JYOTI GAWATE GETS BRONZE IN WOMEN’S MARATHON AT SOUTH ASIAN GAMES

Jyoti Gawate (Photo: courtesy Ravi Raskatla)

Rashpal Singh and Sher Singh place second and third respectively in men’s marathon

Hiruni Wijayaratne of Sri Lanka secured gold in women’s marathon at the 2019 South Asian Games, currently on in Nepal. She covered the distance in 2:41:24.

Silver medal went to Pushpa Bhandari of Nepal ((2:50:11).

India’s Jyoti Gawate took the bronze (2:52:44).

Jyoti’s compatriot Jigmet Dolma placed fifth (3:07:24). This was Jigmet’s first time representing the country.

The race took place earlier today, December 7, 2019.

Hailing from Parbhani, Maharashtra, Jyoti is a familiar face at road races in the country including the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), where she has been podium finisher multiple times. This was Jyoti’s second outing at South Asian Games. Earlier in 2016, she had been part of the marathon team for that year’s South Asian Games held in Guwahati. In 2011, she had taken part in the Asian Marathon Championships in Thailand and finished seventh among women with a timing of 3:17 hours. She was chosen for the event in Thailand because of her podium finish at the 2011 Mumbai Marathon. AFI had funded her trip and stay. The federation also sent her to participate in the SCO Marathon in China.

At the 2019 edition of TMM, she had finished second among elite Indian women with a personal best timing of 2:45:48. Both Jyoti and Jigmet were selected to represent India at the 2019 South Asian Games based on their podium positions at the fourth edition of the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon held on February 24, 2019. Ahead of leaving for Nepal and the 2019 South Asian Games, Jyoti had told this blog that she would be aiming for a performance close to what she achieved at TMM (for more on Jyoti please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/02/04/jyoti-and-the-eight-minutes/).

According to Wikipedia, Hiruni Wijayaratne is a Sri Lankan-American track and field athlete specializing in long distance running. She represented her country in the 2017 London Marathon and the 2017 World Athletics Championships. She holds ten Sri Lankan national records. She holds the Sri Lankan national record in the women’s marathon of 2:34:10, which is also a South Asia Area Record.  The Indian national record in the women’s marathon set by O.P. Jaisha at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing is 2:34:43.

In the men’s marathon, Kiran Singh Bogati of Nepal emerged victorious. As per information available on the official website of the 2019 South Asian Games, he clinched gold, covering the distance in 2:21:17. Silver went to India’s Rashpal Singh (2:21:57); India’s Sher Singh took bronze (2:27:07).

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more background information on Jyoti and Jigmet please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/29/jyoti-jigmet-in-marathon-team-for-2019-south-asian-games/; you can also refer the archives of this blog for articles on them.)    

CHANGE OF MIND ON DENALI

Seema Pai (Photo: courtesy Seema)

In late June 2019, Seema Pai from Bengaluru reached the summit of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. She returned with many questions in her head and the desire to rethink the projects she was working on.

It all started unexpectedly with a hike in the Sikkim Himalaya in March 2015. That was when Seema Pai and her partner, Dinesh Kaigonahalli, met Sergei Chulkov, a Russian mountain guide. They agreed to meet again; hopefully in the Caucusus Mountains, the mountain system at the intersection of Europe and Asia. A few months after the hike in Sikkim, Seema and Dinesh had an enjoyable outing in Ladakh, trying out a hiking route they hadn’t been on before, in the eastern Nubra Valley. The trek involved three passes all above 17,500 feet in elevation. At its end, the duo decided to extend their outdoor experience to the Caucusus. It seemed appropriate in another way – they were well acclimatized from their stay and hike in Ladakh. Why waste that fitness with a return to the plains?

They flew to Moscow and from there, traveled to the resort town of Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol Krai where they met up with Sergei. Given their recent acclimatization to high altitude and the fact that its benefits stay on for a brief while, Sergie recommended that they attempt Mount Elbrus (18,510ft), the highest peak in the Caucusus. A mountain guide, he kitted them out for the trip. That was how Elbrus happened. With it, rather unexpectedly, Seema found herself looking at the possibility of attempting Seven Summits. It wasn’t something she sought. Elbrus happens to be among mountains constituting the Seven Summits challenge in mountaineering. She had just traveled to Russia and climbed it. So, how about trying the rest? First accomplished by American businessman Richard Bass in 1985, Seven Summits entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The seven peaks are: Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica) and Kosciuszko (Australia) or Puncak Jaya aka Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia). That last choice depends on whether you view Australia as continent or tectonic plate; if latter then Puncak Jaya in Papua, Indonesia qualifies to be highest.

