A PHASE OF UNCERTAINTY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In mid-February 2020, the organizers of the Tokyo Marathon announced that the event would be restricted to elite athletes. This followed the outbreak of COVID-19 and its spread to multiple nations including Japan. Some days later, news appeared of the 2020 Seoul Marathon being cancelled.

At a press briefing of March 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. At the time of writing, the number of cases was over 220,000 worldwide. Nearly 9000 people had died. Among precautionary measures recommended has been restricting mass participation events. Contributing their bit to contain the disease outbreak, organizers of major marathons started announcing cancellation or postponement of events.

In the second week of March, the organizers of the Boston Marathon announced postponement of the event to September 14. Soon afterwards, London Marathon made a similar announcement, postponing the race to early October. Both these World Marathon Majors are usually held in April. Other major cancellations included the 56-kilometer Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa, Athens Half Marathon, New York Half Marathon. Several other marathons in Europe and the US have also been rescheduled. On March 16, the organizers of Swimathon Goa, an open water swimming race, decided to cancel the event. It was originally scheduled to be held over March 28-29.We spoke to some of those who had planned to attend the above said events; we also spoke to some currently training amid lack of clarity on what may happen to the event they are due to go for.

Deepti Karthik (Photo: courtesy Deepti)

Bengaluru-based Deepti Karthik was scheduled to run the Tokyo Marathon of March 1, 2020. Mid-February, the World Marathon Major, announced that it was restricting the race to elite athletes. Recreational runners were informed that their registration would be carried forward to the next year. Post 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) Deepti had stepped up her mileage in training aiming to go for the Tokyo Marathon. Notwithstanding the financial loss due to arrangements already made for travel and stay in Tokyo, once news of the cancellation sank in, Deepti decided to take a short break from her training.

She shifted her attention to the 2020 Boston Marathon. “ I was putting in a lot of mileage. I was running 80-85 km each week,” she said. But then, Boston got postponed. Forced to refocus her efforts and recalibrate her training schedule, she has now in her sights the TCS 10 K, slated for May 17, 2020 in Bengaluru. But past that event she is staring at a small pile-up on her plate. Deepti had also signed up for the 2020 Berlin Marathon. With the postponement of Boston Marathon, Deepti will now have to do two World Marathon Majors in two weeks.  Boston Marathon has been rescheduled to September 14 and Berlin Marathon is set for September 27.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman (Photo: courtesy Muthukrishnan Jayaraman)

“ I have no choice but to run both the marathons. I guess I will take Boston Marathon as an easy run and go strong at Berlin. Boston has a tougher route while Berlin is flat,” she reasoned. If the situation does not worsen, Deepti hopes to resume her training for the two international marathons by early June. So far, she has completed three of the six World Marathon Majors – London, Chicago and New York City Marathon. This year a good number of recreational runners from India were slated to go for the Tokyo Marathon. The news of its cancellation came as a disappointment particularly because some of them were hoping to complete the World Major Marathon series in Tokyo.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist with the Indian Army, was at the peak of his preparations for the Boston Marathon, when the year’s running calendar started to come apart. Now with news of the Boston Marathon being postponed to September, he is taking a break. “ I will go back to building my foundation and focus on strength training,” he said. “ My coach Ashok Nath has asked his mentees to do a self-assessment of their strong and weak points. Based on that we will have to work out our training plan,” he said. The army doctor hoped to resume his training in May and do one domestic marathon – either the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon or the AFMC Marathon in Pune, both scheduled to be held in August this year.

Apoorva Chaudhary is scheduled to run the 2020 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships to be held in July in Bengaluru. Based in Delhi, Apoorva commenced her training sometime in mid-March. So far, thanks to the disease outbreak, her training has been muted. She plans to ramp it up from April though that would depend on how COVID-19 impacts the environment. “ I run solo and most of my training runs are done very early in the morning when there are few people on the road,” she said.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi had qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group Championships, which was to be held as part of London Marathon. She is also one of the runners representing India at the 2020 IAU 100 km World Championships to be held in the Netherlands on September 12, 2020. With London Marathon getting postponed to early October, Anjali has decided to give it a miss as her main event is the World Championships. At the 2019 IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships, Anjali had set a new national best with her finish in 9:22 hours. “ I have decided to opt out of London Marathon as I will not be able to recover well after the World Championships and do justice to it,” she said. She plans to resume her training for the World Championships in April.

