MEDICAL TASK FORCE TO PREVENT DISEASE OUTBREAK AT MASS PARTICIPATION ENDURANCE EVENTS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

World Athletics and the International Institute for Race Medicine (IIRM) will together set up a medical task force to provide endurance events that include mass gatherings with the necessary guidelines to prevent outbreak of infectious diseases.

The move follows the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. Major events in sport ranging from international marathons to Tour de France and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed as a result.

According to a statement dated April 17, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, the Outbreak Prevention Taskforce, led by World Athletics (Health and Science Department) and the IIRM, will include the Medical Chairs or representatives of the International Cycling Union (UCI), International Ski Federation (FIS), International Triathlon Union (ITU), International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and World Rowing (FISA), as well as Professor Brian McCloskey of the Centre on Global Health Security, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), an independent expert in outbreak prevention and member of the WHO Novel Coronavirus-19 Mass Gatherings Expert Group.

The task force will be served by an advisory group, which will include representatives of industry, private companies, sponsors, partners, and media. “ We are forming this taskforce to bring together key representatives from all parts of the endurance sports world to help find solutions and create viable and appropriate guidelines for participants of mass sports events, event staff, volunteers, and the community at large. COVID-19 has been the stimulus for the formation of this taskforce, however, many event organisers have also had to deal with Norovirus and other contagious diseases during the staging of events and this taskforce will help create guidelines to help reduce the risk of infection,” Dr Stephane Bermon, Director of the Health and Science Department at World Athletics, was quoted as saying in the statement.

The Outbreak Prevention Taskforce has the following objectives:

  • Disseminate recommendations to prevent disease outbreaks in mass gatherings.
  • Provide race organisers and sport governing bodies with guidelines, including a risk assessment tool dedicated to determining the outbreak risk, mitigation plans, and suggestions of contingency plans.
  • Advise mass races, organisers and sport governing bodies on how to plan a return to normal activities in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak or similar future situations.
  • Collect and analyse data to determine if COVID-19 survivors have increased risk of developing illness or injury when participating in endurance events and / or vigorous activity and amend best practices based on this analysis.

The Outbreak Prevention Taskforce will hold its first meeting during the week of 20th of April with the aim of producing guidelines as soon as reasonably possible, the statement said.

World Athletics is the apex body for athletics, globally. IIRM has its roots in the American Road Racing Medical Society (ARRMS) formed in 2003 as a division of the former American Running Association. ARRMS later developed a partnership with the Matthew Good Foundation and the Good Family from the UK. The organization was subsequently renamed IIRM.

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

COOLER

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The other day I found myself thinking of the 1963 film ` The Great Escape.’

I saw it as a schoolboy. I also remember a book – it was a compilation of articles from Readers Digest – procured by my cousin’s family, which narrated the real story that inspired the movie. The film was hugely popular. For me, the bulk of its appeal revolved around Captain Virgil Hilts, the character played by Steve McQueen. I was too young to understand the gravity of war and the value of freedom. To my schoolboy brain, the act of tunneling one’s way to freedom from a Nazi prison camp resembled a cat and mouse game; an exciting one. It was another dimension added to the war comics and adventure novels that boys of that age indulged in. I loved the footage of Steve McQueen trying to escape on a motorcycle.

As I aged, the list of war movies I saw grew and my perspective became more critical. Both The Great Escape and films made so attributing a brand of smart bravery to the main protagonists, lost some of their old sheen. I began suspecting an element of playing to the box office in the film, which despite the holes critical gaze pokes in it, ranks even today among my all-time favorites.  Impressions from childhood are difficult to alter!

The Great Escape slipped into my imagination recently, in an unexpected way.

Cambridge dictionary describes the usage “ having a ball’’ so: to enjoy yourself very much. According to the website theidioms.com, “ having a ball’’ has its origin in the British culture of throwing balls (dances) in the 1900s. “ They would throw one to get to know each other in the society, show off their wealth or merely to have some fun in the times where entertainment as such, was not given priority in daily lives,’’ the website explained. If that be true, then in my opinion, that is a rather late association of the word `ball’ with fun. According to Wikipedia, the first authoritative knowledge of the earliest ballroom dances was recorded in the 16th century. On the other hand, by virtue of the fact that it moves, rolls, flies through the air and represents tremendous possibilities, the idea of ball as used in games, is older. From animals to human beings, everybody has fun with a ball. Its irresistible. Ideally, “ having a ball’’ should have originated from that simple, easily accessed fun; not some stylized dance. But then ` ideally’ is well just that and etymology is not always rooted in the ideal.