On Elbrus (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Belonging to Bengaluru’s early crop of woman rock climbers, Seema has been climbing, hiking and going on expeditions to the Himalaya for many years. A self-made person with multiple rebounds from testing predicaments to her credit she owned of a couple of shops selling outdoor gear in the city. In mid-August 2017, after another acclimatization trek in Ladakh, Seema and Dinesh flew to Tanzania. In less than a week they were atop Kilimanjaro (19,340ft), the highest freestanding peak in the world and the highest mountain in Africa. In early 2018, the two of them traveled to Argentina in South America, where Seema successfully climbed Aconcagua (22,841ft). All these ascents – Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua – were guided trips that were also supported (meaning – use of support staff) to varying degrees. It made the next expedition, Denali, stand out. Trips to Denali are mostly self-supported. It is only in the Himalaya and the mountains of Africa that clients are indulged with support services. In the world of hiking and mountaineering, respect is highest for people who do things by themselves. Seema was certain she did not want to be a tourist on Denali. She wanted an expedition in which, she did her share of hard work. There was also another angle at play here.

If you go through Wikipedia’s page on Bill Watterson, a sentence to remember is his observation that he works for personal fulfilment. Watterson is the creator of the popular comic strip: Calvin and Hobbes; first published November 18, 1985. Despite its success, Calvin and Hobbes had a syndicated run of only ten years, from 1985 to 1995. According to Wikipedia, Watterson stopped drawing the strip with a short statement to newspaper editors and readers saying that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium. He is also known for his battle with publishers against merchandising his characters; something he felt would render his characters cheap. Amid the comic strip’s immense popularity even today, Watterson’s take on commercialization is, arguably, not as well-known. Seema is a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes. In her childhood, she had been the strong-willed, independent sort with penchant for courting trouble. The story of the six year-old adventurous boy and his stuffed tiger had instant appeal. Among concepts that she latched on to was the idea of the transmogrifier, the cardboard box Calvin uses many times to transform himself and Hobbes into a variety of characters. She had long wanted her own cardboard box.

From the expedition to Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Alaska has been an emblem for the world’s wilderness spaces. There are other places similar to it or near similar, but when it comes to imagining vast snowbound landscapes, polar weather and animal and human existence evolved in such circumstance, Alaska easily invades the brain. It is also true unfortunately that some of the results of human intervention – like oil spills; they too enter the frame. Alaska is home to North America’s best known mountain – Denali. For many years, the mountain was also known as McKinley, called so after William McKinley, 25th president of the United States who was assassinated in September 1901. Although its height is only 20,310 feet – significantly less than many of the peaks in the Himalaya – Denali is both a big mountain, among the world’s most northerly big mountains, quite cold and capable of attracting feisty weather conditions. There is also plenty of raw ascending involved given the walk-in starts at around 7000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. According to Wikipedia, the first verifiable ascent of Denali was in 1913, by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tallum. Within the Seven Summits world, Denali is among the most demanding climbs because in addition to whatever it offers, the challenges are tackled with few of the luxuries of guided ascents. After Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, as Seema knocked on Denali’s doors she knew a different experience waited. This would be her personal transmogrifier to become the sort of outdoorsperson she wanted to be.

In Bengaluru, along with her regular training, Seema commenced a special 24 week-program designed for the Denali ascent. The focus was cardio-vascular, core and strength training. Additionally she also pulled heavy tyres and periodically did stair workouts at an apartment block having 15 floors; her backpack loaded to almost 30 kilos. Then just before heading to the US, she and Dinesh spent two weeks in Ladakh. They hiked to two passes – Stok La and Ganda La – without much load; they carried just about five to six kilos of stuff in their backpack. The idea was to take it easy, provide a tapering, relaxed phase to all the hard work that had gone in. It was also a case of repeating the pattern they had resorted to before the previous peak ascents as part pf Seven Summits – Ladakh was ideal place to acclimatize ahead of expedition. Early June, they flew from Delhi to Seattle via Frankfurt. There they met Madhu Chikkaraju and Pranesh Manchaiah, climbers from Bengaluru who had previously been on Denali as part of faculty for a premier outdoor school. Seema had tied up with them for the Denali attempt. At Anchorage in Alaska, which they reached on June 16, they were also joined by Brian, who had come from Oregon. Seema’s birthday – her fiftieth – was celebrated at Anchorage in the company of her expedition team and friends from Sacramento, who showed up for the occasion. There was some final shopping also done at REI, Anchorage.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

A few days later, the team proceeded to Talkeetna. “ It is a rugged place,’’ Seema said.  Here, the expedition’s gear and supplies were reviewed and repacked. Given an expedition proceeds setting up camps on the mountain and a load ferry precedes each camp, the supplies had to be repacked in plastic and dry bags so that they could be buried six to seven feet deep in the snow; each such cachet is identified with markers bearing the expedition’s name. “ Since there is nobody to help you haul what you take, every unwanted gram is left behind. You orient yourself for life based on essentials and what is relevant,’’ Seema said.

