THE MAHAJAN BROTHERS AND MAY 22 ON EVEREST

Everest (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Mahajan Brothers and is being used here for representation purpose.)

The Sea to Sky Expedition by the Nashik based-Mahajan brothers concluded as planned with a successful ascent of Everest. But it came at a cost. This is their story:

Early morning May 22, 2019, Dr Mahendra Mahajan reached the summit of Everest.

“ I was among those arriving there early in the day. So I was spared much of what unfolded on the peak this season,’’ he said. But he committed a mistake; a small one in anyone’s eyes, except that at high altitude, consequences – especially handling them – can be challenging. When taking photos at the planet’s highest point, he briefly pushed his glacier goggles on to his forehead. It wasn’t for long as in the extreme cold of the summit, his cell phone as well as a small digital camera he carried, clicked only a few pictures before their battery died. When he returned the goggles to his eyes he found that the glass surface was coated in ice, too tough to remove by rubbing. Goggles on, he couldn’t see a thing. So he switched to a pair of ski glasses that he had carried as spare. They were not the ideal replacement. They were not designed for the glare of punishing altitudes; their bulky construction was also such that climbers who value being able to see their feet were denied that by intervening frame. He had to be careful. By the time he set out for Camp 4 from the summit, Mahendra could see the first signs of what had been generally apprehended – a traffic jam of climbers close to the summit of Everest.

When Nashik-based Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – aka Mahajan brothers – announced their Sea to Sky expedition, it was regular adventure engagingly packaged. They were accomplished cyclists; they were the first Indians to complete Race Across America (RAAM), they had cycled the full length of India’s highway system called Golden Quadrilateral. More recently, Mahendra had set a record for the fastest passage by a cyclist on the Kashmir to Kanyakumari route. Sea to Sky had shades of Goran Kropp to it. In 1996, the Swedish adventurer and mountaineer had cycled alone from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest without oxygen and cycled back part of the way. The Mahajan brothers (among the two, Hitendra is a trained mountaineer) planned a bicycle trip from Mumbai to Kathmandu and then, a guided ascent of Everest.

Dr Hitendra Mahajan on the summit of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

They commenced their bicycle ride from Mumbai on March 31, 2019. They cycled in relay pattern, taking turns to be on the road. A reason for this was that their expedition also included work towards spreading awareness about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The brothers covered the distance from Mumbai to Kathmandu in about a week. They reached the Nepali capital on April 7. A day after reaching Kathmandu, the brothers took the flight to Lukla.  The Everest attempt was as part of a team managed by Kathmandu-based Pioneer Adventure. The team included Everest aspirants from India, Pakistan, USA and Singapore. They commenced their walk-in to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Lukla. Along the way, they climbed Island Peak (20,305 feet). After the walk-in and the trips up Everest (highest point reached doing so being Camp 3) they descended to Debouche set amid green surroundings at lower altitude to rest and recover.

According to Mahendra, the brothers stayed in Debouche for 4-5 nights following which, they trekked back slowly to EBC. Another 4-5 days were spent at EBC. A concern during this entire period was when the summit window would be. You need clear days with manageable wind speed. In 2018, there had been a week or so of such weather. This time, the weather seemed fickle. To complicate matters, from April 26 to May 5, Cyclone Fani, the first severe cyclonic storm of the year was detected and tracked en route to India. It had its landfall in Odisha and after visiting Bangladesh, saw its remnants dissipate over Bhutan. All this was away from Nepal but in the world of weather, enough to call neighborhood. For the 2019 climbing season, Nepal had issued around 381 permits. A few hundred climbers, guides and support staff were due to ascend Everest. At EBC, people tuned in to multiple weather forecasts. Eventually, Mahendra said, the period around May 22-23 was decided as summit window. He recalled May 24 being cited as not good. Everyone jumped on to the May 22 / 23 bandwagon. That, he said, is how the bunching of climbers witnessed in 2019 commenced. The climbs by various teams couldn’t be spread out. The team the Mahajan brothers were on commenced its trip from EBC to higher camps around 2 AM on May 18. “ Our first taste of what could potentially happen came at the Khumbu Icefall, where the glacier is heavily crevassed. At sections where ladders were few, queues occurred. If it was a single file it would have been alright. Problem was – it was managed a bit badly. So at times, there was more than one line and resultant delay. At one big ladder there was a line of 50-100 climbers,’’ Mahendra said.

Dr Mahendra Mahajan on the summit of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

The night of May 18 and 19, they spent at Camp 2. From there it was six to eight hours to Camp 3. “ Half of this section is a gradual climb, the rest is fairly steep,’’ Mahendra said. At Camp 3, oxygen bottles were used while sleeping at night. The regulator was set to a gentle flow. From Camp 3 it was an eight hour-climb to Camp 4 at around 8000 meters. “ We reached it on the afternoon of May 21. Same night at around 7 PM we set off for the summit,’’ Mahendra said. The brothers started out together but on a mountain, everyone drifts to their respective pace. Mahendra, who is the younger of the Mahajan brothers, went ahead with his guide. Hitendra and his guide followed, the gap between the two brothers slowly growing. After about four to five hours of ascending the peak, Mahendra reached the area called Balcony. There was slow moving traffic here. “ It was just slow, that’s all; people were beginning to tire. Else there was nothing complicated. Most people were glad to continue so. A handful of climbers, who still had much energy in them, would overtake and go ahead,’’ Mahendra said.

