Abdullah Zeinab at the finish in Yorktown (Photo: Chip Coutts / this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Trans Am Bike Race public group and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Melbourne-based cyclist Abdullah Zeinab has won the 2019 Trans Am Bike Race in the US.

He covered the roughly 4200 mile (6800 kilometers) distance in 16 days, nine hours and 56 minutes, a new course record. Abdullah bettered the previous record by over 10 hours, the event’s Facebook page informed in a post early today.

Like Race Across America (RAAM – its roughly 4800km long; its 2019 edition began on June 11), Trans Am too is a coast to coast bike race. Its course stretches from Astoria, Oregon on the US west coast to Yorktown, Virginia on the east. The race passes through ten states. There is however a significant difference between RAAM and Trans Am. The former is a supported race. The cyclist has support crew accompanying him / her in a vehicle; they take care of logistics, navigation, bike maintenance, nutrition, rest and shelter. Trans Am is an unsupported (or self-supported) race with no support crew tagging along. The rider has to take care of everything.

Trans Am cyclists, journey with essential gear packed on their bicycle. Rest and shelter for them is usually a mix of camping, houses and motels. According to Wikipedia, all food, accommodation and repairs on the Trans Am Bike Race have to be purchased from commercial sources. One specialty of Trans Am is that there appears to be no rigid and fast rule on how participants should treat the event. Some take it as a race. Others take it as an opportunity to bike across the United States and see the land. As the clock keeps ticking this difference in perception, shows in the time taken to finish.

In 2018, Trans Am was won by San Diego based-Peter Andersen. He covered the route in 16 days, 20 hours, 41 minutes. At the same event, Nishant Iyengar from Bengaluru, participating in Trans Am for the opportunity to pedal across the US, had finished in 56 days, seven hours, 11 minutes. He placed 56th among 58 finishers. For more on Nishant and Trans Am please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/10/19/america-the-trans-am-way/

In 2018, Abdullah Zeinab had won the unofficial Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a 5500km bicycle race across Australia, from Perth to Sydney.

This year’s Trans Am Bike Race began early June.

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


Mercy Kuttan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mercy Kuttan is president of the Kerala Sports Council. An Arjuna Award winner, she is unique among Indian athletes for having excelled in the long jump as well as the 400m. At the 1981 Asian Championships in Athletics, she won bronze in both long jump and 4x400m relay. At the 1982 Asian Games she secured silver in long jump and went on to represent India at the 1983 World Championships in Athletics. Later she switched to sprinting and competed in 400m. She represented India in 400m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, reaching the second round. Continuing her contribution to sports, years later, Mercy and her husband, Murali Kuttan (he is former national champion in 400m and medalist at both Asian Track & Field Championships and Asian Games), started the Mercy Kuttan Athletics Academy in Kochi. Murali passed away in 2010 following a massive heart attack. Mercy still runs the academy. This blog met her at her residence in Kochi for a chat. Excerpts:

What made you start the academy?

It happened in 2009. We – my husband and I – had been thinking of starting a training academy from 2007. Both of us were international athletes. Plus, he was a qualified coach too. However for everything you need funds. That was a challenge. In 2009, the South Asian Games was held in Kochi. At that event, the then sports minister of Kerala, M. Vijayakumar asked me – why don’t you start the academy? As yet, only P.T. Usha’s school has come up. I said that if the government supports, we will be able to. The minister agreed. There is a process to commencing a training academy. It has to be a non-profitable charitable trust. We registered it so. The understanding was that we should begin work with our own resources and pull through for a year. Then, the government will help. We were lucky to get financial support from three-four friends in the initial stage. It cost us approximately nine lakh (900,000) rupees to get started. We took a couple of flats on rent in Kochi to provide accommodation to the students. At that time, we accepted both boys and girls. The first batch was four boys and seven girls. Within a short while, we realized that managing boys is tough especially when you have mixed batches. So we modified the batch to fully girls; eleven girls.

How was the academy imagined? Was it foreseen as a facility where students stayed, trained for athletics and then proceeded to study at school or college or was it to be an academy meant only for athletics?

We planned it as a place where they came, stayed, had their food, got sports kits, trained for athletics and also went to school from. We arranged all that. In my sports career, I went up to Asian Games and Olympics. My husband had a podium finish at Asian Games. Our goal was to see the academy’s students win laurels that neither of us could; perhaps a medal at the Olympics. That is my focus now.

Similar to the earlier question, someone starting an academy can have two options – you catch them young or you provide a facility that helps polish talent that is already acknowledged and has probably traveled some distance. Which of the two did you want and why?