Talkeetna was where the final paperwork and briefing related to the expedition got done. The rangers who interviewed the team had already seen the climbers’ biodata. They had much respect for the altitudes of the Himalaya. But that didn’t stop them from checking whether the predominantly Indian team was aware of what it took to attempt Denali. They made sure the team members knew glacier mountaineering, that they knew the basics of climbing; they even asked how many trips Seema had made to the Himalaya given Bengaluru is in South India. Their focus was more on Madhu and Pranesh, who were the more experienced members and assuming responsibility for the rest. The region around Denali is a national park. The rangers gave a Power Point presentation on dos and don’ts; they also provided an overview of the route available for the season, prevailing conditions and how many attempts had happened as yet. The park service, responsible for maintaining the environment and ensuring visitors’ safety, provided sledges (to pull gear) and poop buckets (to collect and ship out human waste). You have to pay for these. “ The park officials were professional and articulate,’’ Seema said. The private expedition was given the name: Team Bengaluru. They would attempt Denali via the popular route – the West Buttress Route.

Indicative of the ice, wilderness and far flung settlements ahead, there were plenty of planes around in Talkeetna. They do the work of ferrying people and supplies to remoteness. Alaska is among regions that birthed bush flying, wherein the tough terrain that planes take off and land on offered few prepared landing strips and runways. It called for tough pilots, tough planes and much innovation. Bush planes are characterized by their ability to operate from short landing strips, large tyres to tackle bumpy terrain, undercarriage designed to host floats and skis and high wings that permit easy loading and unimpeded gaze downward for pilot and passengers. Alaska’s first bush pilot was Carl Ben Eilson, hailing from North Dakota in the US. Bush planes, pilots – they are as much part of Alaskan stories as nature and people are, in the region. Team Bengaluru flew from Talkeetna to Kahiltna East Fork Glacier. The Kahiltna Glacier is Alaska’s longest; it is 71 kilometers long. “ You are supposed to be dressed for life on glacier and ready for it from the moment you step on to the plane,’’ Seema said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

The plane dropped off the team and their gear, took on those waiting to go back and left. It was now down to four people, their supplies and a vast landscape. Backpacks weighed over 20 kilos; there was roughly 55-60 kilos of gear per head in total. The distance from East Fork at roughly 7000 feet elevation to Denali’s summit – 20,310 feet – is 29 kilometers. Sense of work to be done, sank in for reduced to the minimalism of so much stuff, a few humans and  nothing else around, one thing was clear – none of that gear is going to move unless human being hauls it. “ I am thankful that I put my butt on fire in Bengaluru, preparing for this expedition. You have to be fit if you want to attempt Denali as part of a self-supported team,’’ Seema said. It was the evening of June 19, 2019. Aside from two metal shelters, there was no other permanent installation at Kahiltna East Fork. It was just miles of glacier. You saw the lower portions of Denali; its middle and higher reaches remained unseen. The months of May, June and July form the traditional window to attempt Denali. Thanks to global warming, Seema said, late July is not recommended while late April-expeditions have begun happening. Although flying with Seema to Talkeetna, Dinesh wasn’t part of the climbing team. He was scheduled to return to India. Dinesh is among Bengaluru’s pioneers in rock climbing, a former NOLS instructor in mountaineering and one of the original founders of India’s popular backpack brand: Wildcraft.  Before leaving Talkeetna, he went for a cruise on the river. The settlement is at the confluence of three rivers – Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. From the boat, he saw Denali in the distance. He recalls thinking how massive it seemed. Mt Foraker: Mt Hunter, Denali – they are all in the same area. But Denali towered above the rest.