Everything was fine till South Summit. Past this point, the nature of the route changed. It became significantly narrow. Up to South Summit, although climbers were many, a sense of bunching wasn’t felt except at occasional bottlenecks. From South Summit onward, through Hilary Step and on to the actual summit of Everest, the narrow ridge was invitation for bunching. The horizon was just warming up to light as Mahendra approached the summit. “ I had to pause due to clustering of climbers only at Hillary Step. Otherwise everything was under control,’’ Mahendra said of his passage to the summit. But photos taken, as he began his descent to Camp 4, a line of climbers was clearly manifesting.

Tired and coping with altitude, the climbers moved slowly. Complicated tasks are challenging in this state. So, few tried to get past others. Doing so requires clipping in and out from fixed ropes. The queue moved slowly. Then it ground to a halt. “ At this stage there was no co-ordination. The whole line came to a standstill,’’ Mahendra said. A climber who was behind him in the queue asked if he could move past Mahendra and go ahead. Doing so, he negotiated his way across a patch of terrain Mahendra evaluated as unsafe. Seeing this, others started pressuring Mahendra too to proceed and cross the risky patch; it would be a move executed without proper anchors and safety. “ I too tackled that portion and became free of the bottleneck,’’ Mahendra said. But fresh trouble was setting in. Exposed to the environment on the summit when he removed his goggles and inadequately protected from the glare later because he was wearing ski glasses, his eyes were becoming painful. At about 1.30 PM in the afternoon, Mahendra reached Camp 4. His guide wanted him to carry on further down but he was tired. More important he wanted to wait for Hitendra, who he had last seen going up, while Mahendra was already descending. Hitendra had asked him if he was faring alright with his glasses. About an hour into his stay at Camp 4, Mahendra developed severe burning sensation in his eyes. “ My eyes were very painful and watery. I almost cried from the discomfort. It was the most painful night of my life. Adding to the stress was – I had no idea what happened to Hitendra,’’ he said.

Dr Hitendra Mahajan (left) and Dr Mahendra Mahajan. This photo is from days prior to the summit push (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

Hitendra was in the thick of the traffic jam and the impact it wrought. His case too was a series of cascading events commencing in a minor detail. When he started out for the summit, he gave his spare goggles to a Sherpa having none. Moving at a gentler pace than Mahendra, by the time Hitendra got to the upper parts of the summit push, traffic jam had set in. It meant slow progress and that much more time spent in conditions hostile to the human body. While he was otherwise alright, the longer time spent so meant his goggles started to ice up. He must have removed them and tried to rub off the ice. “ By the time he reached the summit, Hitendra was totally snow-blind. He couldn’t see a thing,’’ Mahendra said. Then their colleague on the same team, Don Cash, a client from the US, collapsed and died. (On May 24, Time magazine reported: While Sherpa guides with the company tried to keep him alive through CPR and by raising his oxygen pressure, Cash was unable to stand up or walk. As they tried to drag Cash down to a camp near Hillary Step, he fainted again and could not be revived; Pioneer Adventures said in a statement.) Hitendra’s guide asked him if he would be able to descend with assistance. He said yes. “ That was how he began coming down from the summit. He couldn’t see anything but the Sherpa told him where to keep his feet and helped him climb down. Noticing the situation, Don Cash’s guide also pitched in to assist. Despite all this, there were instances when Hitendra, unable to see, slipped and fell. His down-suit got torn. Mahendra took approximately seven hours to reach Camp 4 from the summit. Hitendra took 19 hours. From Camp 4 to Camp 4, Hitendra’s summit day spanned roughly 29 hours, Mahendra said.

View from the summit. The glowing white ridge in front is that of Nuptse; the dark triangular shadow to its right is the shadow of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

At Camp 4, the tired climbers were lucky in one aspect – they had adequate bottled oxygen. In situations like this that is a life saver. Next morning by around 6-7 AM, they started the descent to lower camps. “ By now I was a bit rested and my eye pain was 50 per cent gone. But Hitendra, having arrived late, hadn’t had much rest. He was still blind seeing people as only blurred spots,’’ Mahendra said. Twelve hours later, the brothers reached Camp 2. They stayed the night there. By next morning, more damage was becoming visible – all ten fingers on Hitendra’s hands were shades of blue from frostbite. On the bright side, his vision was beginning to improve slowly. The brothers took a chopper from Camp 2 to EBC and another from there to Lukla, where they visited the local primary health center. Then they flew to Kathmandu and onward to Delhi. May 26, late night, they reached Nashik. At the time of writing, Hitendra was recuperating in hospital. In varying degrees both brothers have suffered minor injuries on their retina. “ We are hopeful everything will heal,’’ Mahendra said.