We wanted to catch them young. There is a reason for it – when you catch them young, you know their foundation years. Otherwise, you end up dealing with someone you really don’t know much about. The problem today is that in the higher camps, medication is sometimes resorted to. I want natural runners. I take students between 11-13 years of age. As a school, we have reached competitions up to Asian Youth Championships and secured podium finish there. If a student already experienced in athletics is brought to me, I insist on knowing well her previous phase in terms of training, circumstances of training and performance. I assign fresh trials and on the basis of that, design the athlete’s training. In 2012, Anu Mariam Jose arrived for training in a similar fashion. In trials, she covered 400m in 57.9 seconds. The claim was that she had done 54.9 or so. I paid no attention to that. I went by my findings. In one year of training with me, she became the best in her category in Kerala. At the nationals, she finished second, gaining entry into the Indian team. In 2013, at the Asian Track and Field Championships in Pune, she ran 53:28 in the senior category. She was asked to report to the national camp. To my mind – whether she wants to go or not, that’s her decision. It is not my decision. I told her so. She told me that if she reported to that camp, she won’t be able to do anything. I then told her that if she doesn’t go, she risked losing opportunities. In competitions that followed, she secured podium finish at many places. Eventually, she made it to the World Championships. For the Olympics that followed she was assigned to the national camp. I told her to go. She refused fearing possibility of medication. She ended her athletics career. That is an example of what can happen to naturally talented runners at present. I said this to highlight the risk in running a school as finishing facility for experienced senior athletes as opposed to one that recruits beginners and knows them for long. The former, in their hunt for improvement, will ditch you and go to whichever facility promises better performance. The latter, if I take them in as beginners, stay on with me till they are 23-24 years old. Should they wish to stay on longer, they are welcome to. After that, if they want to go to national camp, they can make an informed choice. I tell them I have done my bit. Now it’s up to you. Nowadays it is mandatory that top class athletes attend the national camp.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Do you feel comfortable with the national camp being made mandatory for athletes heading to elite events?

It is difficult to agree. But what can you do? That is the rule. For example, two of our students went for Asian junior championships. Both had medal prospects. They were required to report at the camp, a week and a half before departure. That is the time to perfect them, when training brings them to their peak. I couldn’t do that given they were expected at the camp. So, I said go to the camp and continue what you have been training here. Now these are junior athletes. They are 16-17 years old. They are attached to their coaches. They need our support. When they suddenly work with another coach and are told to do things differently, the tension gets to them. Then there is the angle of whoever trained and mentored them for long, knowing best what their state on a given day is and how to motivate them. We know when we see them running, what their condition is at that point. Ideally, when big events happen it is the longstanding coach and mentor who should accompany the athlete. That doesn’t happen. But you can’t do anything. It is their turf. I am not interested in intervening because I have been part of the national squad and I know that world. So I train my students as best as I can and tell them: I have done my bit, now it is up to you.

How do you select your trainees?

We advertise in the media seeking candidates in the age group of 11-13 years. I hold the trials in different places in Kerala. We have a panel of coaches. They sit together and decide who to invite for the next stage. This is followed by an eight day-training camp at the academy which will give me further insight into specific details about the candidate. The final selection happens after that. Currently, we can accommodate 14 students at our hostel. We train for a few select disciplines – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m; up to 3000m I can handle. We also look at long jump and triple jump. Having said that, the students also indulge in other disciplines but that is typically as a component of overall training, not specialization. We have students who participate in hurdles. But if hurdles turn out to be that person’s forte and there is a strong case to specialize in it, then I won’t hang on to that student. I will pass that student on to a coach who is competent to instruct in that discipline.

You said you recruit your trainees when they are 11-13 years old and they are free to continue at the academy till they are 23-24 years old. What is your retention rate? How many students stick on that long?

It depends on their attitude. Some lack the required commitment and motivation. There is little you can do with such people. In cases of that sort, I recommend that they move on. The training atmosphere is austere and disciplined. I don’t allow use of cellphones at the academy. I am very strict about it. Parents are allowed to call only on Sunday. Every month they can visit the student. After every competition, I allow the students to go home for 3-4 days. The students have to study well. Some are stronger at studies than in sports. They are better off pursuing academics. We have students who completed five years at the academy. The longest a trainee stuck around so far is six years. Seven students from the academy have represented India to date in their respective discipline and age category.

Do they pay any fees?

Nothing; I am not collecting a single paisa. Even when they get an award, I don’t take anything from them. It is tough to run the academy. If the government supports me, that year goes smoothly. Else, it is difficult. We know of government support only from year to year as part of annual budgetary allocation. I didn’t get anything from the last government. The one before that gave me 25 lakh rupees and 20 lakh rupees. The current government gave me 50 lakh rupees in the first instance; with that I was able to manage for two years. Then I got 20 lakh rupees but I was unable to withdraw that in time. At present, we incur an expense of approximately 1.75 lakh rupees for every student. Then there is the infrastructure cost, rent for buildings etc. I have asked the government for land to set up the academy properly. I spoke to Sports Authority of India (SAI) and they said that if I have land, they will assist in building infrastructure. I have sought seven acres of land in Ernakulam district. If the government gives it on lease, we can plan on a bigger scale. If not, I continue on rented premises. That will be a challenge as I don’t have many sponsors.

Ideally what should be the expense per student, if for instance, they are to also travel and participate in good competitions as needed?

Ideally, it should be at least two lakh rupees.

Can you give an overview of the training infrastructure the academy currently has?

We started the academy by using the infrastructure that was available at Sacred Hearts College at Thevara in Ernakulam. There is a ground there. It is not up to the mark. But that is where we train. Some mornings we train at the Maharajas College ground, which has a synthetic track. Sacred Hearts has a grass track. Three to four days a week, we go to Maharajas. We have a vehicle and driver. We travel to do sand and hill-running. We have an assistant coach, a warden for the hostel and two cooks. I appointed the assistant coach last year. After my husband passed away, I was doing the coaching alone. I used to stay at the hostel along with my students. It is only off late, after people said I shouldn’t leave my house locked, that I have begun spending days here again.

You commenced the academy with your own funds and contributions from friends. Could you find any sponsors?

In the initial stage it was friends who helped along with sponsors that came in periodically through their network. Then, the government helped. Paul Raj of Kochi based-Alpha Group is the secretary of the academy. He assisted much financially. In 2013, Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI) contributed 15 lakh rupees. That helped me manage things for a year. After that CREDAI’s state unit helped with some small contributions. We are hoping that the relation with CREDAI at the national level evolves into a more sustained support. I have also got funding of 15 lakh rupees this year, from the state budget. A lot of the government support was used for equipment, kits and infrastructure including gym facilities. But there has been no interest in long term support shown by companies. The challenges in funding are among reasons why I cap the total number of trainees at 15.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Why do you think athletics finds it hard to find sponsors?