Sunil Chainani was in the midst of his training for Boston Marathon when the news of postponement came in. Now with the date of Boston Marathon moved to September 14, Sunil will have to participate in two marathons in a period of four weeks – Boston and Chicago. Chicago Marathon is slated for October 11, 2020. He has gone back to minimum essential training. “ I run for fun. Right now my focus is to stay fit,” Sunil, who lives in Bengaluru, said.

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

It was not long ago that Zarir Baliwala, Mumbai-based businessman and recreational endurance athlete, decided that he will focus on swimming for a change. He decided to temporarily stop running and cycling and get ready for the Goa Swimathon, scheduled over March 28-29. He had just made the decision in his mind when the Maharashtra government acting to contain spread of COVID-19, announced closure of Mumbai’s swimming pools till further notice. Zarir was forced to reassess. Subsequently, the organizers of Swimathon also announced the cancellation of the event in Goa. “ I will now go back to running and cycling,” Zarir said.

For many Indian runners and triathletes focusing on national events, the current phase represents the quieter part of the calendar. Major domestic events have concluded and the new season will commence in three months. However for runners attempting international events – especially events under the World Marathon Majors – the calendar has turned topsy turvy. Between September and November, there are now five World Marathon Majors: Boston Marathon, Berlin Marathon, London Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath had signed up for the 2020 Boston Marathon. Subsequently, he also qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group World Championships to be held as part of the 2020 London Marathon. Having completed Boston Marathon multiple times, he opted to give its 2020 edition a miss and focus instead on the London Marathon. The new revised schedule has cast a fresh spin. He feels there is a manageable gap between Boston and London but the Berlin Marathon, given it is too close to the London event may have to be run another year – that is, for those planning to attempt more than one of these events.

“ The running season in India concludes by end-February and the focus shifts to rebuilding the basics until it is time to commence race specific training. The first major race on the new calendar is the TCS 10 K in Bengaluru, in May,” Ashok said. Following that, India’s season of long runs and the now revised schedule of international marathons will unfold. Depending on how the virus outbreak plays out it may cast a shadow on how you prepare for the year ahead. The critical word is immunity. In these times, training has to be within manageable limits so as not to compromise one’s immunity, Ashok said. “ Long runs will lower immunity. Is that the right thing to do in the current situation?” he asked.

Samson Sequiera (left) with Poonam Bhatia (Photo: courtesy Samson)

The Comrades Marathon, the ultramarathon held annually in South Africa, is among major events in the running calendar. It has been steadily gathering a following in India. The organizers of the event are scheduled to review the situation on April 17, 2020, an official Comrades Marathon press note said. Indian runners attempting the 2020 edition of Comrades Marathon have been pressing ahead with their training. “ Training for Comrades is going on full steam so that we are not found lacking the training mileages required,” said coach Samson Sequiera, who heads a large Mumbai-based marathon training and fitness group called Run India Run.

Training for Comrades Marathon is strenuous. It includes three or four long runs spanning distance of 45 km, 55 km and 65 km. According to Samson, runners are practising self-restraint. They are taking care of their hydration and paying attention to rest given the current situation caused by COVID-19. A total of 35 runners from Run India Run have registered for Comrades Marathon (downhill version) this year. In all, approximately 330 runners from India have registered to run the 2020 Comrades Marathon. The race is scheduled to be held on June 15, 2020.

Satish Gujaran (Photo: courtesy Satish)

“ Runners slated to do Comrades are quite confused on how to take their training forward. Normally, April is the peak month of training for Comrades. We are scheduled to do the longest run of 65 km during the second week of April,” ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, who completed Comrades for the tenth time in 2019, said. He felt, it would be better if the organizers announce their decision early so that runners can stop training and go back to basic fitness routine.  “ One option is to scale the training down now and pick it up after April 15 depending on what the situation is on the pandemic,” Satish said.

According to Ashok, it would be prudent to cancel all sporting events including those two months away such as the Comrades Marathon and TCS 10 K. Given the training for these events happen now, postponing or cancelling them will prompt amateur athletes to stop race-training and focus on fitness-based training.

Septuagenarian Kumar Rao was well into his training for the Boston Marathon, when COVID-19 began upsetting schedules.  He was aiming for a 3:50-3:52 hour finish, an improvement over 3:59, his time to finish last year in Boston. “ I was doing 85-90 km per week. Now, I have decided to scale back. This week I plan to do 35 km. I will eventually settle for 60 km per week,” he said.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

It also appeared practical; apt for these times. “ Considering my age, I think it is better for me to scale down. Initially, I was cavalier about this and continued training. I even did a glycogen-depleted training run,” Kumar said. Boston wasn’t the only major race overseas, on his plate. He had also registered for the New York City Marathon. “ I may have to go to the US twice; once for Boston Marathon in September and then again for NYCM in November. If my wife agrees to come with me, I may stay back in the US with my son for the period between these two marathons,” he pointed out.

