OUR REFLECTION IN PETER

Peter Van Geit at the talk in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was a small gathering, just outside the shop floor of a major sports goods retailer in Navi Mumbai. Maybe 15-20 people at best; a couple of them were the retail chain’s staff. But that didn’t stop Peter Van Geit from speaking passionately about what he had been doing the past several months.

A Belgian national and former employee of tech giant, Cisco, Chennai-based Peter is well known in the Indian outdoors. He was among prime movers at the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), contributed much to promoting the active lifestyle, helped clean up the city’s beaches, did excellent relief work during the Chennai floods and then got villainized when an unexpected forest fire killed several trekkers in Theni. That last incident from March 2018 was a tense chapter.

At CTC, one of the activities Peter and others embraced was ultrarunning. They would run for a few days covering a couple of hundred kilometers. In 2018, Peter commenced a personal project. Over 75 days, he ran (the right term would be fast-hiked) 1500 kilometers along trails and across some 40 high mountain passes in Himachal Pradesh and the then state of Jammu & Kashmir. This venture followed an earlier one in Vietnam, wherein he ran close to 2000 kilometers over hilly terrain. Then in 2019, running from the Uttarakhand-Nepal border towards Himachal Pradesh and Zanskar, he crossed 120 passes. The number includes little known routes taken by shepherds, who incidentally are his frequent refuge for food and shelter on these trips. Later that year, in a foray to the Maharashtra Sahyadri and the Konkan coast, he ran or cycled linking some 200 forts. Active on social media with his travel posts, Peter has a fan base. In January 2020, when Peter was in Mumbai to speak at the Himalayan Club, this writer shared a suburban train journey with him. He was quickly recognized by co-passengers and selfies taken.

At two presentations I attended this year, there was a slide that always drew laughs. It showed a small child sitting naked on a beach. “ That’s me. I was minimalist even then,’’ Peter would quip. He says traveling light makes him fast. On the trail, that means less stuff hauled around as he manages to either reach known shelter or camp light at lower elevation having already got past the high crux. That’s utter contrast with the regular. Consider this: a typical photograph of Peter from the Himalaya shows him in running shorts, a small backpack, a thin T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. The backdrop is high altitude; steep, snow clad, at times glacier, clearly cold. Other speakers at the same venue may have just presented slides of them and others in similar environment clad in multiple layers, armed with gear and heavy backpack. That would be the Himalayan experience of most in the audience too.

In the mutual admiration society we are, people flock to similar others. Peter gets applause but you wonder – was he accepted into the tribe? Much of the establishment sitting in judgement came up in a more structured fashion with outdoor courses done and rigid views of what defines a particular sport. They seem organization-builders; lovers of hive and the politics of the hive if we were all bees. Corporate – you could say, for imagery. Peter seems an activity-lover, happiest outdoors, happy to be afloat afterwards in a people’s durbar. In his heart warming short film, Peter stumbles, slips, gets his face liberally licked by a buffalo, does some sketchy river-crossings. Those formally trained in outdoor techniques will question some of his actions. Yet there he was, up in the mountains, doing a hybrid of running and high altitude hiking, most of the time solo. Solo is something few Indians like. Indians are all about groups. Further, where most of us make a whole annual trek out of one pass, he was polishing off a pass a day. For now in India’s world of hiking-mountaineering and running, the Peter-way is an outlier.

Here’s another vignette – Peter is a runner but now nurses little appetite for the organized marathons, ultramarathons and stadium runs that the majority of runners favor. He likes to be away from cities and crowds. When out in the Himalaya, he lives and eats with shepherds and at houses along the trail; he likes that simpler life. He navigates with digital map and GPS co-ordinates on his smartphone used offline and set to battery saving-mode. On the Konkan coast, confronted with the fort of Suvarnadurg located on an island a kilometer out in the sea, he just swam across to access it. The central values of his excursions appear freedom, solitude and living the life he wants. Accessible and easy to talk to, Peter may impress as anything from celebration of the outdoor spirit to bull in a china shop unintentionally smashing our gear laden surrogate commando self-image, with his minimalist approach.

Peter, in a Mumbai suburban train, en route to a lecture (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To be fair, Peter’s journeys in India fell in a list of projects headed to the body of work he achieved. Long before digital became commonplace in India, in 1997, a team of Indian women completed a trans-Himalayan trek from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh to the Karakorum Pass. They crossed 39 passes above 3000m, 15 passes above 2000m and covered 4500 kilometers in 198 days. In the years that followed, at least one seasoned outdoorsman anchored a project seeking to thread a hiking route from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border, replete with GPS co-ordinates for independent hikers to use. More than five years ago, when the Himalaya was yet to be run as Peter did, this writer spoke of the project in waiting to an Indian ultrarunner. Nothing happened. Over August-October 2018, a team of three young Indian mountaineers hiked from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border crossing 27 passes (please try this link for their story:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/13/a-long-walk-traversing-the-western-himalaya/). Then over 2018 and 2019, in two tranches, Peter crossed around 160 passes in the western part of the Indian Himalaya, visited 200 forts in Maharashtra and made the journeys available as digital resource. His own project, Peter has said, was initially spurred by data from a blog by Bengaluru-based trekker Satyanarayana; in the blog Satya used to document with GPS logs, the passes he visited.

It was two years ago that Peter resigned his job, did an Airbnb with his house and embarked on a new life of running around. At the February 2020 talk in Navi Mumbai, he spoke of young Indians he met during his long stay in the country, who were stronger athletes than him but whose promise faded with marriage and corporate life. The young people in the audience laughed. Peter’s face remained expressionless. “ It is not a laughing matter. Life is short and you live only once,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/; https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/)             

“ IT MAKES YOU FEEL ALIVE, COMPLETELY OPPOSITE OF DAILY ROUTINE’’

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

It was in 2018 that Chennai-based ultrarunner, Peter Van Geit, first stitched together several passes in the Himalaya, doing an extended spate of fast-hiking. In 2019, he took that up another notch, journeying across 120 passes in about as many days. Then he shifted his attention to the state of Maharashtra and ran or cycled to some 200 forts. In January 2019, Peter was in Mumbai for a talk. He spared time to speak to this blog. Excerpts:

How was your trip of 2019 to the Himalaya different from the one of 2018?