Life on a giant glacier comes with its own protocols. There were assigned camping spots on Kahiltna East Fork and limits on how far you venture off the designated zone for there are crevasses. You respect the safety markers that have been put up; you also watch out for each other. Climbers heading to Denali stick to the assigned path, identifiable thanks to periodic markers and the footprints of those who went earlier. On vast, barren glacier with nowhere to hide, a pee-break or poop-break finds you going about your business while others look away to provide an illusion of privacy. Tents, easily set up on other types of terrain, can be installed on a glacier exposed to the wind only after sufficient snow has been shoveled off and a flat trough excavated for the pitching. With so much ice around, snow goggles are a must. Sleep is quite different from mountaineering in the Himalaya. The Alaskan year is divided into two halves of summer and winter. June is summer and in summer, daylight never goes off fully. “ You put a scarf on your eyes and try to sleep. I went to Denali like a student. You have to have humility. What I liked about Denali is that you can’t be competitive in this landscape. If you are still competitive, then you are spiritually zero. Nothing works here without team work,’’ Seema said. The first few days of load ferry is done wearing snow shoes, designed to prevent feet from sinking into snow. Back in Bengaluru, Seema had trained to pull sledges (that’s what the earlier mentioned tyres were for). Still doing it for real was a challenge. She hadn’t factored in how traction would be with snow shoes. On the approach to Denali, she elected to do her hauling in the backpack instead. The team used snow shoes and sledges till the fifth day. Then they were cached (buried) in the snow at Windy Corner to be retrieved on the way back. Past this point, Seem also stopped using both her trekking poles. It became a pole and an ice axe. Among the camps en route, the one at 14,200 feet was sizable. “ It resembles a colony and is just ahead of the actual climb up Denali. This camp has a medical facility with Gammo Bag to tackle altitude induced sickness,’’ Seema said.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Fixed ropes installed every season for the climb, commenced from this camp. Here the team also faced their first set of serious problems. To begin with a storm was forecast. Bad weather typically entails lasting it out for a fresh window to open up. That puts pressure on the team’s supplies. Then, one of the team members became unwell, apparently caused by altitude. The medical personnel advised that the individual descend for safety. He was relocated to camp at 11,000 feet. Simple as it sounds, in reality this wasn’t easy. In the thick of an expedition with work to do and summit to gain, altitude sickness is rarely acknowledged by patients. When it is established through external intervention, there is the issue of patient buying into it adequately and descending to safety. Finally in small alpine teams, when one person is taken out of the frame, the others have to pull that much more for there are only so many to get the job done. The diagnosis of altitude sickness and descent to safe camp to park the individual – all this happened alongside responsibilities parceled out and load ferry continued to set up higher camps. By now the body clock had gone haywire; in Denali’s blurred divide between day and night sleep was happening at hours distinctly odd by the habits of lower latitudes. And so one of the timelines read like this – team members after transferring their colleague to lower camp (where his condition started to improve) got back to the camp at 14,200 feet by 3AM. They rested till 3PM and then left for high camp at 17,200 feet – below Denali Pass – which they reached by 10.30PM. The weather was starting to go bad. They rested till 8AM, then, left for the summit at 10AM. The narrative may as well have been of one long solar day; sleep – a case of badly required shut eye and not world blanketed by darkness.

The summit push is divided into three parts – there is the Denali Pass, the summit slope and a large slushy snowfield, replete with the associated risks of glacier travel. The team moved efficiently, tackling Denali Pass in under-two hours. “ Summit day was 12 hours long for us. We reached the top of Denali at 5.50PM on June 28. Luckily for us, the weather didn’t worsen that day and the next. Having gained the summit, we got back to the camp at 11,000 feet and our friend recuperating there, by around 10PM,’’ Seema said. Reunited and briefly rested, they wound up the camp at 11,000 feet and descended to East Fork at approximately 7000 feet. Having returned to Bengaluru, Dinesh had been monitoring the weather in Alaska online. He saw the storm forecast. He also saw that around the team’s previously calculated summit window, conditions were holding and not deteriorating further. “ Up and down Denali in eleven days is admirable,’’ he said.

For Seema however, there were other thoughts taking root. The whole Seven Summits journey had been triggered unexpectedly. Once she launched into it, there had been the related big expedition-rigmarole of impressing sponsors, articulating purpose and marketing it. All of that to try and raise funds. A century ago, in times vastly different from now, George Mallory could say he wanted to climb Everest “ because it’s there.’’ Now, adventure finds support because it promises relevance for sale in human collective. Empowerment; no-limits, team work – such descriptions help market adventure, when it is actually a case of nothing but because-its-there and you wanting to try it. Bucket lists by fifty are perhaps no different. Or to be more precise – there is nothing wrong in wishing for something but if you want it to be a soul-cleansing experience alongside, then it has to be just that and not what impresses sponsors and human collective. Seema had Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali in the bag. Everest, Vinson Massif and Puncak Jaya remained. Denali in particular had come after much preparation. She had worked for it. It had been mission mode. And just when it delivered results, it also posed questions. What are you on a mountain for? “ I don’t want anything in mission mode anymore on a mountain. I want it to be a fuller experience of what it is like to be out there. On a normal expedition, one is happier. You have time. Mission mode, chasing an objective or ambition, does not offer opportunity to connect deeply to the experience, ’’ she said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Denali done, Seema has been questioning her pursuit of Seven Summits. “ I don’t wish to go after the remaining peaks in Seven Summits. On the other hand, Denali has given me the confidence to attempt bigger peaks. Not tick them as some objective achieved. Woh race mein nahin lagne ka….’’ she said. Not to mention – Seven Summits is an expensive proposition and the peaks remaining to be climbed – Everest, Vinson Massif (in Antarctica) and Puncak Jaya (in Indonesia) – are costly affairs owing to challenges in logistics or the commercial enterprise they come wrapped in. Is mountaineering all about measurement by capacity to afford costly expeditions and logistics? In days of commercial expeditions like today, it would seem so. “ The problem in life is that sense of accomplishment easily transforms to self-obsession. I don’t want that,’’ Seema said. Back in Bengaluru, she has been reassessing her life. Alongside her business, Seema has maintained a presence in farming. The latter’s appeal has been growing. Denali was indeed transmogrifier.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Seema Pai please try this link: https://whynotat50.com/)                

2020 TOKYO OLYMPICS / VENUE FOR MARATHON AND RACE WALK FINALIZED

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Sapporo Odori Park in Hokkaido will be the venue for the marathon and race walk events of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“ The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Tokyo 2020) today announced that Sapporo Odori Park in Hokkaido has been approved by the IOC as the venue for the marathon and race walk events at the IOC Executive Board meeting held today in Lausanne, Switzerland. This followed confirmation from World Athletics,’’ an official statement dated December 4, 2019, available on the website of IOC, said.