Did they anticipate any of this when Sea to Sky kicked off from Mumbai?  “ We knew the climb wouldn’t be easy. But I wish I was warned about smaller details – like not removing one’s goggles. There were guides around who weren’t wearing goggles or kept taking them off. You see that and think you also can do it. In retrospect, if there is one advice I will give anyone venturing to climb Everest, it will be: don’t take off your glasses. I would also add that people should be flexible and not be insistent or egoistic about gaining the summit. Beyond South Summit – that is where I found the problems to be. If the situation is bad and it seems wise to turn back from there, you should,’’ Mahendra said.

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

INDIAN PARTICIPATION IN COMRADES UP YEAR AFTER YEAR

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

Over 200 runners from India are expected to participate in the Comrades Marathon in South Africa on June 9, 2019.

Indian participation at the event has been rising every year. In the 2018 edition of the ultramarathon, over 160 Indian runners had registered to participate.

Promoted as the `Ultimate Human Race,’ Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of 87-89 kilometers run between the cities of Durban on the coast and Pietermaritzburg at an elevation of 1955 feet.

The race, which draws runners from several countries, was first held in May 1921. The race alternates each year between uphill and downhill and between the two cities mentioned.

This year’s edition is an uphill run with runners having to complete a total distance of 86.83 kilometers in a time of 12 hours with six timing cut-offs in between. The race will start at the Durban City Hall and end at Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg, the event’s Instagram post said.

This year’s overall registration is higher at 25,000 runners compared to 20,000 runners last year.

Comrades Marathon has been gaining popularity among Indian recreational long-distance runners over the past few years. “ Event support is good. It is a very well organized event. This time around 210 persons have registered to run from India,’’ Satish Gujaran, Mumbai-based ultramarathon runner, said.

Satish will be running the Comrades race for the tenth time in a row this June. Once he completes his tenth Comrades, he will be awarded a Green Number. Green Number runners are allowed to retain their Comrades Marathon bib number in perpetuity.

Satish Gujaran (Photo: courtesy Satish)

According to him, training for the ultramarathon is very important. Training starts in February with four key long runs – 42k in February, 56k in March, 65k in April and another 56k in May before the tapering phase commences.

Satish first ran the Comrades Marathon in 2010. Since then, he has not missed running the iconic ultramarathon a single year. “ In the early years it was difficult to train for Comrades because there were not many runners. Training for Comrades needs the support of other runners,’’ he said.

Given the rising number of runners, planning training runs for Comrades Marathon has become easy. “ Some 100 runners participate in training runs nowadays,’’ he said.

The crowd support, cheering, volunteering and the carnival-like atmosphere in South Africa prompts runners to come back time and again to run the race, Satish said.

“ You will find people with their families lining up all along the route to cheer and support runners,’’ he said.

For entry to Comrades you have to meet specified time limits. If it is a marathon that you participated in earlier and wish to submit as proof of eligibility, it must meet the cut-off of 4:49:59 required to qualify. For 48-50k it is 5:49:59; for 52-54k it is 6:24:59, for 56k – 6:44:59, for 60k – 7:19:59, for 64k – 7:54:59, for 68k – 8:29:59, for 80k – 10:24:59, for 90k – 11:59:59 and for 100k – 13:29:59. These time limits are as of 2019. The comparatively low entry barrier for Comrades has also helped grow the number of runners from India year after year, observers said.

Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath will be attempting his fifth Comrades race this time. He resorts to a lean and a short training program that entails running long distances not more than 40k. “ If you approach Comrades smartly by jogging and walking, you can complete the race without much difficulty,’’ he said.

Ashok Nath (photo: courtesy Ashok)

According to him, an ultramarathon has to be approached at two levels – physiological and psychological. “ If you cannot foresee running the distance in 11 hours you should not attempt running Comrades. That’s because you need to keep at least one hour buffer as anything can go wrong in the duration of the run,’’ he said.

He also suggested the option of doing a 12-hour bicycle ride as part of the training.

“ When I first ran the Comrades Marathon in 2011, there were all of seven runners from India attempting it. This year, there are over 200 runners participating,’’ said Dilip Patil, a Mumbai-based recreational runner.

He has completed Comrades seven times. He registered for the 2019 edition but will not be participating as he is nursing an injury.

According to him, there are three milestones to achieve at Comrades Marathon – you run once; run both the up version and the down version, run the event 10 times to get the green number.

“ Once you go there and see the environment you fall in love with the event. It is a test of physical and mental fitness,’’ Dilip said.

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

THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MIRROR

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to media reports, as of May 28, eleven people had died in the 2019 climbing season on Everest. It is time to rethink Everest in the head. For one’s own head – that’s where it all begins.

Long before the ultra-fast fuel refills of today, gas stations were a much slower affair.

Where digits flash by at present, technology then was a lazy roll of printed numbers on the counter. Every liter which typically took several seconds to be reached was marked by the sound of a metallic chime. The chime wasn’t the only sound characterizing gas station. The pump was sometimes noisy; it’s whirring sound harking of cogs and wheels within. A few chimes later, you knew the quantity of fuel you had sought for daily commute was close to being met. If it was full tank you sought, the concert lasted longer. Everest in May 2019 reminded of that old fuel dispenser. As several hundred people converged to climb the peak amid inconsistent weather conditions, every other day a chime sounded marking somebody’s demise.