This was longer. I was there for almost four months – from May until September – covering about 120 passes in four months, almost doing one pass a day. This time I had to plan more carefully because in the month of May you still have snow in areas above 4000 meters. I started from the Kumaon-Nepal border and worked my way towards Himachal Pradesh. During the whole of May I was traversing from east to west in Uttarakhand. In the beginning of June the snowline started retreating. At that time I was in Himachal, where I spent some time in the Great Himalayan National Park; very dramatic landscape with steep slopes. From there I proceeded to the Dhauladhar and the entire range from Dharamshala to Palampur, which separates Kangra plains from Chamba valley. By the end of June, monsoon kicked in. I had to retreat and cross the Pir Panjal range towards Lahaul. I crossed over to Zanskar, Ladakh and Lahaul where I spent all of July and August. I went to Hemis National Park, where I covered many passes. I had to plan it carefully as there was lot of snowfall last winter and much meltwater in the summer that followed. In peak summer there were strong currents in the streams, it was very difficult to cross these streams. In 2019 too, probably due to climate change, sometime in mid-August there was flooding in parts of the Himalaya – Chamba, Manali. Manali-Leh Highway saw heavy landslides. At that time I was somewhere in Zanskar and got stuck. I managed to come down and for another couple of weeks explored a lot of valleys around Bada Bhangal and places like Kalihani Pass. I explored the Chamba valley fully. It was an amazing journey.

In the first phase you had been minimalist traveler with little gear. This time did you make any alternations to your gear?

Actually this year I reduced my gear further. I did not carry any tent, just a small bivy sack. Also, I had a light weight sub-zero sleeping bag, which was very comfortable. My ration plan was minimalist and optimum. I would just carry enough food to get to the next village. First few days I mostly carried fresh food. But then in Ladakh-Zanskar where you have 5-6 days trek, I had to cook some food. I carried a very minimalist stove. But I decided to give up that stove. Instead, I would collect dry cow dung and yak dung and horse dung and sprinkle that with kerosene and make a cooking fire. I would cook white oats which is easy to prepare with some water. That way I only carried a 4-5 kilogram backpack.

Photo: courtesy Peter

You mentioned taking an ice axe in 2019. Was that only for a portion of the trip?

Snow and ice were new to me. Previously, I had only gone in the months of July and August. In Uttarakhand I did not carry an ice axe. I just had some light carbon hiking poles, which were very useful. Snow is easy to tackle if it is on a flat surface but when it’s on a gradient, then you need poles. Poles are also essential for stream crossing especially over uneven river bed. Stream currents in some of the canyons in Ladakh can be dangerous. In July I was near the Dhauladhar. There I was lucky I met a person who had an ice axe. We trekked together for a week. It was a light weight Black Diamond axe. That became my main tool. By mid-August the ice axe was not required. But I continued to carry it because I was going to new places.

Are you going back again this year?

In addition to the May-September period, I am planning a new mission. I am planning a winter mission from February till April not to the passes but some remote valleys. Some of the valleys have beautiful hamlets. I want to go in winter and experience how it is. But I will have to be careful. I know snow can be dangerous. I will have to see how I can optimize my luggage. I will have to carry warmer stuff.

Will you be attempting a higher elevation this year than what you have done so far?

More than elevation, I would say traversing shepherd routes across Pir Panjal, Waru and the Kali-Cho Pass. In 2019, many passes opened late because of the heavy winter. Across many of the lesser known passes I was able to follow the shepherds; otherwise it is impossible to know these places. These are not regular hiking routes.

Is east of Nepal on your cards?

Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh are there on my mind.

When you chose places do you prefer to go to places which are not frequented by people?

The contrast between commercial versus unknown is striking. Visiting an unknown place is so much more enriching, both in terms of natural beauty and the absence of plastic waste and garbage. You don’t meet visitors there and the shepherds who are there – they also don’t see many people. They are surprised to run into me, a solo traveler. They receive you with such heart-warming hospitality. In commercial places you are treated as a customer and in other places they see you as a guest.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

What took you to the Sahyadri?

The Sahyadri was unknown to me. This place is unique; almost 300 ancient forts, many of these are in ruins now. That; combined with the unique geography. Last February when I was this side for a talk at the Himalayan Club, I stayed with a couple of guys in Pune and they took me on a trek. That’s how I got a feel of it. I did about 20 forts. After my 2019 Himalaya trip, I was looking for a place where I could spend a couple of months. I considered the southern states of Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala. But access to places here is restricted by the forest department. Both the Himalaya and the Sahyadri are like paradise, you are not restricted by anyone. I was already following a couple of people on Instagram who would post beautiful pictures of the Sahyadri. I started searching for names of forts and checking with Google maps, GPS logs. There were some specific websites which gave detailed information. I was able to get proper routes for almost 200 forts. For other forts I started studying satellite maps, finding the trails myself. Then I started to work on how I could do this in the quickest way. I was in that ultra-running mode – light and fast. I visited many of the hill forts, running or fast-hiking. The forts of the Konkan coast – those I visited on my bicycle.

That way I was able to wrap it up within two months. I used to put up photos on Instagram and within no time my followers grew from 6000 to 20000. For many people, I was not visiting forts but temples of Chhatrapathi Shivaji who fought invaders.

What do you hope to do with all the information you have gathered?

