IRONMAN: THE GAME BEGINS FOR INDIA

Saikhom Bishworjit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Indian story in Ironman triathlons had been one of completing it. In mid-2019, that changed, thanks to triathletes from the Indian Army’s Bombay Sappers. A finish in top ten and topping in age categories was achieved. Then in October, an Indian triathlete – once again from Bombay Sappers – won an Ironman event. This is the story of that journey and what a group of amateur triathletes did to make the podium finishes possible.

Manipur is a state in north east India.

At roughly three million people, Manipur’s population is a small fraction of India’s overall human numbers estimated at over 1.3 billion. Imphal East is Manipur’s second most populous district. According to Wikipedia, the district straddles average elevation of close to 2600 feet. It has warm summers and modestly cold winters. Naharup is a village in Imphal East. That’s where Saikhom Bishworjit was born in 1990, the eighth of nine siblings – all boys. His father, now no more, worked as a teacher; mother is a homemaker.  Two people appear critical in Bishworjit’s story. His elder brother Saikhom Mani – seventh among the siblings – is a national level triathlete. But it was “ Sushil’’ another triathlete from Naharup, who kick-started things; he organized a triathlon in the local pond. Based on his performance there, Bishworjit commenced swimming at the swimming pool in Imphal.

In 2004, when selections were held for a national sub junior level competition in the triathlon, Bishworjit finished first. At the subsequent meet held in Hyderabad, he placed fourth. Despite its small population, Manipur is a powerhouse in Indian sports. For decades India’s north east was plagued by militancy, poor connectivity to the rest of the country and a general sense of being overlooked. It resulted in economic development delayed and opportunities restricted. “ For us sports was avenue to get a government job,’’ Bishworjit said. Under the Indian system, promising athletes get employment, typically in government and with public sector enterprises. In such ambiance, fourth place may not have been personally encouraging for the youngster. After the Hyderabad event, Bishworjit dropped off the triathlon.  The person who got him back on track was his triathlete brother; in 2006, Mani joined the Indian Army’s Bombay Sappers. He began supporting Bishworjit’s training. In 2008, at the junior nationals held in Porbandar, the youngster placed fifth despite using an India-built basic bicycle for the cycling segment.

A sapper, also called pioneer and combat engineer, is a soldier who performs a range of military engineering duties.  The Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army has three groups of combat engineers under it – Madras Sappers, Bombay Sappers and Bengal Sappers. Of these, Bombay Sappers has its headquarters at Khadki, Pune. In 2009, Bishworjit shifted to Pune to be with his brother and train. Among the army’s several arms and regiments, Bombay Sappers is known to maintain keen interest in the triathlon (of late, personnel from the parachute regiment have also begun appearing on the scene, those familiar with the sport said).  Although not yet part of the army, thanks to his brother, Bishworjit was able to periodically train alongside the army’s triathletes. In 2010, after he secured fourth place at the senior nationals, he was formally accepted into the army. His longstanding wish to have a government job thus came true.

Raghunath Shivaji Mali and Biten Singh Laikhuram (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Recreational Triathletes)

However, there was gap between the worlds of triathlon as evolved within the army and as it prevailed outside. Oriented towards objective and clear plan of progression, the army’s typical long term goal is Olympics. Besides internal competitions; importance is given to military games, national competitions, continental meets and through all that, selection to represent country at the Olympics. But triathlon has a bustling world of events and competitions outside the fold of the Olympics.  There are the Ironman triathlons, leading all the way up to world championships. Further, the triathlon as essayed at the Olympics features short distances across all three disciplines – swimming, cycling and running.  An Olympic triathlon entails 1.5 kilometers of swimming followed by 40 kilometers of cycling and 10 kilometers of running. Ironman distances are more. Not to mention, beyond Ironman (half and full), there are events like Ultraman. As later events showed, the army was very aware of these events. But priority seemed Olympic dimension.

In October 2015, the World Military Games was held in Mungyeong, South Korea. Among disciplines therein was the triathlon; it was of Olympic dimension. Six triathletes of the Indian Army, including Bishworjit, participated. According to him, the team placed twelfth. The open water swim of the triathlon was held in the sea. Bishworjit remembers struggling to get going in the sea. It was his first time tackling the sea and sea swimming is very different from swimming in the pool or contained water bodies like ponds and lakes, which is what he was accustomed to. To get going at sea, you should know how to get past the oncoming waves.  He lost time negotiating the waves. In 2015, the National Games was held in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Not making the cut to represent Services (the team which represents army, navy and air force) in the triathlon, Bishworjit represented Goa following a route athletes in such predicament are permitted to take. However, after the World Military Games in South Korea, small changes in training started to happen. The army’s triathletes who trained in Pune, traveled to Mumbai and the naval facility there to practise sea swimming.