Although he shuttles between India and the US, Kochi-based recreational runner Ramesh Kanjilimadhom hadn’t signed up for any major international event in 2020. He did think briefly of running in Paris but then didn’t pursue it. He felt that the shifting of major races to the September-October period could make for a crammed fall season calendar, particularly in the US. On the bright side, provided the disease outbreak tapers, the additional choices emergent for the fall season may prove interesting to runners.

For now, a whole planet of major events in sport is at the mercy of the virus.

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

PORTRAIT OF A MALE TRAP

From Jallikattu. This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

“ Entheda nee cherayunnathu?’’

This question in the Malayalam language has long been a mystery to me.

Mystery would be wrong word; it is more – I know what it is but I find it hard to comprehend why it exists, several thousand years into the human species. In colloquial Malayalam, especially as spoken in southern Kerala where I grew up, the act indicates looking but not simply looking; it is looking at somebody in a manner that betrays sizing up an opponent. There is a hint of: I will show you who I am or don’t mess with me. Sometimes it establishes superiority and ends potential tussle right there. At other times, the look is challenged and the ensuing series of challenges leads to inevitable tussle for superiority. To be fair, it isn’t exclusively a Kerala phenomenon. It is there in all cultures, a sad reminder that civilization notwithstanding we are fundamentally predators.

For a long time, I avoided such predicaments because the capacity to challenge physically or counter a challenge was absent in me. Sometime in college, after my introduction to Desmond Morris and contests among humans got explained in easy to understand anthropological terms, the resultant social grid felt like a depressing jail. The rules of life seemed cast in stone. Then as the age of satellite television and Internet set in and documentaries on wildlife were easily accessed, the macho traits of human beings and its parallels in the animal world became not just clearer; they seemed amusing, even comical. Yet human society, which still respects the inherited, cares little for new insight gained by observing the world. The machismo and domination continue unquestioned as primer to cement one’s rank. Life resembles high drama. That’s why the following two Malayalam films engaged my attention.

Released in September 2019, Jallikattu is a creative tour de force. Its idiom is unforgiving in that it makes no effort to tell a story as dialogue and narrative. Its language is rooted in cinema – a procession of visuals and sounds with characters, dialogues and background score playing second fiddle to it. Threaded together they depict (rather than narrate) reflectively, the goings on when a buffalo meant for slaughter breaks free and runs amok. The beauty of this film is the shades of reflection on human behavior, it offers. Keralites, who have known for long that there is well entrenched patriarchy and mischievous matriarchy below the outer layer of modernity gracing their society, quickly grasp the scenes flashing by and the reflections embedded in them. But the real courage in Jallikattu has to be the film maker’s. Releasing a film cast in said idiom to the market is a major call. Herein, I refer not to the subject of the movie – toxic masculinity – but how it is structured. It is so unlike the regular Indian and Malayalam movie. And yet, you watch it, end to end. Sometimes, we don’t need to be told dialogue by dialogue. We just need to be reminded; shown life as it is. We get it. It is brevity Malayalam films have been consistently getting good at.

This image was downloaded from Facebook. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Roughly five months later, in February 2020, the film Ayyappanum Koshiyum was released. Here, pretty much the same subject as was seen in Jallikattu – toxic masculinity, gets analyzed in a more viewer friendly manner with story, clear characters and good acting. It tells its story by pitting against each other two generic entities well known in Kerala for their machismo-worship – the rich, feudal, land owning patriarch (and his progeny) and the state’s traditional warrior class. But this opting for easily identifiable characters is only a vehicle for narration. The core content is compulsive masculinity (often deteriorating to toxic), the battles it spawns and the specter of bluster and buffoonery it inspires when viewed through contemporary lens. You also see women; those blended into this traditional patriarchy and those confronting it. As viewing experience, the film is imbalanced; after a relatively taut first half, the second half meanders into the known and typical, the ending being quite so.

Both films have a shared quality. They have characters who roar, seek an eye for an eye; they have scenes filled with action, scenes begging for action. They also never fail to put the machismo in context by rising above the immediate and gazing at it from the larger. Doing so, the endlessness of that aggression, the abject clownishness of it; all, surface. Not to mention, very unusually for Indian movies around dominant males, here, you smell the insecurity underlying the aggression. It is portrait of a male trap.