I am a little bit privileged in the sense that people can hardly take a week or a weekend off. For somebody like me who has quit his full-time job I feel privileged to spend an entire month out. In the Himalaya, I acclimatise once and then go very fast. Those 120 passes were done in four months, which is roughly 120 days. Planning these long journeys is not simple because you have to spend quite a few weeks to put together a 3500 kilometer-route with so many passes which in my case includes many non-touristy places that are remote.

There was a lot of study. All the data I collect and the maps I create by studying the terrain are compiled in my blog www.ultrajourneys.org to make it easy for people to follow in my footsteps.

So, is it possible for those who want to do a few passes to just download the digital information and proceed with GPS co-ordinates?

Yes. I have documented all the passes; I rate them on the basis of elevation, distances, duration and scale of difficulty. Novices can start with easy passes. I also have a column for dangers. Some passes are risky in terms of stream crossing. People can start with conservative, safer options.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

The same digital information is available for the Sahyadri too?

Yes.

You had a full-time job at Cisco and now you are a full-time explorer, runner etc. How do you sustain this activity monetarily?

I have a home in Chennai. When I am not in Chennai I do an Airbnb with it. Financial is one aspect. If you live in cities you end up spending a lot of money. When I get to a remote place, I cannot spend money anymore. I carry my tent, I don’t stay in hotels, don’t use private transport, always commute in buses. In the end I eat two meals a day which is like Rs 60 per plate of momos in the Himalaya, Rs 50 per plate of bhakris in the Sahyadri.

Are your social media accounts fetching you anything monetarily?

I am not looking at that. Now I have some 22,000 people following me. I am giving talks and doing some workshops. I am not looking at monetizing them. I feel very uncomfortable charging people for it. This is my passion and I want to inspire as many young people as possible. In every talk I am able to reach out to 200-300 people.

While you were doing the passes you were burning a significant amount of calories. Is it possible for you to match the two – significant burn of calories and frugal lifestyle?

I have done it now for two years. In the Himalaya, the elevation gain and very challenging terrain can be exhausting and you can easily burn 6000-8000 calories a day. These need to be replenished. Many times you end up with members of the Gujjar community and other mountain people. They cook fresh food. They typically source local organically grown stuff. You get a lot of nutrition from their food. High altitude cereals are high in nutrition. Also, living in these remote places is like detoxing your body because the air and water are unpolluted. All of these keep you in good shape. Also in the mountains your sleeping pattern gets aligned with the solar cycle. You will always settle down by sunset. You get up automatically when sun hits your face. That rest makes you mentally and physically fit to do the next day’s traverse. Further when you are exploring new places you are mentally engaged.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

At the start of the season when you have drawn out plans to do a certain number of passes, it is a task sustaining yourself that long. Does the goal feel formidable at the start of the season?

I never think of the numbers, I just take one day at a time. Although you plan your journey the actual journey can be different because you could get stuck somewhere due to some unexpected snowfall. Of the 120 passes, 2-3 of them were quite dangerous to traverse and I have had to take a mature decision and make a U-turn. Some of them are quite technical. Sometimes you get on top of the pass and then you realise that it is impossibly steep to get down on the other side. You don’t want to take unwanted risk. Sometimes it is like trial and error. You have to take a call.

Why do you do this?

People ask that question. I don’t have an answer for that. It is more like an internal drive. I have always been very excited and feel very alive when I go there. Even when I was working I used to go to such places and feel the freshness of nature, waterfalls, streams, jungles, birds and wildlife. The forest gives you so much of positivity, both physically and mentally. Also, it gives you internal peace. Climbing up 3000 meters and not seeing anybody for two days, there is total peace all around you. It makes you feel alive, completely opposite of daily routine. Probably that connection is what drives me.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used with this interview were downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page; they have been used here with his permission. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/)

NO COUNTRY FOR CHILDREN?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Global population is currently around 7.8 billion. While that number rises, there is no matching interest in the type of world we are creating. The questions facing our industrial edifice and consumerist lifestyle are enormous. It goes beyond plastic, which is merely tip of the iceberg. Fundamental questions about how we live; perhaps even – why we live, remain to be addressed. Nothing puts these questions in focus as much as imagining back from our children’s future does. Here’s what a commission convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet said recently about the future we are gifting our children.

No single country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their future, a report released February 19, 2020 by a commission of over 40 child and adolescent health experts from around the world has said. The Commission was convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report, ` A Future for the World’s Children?, ‘ finds that the health and future of every child and adolescent worldwide is under immediate threat from ecological degradation, climate change and exploitative marketing practices that push heavily processed fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco at children. “ Despite improvements in child and adolescent health over the past 20 years, progress has stalled, and is set to reverse,” former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Co-Chair of the Commission, Helen Clark, was quoting as saying in a press statement on the report available on the website of WHO. “ It has been estimated that around 250 million children under five years old in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential, based on proxy measures of stunting and poverty. But of even greater concern, every child worldwide now faces existential threats from climate change and commercial pressures. Countries need to overhaul their approach to child and adolescent health, to ensure that we not only look after our children today but protect the world they will inherit in the future,” she added.

According to the statement, the report includes a new global index of 180 countries, comparing performance on child flourishing, including measures of child survival and well-being, such as health, education, and nutrition; sustainability, with a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions, and equity, or income gaps. While the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, excessive carbon emissions – disproportionately from wealthier countries – threaten the future of all children. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with current projections, this would lead to devastating health consequences for children, due to rising ocean levels, heatwaves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, and malnutrition, the statement said.

“ More than 2 billion people live in countries where development is hampered by humanitarian crises, conflicts, and natural disasters, problems increasingly linked with climate change. While some of the poorest countries have among the lowest CO2 emissions, many are exposed to the harshest impacts of a rapidly changing climate. Promoting better conditions today for children to survive and thrive nationally does not have to come at the cost of eroding children’s futures globally,’’  Minister Awa Coll-Seck from Senegal, Co-Chair of the Commission, was quoted as saying.