As the lockdown due to COVID-19 graduated from novelty to routine with commensurate alteration to the human experience alongside, I realized that I didn’t have a ball in the house. Given life in apartment complex, a tennis ball would have been apt. Bouncing it off the ground or a wall, while likely nuisance to the neighbors, has a calming influence. Not to mention – it improves eye muscle coordination and is, fun. Somewhere deep in the brain, a neuron fired and Steve McQueen’s Captain Virgil Hilts floated up in the imagination. Frequently dispatched to solitary confinement, Hilts – in the movie – was called “ The Cooler King’’ (cells holding just one prisoner were called coolers).  He would go in with baseball glove and ball, sit on the floor and pass his time bouncing the ball off the cooler’s wall. That’s how the movie signs off too. After most of those who escaped are killed or returned to camp, Hilts is locked up once again in the cooler. The guard, who is walking off after putting the prisoner in his cell, pauses to listen to the sound of ball hitting the wall.

This film poster was downloaded from the Internet. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Released in June 1963, The Great Escape became one of the biggest hits of the year. It won Steve McQueen the silver prize for best actor at the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival. Over time the movie – it was directed by John Sturges – acquired the reputation of being a classic.

In May 2006, The Guardian published an obituary for Squadron Leader Eric Foster. It noted how on the night of March 24, 1944, roughly 76 years in the past from our times lost to lockdown, Stalag Luft III near Sagan (north of Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland) became venue of the biggest British led Prisoner of War (PoW) breakout during the Second World War. Three tunnels were dug – Tom, Dick and Harry – with Harry (the longest tunnel) accounting for 76 escapees. Three made it home, the rest were captured. Of them, 50 were killed. The story became well-known after the publication in 1951 of Paul Brickhill’s book: The Great Escape. The movie was partly based on the book. Eric Forster served as adviser to the filmmakers; he had been PoW at Stalag III but was not part of the famous escape. However the obituary mentioned at least three other attempts to escape from various PoW camps after Foster’s plane was shot down in June 1940 and he was taken prisoner. There were instances of solitary confinement. According to the obituary, he eventually faked madness and was repatriated home in 1944.

The Great Escape’s Captain Virgil Hilts is a fictional character.

Foster’s experience served as background material for the character.

Squadron Leader Eric Foster died on March 26, 2006, aged 102.

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

LOCKDOWN BLUES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

One talent that is a blessing in times of lockdown is the ability to play music.

Ahead of COVID-19, the world was a very busy place. Not having time for anything other than work was perceived as sign of person’s success or potential for success. As lockdown took hold, many of us were thrust into the unfamiliar territory of having time, not knowing what to do with it and even if you did repeating some routine or the other, not knowing how to manage the monotony. Being creative – like being able to compose music – can be a gift for such challenging times. It keeps you engaged.

In early April, Mumbai-based rock climber Franco Linhares, shared a video of him essaying bouldering moves using the furniture at his house. Given their appetite for climbing moves and tendency to infuse daily view of world with hunt for such possibility, climbers have been known to ascend the outside of buildings (it is called buildering) and attempt complicated moves on chairs and tables. It is a way of challenging oneself and having some fun. Franco, 69, titled his simple video devoid of any background score: Lockdown Blues.

The name begged music for not only is the blues an engaging genre of music but the present times of people restricted to their homes for weeks to prevent infection is a study in pathos. It is perfect substratum for the blues. Decades ago, the genre was born from the suffering of people working the plantations and railroads of the US. Few styles in western music pour forth human emotion and feelings, likes the blues does. No matter how politically correct you wish to be about lockdown, there is no denying the human experience as you sit cooped up in your house, weathering the hours and days while a virus stalks the spaces beyond, you once roamed. Why not sing about it?