Over the past decade, the triathlon has slowly but steadily gathered followers in India. A couple of factors may have contributed to it. First, in running, which is perhaps the most easily accessed sport for fitness, the base numbers grew enormously. Running’s growth has provided a stairway for amateur athletes to explore the world of related sports. Two other verticals in endurance sports, they quickly become aware of – usually as options to cross train – are cycling and swimming. Cycling as lifestyle activity – along with committed cyclists emerging therefrom – has picked up. Second, as the economy opened up in the 1990s and sectors like IT rose in importance, a workforce more mobile than before made its presence felt. People who spent time overseas and witnessed sports there or participated in it; wished for similar pursuits back in India. The amateur sports scene in India drew much impetus from this mobile workforce. In 2014 the Goa Triathlon made its debut with 90 participants. It was of Olympic dimension. Also taking shape during this period was Internet-based groups of sport aficionados. Recreational Triathletes was one such group. Three years old at the time of writing, the online community was approximately 1200 members-strong.

Like all groups, Recreational Triathletes is sum total of the ideas and work of its many active members. Its core team includes Zarir Baliwalla, Sharada Kulkarni, Anirban Mukherji and Rajkumar Charzal. It was Zarir (a Mumbai based-businessman, he featured earlier on this blog for his relay swim across the English Channel: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/29/a-relay-swim-across-the-english-channel/), who told us of Bishworjit. My meeting with Bishworjit was at the office of an IT company in Baner, Pune. MiniOrange is a security software company set up by Anirban Mukherji, who during his student days had been a swimmer competing at the national level. An engineer by profession and now a triathlete; before he located to Pune, he had worked in Mumbai and the US. According to Anirban, an obvious truth about Indians and the triathlon was there for all to see – from being nobodies in the triathlon; Indians had got around to finishing triathlons and Ironman events overseas. But that was it – finishing. A winner was yet to emerge from their ranks. “ We wanted to see an Indian win and had come up with this slogan: jana gana mana bajwa denge,’’ Anirban said of the thinking at Recreational Triathletes (jana gana mana is how India’s national anthem begins; reference herein being to national anthem played at medal ceremonies). At the Goa Triathlon, which had quickly become the premier event in the domestic triathlon calendar and where the faithful converged (participation touched 600 in four years’ time as per event website), one man Dr Pablo Erat – he is a Swiss entrepreneur  and much respected triathlete in his age category – had been winning consistently since 2014. Where were the Indian triathletes capable of changing that?

Nihal Baig (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Recreational Triathletes)

In March 2017, Rajkumar Charzal happened to participate in a triathlon in Pune. Encouraged by his ability to complete it, he enrolled for the Ironman 70.3 (Half Ironman) at Langkawi, Malaysia. While he was preparing for the event, an archery coach he knew and who worked at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune put him in touch with Mani, Bishworjit’s triathlete-brother.  From there to knowing Bishworjit was a short hop. Hailing from Imphal, Manipur, Charzal is a software engineer currently working with Barclays Global Service Centre in Pune. He had worked first in Bengaluru, been in Pune briefly, moved thereafter to Mumbai and then located back to Pune. “ I have been here since 2012,’’ he said. Charzal went on to successfully complete the Ironman in Langkawi. The whole episode also introduced him to the larger triathlon community in Pune. In 2017, Bishworjit participated in the Goa triathlon. “ The decision to participate was an army initiative. They already knew of the event,’’ Charzal said.

Bishworjit’s participation in the Goa triathlon was an eye opener for Recreational Triathletes.  The sequence followed in triathlon is swimming, cycling and running. Both Pablo and Bishworjit finished their swim and emerged out of the water around the same time.  Saddled with an average aluminum bicycle the army athlete struggled in the cycling segment. But he made up for it, in running. Pablo won the event in 2:07:26. Bishworjit placed second with 2:09:52. Vishwanath Yadav – also from the army – finished third in 2:11:00. Anirban, Charzal and others from Recreational Triathletes knew they had found the talent they were looking for. But to get the army triathletes regularly challenging Pablo and his ilk at events like Goa Triathlon and Ironman, a whole ecosystem they trained in had to be engaged and convinced of the merit in new direction. First however, there was something more immediate to address – the best of these new finds deserved a damn good bicycle for it was in cycling that Pablo made the difference.