The report also highlights the distinct threat posed to children from harmful marketing. Evidence suggests that children in some countries see as many as 30,000 advertisements on television alone in a single year, while youth exposure to vaping (e-cigarettes) advertisements increased by more than 250% in the USA over two years, reaching more than 24 million young people. Professor Anthony Costello, one of the Commission’s authors, said, “ Industry self-regulation has failed. Studies in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA – among many others – have shown that self-regulation has not hampered commercial ability to advertise to children. For example, despite industry signing up to self-regulation in Australia, children and adolescent viewers were still exposed to 51 million alcohol ads during just one year of televised football, cricket and rugby. And the reality could be much worse still: we have few facts and figures about the huge expansion of social media advertising and algorithms aimed at our children.’’

Children’s exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with purchase of unhealthy foods and overweight and obesity, linking predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. To protect children, the independent Commission authors called for a new global movement driven by and for children. Specific recommendations include:

  • Stop CO2 emissions with the utmost urgency, to ensure children have a future on this planet
  • Place children and adolescents at the center of our efforts to achieve sustainable development
  • New policies and investment in all sectors to work towards child health and rights
  • Incorporate children’s voices into policy decisions
  • Tighten national regulation of harmful commercial marketing, supported by a new Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“ This report shows that the world’s decision makers are, too often, failing today’s children and youth: failing to protect their health, failing to protect their rights, and failing to protect their planet. This must be a wakeup call for countries to invest in child health and development, ensure their voices are heard, protect their rights, and build a future that is fit for children.” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said.

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

RASHPAL, JYOTI DEFEND NEW DELHI MARATHON TITLES

Ladakh squad sweeps women’s half marathon podium

On the podium at 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon: (from left) , Swati Gadhave, Jyoti Gawate and Jigmet Dolma. At far left is cricketer Sachin Tendulkar (Photo: courtesy Jyoti Gawate)

Rashpal Singh of the Indian Army and Maharashtra’s Jyoti Gawate defended their titles successfully, albeit with slower timing, at the fifth edition of the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon held on February 23, 2020.

Rashpal secured gold in the men’s elite category with timing of 2:23:29, tad slower than his 2019 finish of 2:21:55 hours. Jyoti Gawate won the women’s elite race with timing of 2:50:37. She too was slower than her 2019 finish of 2:47:54 at the same event.

“ The race went off well. It was colder this time compared to last year,” Jyoti said. In the elite men’s race, Arjun Pradhan finished second with timing of 2:24:18. Sanvroo Yadav placed third with timing of 2:25:34.

In the elite women’s race, Swati Gadhave finished second with timing of 2:58:10, almost eight minutes behind the winner Jyoti Gawate. In third position was Jigmet Dolma from Ladakh with timing of 3:03:10. Jigmet, who finished a bit slower than her 2019 timing of 3:01:30, has been on a quest to go sub-three for some time now.

In the amateur male category, Kresstarjune Pathaw of Meghalaya was the winner of the marathon (2:35:10). Nandraj Singh Naruka came in second with timing of 2:40:40 and Anil Korvi finished third in 2:40:44.

In the amateur women’s segment of the race, the winner was Elizabeth Jebet Chelagai with timing of 2:53:27. Kavitha Reddy of Pune finished second in 3:18:34, nearly 25 minutes behind the winner. In third position was Rimpi Devi who finished in 3:18:49.

In the half marathon segment, Brimin Kipruto Komen was the winner of the men’s race; he covered the distance in1:09:27. Ajeet Singh came in second with timing of 1:10:35 and Amit Khanduri was third with timing of 1:10:44.

It was a Ladakhi sweep in the women’s half marathon race. Tashi Lodol won the race in 1:28:29. She was followed by Stanzin Chondol (1:31:14) and Stanzin Dolkar (1:31:44). All three of them and Jigmet Dolma, who placed third in the women’s marathon (as well as Tsetan Dolkar who finished fourth in the women’s marathon) are from the team of Ladakhi runners sponsored by Rimo Expeditions, which visits the races of the Indian plains every year during winter.

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

THE WORLD CHAMPION WE OVERLOOK

Manikandan Kumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When this blog met him, Manikandan Kumar’s triumph at the 2012 IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships was over seven years in the past. He hasn’t been idle. There have been other podium finishes including three more at the world championships. What have been less than ideal are our system of encouragement and the resource-rich we call: sponsors.

There was palpable imperviousness to the negative and the pessimistic, in how Manikandan Kumar spoke. “ I believe in myself. I grew gradually in climbing. It wasn’t easy. You can ask anyone – I never complain,’’ he said. It was now years since Mani, as he is popularly called, burst on to the scene. For this writer, that moment happened one night at an outdoor school in Ranikhet, when Kuttappa (Kuttss) Bommanda showed up for dinner apologizing for his late arrival. “ I was watching Mani’s climb at the Paraclimbing World Championships on my laptop. He has won it!’’ Kuttss, an outdoor instructor from Bengaluru, said enthusiastically. The year was 2012. Mani had become India’s first world champion in paraclimbing; the country is otherwise a relative unknown in the top echelons of competition climbing. Aside from fellow climbers and officials linked to that circuit in sports, practically none in India knew him.