Late that evening, Franco sent across one more video. This time, it was Ernest Flanagan singing Lockdown Blues, lyrics credited to Prabhakar Mundkur. A subsequent search on the Internet yielded further perspective. Lockdown Blues appeared to be a generic series inspired by pandemic with plenty of versions and no genuinely convincing beginning to the trend (to borrow virus jargon: it may have an index case but I couldn’t trace it). The versions available ranged from raw, bare and personal in the tradition of the blues, like Prabhakar’s (uploaded on YouTube April 5, 2020) and Ernest’s (uploaded on YouTube April 10, 2020) to humorous, reflective and musical-like as Dominic Frisby’s (premiered March 31, 2020) to upbeat, sounding like a band and close to studio quality as the version performed by Shannon Rains (uploaded on YouTube, April 3, 2020). Plus the search yielded a Wikipedia page for a song called “ Lockdown Blues’’ by Danish band Iceage but it released on April 2, 2020, by when thousands of people had already endured lockdown for weeks in various parts of the world, some of them likely singing about it too. In fact, on April 9, 2020 Tamil rapper Arivu posted a feisty number titled “ Vanakkam Virus,” his take on the lockdown and its impact on the economically disadvantaged. By mid-April major names in the music industry overseas, were also getting into the act of connecting with world under lockdown. There was the One World: Together at Home Concert organized in collaboration with Lady Gaga that saw many artistes take part. There was also news from Pink Floyd that starting April 17, the band will stream its full length archival concerts for free, every Friday.

A longstanding pianist and jazz musician in Mumbai, Ernest is known to pen poems and lyrics on a frequent basis. He likes it when lines rhyme. On the internet you come across videos posted by friends, of them singing his songs. Associated in the past with well-known names in the Indian jazz scene, Ernest’s last job was with the financial institution IL&FS. Until it sank into troubled times, with corresponding retrenchment of employees, Ernest had been pianist playing every evening at the lobby of the institution’s headquarters in Mumbai. “ It was a dream job,’’ he said. He lost it in December 2018. A year and three months later, India was in lockdown to combat COVID-19. Ernest was no stranger to the blues. On YouTube, you will find a delightful little blues number he wrote and sang called ` Kickback Blues,’ posted October 2019 on the Jazz Goa account. Naturally, he channeled the lockdown experience. “ I wrote my version of Lockdown Blues and sent it to some of my friends hoping they would sing it. For some reason, nobody took it up,’’ Ernest said when contacted in mid-April. In the meantime, ad industry veteran Prabhakar Mundkur wrote his version of Lockdown Blues and posted a video. It was a brief take (about a minute and a half); it was also rather bare in terms of arrangement. Ernest then sang his version of Prabhakar’s song.

He introduced two differences. Being adept at keyboards he was able to infuse the song with that impression of band playing along.  He also added some lines to the lyrics. Ernest’s version is longer and its lyrics have a circular structure with the whole song running like a conversation with a nurse; a cry for help. Someone who likes to do things well, Ernest said he was not happy with the audio quality. He wished he had access to a studio (Kickback Blues, which has superior audio quality, was recorded in a studio). “ For Lockdown Blues I had to sing with one hand on the keyboards and the other pressing the recording icon on the mobile phone screen,’’ he said, adding, “ there’s only so much you can do from home.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Thanks to Franco Linhares for sparking off this rendezvous with the Lockdown Blues.) 

WHEN PRIZE MONEY DRIES UP

Pratibha Nadkar (Photo: courtesy Pratibha)

Road races have been cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19. Lockdown has meant challenging times for those who counted on races to win prize money and augment their income. For them, racing wasn’t just recreational running; it was part of livelihood.

Amateur runner Pratibha Nadkar had a cracker of a running season over the past six months. According to her, of the 28 events she participated in, she secured podium finishes in her age category at 26.