In 2018, despite the unfinished business of catching up with Pablo, Bishworjit could not participate in that year’s Goa Triathlon. He was committed to representing the army at the national triathlon championships, where for the first time he placed first completing the Olympic distance genre in 2:09:46. He was now national champion. That year he also placed second in the South Asian Championships held in Nepal. Around this time, Recreational Triathletes decided to hold a time trial in Pune. They wanted to assess how well elite Indian triathletes, used to Olympic distances in the sport, would fare over the longer distances of Ironman 70.3 – 1.9 kilometers of swimming, 90 kilometers of cycling and 21.1 kilometers of running; the increased dimensions being mainly in cycling and running. To attract participants, they dangled a carrot or two. They promised to sponsor the top performers to participate in Ironman events abroad. Also featured as carrot, was afore mentioned bicycle; a proper tri-bike. “ The trials were held on the last Sunday of every months and it lasted a few months. Those appearing for the time trial had to cycle 50 kilometers and then run 10 kilometers; do it back to back. We also kept 4:15:00 as an informal cut-off time, a sort of benchmark for deciding the top performers,’’ Charzal said. According to him, the army’s triathletes needed no coaxing to participate. They warmed up to the idea quickly. Anirban however, did mention the need to put Recreational Triathletes in proper perspective for the army triathletes to comfortably engage. They had superiors to report to and convince for permission. Recreational Triathletes was an Internet based convergence of amateur triathletes. “ There was the angle of who we are, why we were conducting the trials and explanation around that, ’’ Anirban said.

Recreational Triathletes

Post time trials in Pune – Bishworjit (he placed first in the trials with net time of 4:09:42), Biten Singh Laikhuram and Raghunath Shivaji Mali, all from the army – were selected for participation in Ironman events overseas; Bishworjit and Biten were headed to Ironman 70.3 in Bahrain. Unfortunately bureaucratic delays crept in. When the required paperwork couldn’t be wrapped up in time, Recreational Triathletes tried to get them registered for the Half Ironman in Colombo, Sri Lanka instead. That too failed because of delayed paperwork. But the group didn’t give up and continued to explore options. Eventually everything fell in place for participation in Ironman 70.3 at Bintan, Indonesia. Mali and Biten were able to proceed for the event scheduled for August 2019; Bishworjit had to stay out as he had been selected to participate in the senior national triathlon championships, the dates of which clashed with the event in Indonesia. “ Ahead of the Bintan Ironman, the army coach who was familiar with training for Olympic distances enquired about the details of Ironman 70.3 and what aspects of training mattered for the format,’’ Charzal said. Late August, encouraging results came from Ironman 70.3, Bintan. Raghunath Shivaji Mali finished first in his age category (18-24 years). Hailing from Sangli, Maharashtra, Mali had previously placed first at the junior nationals in 2015 and later, secured third place at the 2017 National Games in Kerala. At the time trials held in Pune, he had placed third with net time of 4:21:56. Biten meanwhile placed eighth overall at Bintan (field of 733 triathletes) and first in his age category; it was the first instance of a triathlete from India finishing in top ten at such an event. According to Anriban and Charzal, there have been no previous reports of two Indian triathletes topping their age categories in the same Ironman event either. Not to mention – neither Mali nor Biten were regulars at Ironman distances. In India, they specialize in the smaller Olympic distance.

Starting with a first place finish at the junior nationals held in Indore, way back in 2010, Biten had been slowly climbing up the ladder. By 2014, he had placed sixth in the senior nationals; in 2016 he finished first at the Delhi invitational triathlon and in 2017, first at the Hyderabad invitational triathlon. At the Pune time trials of 2018 conducted by Recreational Triathletes, he had placed second with net time of 4:12:41. With the results in Bintan, he and Mali qualified for the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championships due in Taupo, New Zealand. Further, one of the top ten finishers at the Pune trials had been Nihal Baig of Mumbai (an IIT Mumbai alumni, he works as Risk Associate at MSCI Inc), who had already participated in Half Ironman events. Recognizing his keenness, Recreational Triathletes sponsored his trip to Nice, France for the Ironman 70.3 there. It was now countdown to Bishworjit’s return to Goa. In the months following the Pune time trials that return had become special, for news had emerged that Goa would be hosting India’s first Ironman 70.3 triathlon in 2019.