The typical game – like cricket or football – lasts a few hours. That is time, useful for sponsors to obtain return on investment. In contrast, athletic performance is over in minutes, sometimes seconds. To my mind, this is the main problem. I think the government must do what it can to support athletics because more than games, it is athletics that brings glory for state and country. That said; there is also the strange issue of not finding students who are dedicated and committed towards athletics. My generation had nothing and yet we rose in competence to compete at elite levels. I had national records at the school and university level before setting records at the senior national level. We wanted to reach some place in athletics and when we got there, we aspired for a higher goal. My journey to the Olympics began after my son was born. I told my husband of my dream. He was a sportsman; he said he will support me. I resumed training when my son was three months old. By nine months, I was national champion again. That’s how I trained and made it to the Olympics. Today, it is difficult to find such drive in our youngsters. Now the aspiration is getting a job. This situation is despite facilities in general being more, salaries being higher. More and more youngsters are not walking to college. They have two-wheelers. When they get a job, they make sure they buy still better two-wheelers. Their life has taken a different trajectory. There is no room for athletics in it.

You mentioned the short duration of athletic performance and how it limits media attention and room for sponsor to get mileage. The flip side of high media attention and engagement by sponsors is increased pressure on athlete to perform, which is among reasons triggering malpractices like doping. How do you deal with that?

What we need is enough sponsorship to have adequate events so that upcoming talent gains exposure to competition.

What is your vision for this academy?

If the government gives me land, I would like to run this academy like a proper school with male and female students and with overall numbers that is more than the 13 we have now. We will have good staff. I would also like to make the model transferable so that the school continues after my time.

How do you picture the ideal sponsor?

An ideal sponsor should understand how a school like this works. They must understand that results don’t come fast in athletics.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This interview was done in late March 2019. At that time, Mercy Kuttan was vice president of the Kerala Sports Council.)


Krishna Prakash (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Senior police officer from Mumbai, Krishna Prakash IPS, has successfully completed Race Across West (RAW), the 930 mile (1496 kilometers) ultra-cycling race held alongside the much longer Race Across America (RAAM), in the US.

According to information available on the event website, he covered the distance in three days, 16 hours and two minutes, placing fourth in the under-50 age category for men racing solo.  Of nine cyclists in this age category, four had pulled out (DNF – did not finish) while a fifth person was still on the road, when Krishna Prakash completed. The official confirmation on the website happened evening of Saturday, June 15 in India.

The person finishing first in Krishna Prakash’s age category was Andres Rodriguez of Mexico who covered the distance in two days, 23 hours and 58 minutes. Rodriguez is also the 2019 RAW solo male champion. In 2018, he had been the first solo racer from Mexico to complete RAAM.

Krishna Prakash is currently Special Inspector General of Police (Admin), Mumbai.

At the same time as Krishna Prakash finished RAW, Kabir Rachure, cyclist from Navi Mumbai, attempting the 3000 mile (approximately 4800 kilometers) RAAM was around 928 miles (1493 kilometers) into his race.

Andres Rodriguez (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of RAW. No copyright infringement intended.)

Winner of RAAM multiple times, Christoph Strasser of Austria, was leading in the RAAM solo category with around 1450 miles (2333 kilometers) covered. Among others, veteran woman cyclist and an unforgettable part of RAAM, Seana Hogan, was at 982 miles (1580 kilometers)

This year’s RAAM commenced on June 11.

RAAM entails cycling from the US west coast to the east; from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland.  RAW is a segment carved out of the initial stages of RAAM. According to information available on the World Ultracycling Association (WUA) website, RAW starts from Oceanside, climbs up the Coastal Range, crosses the deserts of California and Arizona, ascends again into the mountains surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona and proceeds into the Rocky Mountains. The race finishes on the Animas River in Durango, Colarado.

Krishna Prakash, who is also a triathlete, was in the news last year for completing Ultraman Australia. For more on him please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/top-cop-aims-high-does-an-ultraman/

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


Deepak Bandbe (Photo: courtesy Deepak)

The 2019 Comrades is over. For most participants, race day would have been the culmination of a few months of preparation. This year five runners from India secured sub-9 hour-finishes. We spoke to them.

In June 2019, Mumbai-based Deepak Bandbe was among the 200 odd runners from India attempting the Comrades Marathon, held annually in South Africa. Close to 25,000 people had assembled to run Comrades, the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon masquerading as a marathon.

Deepak covered the distance of 86.83 kilometers from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in seven hours, forty-three minutes and thirty-four seconds, emerging the fastest runner from India in 2019.

Fellow Mumbaikar Amitkumar Yadav was the second fastest from the pool of runners from India. He crossed the finish line in 8:53:02; an hour and 10 minutes behind Deepak. Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath finished third from this lot with a timing of 8:54:14.

Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of around 87-89 kilometers run between the cities of Durban on the sea coast and Pietermaritzburg in the hills, at an elevation of 1955 feet.

The race alternates each year between uphill and downhill versions. The event was first held in May 1921.

This year’s event was an uphill run commencing from Durban with runners having to complete a total distance of 86.83 kilometers within 12 hours overall with multiple cut-offs in between. The race held on June 9, 2019, started at the Durban City Hall and ended at Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg. The overall winner was Edward Mothibi of South Africa who completed the race in 5:31:33.