The deaths were mainly on the Nepal side, along the normal climbing route on Everest. Photos from the mountain showed a long queue of climbers waiting at high altitude to access the summit and get back. The situation has been compared to a traffic jam. On May 28, it was reported that officialdom saw the traffic jam as a product of other factors. To be blamed, according to them, was adverse weather, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment. The number of climbing permits issued, they said, was only slightly more than in the previous years. The photos made an impression stronger than the officials. They aren’t the first such pictures. There have been similar ones before. You know something is deeply wrong in those images.

Left to market forces and state revenue from permits doled out, I doubt if anything will change. They may choose to refine the scenario by hiking permit fee to limit traffic or for the heck of seeming just, along with hiked fee include a portion decided by lottery. Either way, unless an element of common sense (essentially questions like: what are you on Everest’s slopes for; is the summit worth dying for, that too, death for all the wrong reasons?) and plain and simple aesthetics (questions like: what is an enjoyable climb?) prevail, meaningful correction is unlikely. What is happening on Everest has nothing to do with mountaineering. It has everything to do with the industry mountaineering spawned and is therefore, a mirror to what became of our lives.

Among discerning mountaineers, Everest by normal route is no longer a prized ascent. If you climb it by other routes, the fraternity takes note. It would therefore appear, an ascent of Everest by normal route is not meant for accolades from this fraternity. For the trained and untrained, Everest by normal route is to either satisfy one’s personal urge or harvest applause from the larger, less discerning arena. One of the causes highlighted for the deaths of 2019, was that of inexperienced climbers attempting Everest. There are those who say only trained mountaineers must be on such peaks. It has also been reported that Nepal, which has so far not sought proof of climbing experience from those arriving to attempt Everest, may now alter the rules. The emphasis on training is partly correct as required approach but it is not entirely convincing as panacea for Everest’s problems.

As is evident from the published news reports of May 2019, there are trained people too in the Everest queue, both as clients and guides. One thing I keep asking myself all the time is – which trained mountaineer in the best sense of the term would support, leave alone endure a mile long queue in the Death Zone to reach a summit? Everything about that predicament points to delay and extended stay in environment hostile to human physiology. Not to mention, even at low altitude, such spectacle filled with people challenges the very aesthetic behind courting wilderness. The saddest part of above said queue and its consequences at elevation like exhaustion, frostbite and high altitude illness is that you endanger yourself and others. Inefficient progress by one person has cascading impact down the order. It is difficult to imagine that these dangers escape the attention of the trained lot, who too are there on the peak. Why then, does the traffic jam repeat? Where is the voice of the trained lot in this regard? The media reports of May 28 said that authorities have presented double rope in the area below the summit for improved management of the flow of climbers, as solution. Like many contemporary solutions, it is a specific, technical quick-fix that spares the market larger questions.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Hence the submission, Everest is a mirror to what became of us. It reflects a host of human compulsions – from the pure mountain lover wishing to be on the world’s highest peak, to the naturally curious, to the deliberately ambitious, to those that availed loans to fund climbs and can’t turn back for fear of losing face, to those racing against their biological clock for a piece of immortality to remember life by, to those ticking off goals from a bucket list, to those seeking glory by all 8000m peaks climbed, to those chasing Seven Summits, to those seeking multiple Everest ascents, to those seeking promotion in employment through Everest summit gained, to those fearing disappearance if their CV in life does not have Everest stamped on it, to those whose livelihoods are dependent on everyone seeking Everest turning up on the mountain, to an entire industry surviving on Everest’s magnetic attraction; the list of compulsions converging on the peak every climbing season, is long.

In times by money, media and marketing each of these urges attracts exploitation. Catalyzing the process is the pressure population exerts on human activity. For sure the number of people on Everest can be capped. That is doable. What can’t be capped is the number of people dreaming Everest, which on planet hosting exploded human numbers and rat race alongside, is high. If it wasn’t for this rat race and pursuit of distinction by any means, would climbing Everest as client via normal route, be construed as extraordinary? Distinction has become highly prized and standing on a high point is among the oldest distinctions in humanity’s guide book for life.

Perhaps, journeys must become more important than goals. If you did a life time of climbing at lower altitude does that make you less than a couple of million rupees spent and foot placed on Everest’s head? The repeated tragedies on Everest are reminders in that direction. It is built into the paradigm that the quest to access a tiny piece of inhospitable real estate at 29,029 feet should reveal what is wrong with us. Wrong in this case of crowding, has come with a price: several dead.

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

ETHIOPIA’S BELIHU, KENYA’S TIROP WIN 2019 TCS WORLD 10K

Andamlak Belihu (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of TCS World 10K and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

On a day of heat and humidity, Andamlak Belihu of Ethiopia crossed the finish line in 27:56 minutes to emerge winner of the 2019 edition of TCS World 10k in Bengaluru.

He was eight seconds off his personal best and 12 seconds outside the course record, the race report available on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), said.

