage World Athletics Championships Exhibition, which opened in the Qatari capital on April 18, is the largest ever of its kind and celebrates the history of the IAAF World Athletics Championships.

The first edition of the championships was held in Helsinki 36 years ago.

Doha is slated to hold the 2019 edition.

The exhibition which opened in the largest shopping mall in Qatar will continue for the next six months and conclude on October 7. During that time Doha will host the Asian Athletics Championships, Doha Diamond League and IAAF World Athletics Championships.

The events are expected to draw athletes, media and fans of the sport to Qatar.

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 authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists 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.)