For Pratibha, the prize money translates into a a few months of reasonably good earnings. She depends mainly on prize money to survive. A resident of Mumbai, Pratibha started running little over three years ago. She started with runs over five and ten kilometers and then gradually progressed to longer distances. She followed a hectic training and racing schedule until the lockdown to combat COVID-19 forced her to stop running on the roads. Confined to her tiny quarters in a settlement in Chembur, Mumbai, she now follows online training sessions. “ In terms of money, I am comfortable for the next two months. I do not want to think about the scenario of an extended lockdown,’’ Pratibha said early April 2020. Even if the lockdown ends she could be staring at challenging times for there will be a time lag before races commence afresh.

Pratibha was a middle-distance runner during her school days at Ahmednagar. She ran distances of 800, 1500 and 3000 meters. “ I went up to national level but once school was over, my sporting activity came to a halt,” she said. Post-school days, Pratibha came under family pressure to get married. The resultant marriage ended in separation as her husband was an alcoholic. “ We separated when my son was barely 11 months old,” she said. Many years later her husband passed away in an accident. Left to fend for herself, she had to look for employment as house help. She later joined a troupe as a singer and did some stage shows to complement her income. Subsequently, she took to running and started enrolling for races. Quite often, she finished on the podium with corresponding monetary gains.

“ As stage shows began hampering my training to run, I reduced my appearances at shows. Also, stage shows started to dwindle. My focus shifted to marathon running. It was my only means to earn money,” Pratibha said. At the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Pratibha ran the 10 km-race and finished third. Three weeks later, she ran the 10 miler at the Maharashtra Police International Marathon and finished in second position. “ I don’t have any sponsor. I pay and register for the races that I participate in. Many times, there was tax deduction in the prize money,” she said. She is hoping her 20-year-old son finds employment. “ There are some jobs that may open up due to the current COVID-19 outbreak,” she said hopefully.

Sabhajeet Yadav, a farmer from Dabhiya, Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, supplements his farm income with prize money earned from marathons. He has been podium finisher in his age category, multiple times, at TMM and other leading events. At the 2020 edition of TMM, Sabhajeet secured an age category silver in marathon. He confines his appearance to a few key races where his chances of age category podium are healthy. Contacted in early April, he was busy with the harvest of his wheat crop. “ Once the harvest is completed, I will have to store the surplus produce at home as the mandis (markets) are closed due to lockdown,” he said. “ It will be a while before I step out of my village to participate in marathons,” he said.

At Vikramgad, a little over 100 kilometers away from Mumbai, Dnyaneshwar Morgha was in the same boat. He is a regular podium finisher in the open category in the half marathon and shorter distances. Prize money augments his earnings from agriculture. Thanks to the family owning land, which they cultivate, they had enough to sustain through the lockdown. But selling agricultural produce in the market like before had become tough due to lockdown. The story was slightly different for Panvel-based runner and regular podium finisher in his age category, Kamlya Bhagat. He said there wasn’t much he could get from his patch of farm land. On the bright side, he was getting a small salary from the school he worked for. But there was prize money won in the months before lockdown that he hadn’t yet received. “ With no races now and for the months ahead, it will be tough,’’ he said.

Elite runner Jyoti Gawate will be short of earnings this year as several key marathons have been cancelled. At the 2020 edition of TMM, Jyoti had finished second among Indian elite women. Being an elite runner, her prize money is higher than that of amateur podium finishers. But even as she stares at a tough year ahead, there is prize money earned last year that is yet to be received. According to her coach, Ravi Raskatla, Jyoti was overall winner among women at a marathon in Mohali in 2019. The organizers have made no effort to pay the prize money of Rs 200,000. He said there is worry about the absence of earnings from running events, both in terms of unpaid dues and how the months to come will play out. He coaches a team of athletes, some of who secure podium finishes. “ Jyoti has been supporting some of these athletes,” he said.

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Like Pratibha, Sabhajeet, Dnyaneshwar and Kamlya, there are runners, who participate in events with the aim of making a living from podium finishes or use the additional earnings to complement their regular income. For them, the lockdown and the way COVID-19 has derailed a whole running season is felt the same way others who lost jobs or had to temporarily shut down businesses experience difficulty.

Seema Verma, a resident of Nalasopara, a distant suburb of Mumbai, is largely dependent on earnings from podium finishes. Abandoned by her husband some years ago, she worked as a domestic help for many years, before she commenced recreational running. The sport and its races was avenue to claw her way back into the daily game of survival. Past mid-March 2020, everything changed. By then COVID-19 was firm reality in India; the nation slid into lockdown. “ I never thought I would be in this situation. I cannot ask anyone for help as the scenario is bleak for all,” she said.