Uganda’s Mande Bushendich came in second with a timing of 28:03 and Ethiopia’s Birhanu Legese finished third with a timing of 28:23. According to the race report, eight men crossed the half way mark in 14:11 minutes with Bushendich taking the lead followed by Belihu. The lead changed with less than two kilometres left for the finish.

The 2019 edition of the event – India’s premier 10 kilometer-race – happened on May 19.

In the women’s race, defending champion, Agnes Tirop of Kenya was the winner with a timing of 33:55 (in 2018 she had finished the race in 31:19, a course record). Letesenbet Gidey of Ethiopia finished second while Senbere Teferi came in third. As per the provisional results all three podium finishers in the women’s category overall, had the same timing – 33:55. When contacted, an official of the race organizer, Procam International said that the three women had completed the race within microseconds of each other. “ It was very close,’’ he said.

Tirop is the first woman to win back to back in the 12 years the race has been held so far. As per the race report, the women’s race began at a modest pace with nine women going through the first half of the course in 18:06 minutes, two minutes slower than the corresponding figure from 2018. Eight of them were still bunched together as they entered the stadium (Kanteerava Stadium, from where the race commences) for a final lap. The deciding stretch was the last 50 meters with victory decided on the strength of a narrow margin. The top five finishes happened within two seconds, the report said.

The winners of 2019 TCS World 10K (This photo was downloaded from the event’s Facebook page)

Among Indian men, the podium finishers were Karan Singh (29:55), Lakshmanan Govindan (30:02) and Avinash Mukund Sable (30:36). Winners among Indian women were Sanjivani Jadhav (35:10), Parul Chaudhary (35:36) and Chinta Yadav (36:34).

Kumar Rao, who was the winner in the 70-74 age category pointed out that the weather was unusually warm and humid. “ I was well on the way for a sub-50 finish, but cramped badly at 9.6 km and lost 90 seconds recovering from it before resuming the run,’’ he said. Kumar finished in 50:47.

Shilpi Sahu, a Bengaluru-based runner, also said it was very hot and humid. “ But it did not affect me much. I had a nice run as I paced myself well. I had a couple of injuries to mind as well,’’ she said. Shilpi finished in 47:01 and got third position in her age category of 40-44 years.

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

THE BOSTON BIG SUR COMBO

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

This is an article by invitation.

Kumar Rao, now 70, started running 25 years ago during his stay in Caracas, Venezuela. He was then an employee of American Express Bank. A colleague urged him to take up running.

His first race was ten years ago, aged 60; a 10k run in Bengaluru, where he resides currently. At the age of 63, he attempted his first half marathon and two years later ran his first full marathon.

In April 2019, Kumar ran the Boston Marathon (he is among the oldest participants from India yet, at the event) for the second time and followed it up two weeks later with another full marathon at Big Sur International Marathon, held in California with the Pacific Ocean and its adjacent seashore for backdrop.

At Boston, Kumar Rao ran his personal best (PB) of 3:59:33. Though his finish at Big Sur International was tad slower than his Boston Marathon timings, Kumar considers it his best race primarily because he achieved a negative split for the first time since he took up running marathons. He also got a podium finish in his age category.

Kumar is on track to complete the six World Marathon Majors by the end of this year. He has already finished five of these events and is slated to attempt Berlin Marathon later this year to complete the tally.

Here, he talks about his journey to that second stint at running Boston Marathon and his participation in the Big Sur International Marathon.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

The last one year has been quite eventful for me, culminating with two very good runs – Boston Marathon and Big Sur International Marathon.

At 2019 Boston Marathon, I got my first sub-four hour finish of 3:59:33, a personal best. Also, I finished in the top 10 percent of the 70-74 age-group (18/189), well within my BQ time with 20 minutes to spare.

This was an improvement of more than five minutes from my previous personal best at Tokyo in February 2018 and a 25 minute improvement on my previous Boston Marathon race in 2017.

At Big Sur, I finished in 4:03 hours but here for the first time ever I managed to get a good negative split. I finished the first half of the distance in 2:05 hours and the second half in 1:58.

This was also another Boston Qualifier for me. Additionally, I won the second place in my age group and earned a spot on the Big Sur all-time Top-10 M70-74 finishers list.

Both the finishes were well within the Boston qualification time for my age group (M 70-74). My age-graded equivalent time for both races was below 2:59.

After a year beset with an episode of debilitating Chikungunya viral fever in June and an accident while running last December, I was quite pleased to score some significant achievements in these tough hilly marathons, separated only by 12 days.

When I signed up for Boston and Big Sur last September, I was recovering from the Chikungunya attack of June. This had caused some serious Rheumatoid Arthritis type joint pain along with pain in my hands and feet for several months. I had also signed up for the Chicago Marathon that was coming up in October 2018, for which I had barely started training with less than six weeks to go.

Most of my Chicago training entailed running in the afternoon through the monsoon season, as my joints used to be quite stiff and painful in the morning. This also prompted me to adopt a strict anti-inflammatory diet and practise intermittent fasting, which helped me lose four kilos weight. I was not feeling confident about finishing the upcoming Chicago Marathon, let alone running two major marathons in two weeks.