According to it, Sapporo Odori Park has been used in the past as a venue for the Hokkaido Marathon, giving the local authorities considerable experience in operating major events in this area. It is a popular spot for tourists and local residents; it hosts a variety of events throughout the year. It is a large open space of around 7.8 hectares in the center of Sapporo City, featuring beautiful lawns, flower beds and trees.

The park was chosen also because its layout allows both the marathon and race walk events to be held at the same venue, while the topography of the surrounding area allows for the creation of exciting competition courses. At Games time, temporary facilities will be constructed at the park to support operations.

The statement said that IOC, World Athletics and Tokyo 2020 agreed on one and two kilometer-loops for the race walk and a 20km loop course for the first stage of the marathon, leaving as legacy a half-marathon course which can host a future annual event. World Athletics and Tokyo 2020 will continue their discussions on the second half of the course and will conduct a site inspection in order to reach a mutual decision on overall operations by mid-December, the statement said.

The competition schedules have also been revamped to facilitate the support of NOC officials and coaches to the athletes, as Sapporo is located 800km to the north of Tokyo. The marathon and race walk events are now scheduled to be held on four consecutive days, from 6 to 9 August. The revised schedule is as follows:

6 August / 4.30 p.m. Men’s 20km race walk

7 August / 5.30 a.m. Men’s 50km race walk

7 August / 4.30 p.m. Women’s 20km race walk

8 August / 7.00 a.m. Women’s marathon

9 August / 7.00 a.m. Men’s marathon

The statement quoted the Chair of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission, Kirsty Coventry, as saying, “ Athletes’ health and well-being are always at the heart of our concerns, and the decision to move the marathon and race walk events to Sapporo shows how seriously we take such concerns. We also want the Olympic Games to be the platform where athletes can give once-in-a-lifetime-performances, and this new venue ensures that they will have the conditions to give their best. I would like to thank the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the local authorities and World Athletics for confirming this new venue so quickly, in order to give the athletes as much preparation time as possible. I look forward to seeing the marathon and race walk athletes compete in Sapporo in front of a passionate crowd next August.”

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto commented, “ We appreciate that, through the support of so many people, Sapporo Odori Park could be approved as a venue so quickly following the decision to move these events. With less than eight months to go until the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Games, Tokyo 2020 will continue to work closely as one team with all the parties involved in their preparation.’’

It was in mid-October that the IOC first announced plans to move the Olympic marathon and race walk events to Sapporo, the host city of the Olympic Winter Games 1972. The move to Hokkaido, the northern-most prefecture of Japan, will mean significantly lower temperatures for the athletes during the Olympic Games. In Sapporo, temperatures during the Games period are as much as five to six degrees centigrade cooler during the day than in Tokyo, an official statement issued then had said. In era of climate change, thermal stress has become a subject of concern for endurance sports staged outside the controlled ambiance of stadiums. It may be recalled that heat had taken a terrible toll on participants for the marathon and race walk events at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, earlier this year.

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

BENGALURU BAGS TWO INTERNATIONAL ULTRA-RUNNING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

IAU approval for bids submitted, received.

The 2020 IAU 24H Asia and Oceania Championships and the 2021 IAU 100 km Asia and Oceania Championships have been allotted to India, International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) said in a statement dated December 4, 2019, available on its website.

“ We are very pleased to announce that the 2020 IAU 24H Asia and Oceania Championships and the 2021 IAU 100 km Asia and Oceania Championships were granted to Bengaluru, India. The 24-hour Championships will take place on 18th – 19th July 2020.  The 100 km event is scheduled for September 2021 (final date to be confirmed).

“ The IAU, Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and NEB Sports (responsible for the race organisation) invite all Asia and Oceania Federations to send their Athletes to the events. The GIS and Invitations will be send in due time. It is our expectation that this Championship will be the starting point for a new stage in the development of ultra-distance in the region. India has never held an international ultra-distance championship organised by IAU,’’ the statement said.

“ We are delighted to take our next two Asia & Oceania Championships to India. India sent their first team to the IAU Trail World Championships in 2017 and has quickly risen in the world ultra rankings both on trails and the roads. Ultrarunning is quickly growing on the subcontinent and we are excited to further advance our sport in the region by bringing our continental champs to the area. I thank the Athletics Federation of India and the team of NEB Sports for submitting very good bids and I am confident that these will be two outstanding championships,’’ IAU president, Nadeem Khan has said.

“ It is our pleasure to welcome the International Ultra Runners for such a prestigious event hosted by AFI in India,” Nagaraj Adiga, CMD, NEB Sports was quoted as saying in the statement.