Five runners from India finished inside nine hours and received the Bill Rowan medal. Apart from Deepak Bandbe, Amitkumar Yadav and Ashok Nath; Ramashish Maurya and Deepak Budhrani were the other two runners to end up with the medal.

The Bill Rowan medal was introduced in 2000 and is named after the winner of the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. The medal is awarded to runners finishing in 7:30 hours to sub-9 hours.

Ashok Nath, who finished third among runners from India at Comrades Marathon, was earning his fourth Bill Rowan medal in four finishes at the event. The heat did impact his running to some extent during the second half of this year’s race, he said.

In the same event, Mumbai-based ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, earned his green number for running and completing Comrades Marathon for the tenth time. Green number runners are allowed to retain their Comrades Marathon bib number in perpetuity.

Deepak Bandbe, who was the fastest among runners from India, started running about four years ago. A resident of Borivili in Mumbai, Deepak would take time out to do some bit of walking and jogging, primarily with the aim of staying healthy.

An employee of Wasan Motors, Deepak spends a lot of time on his feet talking to potential buyers of vehicles. He, therefore, felt the need for some element of physical activity. Noticing his speed during these workouts, runners from the Borivili National Park – Green Runners (BNP-GR) took him aside and urged him to take up running seriously.

Amitkumar Yadav (Photo: courtesy Amitkumar)

Over time, the group helped him with every aspect of running from registering Deepak for events to incurring his costs for matters related to running.

As part of his training for Comrades, Deepak had participated in Tata Ultra 50k in February 2019 and ended up winner with timing of 3:43:06 hours.

In January 2019, Deepak attempted his first full marathon at Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). He finished third overall among amateur runners and first in his age group of 25-29 years. His timing was 2:41:37.

“ I heard about Comrades Marathon from Mahesh Nagwekar, who is one of the main persons at BNP-GR. The group offered to fund my stay and travel. They took the complete financial responsibility for my participation at this event,’’ he said.

He trained well following a plan provided by his coach Daniel Vaz. The training was aimed at finishing the run in around seven hours, 30 minutes.

“ Unfortunately, I fell short of it by about 13 minutes. I finished the run in 7:43:34 hours,’’ Deepak said.

In South Africa, there were rains two days prior to race day. Runners were, therefore, hoping for good weather. At Durban, the starting point, race day morning was quite cold.

“ I was in A group, just ten meters from the start line-up. It was great fun running the event. There was a feeling of festivity in the air,’’ Deepak said.

“ Up until 45 kilometers, I managed to keep my pace at around five minutes per kilometre. The uphill portions of the run were quite steep. There are five to six major hills but in addition to these big hills there are about 15-20 small ones,’’ he said.

At around kilometre 67, he started to feel cramps in his left leg and had to slow down his pace.

“ I gave all I had to get a 7:30 finish but the heat and the hills got to me as the kilometers went by. It was quite humid,’’ he said.

Deepak said that he was amazed by the amount of support all along the route. “ It was great fun. I would love to do the downhill next year, if possible,’’ he said.

Once the recovery period is over, Deepak will be cutting back on mileage and focussing on training for the marathon. His immediate plan is to run Hyderabad Marathon later this year.

Amitkumar Yadav, who was the second fastest runner from India at Comrades this year, fell short of training because of setbacks at home. His father passed away in April following illness for some time.

“ For the last few months, I had been travelling to Kolkata to be near my father during his difficult days. I almost considered cancelling my plan of running Comrades,’’ he said.

As part of his training, he did a full marathon each in Delhi and Chandigarh and one 70 kilometer-training run at Lonavala, near Mumbai.

Amitkumar had participated in the 2018 edition of Comrades Marathon, the downhill version, finishing the run in 9:28 hours. “ Last year, I started the run very fast and lost steam halfway through. I ended up with cramps and had to slow down,’’ he said.

This time around he opted to be prudent. He went through a nine-hour pace plan offered at the race expo and decided to go slow. Nevertheless, he aimed for sub-nine hour finish.

A sprinter in his younger days, Amitkumar moved to long-distance running in 2012 when he was posted to Mumbai. A civilian employed with Indian Navy, he has now moved into ultra-distance running.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok)

For Bengaluru-based Ashok Nath, this was his fourth Bill Rowan medal. All his four finishes at Comrades have been within nine hours, the mark that qualifies you for the Bill Rowan medal.

In his previous uphill version of Comrades in 2015, Ashok had finished the run in 8:54:01, thirteen seconds ahead of his 2019 finish of 8:54:14.

“ I run at a pace that is comfortable for me to maintain through the distance. If you chase a pace you may end up doing something silly,’’ he said.

Though he uses a GPS device, he prefers not to pay too much attention to it.

Ashok’s training for Comrades was limited to a period of five weeks after his return from Boston Marathon in mid-April. “ A sub-8:30 finish would have been in order. I miscalculated the heat. I am not used to training in the heat as I often finish my long runs by around 7 AM in Bengaluru,’’ he said.

The morning of race day was cool. But as the hours went by the heat intensified, the runners this blog spoke to, said.

“ This time the race started in the city of Durban. For the first 30k you pass through townships and then you come to the mountains. But in the last 40k, the route is an open highway with barren land around. The weather changes are very palpable,’’ Ashok said.

“ I am not a natural long-distance runner. I prefer the shorter distances. I have to be cautious when I run the longer distances,’’ he said.