Chicago was my eighth full marathon and I covered the distance in a reasonable time of 4:25:23. My performance here gave me confidence to pursue improvement in my timings in future races.

At Big Sur (photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

The next major race was the half marathon at Tata Mumbai Marathon in January 2019. Training was going quite well as I had resumed my normal training schedule of running in the morning and gym training in the evening.

In December, I had a mishap during a race on a hilly road on the outskirts of Bengaluru. It was quite dark when the race started. I seem to have some problem seeing in the dark. I tripped and fell after 2 km and had to run back to the start with my upper lip completely split and bleeding profusely. I was rushed to the hospital and had to undergo plastic surgery which unfortunately kept me off running during the critical two-week period of TMM training.

At TMM, I was quite pleased to finish on the podium with third position in my age group of 65-69 years. I finished that race in 1:49:26. I had also secured a second place on the podium in my age group at the TCS 10K run in May 2018, with a finish of 49:27.

With personal bests in all distances (10 K, HM and Marathon), and unsure of the state of my recovery after Boston, I nevertheless decided to attempt the Big Sur of April 28, 2019. I ran enjoying the spectacular landscape and entertainment along the route, stopping to take photographs at several points such as the spectacular 4 km climb up to Hurricane Point and the drummers at the top, the iconic Bixby bridge with a view of the winding highway and the Pacific Ocean, the pianist on the far side of the bridge; you enjoy classical music throughout the course, including a complete orchestra at one point.

After crossing the midway mark in 2:05:05, I decided I was doing fine and should try to beat my pre-Boston PB of 4:05. The weather was ideal with temperatures ranging between 8 and 13 degrees Celsius; there was cloud cover as well.

The hill training that I put in for Boston Marathon helped me immensely. At Big Sur, the hills did not pose any challenge. The second half took 1:58:20, a huge negative split by 06:45 (about 5.5%).

Kumar Rao; at Big Sur (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

The 2019 Big Sur went off well. I finished without any cramps or major aches. Feeling fresh at the end of the race was quite surprising to me, as just two weeks earlier, Boston had appeared tough. From the perspective of the course, Big Sur is probably tougher with 665 meters of elevation gain as against 200 meters for Boston. It also has more hills as well as steeper ones.

In 2019, the Boston weather turned out to be quite warm prompting me to shed some layers of clothing during the race. I ran this race trying to maintain an even effort throughout and complete it within four hours.

At the start point, I took some time with my dynamic stretches and lunge matrix. By the time I started almost all runners had already left and I found myself running alone down the steep first mile of the course to the applause and cheers of the crowd, feeling like an elite runner. Soon I caught up with other runners and was able to get to my goal pace. I was conversing with other runners on the way until I hit Newton hills.

I stepped up my effort on the hills and started to feel some pain in my quadriceps and hamstrings during the final four or five miles but willed myself not to cramp.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar)

I found myself overtaking runners in front of me and could hear cheers of “ Kumar, Kumar” from the crowds that had lined up in the late miles. After the turn on to Boylston Street I sprinted to ensure that I would complete the race in less than four hours. I ran this race without stopping even once or walking at any time. I was carrying my own hydration and fuel. I felt tired at the end but after collecting the medal, was able to walk to the meeting point I had agreed to with my son, Abhijit. As soon as I got there, I had severe cramps in both feet and was unable to take another step. I collapsed into the arms of my son, who had been waiting for me with some warm clothing and a delicious smoothie. After some rest and stretching, I was able to walk back to the hotel room a few blocks away from the finish line. A hot tub-soak did wonders. After that my son and I went out to celebrate the achievement. Overall, this ` B2B challenge’ was a great experience and I am likely to repeat it next year.

I now have TCS 10K coming up on May 19 and am slated to run two more marathons this year – Berlin in September and Marine Corps in Washington DC in October.

I have enjoyed this journey and have learnt a lot since my first run t an event, ten years ago. Running has been a great hobby and I hope to continue with endurance running for as long as I can, at least until I can learn to swim and substitute it for running as a means of maintaining fitness.

(The author, Kumar Rao, is a runner based in Bengaluru.)

WE BORROW WORLD RECORDS BUT WE KEEP TITLES / BRUCE FORDYCE WRITES TO JIM WALMSLEY

Bruce Fordyce (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This is an article by invitation. Early May 2019 as news appeared of a race due in northern California where runners would attempt breaking the world records for 50 miles and 100 kilometers, this blog asked South African great Bruce Fordyce if he would be willing to contribute an article about the 50 mile-world record that has been his since 1983. He agreed. Reproduced below is the article he wrote (it appeared first on his website www.brucefordyce.com, which has an associated blog); it is in the form of a letter to Jim Walmsley of the US who bettered Bruce’s longstanding record. The new mark was set at the Hoka One One Project Carbon X 100km race.

Congratulations Jim Walmsley on setting a new world record for 50 miles at the Hoka One One race and for running with such courage and dignity.