Seven years since, the environment for Mani and his ilk in climbing wasn’t much different. Sport climbing was slated to debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo by mid-2020. But the discipline wasn’t yet on the list of sports for the Paralympics that would follow. That meant, Mani, a former world champion and still among the best in his category worldwide, wouldn’t get a shot at the Paralympics. Why blame the Olympic movement? Seven years since Mani’s triumph at the Paraclimbing World Championships, India was yet to have a distinct paraclimbing program. “ I would like to change that,’’ Mani said, sipping coffee. It was November 2019. We were at a café on MG Road in Bengaluru.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Born 1986, Mani is the eldest of three brothers; their father worked as a carpenter, mother remained a home maker. He grew up in Malleshwaram, a suburb of Bengaluru. When he was around five years of age, Mani had an attack of typhoid. “ That was when my parents realized that my right leg had been affected,’’ Mani said. He began limping. General literature on the disease, available on the Internet, speaks of typhoid as fever caused by bacterial infection. However, you also find mention of rare neurological complications that impact a patient’s limbs and movement. In Mani’s case, the affected leg stayed weak in terms of musculature and strength. The boy loved sports, particularly football. Limp notwithstanding, he plunged in and played. “ I faced no discrimination. I played without thinking of my disability,’’ he said. Those years, climbing wasn’t at all in the frame.

In 2002, aged 16, Mani found himself at an outdoor camp in Ramnagaram organized by The Association of People with Disability (APD). Located roughly fifty kilometers away from Bengaluru, Ramnagaram has historically been a climbing hotspot. The camp participants were introduced to bouldering and rappelling. “ We climbed two to three boulders. I liked the experience. One of the instructors suggested that I try out climbing at the office of GETHNAA, which had a climbing wall right behind their building,’’ Mani said. GETHNAA stood for General Thimayya National Academy of Adventure. At this point, the climbing wall adjacent to the city’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium was still a couple of years away; GETHNAA’s was the only wall around. Mani’s opening stint at the GETHNAA wall was encouraging. “ I climbed three routes. I felt I should take up the sport,’’ he said. He started attending the climbing sessions there regularly. Among the instructors he met there was Keerthi Pais, who would become India’s best known trainer in the discipline. Not long after this foray into climbing, Mani also participated in a state level competition, in the regular category; there was no separate category for the physically challenged. “ I remember doing a dyno at that competition. I did it using my better leg. Everyone was appreciative,’’ Mani said laughing. The right leg was still quite weak. He was at the threshold of an engaging format of progression with that limb, for climbing by nature is a sport demanding three-point contact with the rock or wall being ascended.

Photo: courtesy Mani

In the sharp divide between staying perched or falling, there is little room to spare a limb to haul up a weak one. Yet in the initial days, that, was exactly what Mani often had to do – he had to lift his right leg with his hand and place it on the next foothold. None of this stopped him from making the first major decision of his life. Mani completed his tenth standard and gave up studying. “ I had no interest in studies. I wanted to make a career out of climbing,’’ he said. He did not have the benefit of money and wealthy parents. His family was struggling financially. He had no sponsors or well-wishers. All he had was self-belief.

In 2002, Mani went to Delhi to watch the national climbing competition. It left him wanting to qualify for the next edition of the event. At an open competition held thereafter at Ramjas near Delhi, he was the only climber making it to the final in his age group. “ I got an appreciation letter for that,’’ he recalled. Now the desire to excel was picking up. That year was noteworthy for something else too. Mani was among those featured in a documentary film on climbing. “ Facing the camera, I blurted out that one day I want to be a world champion. It’s still there in that video,’’ he said. In 2003, he participated in the zonal competition and ended up seventh or eighth, narrowly missing selection for the national competition.  However, he got a wild card entry, the condition being he would have to do a trial climb and prove his worth before the senior official overseeing sport climbing. That done and initial rounds too cleared, Mani found himself among four climbers from the South Zone who featured in the final. He finished last but won the best climber award.

In 2004, he was back in the final. In 2006 also, he qualified for the national competition (in India, the national competition is at the apex of a series of zonal competitions arranged below it in the hierarchy). That year, he started working as a coach under Keerthi Pais, reporting every day to the new climbing wall that had come up near Kanteerava Stadium. In 2007, Mani didn’t qualify for the final at the national competition; it was the case in 2008 too. But the coaching continued, including accompanying his wards (they were in the junior category) who had made it to the national competition, to their respective events. The coaching assignment brought with it a small salary. Additionally Mani worked at outdoor adventure camps. The income he thus made was useful for his family.

Mani with Philippe Ribiere at one of the editions of Girivihar’s open sport climbing competition at Belapur in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

For over a decade in Mumbai, the city’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, ran an open climbing competition. It would eventually lead to two editions of the IFSC World Cup in Bouldering (IFSC – International Federation of Sport Climbing) being held in Navi Mumbai in 2016 and 2017. Mani had been to these events. Among foreign climbers visiting the open competition held in Belapur was Philippe Ribiere from France. “ He is someone I respect,’’ Mani said. At age four Philippe was diagnosed with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome and has excelled at climbing despite that. He started climbing at six. To others climbing so having overcome physical challenges, he is important not merely as example to follow but also as among those inspiring the first international paraclimbing competition held in 2006 at Ekaterinburg, Russia. More such competitions were held in the years that followed. Then in 2011, the first paraclimbing world championships were held in Arco Italy, under the auspices of IFSC. Mani had been following these developments. He had faith in himself and there was also that old statement to camera: one day I want to be a world champion, which had come out naturally, to explore.