Given India’s harsh summer, the marathon season ends in February. It resumes in June (under normal circumstances) after a hiatus of three months with events designed around running in the rain. “ But, there are many small running events that are held through the summer months. They offer prize money of Rs 2000-5000. That is of great help to runners like me,” she said. All those summer races have dried up thanks to COVID-19. Early April, Seema was confined to her house and spending time on household work apart from working out indoors. “ I don’t think there will be any races for a long time. We may see some races towards the end of the year,” she said.

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

THE RETURN OF RUNNING EVENTS: IT COULD BE A LONG WAIT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Towards the end of 2019, the domestic racing calendar was one of plenty. Mumbai based-race organizers You Too Can Run, has a database of annual running events. That alone showed approximately 1300 events in India. There are more. With lockdown caused by COVID-19, runners in hibernation and races cancelled or postponed, the optimistic time frame to recovery currently spoken of, is six months. Realistically, it could take longer for normalcy in the racing environment. “ It may be a long haul,’’ Sunil Shetty, senior runner who is also associated with NEB Sports, said. Additionally, at least one industry official said that like most sectors, the business around running may need to become lean to cope with the troubled times. It is a measure of direct impact. There is indirect impact as well.

Events have costs. A lot of these costs are met by sponsors. Sponsorships are typically part of a company’s marketing and image building budget. COVID-19 has arrived with warning of recession to follow. During recession, marketing and advertising expenses are among the first outgoes to be slashed by companies. Will every race organizer find sponsors? The situation is compounded by only informed guessing possible right now on how runners may re-emerge from lockdown. How much would COVID-19 have affected their appetite for mass participation events? Ashok Nath, Bengaluru based-runner, coach and mentor, felt that runners would welcome the return of road races, including new safety guidelines to adhere to. But their response would be proportionate to how safe the overall environment appears to be. Post lockdown, should any city suffer relapse to outbreak of infection that would be a concern for potential participants. Point is – if an organizer assumes the risk of meeting the costs involved to host a race and then ends up getting the cold shoulder from runners, it can be hurting.

Same goes for holding events in truncated format. For instance, post lockdown and still in the shadow of COVID-19, it would theoretically seem easier for authorities to approve an event with limited participation. Or say yes to a full marathon because that discipline typically sees limited participation (and is therefore better handled in scenario of cautious recovery) unlike the more popular shorter distances like the half marathon and less. However, it is the shorter distances that earn money for event organizers. Given costs to recover, truncated event is a bit like permission for airlines to fly with fewer seats on offer per aircraft. And just as that may translate to higher ticket cost, a major running event with sub-optimal participation may see altered fees unless the whole model sustains by some other means.

As COVID-19 spread worldwide, major international marathons were cancelled or rescheduled. Races that rescheduled came up with dates for fall 2020. Something similar is expected in the domestic calendar. Season specific events like monsoon marathons, may get cancelled if their windows are not deemed safe. From the rest, some may attempt dates in winter. Under normal circumstances, the fall season is a busy period for running in India. When rescheduled races land up in the same period, it could end up a tussle between the big events and the small ones, with the former likely favored by runners. Result – we may be in for a churn or what industry calls it: consolidation. “ Even ahead of pandemic, several races on the domestic circuit fell in what could be called the C category. In the months ahead, they will be the most vulnerable,’’ Venkatraman Pichumani of You Too Can Run, said. Enquiries with industry showed that most race organizers in India lack insurance cover for their event. “ Some of the big players take it. I would imagine that only about 10 per cent of races are insured,’’ an official in the know said. Not everyone agreed with the specter of consolidation. One race organizer said that in their quest to avoid crowding, runners may wish for a variety of options.