I would be lying if I said the news of your success didn’t cause a slight wrench in my heart and a dull sense of regret that lasted some time. Suddenly I was no longer the world record holder for 50 miles. The record had been part of my life for 36 years and its departure, while not as traumatic, reminded me of the death, three weeks ago, of our favourite black Bombay cat, Onyx. I still look for Onyx, lying on his favourite couch, and I still can’t stop looking over my shoulder to see that silky black cat following me up the stairs to his food bowl. I suppose it will be the same with my, now your, 50 mile record. I must remember to amend my CV.

Of course, I had been warned. I had been given time to compose myself. When I heard the news that a group of elite athletes had gathered to celebrate the launch of the new Hoka shoe while having a tilt at the 50 mile and 100 kilometres world best times I knew there was trouble afoot. When I spotted your name on the entries list, I knew that my days were probably numbered. After all Jim, your CV is extremely impressive and your bold, aggressive front running approach to racing is the direct opposite of my rather timid approach to the pain of any ultra.

And so, galvanised by my final hours as world record holder, I dredged the back of my mind for memories of September 1983 when I ran my third London to Brighton and where I ran through 50 miles in 4:50:21 en route to the finish on the Brighton beachfront close to the famous pavilion. (I still had 4 miles to run, to Brighton Pavilion and the finish line.)

Jim Walmsley (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose)

At 7 AM on that Sunday morning a London bobby stepped onto the road beneath the famous Big Ben, stopped the early morning traffic, and beckoned at us runners to line up. Then the famous clock’s chiming bells sent us on our way across Westminster Bridge, past the Elephant and Castle pub, and down the A23 road to Brighton all the way to the sea. On the way we ran past quaint sounding villages and landmarks such as Pease Pottage, Crawley, Ditchling Beacon and Dale Hill. We also ran past seemingly randomly placed drinks tables where the local vicars and parish volunteers proffered tennis biscuits and Lemon Barley water for refreshments, and cranky old race historian John Jewel rode part of the route on the legendary Arthur Newton’s ancient Edwardian bicycle. After many miles of hard running we were confronted by the ridge of chalk hills known as the Sussex Downs (which should be called the Sussex Ups). There was nothing quaint about those rolling hills or about the quality of the opposition I raced against. Some of these great athletes are no longer with us, but a very fast pace was guaranteed when the field consisted of names such as Don Ritchie, Cavin Woodward, Graeme Fraser, Tony Abbott and Danny Biggs. We dashed through our first 8kms (5 miles) in 27 minutes or so. This pace wouldn’t give anybody in Nairobi or Addis Ababa sleepless nights but as you and I both know Jim, it does become a problem when you have to stitch 10 of those splits together with no respite.

At about 48 miles in this race Ian Champion, the race organiser, jumped out of a car and shouted in his delightful cockney accent that I was on pace for a world record and that they were taking splits at 50 miles. Ian, still a good friend, was a full- time red London bus driver and a part time race official in those days. He could have been plucked straight out of the Beatle’s song Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields.

“ This is no porky pie (lie) Bruce mate, you’re heading for a world record, now get your bum into gear!’’ he yelled.

At my lowest ebb yesterday, I took comfort from the wise words of the greatest of us all, the legendary Wally Hayward. As you know Jim, Wally Hayward won five Comrades marathons and set numerous ultramarathon records. He also ran the Comrades in 9:45, just three weeks shy of his 80th birthday, proving so eloquently that you don’t necessarily have to be first across the finish line to be a great winner. Earlier that same year I had taken eight minutes off the Comrades marathon record (yes 1983 was a very fine vintage for me). After the race I found myself chatting with Wally. He counseled me “ Bruce, always remember, we borrow records, but we keep titles.’’

“ I have long ago ceased to hold any records in the Comrades,’’ he continued, “ you chaps are running half an hour faster than I, but I will always be the 1930 Comrades champion. No one can take that from me.’’

“ Nor can they take the 1950, 1951, 1953 or 1954 titles from you or any of the other great titles in your glittering career,’’ I should have added.

Of course, Wally was correct. I still have a treasured photograph where I am receiving the enormous Arthur Newton trophy from the Mayor of Brighton at a post-race function. Incidentally, titles and medals were only handed out at this function after we had toasted The Queen.

Wally emphasised that we are merely custodians of records. We look after them, treasure and honour them and then we hand them on.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Comrades Marathon. No copyright infringement intended.

I received the record from Don Ritchie, and now Jim, you have it, and you deserve it. Be warned, however, that here in South Africa we have a Zulu warrior called Bongmusa Mthembu who could take five minutes off the record and, on his day, David Gatebe is capable of running even faster. When he won the 2016 Comrades marathon David probably passed through 50 miles in 4:43 or so.

Your new record is a magnificent addition to your CV but there is one glaring omission from that CV and that is a Comrades marathon title. Like Odysseus’s sirens the race is calling you, beckoning from the province of Kwazulu-Natal. Come and race the most famous ultra of them all and test yourself against the best in the world. You will enjoy the whole amazing African adventure. If you were to win the Comrades you would join an illustrious club of US winners. Ann Trason, Cheryl Winn, Camille Herron and Alberto Salazar have all won our great race. None of them set a record while doing so.

