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.) 

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