Ramashish Maurya (Photo: courtesy Ramashish)

Mumbai-based Ramashish Maurya was running his third back-to-back Comrades Marathon this year.

In the previous editions, Ramashish was unable to get a sub-nine hour finish. In 2017, he finished in 9:56:09 and in 2018 in 9:29:09 hours.

“ I wanted to complete Comrades within nine hours. I also wanted to rectify the mistakes I did in the previous two runs,’’ he said. His training for the race was not as extensive as expected but the quality of his training was good. He also paid a lot of attention to hydration.

“ I did some hill training in Lonavala and Malabar Hill. But I took care not to over-train. I have a hectic routine at work and at home. Further, my daughter was appearing for an important examination,’’ he said.

On race day, tackling Comrades in South Africa, he approached the uphill sections very sensibly. “ I think the hills should be respected. I moved faster on the flat and downhill sessions,” he said.

After Polly Shortts, the last cut-off point, he sped to the finish line completing the race in 8:54:46 hours.

Deepak Budhrani (Photo: courtesy Deepak)

In 2019, Deepak Budhrani too was running Comrades Marathon for the third year in a row.

This year, he finished the run in 8:55:10 becoming one of the five runners from India to finish the race within nine hours.

In the 2017 edition of Comrades (up run), he had finished in 10:28:23 hours. In the down run of 2018, he crossed the finish line in 9:31:28 hours.

“ My training for 2019 Comrades was very good. I did not want to make the mistakes I committed last year,’’ Deepak said. He trains with Run India Run, under Coach Samson Sequeira.

“ I followed the training plan meticulously,’’ he said.

“ I had a chat with the nine-hour bus pacer at the expo but on race day I decided to go ahead of the bus. I finished the first half of the distance in 4:23 hours. For the second half, I followed the nine-hour bus until the last cut-off,’’ Deepak said.

The last seven kilometers, he chose to run at a fast pace. After Polly Shortts, the last cut-off, Deepak’s speed increased to 5:37 minutes per kilometer. Up until Polly Shortts, Deepak’s pace ranged from 6:09 to 6:40 minutes per kilometer. The spurt in speed helped him cross the finish line well within nine hours, he said.

According to him, the idea of running for the Bill Rowan medal seemed realistic after he met Bruce Fordyce, nine times winner of Comrades Marathon, earlier this year at a meeting organized by Amit Sheth, Comrades Ambassador for India.


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


Chris Froome (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

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Well-known cyclist and four times Tour de France-winner, Chris Froome met with major crash during a reconnaissance ride.

It has left him seriously injured.

The 2019 Tour de France is scheduled to commence in July.

Reports said, Froome, 34, could take months to recover.

A subsequent statement from his team – Team Ineos – confirmed that Froome will miss the 2019 Tour.

The accident occurred on Wednesday in central France, outside the town of Roanne in Loire.

Froome was doing reconnaissance of one of the stages of the Criterium du Dauphine, an event he uses to prepare for the Tour.

According to a report in The Guardian, he lost control amid high winds when attempting to blow his nose while cycling. The cyclist crashed into a wall. At the time of accident, reports said, he was moving at close to 60 kilometers per hour.

Froome suffered a broken leg, a broken elbow and fractures to his ribs.

He is in intensive care, reports said.

Among best known cyclists today, Froome rides under a British licence.

Born to British parents in Kenya, he grew up there and in South Africa. He won Tour de France in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. He has also won the Giro de’Italia (2018) and Vuelta a Espana (2017). He won bronze in road time trials at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016 and bronze at the World Championships in 2017.

Update / June 14: Chris Froome’s team, Team Ineos, has said that the cyclist’s surgery following his crash was successful. Froome suffered a fractured right femur, a broken hip, fractured elbow and fractured ribs, the BBC reported on Thursday (June 13). The report quoted Team Ineos doctor, Richard Usher as saying that the operation which lasted six hours “ went very well.”

Chris Froome. This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of Team Ineos. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Update / June 16: Chris Froome, who is in hospital after a major crash that left him badly injured, has expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support and well wishes. In a message available on the Facebook page of Team Ineos (Froome’s team), the cyclist said, “ Firstly, I just want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has sent their best wishes to me since the crash. This is obviously a tough time but I have taken a lot of strength from the support over the last three days. The outpouring of support has been really humbling and something I would never have expected.

“ I’d also like to extend my gratitude to the team, especially Doctor Richard Usher and his medical staff, who have been exemplary since the crash. In addition, I am so thankful to the emergency services and everyone at Roanne Hospital who assisted and stabilized me, as well as the surgeons, doctors and nurses at the University Hospital of St Etienne, who have really gone above and beyond the call of duty, for which I am ever so grateful. I know how lucky I am to be here today and how much I owe to all the paramedics and medical staff on the race.

“ Whilst this is a setback and a major one at that, I am focusing on looking forward. There is a long road to recovery ahead, but that recovery starts now and I am fully focused on returning back to my best.

“ Finally, I want to thank my wife Michelle and my family. They’ve been with me every step of the way and their love and support will motivate me to return as quickly as possible.”

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


Nanda Devi (Photo: Punit Mehta)

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The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) has launched an expedition to the Traill Pass area to recover the bodies of climbers sighted earlier during helicopter sorties.

“ Based on permission received from DM (district magistrate) Pithoragarh, IMF has launched a ground search expedition. Fully equipped 12 member-team is headed for the accident site through Pindari glacier. They are expected to reach the area by Saturday,” a senior IMF official informed Monday (June 10) morning.