Bengaluru, the capital of India’s Karnataka state, is located on the Deccan Plateau at an elevation of over 900 m (3000ft) above sea level. Compared to other big cities in India, it has a relatively moderate climate. IAU’s decision follows a site visit to Bengaluru some months ago.

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

LIMITLESS

Limitless; film poster

Every morning you see people running. Seen as movement, it is near similar. As story, each runner is different. Limitless, a film about women and running, chronicles a few of these stories. We spoke to some of the amateur runners featured in it and the team behind the film.

In February 2019, Seema Verma participated in the 50 kilometer-race at Tata Ultra Marathon in Lonavala, near Mumbai. She finished third in her age category of 18-44 years.

Currently a resident of Nallasopara, Seema, 37, was left to fend for herself by her husband. He deserted her. She worked as a domestic help for several years eking out a living for herself and her son. In the early days, she had to lock her toddler son at home and go to work. In the documentary film Limitless, she breaks down as she reminisces about those traumatic days.

The film (currently available on Netflix) features the stories of eight women and their foray into running. Seema is one of them. She started running in 2012; around the same time, she also started learning karate. Her employer introduced her to the concept of marathon.

She took to running seriously and over the years has managed to get podium positions in some of the races that she participated in. She has now stopped working as a home worker and focuses on training for middle-distance and long-distance running. She is currently sponsored by EbixCash World Money. The prize money that she earns from running races helps supplement her income.

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Going ahead, she was slated to run the 2019 edition of Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon and the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon. She is on the constant lookout for running events where the possibilities of podium finish are high.

Kolkata-based Anuradha Dutt started running in 2011. “ Running is the best thing which happened to me after our son came into our lives. It keeps me positive, sane and most importantly it has made me fearless,’’ she said. Encouraged by her husband, she was one of the early women in town to take to wearing sports bra and shorts for running. Women would often come up to her and compliment her for her fit body and attire. “ A couple of years ago at a race in Mumbai an unknown lady came up to me at the finishing line and praised me for carrying my stretch marks so gracefully,’’ she said.

Anuradha wants to train harder and ensure that she stays injury free in the process. She is the Project Co-ordinator of Interlink Calcutta, an institution for the differently abled. “ Running is a form of therapy for differently abled students and more students taking to running keeps them positive and strengthens their self-belief,’’ she said.

Viji Swaminathan, a Chennai resident, was worried about her weight, which led to confidence issues. “ I weighed over 100 kilograms. I decided to start walking. While walking I would run from one lamppost to the next and slowly got into running,’’ she said. Running was the best thing that happened to Viji, a classical dancer. She was never into sports. Her first running event was Bengaluru 10K, held in May 2012. Two months later, she participated in Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM).

Viji Swaminathan (Photo: courtesy Viji)

“ My best running years were during 2012-2014. After 2015, I have been plagued by injuries,’’ she said. Nevertheless, running is an integral part of her life now. She also has a fitness group, UNIS (Unleash your Inner Strength) Running, aimed at a lifestyle focussed on being fit.

Anuradha and Viji are among the other women featured in the documentary film, Limitless, which showcases stories of women from varying backgrounds; the challenges and triumphs they faced during their foray into running. The other woman runners featured in the documentary are Karishma Babbar, Mandira Singh, Monica Becerril Mehta, Sharada Venkataraman and Saloni Arora.

Limitless was conceptualised and funded by IART (Indian Amateur Runners Trust). The finance for the film was arranged through an informal crowd-funding approach. IART put out a call across India to women to write in their stories about running. Women from across the country wrote in to share their experiences and these were curated in a manner that showcased a diverse mix of stories from different cities and socio-economic backgrounds, said Vaishali Kasture, amateur runner, corporate executive and trustee of IART.

Vrinda Samartha (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

“ Women face a lot of constraints and challenges in everything, especially in running. Every time a woman gets out on a training run, she has to manage many things on the home front – plan food, manage school-going children or adolescents and sometimes elderly parents, not to mention – manage their own employment,’’ said M.S. Dileepan, amateur runner and trustee of IART. Shooting the film was a logistics challenge as the team had to work on a shoe-string budget with hired equipment. “ Each of the shooting schedules had to be completed in a limited time,’’ Vaishali said.

IART did most of the work for the production and exhibition of the film, said Ashok Nath, Bengaluru-based running coach and trustee of IART. The trust arranged for all approvals, organised fall film premiers and media meets. The production work was assigned to Believe Films, a film production house. The film has found fresh momentum after its debut on Netflix in October this year, its director Vrinda Samartha said.

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

DIAMOND LEAGUE: YOHAN BLAKE SAYS NEW FORMAT RISKS DAMAGING ATHLETICS

Yohan Blake (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Diamond League is just an example. As broadcast begins to shape the contours of sport, there is introspection for the media also to do.

The ongoing controversy about the Diamond League’s exclusion of certain disciplines found fresh fuel with ace Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake pointing out that the move risked damaging athletics.