A fortnight before the Goa event, Bishworjit – he had placed second at the nationals in 2019 – received his clearance to participate. Besides more training done (including some alone), there was a major difference this time. Recreational Triathletes had got him a top notch tri-bike, an Argon E119. MiniOrange bore the bulk of the cost; around 100 members of Recreational Triathletes also contributed. On race day at the start line in Goa, was old friend and fellow competitor, Pablo. “ My objective was to compete with Pablo,’’ Bishworjit said. The athletes were dispatched for their swim leg in lots of five each. Pablo was in the first batch; Bishworjit was in the third. But when they emerged from the sea having completed the swim, three of them – Pablo, Bishworjit and Mahesh Lourembam were almost together. Mahesh had ranked fourth at the trials in Pune. A good swimmer from his school days, he had competed at the national level in sub junior and junior categories and earned podium finish multiple times. Later, adding the triathlon as well to his repertoire, he had placed third at the senior nationals of 2017.

Mahesh Lourembam, Bishworjit, Nihal and Pablo Erat (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Recreational Triathletes)

Runners are of different types. There is the highly focused sort, who brings to bear on their craft tons of discipline and methodical training. But there are also those treasuring running’s simplicity and primeval freedom; they transcend competition in human hive and cut a picture of peace, solitude and enjoyment.  Among the popular amateur athletic pursuits, triathlon typically smacks of focus and discipline. It is not without reason. A tough sport chasing higher and higher levels of human efficiency, details matter in it. During his 2017 shot at the Goa triathlon, Bishworjit’s transition to cycling had been less than perfect. “ In comparison, Pablo had it all worked out for maximum efficiency,’’ Anirban recalled. In 2019 however, in the transition to cycling, Bishworjit took off first. But at the 15th kilometer, with cramps slowly setting in, he was overtaken by Pablo. “ By the end of the cycling leg, Pablo had a lead of 12 minutes on Bishworjit. At this stage, we were disappointed,’’ Anirban said.  The third discipline – the half marathon – was composed of three loops of seven kilometers each. By the second loop, Bishworjit had Pablo in eyesight. At the 13th kilometer both met at the hydration point. “ Pablo told me to carry on,’’ Bishworjit said. Around kilometer-15, Nihal Baig overtook Mahesh. The final position was Bishworjit (4:42:44), Nihal (4:47:47), Mahesh (4:52:04) and Pablo (4:56:24). At last, an Indian triathlete had won an Ironman 70.3.

With their podium finishes at Ironman Goa, Bishworjit, Nihal and Mahesh also secured berths for the 2020 Ironman World Championships. Provided all goes well, at the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand, these triathletes will be representing India – Bishworjit, Nihal, Mahesh, Biten and Mali. Recreational Triathletes has its work cut out. To begin with, they plan to sponsor about half a dozen bicycle trainers (equipment that renders the bike stationary and capable of being pedaled indoors). Bishworjit for instance, currently uses a very basic model. Training indoors is essential to excel in the triathlon. Anirban felt the triathletes would also require stepping up their mileage in running and execute nutrition strategies better. Bishworjit’s fuel intake during the Ironman in Goa had been frugal. Before swimming he had a gel, while cycling he had some water and a gel and during the run he had aerated drinks and some water. Across the table, the newly crowned Ironman of Goa laughed as he said this.

Anirban Mukherji and Rajkumar Charzal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Both Anirban and Charzal believe Recreational Triathletes has only scratched the surface; there is more talent around. And critically, it is talent that cannot be viewed the traditional way with gaze partial to youth. Pablo who has been beating Indian triathletes is in his late forties. Of the five headed to New Zealand next year, Mali is the youngest, Bishworjit, the oldest (he will be 30 by then). The gap between the best Indian timings and the very best timings at Ironman 70.3 is sizable. The record for men (as per Wikipedia) set in 2018 at Ironman Bahrain, is 3:29:04 (Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway). The first question people asked this writer when told of the Indian podium finishes at Goa Ironman was: how competitive is the field? Do the best foreign athletes come to participate? These are fair questions. But in a sport where peak performance is happening even in middle age, one Ironman done is hardly indicative of Bishworjit and his compatriots knowing their potential. With good training, better equipment, correct nutrition and sustained participation at events, lot more of their strengths may be found. “ We don’t have a formal program for supporting the athletes yet; it is still one thing at a time,’’ Anirban said. Meanwhile in Pune, according to Anirban and Charzal, an atmosphere of positive engagement now prevails between the army triathletes, their coaches and the civilian triathletes. There is talk of organizing programs meant to train the trainers as next step. A journey seems commenced.

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

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