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.)