At a press conference in Mumbai earlier this week, he pointed out that the omission will impact athletes’ livelihood. According to reports published in the Indian media, Blake said (with reference to the decisions made regarding the Diamond League) he was unsure if Sebastian Coe, president, World Athletics (formerly International Association of Athletics Federations / IAAF) was trying to build athletics or kill it. Blake is a specialist in the 100m and 200m (he is the second fastest man yet over these distances); the 200m is among disciplines affected (at least in the short term) by the restyled Diamond League format. Blake’s view on the subject was reported by leading domestic media outlets like Times of India, The Hindu and Indian Express.

The IAAF Diamond League, Wikipedia says, is an annual series of elite track and field competitions. The series began with the 2010 Diamond League. It was designed to replace the IAAF Golden League which had been held annually since 1998. While the Golden League was formed to increase the profile of the leading European athletics competitions, the Diamond League’s aim was to enhance the worldwide appeal of athletics by going outside Europe. In addition to the original Golden League members (except Berlin) and other traditional European competitions, the series now includes events in China, Qatar, Morocco and the United States.

The new Diamond League format was approved by the IAAF council in early 2019 at a meeting in Doha. Among the first to voice concern about the revamped format was Athletics Kenya (for full report please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/04/02/possibility-of-5000m-still-alive-in-new-diamond-league-format/). In March 2019 they wrote to IAAF about the exclusion of distances longer than 3000m. Athletics Kenya was particularly concerned by the exclusion of any event longer than 3000m from the Diamond League program next year and the reduction in the number of meetings from 14 to 13. They sought, and received assurance from IAAF that Kenyan and other East African athletes, who feature prominently in 5000m races, would not lose competition opportunities due to this process.

The IAAF confirmed that the absence of the 5000m from the official Diamond League program would not preclude individual Diamond League meetings from running the event outside of the 90-minute international broadcast window and that several meetings had already shown interest in hosting the 5000m. It was explained that the IAAF’s market research showed that producing a series that consistently featured the best athletes competing against each other was a key factor in improving the appeal of the Diamond League for broadcasters and fans. At the same time the 5000m runners, coaches and agents consulted during the process indicated that they were unlikely to run six races over that distance in the Diamond League series (in 2018 no leading athlete ran more than two 5000m races during the regular Diamond League season). The 3000m distance was selected because it was more likely to attract the best distance talent more regularly. As a consequence, distance runners will have the option of running up to seven 3000m races (including the Diamond League Final), plus additional 5000m races, across the season, an official statement from IAAF issued in the context of Athletics Kenya’s letter had said.

Even as the drama of World Athletics versus athletes over the new Diamond League format plays out in the media, it is important to note that a critical component inspiring the changes to format is the nature of media itself. This became clear in an official IAAF statement from November 2019 (for an overview please click on this link and scroll down to find relevant article: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/07/at-a-glance-november-2019/). According to it, the largest consumer survey yet by the Diamond League showed that it’s most popular disciplines were the 100m, long jump and high jump followed by pole vault, the 200m and 400m. “ Popularity of athletes, head-to-head competitions and excitement of the individual competition were cited as reasons for the choice of the most popular events in the largest consumer survey into the disciplines hosted in the IAAF Diamond League. Representative online research carried out in China, France, South Africa and the USA; post-event surveys in Belgium, Great Britain and Switzerland and click-throughs on Diamond League social media videos during 2019 helped guide the Diamond League General Assembly, made up of all meeting directors, to decide which disciplines will be part of 2020 season,’’ the statement said.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of IAAF Diamond League. No copyright infringement intended.

According to it, as a result of the research, and the decision taken earlier in the year that only 24 disciplines (12 male / 12 female) will form the core disciplines at all meetings, eight disciplines (4 male and 4 female) will not be contested during the 2020 Diamond League season. These disciplines are the discus, triple jump and 3000m steeplechase – three events that currently sit towards the bottom of the research conducted – and the 200m, which the Diamond League organizers felt would be too congested alongside the 100m, particularly in an Olympic Games year. Following a detailed review of the schedule for the 90-minute broadcast window of the Diamond League, both the 200m and the 3000m steeplechase will be included in 10 meetings (5 male and 5 female) in the 2020 Diamond League season, including Oslo, Rome, and Doha. Two meetings will also feature discus and triple jump (1 female and 1 male). However, none of the four disciplines will feature in the Diamond League Final in 2020, the statement said.

“ Our objective is to create a faster-paced, more exciting global league that will be the showcase for our sport. A league that broadcasters want to show and fans want to watch. However, we understand the disappointment of those athletes in the disciplines not part of the 2020 Diamond League season,’’ the statement quoted IAAF Diamond League chairman Sebastian Coe, as saying. Needless to say, two days later, on November 8, the media reported that world champions in the 3000m steeplechase, Kenya’s Conseslus Kipruto and Beatrice Chipkoech, had expressed disappointment in the Diamond League’s decision. They said that the move could affect their career. At the Olympics, Kenya has been the most successful nation in steeplechase.