“ Between 2009 and 2011 – that is when I realized, this is my chance. I watched all relevant videos of paraclimbing. I used to take note of participants at these competitions. After the 2011 paraclimbing world championships in Arco, I decided that no matter what, I am going,’’ Mani said. He didn’t tell anyone of his resolve. He commenced preparations in January 2012. Sometime in July-August 2012, he had a conversation with the zonal chairman overseeing sport climbing in South India. He agreed to forward Mani’s candidature. The venue for the 2012 paraclimbing world championships was Paris. Registration done, Mani’s next challenge was finding sponsors to cover the expenses of his trip. Karnataka State Housing Corporation covered the cost of his flight tickets. For the rest, friends, students, the parents of his students – they chipped in. “ Somehow I managed,’’ Mani said. It was his first time overseas; Mani traveled alone. “ The process of flying out made me resolved – it is now or never. There is no way I will complain,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Given the variety of physical disabilities and the way they impact human performance to different extents, paraclimbing has several cub-categories for participants. The categories are awarded on the basis of medical documents and examination. In 2019, there were as many as eight sub-categories in the men’s section at the world championships. In 2012, only the second year of the paraclimbing world championships, there were four sub-categories – Amputee Leg PD, Arthritis + Neurological PD1, Visual Impairment B1 and Visual Impairment B2. Mani was in the second segment – Arthritis + Neurological PD1. Mani reached Paris two days earlier. He stayed alone in a dormitory and on competition day, took a train to the venue. The competition featured lead climbing. Mani cleared the qualifying round (he estimated the climbing grade therein at around 7b) and made it to the final. Philippe Ribiere was among the competitors; he didn’t reach the final that year, Mani said. The final featured six climbers: two from France and one each from Italy, Brazil, Hungary and India. Each climber had one shot at the route on the lead climbing wall.

“ I almost made it to the top. I fell short by four holds. After the climb, I knew I was in the top three but didn’t know I had won. It was the Brazilian coach who told me that. I dropped whatever I had and ran to the notice board to check. It was true. I was over the moon. I had achieved my dream,’’ Mani said. He spent another two days in Paris; he wanted to see the Eiffel Tower. Then he returned to Bengaluru. Family; friends, the media – they all turned up at the airport to receive him. “ It was the biggest thing that happened for India in competition climbing,’’ Mani recalled. A country hardly mentioned in sport climbing suddenly had a world champion in paraclimbing. Mani has since had podium finish thrice at the world championships – second place in 2014, third place in 2018 and third place again in 2019. He is typically lone participant from India. “ India and Hungary – we don’t have teams. Other nations send large teams supported by sponsors and funds to the paraclimbing world championships. France is really big in paraclimbing,’’ Mani said. In August 2019, he was among recipients (in the land  category, for the preceding year: 2018) of India’s annual Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award.

Photo: courtesy Mani

One of the legacies of Philippe Ribiere’s push to hold a paraclimbing competition and the IFSC world championships that followed has been the emergence of more competitions – you could call it a circuit – where paraclimbers can participate. Mani has been active here and there are several podium finishes earned so. But it has indisputably been a pattern of ups and down; he won some, lost some and sometimes a setback or series of setbacks made him feel very bad. On the other hand, as Mani put it – even his idol, tennis great Roger Federer has had to deal with inconsistency in performance. “ If it can happen to him, it can happen to me. I just need to calm myself down,’’ Mani said. He does bouldering and lead climbing but his strength is in lead. The categories and rules of the sport have also got revised going ahead. At the world championships of 2018 and 2019, his category for participation was RP2. He continues to limp when walking but sustained climbing and pushing one’s limits has meant he no longer needs to free his hand and haul up that right leg. It is responding better. That said; his body strength is distributed differently from that of the average climber.

Mani has good upper body strength. One of the exercises used to train climbers features the campus board. It is usually installed at a slight overhanging angle and requires climber to ascend using handholds (typically horizontal wooden sections fitted on the board) with no footholds to support body weight. Climbers train to move sequentially, using one hand and the next; they also train to move explosively wherein they launch off using both hands and go for the next hold. “ My ability to campus is stronger than that of many normal climbers,’’ Mani said explaining how he compensates for the weak right leg. But his own success aside, he worries for paraclimbing in India because although there are physically challenged people who speak to him of foraying in that direction, few of them turn up later to climb. If they don’t turn up to climb and train, how can there be Indian paraclimbers? For now therefore, it is just Mani on the global map. He has been to five world championships so far (winning medals on four occasions). He would like to make that ten. He is also the first Indian climber to win gold medals in the US when he topped his category – neurological / physical impairment – at the 2017 and 2018 Adaptive National Championships conducted by USA Climbing. “ My ultimate goal is a medal at the Olympics. I am hoping that paraclimbing gets included in the Paralympics. I would like to keep competing till the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. One way or the other, people always encouraged me. That was motivating. Further, if anyone says I can’t do it, that is bigger motivation for me,’’ Mani said. Aspiration is one thing; as is personal commitment. What about the means?

Photo: courtesy Mani

So far – notwithstanding four podium finishes at the world championships and several medals on the paraclimbing circuit – Mani has no steady sponsor. For his trips overseas, he now taps crowd funding. “ Funding has improved with each year. But it worries me that despite so many medals won, I still have to struggle to get backing,’’ he said. It felt strange hearing that for Bengaluru is home to wealthy IT companies (with CSR accounts to their credit) and IT professionals have been big in the pursuit of adventure sports like climbing. Adding to Mani’s frustration was that able bodied climbers of less achievement in competition climbing found sponsors in India. The anger was clear in his tone. He was willing to explore more zones of discomfort as regards his climbing but that question puzzled: why aren’t sponsors interested in him, a paraclimber? “ Why should I seek their sympathy? Will you sponsor me only if I seek your sympathy? I am not complaining. Why don’t you appreciate my hard work instead?’’ Mani asked on the subject. It was the only time in our conversation his wall of optimism showed cracks. Meanwhile his coaching continues and he lays much hope on two of his wards; the prayer is that at least one of them secures a podium finish at a world cup in the future. “ I want some able bodied climber to win a medal at a world cup or the world championships. It is a big task for Indian climbers. But with the right approach, it is possible,’’ Mani said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the years of participation at national and zonal climbing competitions and podium positions earned therein, are as stated by the interviewee.)             