Then, there is the issue of event architecture in times scarred by COVID-19. A major development in the wake of pandemic has been social distancing. Marathons involve a large number of people. Most marathons have a couple of points where physical proximity happens. All races start with a holding area. While holding areas can be big, permitting people to spread out, the countdown to race’s commencement usually sees bunching of runners. The bunching happens because runners seek advantageous positions. At the end of every race, past the finish line, you are typically greeted by a couple of choke points. Runners get bunched while collecting their medals; they also get bunched when collecting their refreshments. Another concern is hydration; in fact, how aid stations operate. With COVID-19 protocols emphasizing hygiene, they will come under the scanner. Recyclable plastic water bottles may find fresh lease of life. It is also possible that runners may be encouraged to bring their own water (water bottles / hydration packs) in the early phase of events revival. Clearly, responsibility to keep participants safe will be heavy on race organizers. “ It will be a new environment at least for the next one year,’’ Chewang Motup, owner of Rimo Expeditions, organizers of the Ladakh Marathon, said.

Flashback / pack of elite runners from the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

The larger question all this inspires is – when will conditions be suitable for the old confidence to return? At the time of writing, some states had just extended lockdown to the end of April. It is too premature to predict anything. “ There are matters of much greater priority for authorities to address before their attention can be sought for events like marathons,’’ Ashok Nath said. Two people we spoke to mentioned July end as earliest likely period when an assessment of the future may be possible. But even then, it isn’t enough that runners and race organizers feel hopeful. A lot rests on when authorities are ready to issue the statutory permissions every marathon requires. “ That is the important question,’’ Venkatraman Pichumani said. Much before running events, the world will have to reestablish its comfort with schools, colleges, offices, shopping malls, theaters etc. Further, as Sunil Shetty pointed out, major marathons are possible thanks to the support from other sectors like railways, civil aviation, long distance buses and hotels. They make it possible for many to participate. If these sectors are not fully operational it will leave corresponding impact on the participation at events. In a conversation featured in the post Lockdown & Me on this blog, Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, amateur runner and CEO of sports nutrition company, Fast & Up, had highlighted the cautious herd behavior that may characterize how events around running, revive. Meanwhile, TCS World 10K, the first major road race rescheduled in the Indian calendar following COVID-19, has been moved to September 2020. Roughly six months from now, that appeared the optimistic time frame for gradual revival in most people’s mind. By then more indicators would also be available for a clutch of major international marathons have been rescheduled to the September-October-November period.

Finally, there is a point, very valuable in an oblique sense. During crisis, we withdraw to what we actually are. If what we are includes the active lifestyle, the chances of its return are brighter for even authorities would imagine supportively. In today’s India, despite the virtues of active lifestyle, it is clearly minority. On March 27, 2020, in his open letter to the athletics community, Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics, was spot on when he said, “ we should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit. This should and could be the new normal.’’ Events are the business end of running. Before planting the seed to grow a tree, nurture the soil.

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

LOCKDOWN & ME

Nitendra Singh Rawat (Photo: courtesy Nitendra)

For now, the outdoor racing environment is in hibernation. India is in lockdown to combat COVID-19. Races have been cancelled or postponed and athletes (amateur and elite) are currently as much stay-at-home as anybody else. Improvising with what is available; strength training, catching up on rest – all these have become the name of the game.   

Nitendra Singh Rawat is among India’s top marathon runners. In the countdown to the earlier schedule of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (it has since been postponed to 2021), he had informed fans of injury and his decision to withdraw from attempts to qualify for the Olympic Games. Contacted in early April, Nitendra was home in Uttarakhand. The effects of injury had subsided a lot and the army athlete was back to his work outs and strength training exercises. However, he was still far from return to the same workout loads as before. Besides with the ongoing spread of COVID-19 and the postponement or cancellation of major sports events, there is little clarity in the world of sport for athlete to chalk out a map for the way ahead. “ My home is in the hills. It is not a crowded place,’’ Nitendra said of his surroundings.