According to media reports, Blake was in Mumbai to promote Road Safety World Series, a T-20 cricket tournament. He plans to commence an athletics training program in India, the reports said.

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

SPORT CLIMBING / ADAM ONDRA QUALIFIES FOR OLYMPICS

Adam Ondra (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Adam Ondra, among the best sport climbers of his generation and one of the most widely recognized athletes from the field, has secured an invitation to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

He qualified at the top of the table at the Combined Qualifier held by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) over November 28-December 1, 2019 in Toulouse, France. This qualification took him into the finals at the event. As far as the Olympics is concerned, the crux was the qualifying round with the top six scheduled to get Olympic invites. News reports said that with Japan already filling its slots via results at the Combined World Championships held earlier in Hachioji, the two Japanese climbers – Kokoro Fujii and Meichi Narasaki – who were among top qualifiers at Toulouse wouldn’t get Olympic invites and most likely instead, see their results considered internally by the Japanese team. This left Olympic invites for the remaining six climbers.

Ondra who represents Czech Republic, had earlier failed to get an invitation to the Olympics following his disqualification at the Combined IFSC Climbing World Championships at Hachioji, Japan, where in the sub category of lead climbing, he was found to have accidentally stepped on a bolt resulting in his score being whittled down.  In the qualifying round at Toulouse, he placed first in lead climbing, second in bouldering and fourteenth in speed climbing. In the combined final, Ondra finished second ahead of Meichi Narasaki and behind Kokoro Fujii. Others qualifying at Toulouse for the 2020 Olympics, as per IFSC, were YuFei Pan (China), Alberto Gines Lopez (Spain), Jan Hojer (Germany), Bassa Mawem (France) and Nathaniel Coleman (USA) in the men’s category. Among women, the new names aboard from Toulouse are: Julia Chanourdie (France), Mia Krampl (Slovenia), Iuliia Kaplina (Russia), Kyra Condie (USA), Laura Rogora (Italy) and YiLing Song (China).

On November 30, Chinese news agency Xinhua had reported that Song should be getting her Olympic invite. The Chinese climber was placed ninth in the qualifying round. Xinhua based its conclusion on the fact that Japan’s Ai Mori who led the overall rankings and advanced to the eight-woman final together with compatriot Futaba Ito, who finished fifth, were both ineligible for Olympic invites given Japan already guaranteed full representation as the host of next year’s Olympics. Additionally, Lucka Rakovec of Slovenia, who placed second overall behind Mori in the qualifier at Toulouse, had already obtained an Olympic spot by finishing in the top seven at the world championships, Xinhua said. In its report dated December 1, on the women’s combined final results from Toulouse, IFSC has noted that it was a close battle between Slovenians, Lucka Rakovec and Mia Krampl.

At the time of writing, the names of those qualified post-Toulouse were yet to be added to IFSC’s confirmed list of athletes heading to Tokyo. IFSC has mentioned on its website that all qualification places are provisional until confirmed by each athlete’s National Olympic Committee (NOC). Formal invitations will be sent by the IFSC to the relevant NOCs within five days of the conclusion of the Combined Qualifier. The NOCs will then have two weeks to either confirm or decline the quota places.

Post Hachioji, those in the first list of qualified athletes (as available on the IFSC website; the list was titled: Sport Climbing’s First Olympic Qualified Athletes), were Janja Garnbret (Slovenia), Akiyo Noguchi (Japan), Shauna Coxsey (Great Britain), Aleksandra Miroslaw (Poland), Miho Nonaka (Japan), Petra Klinger (Switzerland) and Brooke Raboutou (USA) from the women’s category;  Tomoa Narasaki (Japan),  Jakob Schubert (Austria), Rishat Khaibullin (Kazakhstan), Kai Harada (Japan), Mickael Mawem (France), Alexander Megos (Germany) and Ludovico Fossali (Italy) from the men’s category. An updated list (dated November 11, 2019) available on the IFSC website also includes Sean McColl (Canada) and Jessica Pilz (Austria). Those qualified at Toulouse will join the above lot.

The final opportunity to qualify for the Olympics will be five IFSC Combined Continental Championships due to take place in 2020. The schedule as available on the IFSC website is – Africa, 1-3 May, Johannesburg (South Africa), Asia, 18-24 May, Morioka (Japan), Europe, 16-18 April, Moscow (Russia), Pan-Am, 27 February-1 March, Los Angeles (USA) and Oceania, 18-19 April, Sydney (Australia). Climber hoping to qualify should head to his / her respective continental championship.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will mark sport climbing’s debut at the Olympic Games. One of the biggest impacts of the move has been the introduction of combined climbing championships, wherein the best climber across the sport’s three disciplines – lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing – emerges winner. Altogether 40 climbers – 20 men and 20 women – will compete at the Olympics.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on sport climbing’s selection process for the Olympics, please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/10/16/sport-climbing-phase-two-of-olympic-qualification-due-by-november-end/)