CORONAVIRUS FALLOUT / 2020 TOKYO MARATHON RESTRICTED TO ELITES

Tokyo Marathon (This photo was downloaded from Facebook and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright violation intended.)

The 2020 Tokyo Marathon has cancelled entries from the general public.

The race will be restricted to marathon elites and wheelchair elites, a statement available on the website of the race said today (February 17, 2020).

According to it, new cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) have been confirmed within Japan. “We have been preparing for the Tokyo Marathon 2020 (Sunday, March 1) while implementing preventive safety measures, however, now that case of COVID-19 has been confirmed within Tokyo, we cannot continue to launch the event within the scale we originally anticipated and we regret to inform you the following: The Tokyo Marathon 2020 will be held only for the marathon elites and the wheelchair elites.”

A report from Kyodo News said that 38,000 people were expected to participate in the event. The elite full marathon field had 176 runners and 30 wheelchair athletes. Amateur runners who registered for the 2020 Tokyo Marathon 2020 have been given a few options. They can defer their entry to the 2021 Tokyo Marathon. However “ runners who have deferred their entry to the Tokyo Marathon 2021 are required to pay the entry fees for the 2021 event. Abiding to the Entry Regulation, the entry fee and the donations received for the Tokyo Marathon 2020 will not be refunded,” the statement from the Tokyo Marathon organizers said, adding “ runners who have purchased the Tokyo Marathon 2020 Signature T-shirt, the item will be shipped following the event.”

“ Please be aware that depending on further situations, the conditions may change. Further information on the entry deferral to the Tokyo Marathon 2021 will be announced following April 1, 2020,’’ the statement said

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

ZIA

Zia Chaney (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

With a December 2019 personal best of 3:47:34, Zia Chaney has the eligibility to participate in the 2021 edition of Boston Marathon. Hers isn’t the regular running story. It is one of overcoming setbacks, not just once but thrice, all of them the physically and mentally draining sort.

Zia Chaney was used to the physically active life.

Born into a family settled in Pune for decades and growing up in the city, she had been into sports right from her school days. She was focused on the sprints – 100 and 200 meters – and hockey. Following studies, she moved to Mumbai and worked with Sony Music India as a product manager. Unable to pursue the sports she was already into, she turned to visiting the gym for alternative. She was committed to fitness; committed enough to make time for it despite busy work schedule. “ I found time to hit the gym during work hours,’’ she said, a pleasant winter afternoon in Pune.

Her love for the physically active life gained momentum after she moved to Chicago following her marriage in 2000. “ My husband Vishal Jain is a fitness enthusiast. I joined a gym in Chicago. We were there for five years. After I returned to Pune, I joined a local gym,” she said. We were on the balcony of her apartment, tucked into a quiet road in Pune. Unusually for the city located at an elevation of 1837 feet on the Deccan Plateau, the winter of 2019-2020 felt mild.

Photo: courtesy Zia

In 2010, Zia was detected with first stage breast cancer. She had to undergo mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation sessions. Both these types of treatment can be physically exhausting. To rebuild her strength, she tried running on the treadmill. “ A friend suggested I run outside instead of indoors,” Zia said. Thus began her journey in running.  She started running in 2011 and a year later was training with a group of runners in Pune informally organized under Pune Marathoner’s Club. “ We were around 30 people in that group. Michael Francis, who was overall leader, encouraged us to train and enroll for the full marathon at the 2013 edition of Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. He ensured that we covered every facet of marathon training – hill repeats, short runs, long runs, strength training,” she said. Michael Francis – he is no more – was a name one came across in the story of some good amateur runners from Pune, among them Kavitha Reddy. Zia crossed the finish line of her first marathon – the 2013 edition of SCMM (now Tata Mumbai Marathon) – in four hours, 40 minutes and one second. “ It was a great feeling to finish that first major run,” she said. Running became an integral part of her life.

Wikipedia describes cancer as a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body. According to the website of the US based-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 100 types of cancers affect humans, among them – breast and ovarian cancer. About five to 10 per cent of breast and 10-15 per cent of ovarian cancers are hereditary. It means cancer runs in your family and may be caused by change in certain genes that you inherited from your parents. A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. It acts as instruction and contains information to build and maintain cells. A gene is made of DNA; it tells the body what traits will be passed on from parent to child. As per the Human Genome Project information archive, the current consensus is that humans have between 20,000-25,000 genes. But the number has fluctuated a lot since the project began. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor-suppressor genes critical to fighting cancer. “ When they work normally, these genes help keep breast, ovarian, and other types of cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way. Sometimes a change or mutation occurs in the BRCA genes that prevent them from working normally. This raises a person’s risk for breast, ovarian and other cancers,’’ the CDC website said.

Photo: courtesy Zia

In 2013, not long after Zia completed her first marathon in Mumbai, medical tests provided discouraging news. She tested positive for anomalies in the BRCA gene. “ It turned out my father was a passive carrier,’’ Zia said. It put her earlier encounter with cancer as product of condition likely built-in and capable of return. She underwent her second cancer related-surgery in August 2013; this time her ovaries were removed as precaution. The test result and subsequent medical procedures affected Zia, who had begun enjoying running and had just completed her first marathon. Needing time to recover, she was forced to miss the 2014 edition of SCMM. But she refused to succumb to her predicament. There was a new fascination growing, one that also sought to harness the power of two other sports she liked – swimming and cycling; the triathlon. According to Zia, she likes activities that are goal oriented. It is known that training for the triathlon and getting down to actually doing one, entails discipline and adherence to goals. By the end of 2014 Zia attempted her first Olympic distance triathlon in Hyderabad. “ It went off very well,’’ she said. She secured a podium finish in her age category.