Late-May following eight climbers reported missing from an expedition to Nanda Devi East, district authorities had launched a search mission. Five bodies were subsequently located near Peak 6477, an unclimbed peak the team hoped to try. However efforts to retrieve the bodies didn’t succeed.

The IMF then sought permission to launch its own search and recovery mission.

The eight climbers reported missing was from an expedition led by senior British climber and mountain guide, Martin Moran.

Please scroll down on this blog for earlier reports on this tragedy.

Update / June 14: Media reports quoting the District Magistrate of Pithoragarh said that a 32-member team comprising 11 mountaineers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) are also heading to the accident spot to retrieve the bodies. The team left for Munsyari on Thursday (June 13). They are expected to be airlifted to “ Nanda Devi second base camp” on Friday, the reports said.

Update / June 15: The IMF expedition has established its base camp close to Zero Point in the Pindari Glacier region, a senior IMF official informed on Saturday. A few members have shifted to Advance Base Camp (ABC). Asked about conditions at altitude, he said that the monsoon is yet to make its presence felt.  There are light showers at base camp and sleet at ABC. The team is able to go about its work. They will take a couple of days to open the route to higher camp and reach the accident spot, the official said.

Update / June 22: Weather appears to be an issue. According to a senior IMF official, nine members were expected to proceed towards Camp 1 today with six staying one there and three returning after load ferry. However the team had to turn back at around 4900 meters due to white out conditions. They are now back at ABC.

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


O. P. Jaisha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As of mid-2019, O. P. Jaisha still held the national record in the women’s marathon. It isn’t something she wished for. Her aspiration was to excel in the middle distances. Thirty six years old when she met this blog for a chat, she was picking up from where she had left off and preparing for a final shot at the disciplines she loves.

In August 2016, as the year’s Olympic Games drew to a close, O. P. Jaisha, India’s national record holder in the women’s marathon who participated in the discipline at Rio de Janeiro, was battling controversy.

After fainting at the finish line in Rio and being stretchered off to hospital, she had complained that there was no hydration support for her run by Indian officials. For a while the charges were traded. It seemed sad state of affairs for one of the finest distance runners India had produced. After her return to India, the athlete fell ill. Gradually Jaisha sank from public attention. Three editions of the Mumbai Marathon – the event that propelled her to marathon glory for the first time – took place without her running it. By January 2019, Jaisha’s course record in Mumbai was also erased; the new course record became Sudha Singh’s.

May 2019.

It was now almost three years since Rio.

Thanks to the city’s new metro, the trip to Bengaluru’s Sports Authority of India (SAI) training complex had become tad easy although the last stretch was still a mix of public transport and walking. Stopped at the gate I told the security staff that I had an appointment with Assistant Coach, O. P. Jaisha. Locating her took a while. But when she appeared at the facility’s synthetic track there was no mistaking the lightly built, small sized athlete who still held the national record in women’s marathon.

Of Kerala’s 44 rivers, three flow eastward. At 57 kilometers, the Kabini is the longest of these three. One of the tributaries of the Kabini is the Mananthavady River. The town of Mananthavady in Wayanad district stands on its banks. Jaisha was born here in 1983; to be precise in the village of Thrissilery. She was the youngest of four sisters. Their parents were laborers. Money was scarce. Life was tough. When Jaisha was around five years old, her father had a major accident. “ Knocked down by a bus, he came under its wheels. We thought it was all over,’’ she said. Miraculously he survived. But he was bed ridden. The incident affected Jaisha’s mother. She became depressed. It was an extremely difficult time for the family. They had a couple of cows. They sold the milk and somehow got by. Wayanad is among Kerala’s hill districts. It has elevation ranging from 700m (roughly 2300 feet) to 2100m (6890 feet). Mananthavady is at an elevation of 2490 feet. Much later, reporting on Jaisha the successful athlete, the media would devote attention to this phase when yet to be athlete walked regularly on hilly terrain carrying milk to sell to the local milk society. It harked of the training at altitude endurance athletes do and which Jaisha herself would formally experience later in life. Not to mention, it made the Jaisha story similar in tenor to how elite African marathoners described their childhood in the hills of Kenya and Ethiopia.

The three sisters attended the local government school in Thrissilery. None of them were into sports at this stage. About 25 kilometers away from Jaisha’s village was Thalapuzha. When the time came for eleventh and twelfth standard education, Jaisha headed to the government school there. She was very interested in the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and wished to join it. But her slight build and small size came in the way. To toughen herself, she began learning karate. Then a crucial incident happened. Jaisha participated in an 800m race held as part of the local Panchayat Mela. She had gone to attend the festival and according to later profiles in the media, participated in the race for a lark. At this event, she beat a girl who was national champion at school level; that too by a wide margin. For her and those around, it was an eye opener. Soon, besides learning karate, Jaisha started competing in middle distance races.