Films like these make lab monkeys of us.

Watching us from the outside, we begin to see.

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

WHERE DO ALL THE BUFFALOES GO?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Pioneers don’t have it easy. Followers do.

Anyone who has run long distance knows the habit of latching on to another so that you are pulled along.

It is a bit like the February 2020 story about the Indian construction worker participating in a buffalo race, who got compared to Usain Bolt. It was simple, tempting math: herding a pair of buffaloes in full trot, Srinivasa Gowda sprinted 142 meters in 13.42 seconds; Bolt’s world record in the 100 meters is 9.58 seconds. Gowda was more realized than media and ministers celebrating him. After all, nobody knows as well as the practitioner. A few days after the unexpected limelight, he infused reality saying – and I quote from a published article – “ I am as good as the buffaloes that run with me.’’

In races and in life, we pick buffaloes to lead us. We also get picked as somebody else’s buffalo. Unlike the animal which runs for its safety or when prodded to race by human, we have our race-buffalo lead us and then when we overtake him or her, we feel satisfied about milestone passed. Is that the end? No. Like virus seeking next host, we start looking for the next buffalo and so on, till a half marathon or marathon resembles a necklace of buffaloes preyed upon. At the finish line, we raise our arms for photo imitating marathon greats. We spare no thought for the buffaloes we should be grateful to. Officially sanctioned pace setters; they get thanked for delivering us coveted result. But the buffaloes we pick at random from our ranks; they are forgotten.

Pace setters are officially sanctioned prompts. You choose the flag displaying the timing you are seeking and trail it as a bus. Elite runners also use pace setters. When going for a record, the pace required to get the record is maintained by the pace setters, who slow down or drop off after hand-holding runner three fourths of the way. That last quarter is in many ways more crucial than the preceding ones because eventually greatness in athletic performance is the capacity to stretch one’s endurance over the whole distance. But sometimes, even without pace setters around, competition and strategy shape certain traits. I remember the commentary of a major marathon in which the commentator seeing visual of one or two runners hanging on opportunistically at the shoulder of lead athlete, quipped, “ well that’s a convenient place to be in, isn’t it?’’ You make a buffalo of the other but don’t wish to overtake and be target yourself. Instead, you stick around at striking distance like an annoying fly and at the right juncture in the race – or when buffalo begins to tire, whichever is first – you finish him off by going ahead.

In running, which is fast but not terribly fast, this specter is still only the stuff of buffalo. Like hound on race track chasing a mechanical rabbit, you are focused on prey measured in terms of distance to cover. That’s it. Cycling is a much faster sport than running. In cycling’s peloton, the habit exceeds buffalo setting pace, to courting aerodynamic efficiency. Tucked in behind the leader, a cyclist faces less wind resistance; it is called drafting. Here, the buffalo’s worth goes beyond accidental or intentional prey driving riders on, to actually making it easier for predator behind to catch up. Sort of like authoring its own doom except, as we know, in cycling’s peloton everybody has a role oriented toward ensuring that given team’s ace cyclist is set up for the final dash. But even the final dash between fierce competitors has its opportunistic moments. They weave, sway, look around; all of them worried who should risk becoming target for the one who makes the break will be hunted.

In all of the above – from chasing random buffalo to pace setter to peloton leader – the winner gets it all. The rest are generally forgotten.

Buffaloes also remind of pioneers. Pioneers ride head on into the wind. There is nobody shielding them; none in front soaking wind resistance. The draft they create is a nice place for the rest to tuck in. Eyes on pioneer, they learn to avoid the mistakes he makes. Some in the drafting lot don’t even wish to win. They just want it easy; getting the same credit or more for easier work done. Some others, latch on behind, hanging around pioneer’s shoulders waiting for the correct moment to unsheathe their knives and strike. In human history, many pioneers have faded to oblivion because they didn’t win. Some were too early for their time; some failed to attract capital because their adventurousness troubled conservative money, some failed because in having them fail we found endorsement for our herded existence. Little by little, the failures build a case till someone drafting and making a break finds a sudden ocean of applause. We shine the light on eventual winners without asking who their buffaloes were. We even make life easy for winners rewarding them with this and that.

No such recognition visits pioneers fueled by passion, who endure hardships. As life by network and business model gains, it is strategy and scheming that have come to matter, not passion. It is the rare follower, Gowda probably one, who acknowledges the debt.

I wonder where all the buffaloes go.

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