Whenever I am slightly sad or depressed I love to run and after a run nothing seems to really matter that much (the memory of Onyx still haunts me however and the sadness might take a few runs yet before it fades). And so I ran very early this morning in Parktown in Johannesburg (my favourite city) and enjoyed crunching over autumn leaves and listening to olive thrushes greet the dawn. A Fiery-Necked night jar called from the Parktown Ridge filling the dawn with its mystical cry “ Good lord deliver us, Good Lord deliver us.’’ From the top of the Westcliff stairs I paused to gaze at a fiery vermilion African sunrise. As a species, humankind was born in Africa and our earliest ancestors were the most magnificent runners. They handed this gift of running down to us and Jim, you and I have certainly not spurned that gift.

I have heard rumours that there is some technical reason that your record might not be ratified. As far as I am concerned you have run a recorded 50 miles faster than anyone else.

You are the record holder!

Once again, congratulations Jim.

Bruce Fordyce

(The author, Bruce Fordyce, is a well-known ultra-runner. His blog can be accessed at www.brucefordyce.com. For a report on the Hoka One One Project Carbon X race please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/05/06/50-miles-jim-walmsley-sets-a-new-mark/ or scroll down on this blog. Besides the 50 mile-world record, Bruce Fordyce holds the record for the most number of wins at South Africa’s annual Comrades Marathon. He won it nine times; eight of that in a row. For more on Bruce please try this link:  https://shyamgopan.com/2019/02/12/bruce-fordyce-on-comrades-and-running/)

99.9 %

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On Monday as another round of school board exam results with its related procession of stratospheric marks went by, I was thinking of something else.

Not long ago, soon after I turned fifty and mortal, I visited a man I owed much to. He and another teacher ensured I crossed the finish line when I faced my board exams. Like one of those body shutdowns at marathons, I was a mess in my tenth standard, crawling to a verdict I had dreaded for years. These teachers put up with my very average academic ability. They coached an also ran to somehow perform and get a finisher’s medal.

Since then I have walked a path away from the competitive exams, the majority clusters to. Life has been considerably less rewarding on the road less traveled. It has also been quite lonely. But I feel life, as moment and journey. If I hadn’t felt it so, would I go back to thank my teacher at fifty? Fifty was remarkable for another realization. In India, the legacy of competition beats the best of stain removers. Most of my friends are still in board exam mode. They aren’t done with accumulating distinctions to stay on top in the rat race. Unlike me, they either love the rat race or having got married and raised families can’t afford a different perspective. Old friends meeting up, is like playing pool with glass balls. You have to make sure no ego is pricked, no vanity punctured. As we live we pile on such layers.

Life’s greatest question is: what am I? Like toddler comprehending movement because there is fixed ground below for index, board exam gives you an initial baseline. It is also misleading because there is a lot of others – comparing with them, beating them – in the frame. After all, 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 pose no value if they don’t take you to the head of a queue and for queue, you need others. But hive is not sole reality around. What about every bee’s individual excursions? Remember – the one we live with the longest is our own self. That’s why the question: what am I? – It matters. What am I? – cannot be answered by looking at others. I never forget the scene of Sentinels invading from The Matrix Revolutions. The screen turns dark with a swirling mass of squid like robots, each reporting to the rules of the matrix. Contemporary Indian life is a lot like that dark screen. We lose sight of sky because our vision is blocked by human beings, rat race and rules we dare not question. Universe unseen, what am I? – is trashed as irrelevant. That’s when 99.9 per cent in accordance with curriculum by hive, looms as only viable torchlight in utterly dark cave. All the while, the switch to know one’s self – the best illumination existence provides – remains undetected.

In a sense it is good. Life thereafter becomes discovery. But not if an edifice of trashing genuine questions becomes your cocoon for the next several decades. Employment these days is just that. The relentless march of compliance as virtue is a peculiarly Indian thing. We seem wired to be the world’s torso harboring the organs and processes that keep existence going. Not so much its brain or probing finger tips.

I love those friends with whom I can question rules and imagine without boundaries. It clears dark screen and Sentinels, makes you sense universe beyond. Monday night, I asked one such friend how much he scored for his board exam. It was 75 per cent. Then, there is the other case. A brilliant person (brilliance measured on my terms, not 99.9 per cent) I knew from my college days, now shuns company. I think he needs to be so to preserve his mind. When I asked him how he survives in his city prone to flocking and quick judgement, he replied, “ I keep to myself.’’ Every May as the frenzy around 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 rolls out, I remember the teachers who saved me. I also feel amused. All that celebration and publicity in the media is like declaring winners before the race of life has begun. Forget race, the beauty of the path ahead is that if you bother to notice life, it dips, dives, soars, plunges, turns, meanders, wanders – it does too many things to be any one in particular and be the stuff of a discipline and a race. But then you have to notice it.  How many of us do?

Apart from visiting my former teacher, the other thing I did at fifty was visit the parents of an old friend. Somewhere in that chat I blurted out, “ I still don’t know what I am or what I wish to do in life.’’ Oops, I thought clamping my mouth shut. If it was office, that would be hara-kiri. “ Interesting,’’ the father said smiling. He had a look in his eyes. The easiest description of that would be `distant’ but a more accurate one I think would be, `knowing.’

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