In 2015, a rejuvenated Zia was back at the start line of SCMM. The goal now was to progressively improve her timing. She finished the 2015 race in 4:05:52. She continued her appearance at SCMM the next year and in 2017 secured second place in her age group of 45-49 years, covering the 42.2 kilometer-distance in 4:05:05. Same year, she signed up for a workshop on running conducted by Bengaluru based-coach and mentor, Ashok Nath. Soon after that workshop, Zia left for Berlin to attempt the marathon there.  In September 2017, she ran the Berlin Marathon crossing the finish line in three hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds. Her determination was paying off. The progress was clear – from four hours, 40 minutes and one second at 2013 SCMM to three hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds at 2017 Berlin. Then cancer struck again.

Zia (far right) with from left: Ashok Nath, Gitanjali Lenka and Tanmaya Karmarkar (This photo was downloaded from Zia’s Facebook page and is being used here with her permission)

On her return to Pune, Zia went for her annual check-up. “ I had noticed lumps on my breast over the preceding few months but thought nothing of it. During the check-up, I pointed them out to the doctor. He too thought it would be nothing. Nevertheless, we scheduled a biopsy and my worst fears were confirmed,” Zia said. The relapse meant several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, this time more in number and with greater intensity than the treatment she had endured before. According to the website of American Cancer Society, radiation therapy uses high energy particles or waves such as X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons to destroy or damage cancer cells. Cancer cells grow and divide faster than normal cells. Radiation makes small breaks in the DNA inside cells preventing them from growing and dividing and causing them to die. Advances in radiation physics and computer technology during the last quarter of the 20th century have made it possible to aim radiation precisely. Radiation therapy however carries a risk. There is a small chance that it may cause another cancer. Consequently, use of radiation is a well thought out decision. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, employs powerful chemicals to destroy fast-growing cells in the body. It can have side effects during the treatment phase and for some time afterward. “ The first time cancer struck, I had to do four rounds of chemotherapy. The second time around, I had to do 16 rounds of chemotherapy and then follow that up with doses of radiation,” Zia said.

Between chemotherapy and radiation, Zia felt, the latter was more energy-sapping. She drove herself to the radiation sessions but was usually fatigued by the time a round of treatment got over. She persevered. The chemotherapy sessions started in January 2018 and continued till May. She lost all her hair. “ I needed to be strong to take the impact of chemotherapy and radiation,’’ she said. So in between, the chemotherapy and radiation, Zia worked out at the gym in her apartment complex. It was an abject challenge because each time the illness struck and treatment protocols kicked in, her fitness dropped drastically requiring her to work her way back from scratch. “ When your base line fitness falls steeply even a few minutes of running on a treadmill becomes a struggle,’’ she said. Zia found huge support from her family – husband, two daughters and her parents – and her friends. “ I never felt emotionally weak. Children don’t allow you that luxury. In fact, they helped me focus. My elder daughter took care of me during my relapse,” she said.

Photo: courtesy Zia

There were no races for Zia in 2018. Following her treatment, she spent a brief while with her husband and children in the US, convalescing. There she restarted her running. Then in August 2018, after she got back to Pune, Zia commenced training under Ashok Nath. He put her on a plan building basic fitness. She also continued with her swimming sessions; they worked as cross training compatible with her interest in running. At the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Zia decided to opt for the half marathon. She secured second place in her age category of 45-49 years, completing the run in one hour 53 seconds. Training under Ashok Nath was helping her improve her running economy. That year at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), Zia bettered her half marathon timing to 1:48:34. The performance boosted her confidence. Could she aspire for a Boston Qualifier (BQ) time, which makes runner eligible to participate in the iconic Boston Marathon?

In history, 1848 is sometimes called the Year of Revolution for the spate of political upheavals that swept across Europe. Across the Atlantic however, that year opened on a slightly different note. On January 24, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter and sawmill operator, discovered gold at Coloma on the South Fork of the American River sparking the California Gold Rush. According to information on the Internet, the resultant rush of miners pursuing fortune, produced some 750,000 pounds of gold worth an estimated 14 billion dollars in 2014 but also left behind deep environmental scars. The river at its center – American River – is 30 miles long, stretching from origin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to its confluence with the Sacramento River in the Sacramento Valley. Music lovers would remember it for Folsom Dam, in turn linked by name to the town of Folsom and Folsom Prison, inspiration for Johnny Cash’s hit song from the 1950s: Folsom Prison Blues. Today, the river is the main source of drinking water for Sacramento, capital of California and the seat of Sacramento County. Every year, the Sacramento Runners Association organizes the California International Marathon. According to Wikipedia, its course “ follows a historic gold miners’ round beginning at Folsom Dam, passing through suburban Sacramento and ending at the State Capitol.’’ The race starts at an elevation of 366 feet and concludes at 26 feet.

Photo: courtesy Zia

Zia decided to attempt her BQ time at the 2019 California International Marathon. “ Although the marathon’s course is net downhill, it has a lot of rolling hills,” Zia said of the race in December 2019. The weather was in the range of 8-9 degrees Celsius and route passed through picturesque countryside. “ The crowd support was very good,” she said. Sole cause for concern was her knee, which started hurting over the final 10 kilometers. Zia finished the run in 3:47:34. It was a BQ in her age group. Not to mention – a personal best for her. At the time of writing, she planned to register for the 2021 edition of Boston Marathon.

Given the emergent knee injury and requirement to rest the joint, Zia opted to stay out of the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon. At the door to her apartment, a lemon yellow Cannondale hybrid bicycle was parked. It seemed well used and well looked after, a stance of readiness to move in the machine betraying the attributes. The bike and swimming appeared her training for now and potential way out of knee injury. In fact against the backdrop of the knee issue, the triathlon appeared more sustainable to Zia. “ I will continue to do triathlons. But my heart is in running. The feeling after a run is amazing. I feel strong after running. It balances me completely,” Zia said, adding, “ as regards physical activity, there is no giving that up.’’

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