Given how far Thalapuzha was from Thrissilery, time available for training at the school was not much. But she proved to be good at running the middle distances. Kerala has a strong track record in athletics in India. It was among early states to come to prominence in this regard. One of the main reasons for this was the eye for sporting talent maintained at school and college level. Talent was scouted and invited to join college teams. Changanassery is a major town in central Kerala. It is well known for its schools and colleges. Assumption College from here has a reputation in sports at the inter-college and university level. After her twelfth standard, Jaisha’s coach from Wayanad, P.G. Girish, helped her get admission at Assumption College. At the college, her new coach was P.V. Valsy. In just her second year at the college, Jaisha won a bronze medal in 5000m at the inter-university level. By the third year, both medals and records grew more frequent. At a meet in Guwahati, she became the first woman athlete at inter-university level to secure three gold medals – in 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m. Eventually in 2005, she was selected to be in the national camp. She also got a job as ticket collector with Indian Railways; she was the first from her family to get a job. “ I had to look after my whole family on that salary,’’ she said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

We were chatting on the side of a large ground with mud track at the SAI facility. An athlete or two dropped by to speak to Jaisha and clarify doubts in their training. It was evening and most of the grounds were bustling with activity. Summer vacation and associated coaching camps for children added to the ambiance. Training was on for a variety of sports. If you looked closely at the athletes practising on the synthetic track, jogging by on the mud track or the cross country trail, you spotted a well-known face or two. This was premises familiar to Jaisha. In 2005, following her selection to the national camp, she had reported to the very same facility. Roughly a year after she got into the national camp, Jaisha won a bronze medal in 5000m at the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha, Qatar. According to a detailed profile of Jaisha in Indian Express (published in September 2015), after the Doha event she turned her attention to family commitments; there was debt to repay, her father was still bed-ridden. She sold the house she had bought to address part of the debt and the family’s medical bills. She used the prize money she got for her performance in Doha to marry off her sisters. This diversion wasn’t without its impact on her performance in sports.

In 2010 the Commonwealth Games was staged in Delhi, the first time India was hosting the event. With 101 medals won overall, the host placed second in the medals table. Jaisha wasn’t among those on the podium. In 1500m, she failed to secure a berth in the finals. At the 2011 Asian Athletics Championships held in Kobe, Japan, she bounced back with a bronze medal in 1500m. Same year, she trained for 10 months in Kenya and Italy as part of preparations to run middle distance disciplines at the 2012 London Olympics. But a stress fracture ended her chances of making it to the squad for London. Interestingly, Jaisha was not very empathetic to the pre-Games training done in Kenya. She believes there is considerable difference between Kenyan distance runners and Indians, starting with the food each side is used to. “ India is a big, diverse country. We have whatever altitude we wish to train at, available here itself. Why should we go elsewhere?’’ she asked. The stress fracture wasn’t the end of her downturn in fortunes. The dip in performance hadn’t yet bottomed out. That came in 2013 at the Pune edition of the Asian Athletics Championships. She fared badly in both 1500m and 5000m. Jaisha was left out from the national camp. Among remarks thrown her way then was that at 30 she had probably become too old to be athlete of international caliber. It was at this low point in her career that Jaisha got married. Her husband Gurmeet – he is a former athlete who turned coach – supported her aspirations in athletics. They moved to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh for nine months, where Jaisha trained at SAI’s high altitude training center and slowly regained her form.

Returned to national camp, Jaisha proved her worth at the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea, where she won bronze in 1500m and placed fourth in 5000m. She was now 32 years old. Her career till then had straddled middle and long distance events, all of them track-based. Even though this basket of distances spans 1500m to 10,000m, while training and piling on mileage, athletes in these disciplines cover distances that are much longer. While physical power dominates the shorter distances, an element of mental strength is critical for the longer distances. Age and experience are thus not without merit when tackling long distances. Coaches are known to leverage the mileage of middle distance-training and the rising age of an athlete to create a case for pushing the deserving from middle distances, towards attempting a marathon. Following Incheon, this is what happened with Jaisha. Her weekly mileage when training for 1500m averaged 180 kilometers (assuming one rest day per week that amounts to running 30 kilometers every day). In November 2014 when the national camp resumed, Jaisha was encouraged to try a half marathon (21km). She was reluctant. “ I like track more than road. I am wired like that,’’ she said. But the final word in athlete’s life belongs to the coach.

O. P. Jaisha (Photo: courtesy Jaisha)

In late 2014, according to Jaisha, a contingent of India’s elite women middle distance and marathon runners turned up for a half marathon in Kochi. Jaisha was the only one from the lot who hadn’t run a formal half marathon before. As it turned out, she won the race. Her coach felt vindicated. Given half marathon is not an Olympic discipline, the focus naturally shifted to the full marathon. The next major event was the 2015 Mumbai Marathon due in January. In the brief time between the Kochi event and Mumbai, Jaisha managed a 2:50 finish in the marathon during a training session in Ooty, a popular high altitude training location with Indian athletes. Then in Mumbai, at India’s biggest annual marathon, she broke the national record (it had stood for 19 years). On January 18, 2015, The Hindu reported from Mumbai: Jaisha, training under Dr. Nikolai Snesarev for two months following a 1500m bronze at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, clocked two hours, 37 minutes, 29 seconds along the Mumbai seafront on Sunday morning, the best Indian performer and eighth overall in elite women marathoners. Lalita Babbar, who placed second among elite Indian women runners, finished in 2:38:21, Sudha Singh finished third in 2:42:12. The report mentioned that with all three athletes meeting the qualifying standard set for the 2015 World Athletics Championships and none of them having the marathon as core event, they would need to make a choice. It said they had left the choice to their Belarussian coach Dr Snesarev. The report quoted Dr Snesarev: Jaisha will be 33 by the time Rio Olympics comes and has a better chance to make an impression in marathon than distance running. Jaisha too seemed to concur at that point for the report quoted her: I am confident of better timing with more training under our coach. If two months can help us run so well, there is ample time before the 2016 Rio Olympics for preparation. I leave the decision of whether marathon or track to the coach.