Thomas Bobby Philip (Photo: courtesy Chetan Gusani)

“ For those who really want to do something, there is opportunity still. You have to motivate yourself,’’ Thomas Bobby Philip said. Bobby is among India’s best-known amateur runners; he has had several podium finishes in his age category. Locked down in Bengaluru, he has been feeding the runner in him with strength training exercises and exercises that aid flexibility. Once a week, he treats himself to a cardio workout, going up and down the stairs of his house. “ I have also started doing some calisthenics. This is the first time I am trying it. I hadn’t done that before,’’ he said. As for motivation, besides digging within to find it, Bobby pointed to many pursuing the active lifestyle who have begun offering online workout sessions. “ So, it is an interesting time,’’ he said. But as regards the return of normalcy with events back on schedule as in pre-lockdown times, Bobby felt that may take a long time. “ We are not in a situation where the path is clear. There will be restrictions and challenges ahead,’’ he said.

Satish Gujaran (Photo: courtesy Satish)

Satish Gujaran is a popular figure in Mumbai’s amateur running circles, especially with those planning to attempt the annual Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Satish has run the iconic event ten times. He used to provide coaching for those headed to Comrades but the lockdown has provided opportunity to further his online presence. In January 2020, Satish resigned his job and became the active face of an enterprise he and four others started: Karma Fitness (his existing coaching for Comrades was also brought under this umbrella). By February, the outfit was hosting sessions at Juhu beach in the city. Ever since lockdown commenced, Satish has been dispatching instructional videos every day designed to help people improve their fitness. “ We cater to both general fitness and fitness oriented towards running,’’ he said. According to him, response in these times of lockdown has been encouraging. He sends the videos to some 13 groups, each cluster having within it many individuals. The recipients are spread across 10-15 countries. “ They forward the videos further to their contacts. People seem happy to get it. I get feedback too; for example, somebody may ask for a specific type of exercise. We started sending the videos on the first day of lockdown in India. Initially, the videos were sort of mix and match. Now we are becoming systematic and more specific,’’ Satish said. He devotes an hour or two daily, to make the videos. It is shot early in the morning when natural lighting is apt or during other hours of the day with curtains used to control lighting. “ I live in a typical Mumbai flat. It is small. So there are limitations to what I can do under lockdown,’’ Satish said. The work keeps him busy. As for his personal workouts, Satish said that since he knows his body well, he either treats the exercises he does for the videos as his daily quota or sets some time aside for exercises of his own choice.

Naveen John (Photo: courtesy Naveen)

Naveen John is among India’s top bicycle racers. Cycling is mostly an outdoor sport and with India entering lockdown, Naveen has been restricted to being indoors in Bengaluru. “ For me as an athlete, it is out of question to stop my training,’’ he said. He turned to an e-racing platform called Zwift that allows cyclist to be indoors on a trainer and race using avatars against a global field. “ This e-platform has really taken off in the last few weeks. It had been there for some years but in the current situation, it is a kind of life saver,’’ Naveen said. He has been trying to get the athletes he coaches to also experiment with the platform. Their coaching sessions – including group rides – have gone online; it is all based on video calls now. At the heart of the whole transition is the trainer, a device that helps cyclist turn his regular road bike into a stationary cycle that he can still pedal. Naveen, who is known for his strict training, has reduced his overall workout volume. “ The good thing about training indoors is that the quality of work is better. There is no freewheeling or slowing down as in the outdoors, when you are on a trainer. It is steady, consistent power,’’ he said.

However, there is a drawback to the trainer. While one would assume that the contact of moving parts to the surface cycle is on (which contributes to resistance), is more while cycling outdoors, on a trainer, despite such contact reduced, the delivery of resistance is slightly imbalanced. “ The flywheel provides resistance in a certain portion of the pedal stroke. In the recovery stroke, the momentum of the flywheel carries you through,’’ Naveen explained. In turn this causes an imbalance in how muscles are engaged, with those muscle groups that usually come into play for the recovery stroke idling. Consequently the power you are able to produce while training indoors is 5-10 per cent less than what you can in the outdoors.

Naveen took some time to effect the transition to cycling indoors fully. It is a bit of a mental challenge. All athletes put themselves through suffering while training. “ The question: why are you punishing yourself? – it becomes real, a tough question to answer, when you are training indoors. One reason for this is that when you cycle outdoors, you are moving; there is world passing you by for motivation, variety and relief. The whole outdoors experience is also an aggregation of spiritual and chemical factors – there is the vitamin D, there is the sense of feeling good. All that is absent when training indoors. You have to rewire your motivational circuitry a bit,’’ Naveen said.