Very often, things appear clearer in retrospect. Jaisha the marathoner may have arrived on the national scene with her performance at the 2015 Mumbai Marathon but in her mind it was still the middle distance disciplines that she worshiped. Some three weeks after the record breaking run in Mumbai, she secured gold in 5000m and 10,000m at the 35th National Games held in Thiruvananthapuram. In August 2015, at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Jaisha improved her national record in the marathon further, lowering the time to 2:34:43. She finished eighteenth in the field. The top 20 finishers qualified for the 2016 Olympics due at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Not even a year since that half marathon in Kochi and some six months after she debuted in the full marathon in Mumbai, Jaisha had landed an Olympic berth in the discipline. The marathon had given her more fame and money than the medals she won in middle distance running. Yet unbelievably – and in some ways predictably given her heart was in the middle distances – she had an argument with her coach over what discipline she should focus on. She wanted to be in middle distances. Eventually her coach relented. Their faith was based on the timing she returned in Ooty while training. “ At least 15 times there, I did 1500m in 4:01, 4:02, 4:03….like that. If you correct it for lower altitude it translated to around 3:57, which was good for participating in the Olympics,’’ she said. It was amid this reorientation that the 2016 Mumbai Marathon happened. Jaisha, the defending champion among Indian women, finished third in 2:43:26. The first place among elite Indian women that year went to Sudha Singh who covered the distance in 2:39:28; Lalita Babbar placed second in 2:41:55. At least one news report on the event mentioned that both Lalita and Jaisha had made their preference for track events, clear.

For Jaisha, the 2016 Mumbai Marathon was sadly the beginning of another slide. Returned to Bengaluru’s SAI facility, focused on the 1500m and pushing pretty high daily mileage, she injured her leg. It was probably because the synthetic track was new at that point in time and therefore, a trifle hard – Jaisha mused in retrospect. Thereafter she couldn’t train on synthetic track for 1500m, a discipline run on the track. It was back to the marathon and training at altitude in Ooty. When she reached Rio in August for the Olympics and yet another rendezvous with the marathon, she wasn’t fully recovered from injury. “ Rio was warm. We had trained in cool Ooty, where we would train at 4 AM. In Kenya, they used to train on warm afternoons,’’ Jaisha said. Race day was particularly warm; condition suitable for potential dehydration, injury and aggravating existing injury. The rest of the Rio story – from alleged lack of support by Indian officials in hydration to athlete’s collapse at finish and controversy afterwards – is known.

Following return to India, Jaisha tested positive for H1N1, a strain of swine flu. Unknown to her, a break of roughly two years from competition was commencing. During this period, there were promises made to athlete that were not met. On her return from Rio, Kerala’s sports minister E. P Jayarajan asked Jaisha what she wanted. She said she wished to be a coach. Later she submitted a letter to the state chief minister on the same. The government, she said, promised a job. Nothing happened. In the meantime, she rented two houses in Wayanad with her own money and started training Adivasi children from Wayanad and Kollam. “ I want to help underprivileged youngsters who are interested in sports,’’ she said. Having resigned her job with the Indian Railways and joined SAI as an assistant coach in Bengaluru in April 2019, the children were still foremost on her mind. “ I want to bring them to Bengaluru and give them coaching here. I hope people contribute to the required resources. Athletes like me, T. Gopi and Preeja Sreedharan are just a few examples of the talent in Kerala’s Wayanad and Idukki districts. There are so many others who will emerge if the right support is offered,’’ she said.

O. P. Jaisha (Photo: courtesy Jaisha)

Thirty six years old as of May 2019, Jaisha appeared to be on a course quite opposite what coaches normally recommend. If the logic of November 2014 was that 30 year-old Jaisha should shift from middle distances to trying the marathon, then at 36, Jaisha is catching up on what she missed. She wants to focus and give one final shot at the disciplines she loves. “ In my athletics career I was made to do this event and that. Whatever they told me to do, I did it as best as I could. Other athletes were smart enough to wriggle their way out of such compulsions. I wasn’t,’’ she said. Jaisha has a point in that regret over lack of focus. Among the disciplines she was dispatched to do just because she was good at running middle distances, was the 3000m steeplechase. She took it up in 2008 and by 2010 had broken the national record. On the other hand, the discipline was odd choice when juxtaposed on her small size. “ When I do the water jump in steeplechase I land in the water while most others clear it. I compensate by catching up in the running section,’’ she said outlining her plight. Not to mention – meandering meaninglessly through various disciplines is invitation to injury.

The marathon had come her way in a similar fashion. It is a different matter that she set a new national record. There were aspects to that switch, which she didn’t like. From 180 kilometers weekly mileage when training for 1500m, the figure shot up to 280 kilometers for the marathon. “ As part of training for the full marathon I have run 105 rounds of the 400 meter-track,’’ Jaisha said. But in an effort to stay lean and fighting fit, there wasn’t much alteration in food intake alongside. Result – against an optimum body weight of around 43 kilos, there were times when she was 39 kilos. “ I can’t endure that. Throughout my career, I feel, I have been an experiment for my coaches,’’ she said. Then there is that spiritual disagreement with the marathon. “ I am fundamentally a track athlete,’’ Jaisha said. That is the space, range of distances, style of running and overall time for given discipline, she enjoys. In 1500m she has touched good timing – she hasn’t forgotten that. Over the next several months, alongside her responsibilities as assistant coach with SAI, she wants to train and get herself back to form in 1500m and 5000m. Then, she hopes to make it back once more to the international stage. By January-February 2020, she expects to be ready for her first major event. Won’t she miss the marathon particularly since the national record is still in her name? “ Records are made to be broken. I don’t have an attachment to the marathon,’’ she said. And what if this final tryst with middle distance events, fails? “ Then, I will call it a day knowing well that I tried,’’ she said.

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