Finally, there is the issue of how much you push yourself because it is a fine line that separates over-training and compromising your immunity, and staying healthy. Naveen believes that while training for endurance is fine, it is the intensity one has to be watchful of. He has been advising his athletes to stick to a blend of 80 per cent endurance training (wherein you are below tempo pace) and 20 per cent at aerobic threshold. “ The feedback so far has been encouraging,’’ he said, adding that he was conditioned by experience to sense the immunity-compromised space that his body can slip into. “ I am aware of the negative toll it can take,’’ he said. He believes that most athletes are similarly wired to sense danger early enough and back off. As important as maintaining that 80:20 endurance to intensity ratio, is nutrition. In the early days of lockdown, Naveen said, it was tough sourcing proper nutrition and hydration. Preferred brands of sports nutrients were tough to get because e-sellers were having a hard time functioning. For the first time in several years, Naveen had to go back to basics and create his own mixtures for hydration. “ Things have since begun to improve, slowly,’’ he said. He is optimistic about life under lockdown. “ I tell myself that these challenging months are few in number compared to the nine years I have been a competitive cyclist so far,’’ he said.

Jyoti Gawate (Photo: courtesy Jyoti)

With races cancelled or postponed due to the spread of COVID-19, elite runner Jyoti Gawate could lower the volume and intensity of her training. Summer in India is also off season in the domestic racing calendar. Her focus changed to maintaining fitness levels. In the wake of lockdown in the country, she along with a few fellow athletes and their coach Ravi Raskatla moved out of Parbhani city in Maharashtra so that they may continue their fitness regimen away from crowded environment. “ We have been staying on the premises of a temple about 15 kilometers outside of Parbhani. It is hilly terrain. We have cut back on our training because there are no races on the horizon,” Ravi said. They do as much physical conditioning as is necessary to keep the momentum in training, going. “ We buy vegetables from the villagers who grow them. We cook our own food. That way, we are able to keep costs down,” he said. At the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon, Jyoti had secured second position among Indian elite women, finishing the race in 2:49:13 hours. In December 2019, she had won bronze in the women’s marathon at the South Asian Games with timing of 2:52:44.

Sabhajeet Yadav (Photo: by arrangement)

“ I live on the edge of a village far away from crowds,’’ Sabhajeet Yadav, farmer and well known amateur runner said. Sabhajeet, who has been podium finisher in his age category, multiple times, at the annual Mumbai Marathon and other major events, stays in Dabhiya, in the Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh. Amid his attention currently focused on getting ready to harvest the wheat crop, he has been carrying out some light training.

Someone who participates in races to augment his regular income with prize money, he is worried about the absence of races for the few months ahead. In the wake of COVID-19, many races on the domestic circuit were cancelled or postponed. But it is due to a medical emergency capable of affecting all; so one has to accept it. In January, Sabhajeet had secured an age category podium at the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon.

His son Rohit Yadav, a promising national level athlete competing in the javelin throw, is currently in Patiala. Rohit and Neeraj Chopra, national record holder in javelin throw, were in Turkey for training. “ They returned a day before lockdown and are now at the sports facility in Patiala,” Sabhajeet said.

Rohan More (Photo: courtesy Rohan)

It was roughly two years ago, in February 2018 that Pune-based Rohan Dattatrey More completed the Oceans Seven challenge in long distance swimming. Same year, he was inducted as Honouree Swimmer Class of 2018 by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. With Oceans Seven and another challenge called Triple Crown, in the bag, Rohan had shifted his attention to attempting qualification for the open water swimming competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He couldn’t meet the qualification time but at the national open water swimming competition held in Shimoga, Karnataka in February 2020, he placed second. Over the next one month, India steadily slipped into lockdown, an outcome of which was – all swimming pools shut. Unlike in some other countries where water quality is good and people easily take to rivers, lakes and seas; in India, the swimming pool is the hub of swimming. For committed athletes like Rohan, who love water as medium for exercise and mental peace, there was an element of readjustment to do. “ I do miss the pool. But there is no point complaining because it was shut for a valid reason. It is the same case elsewhere too. Not to mention – the current predicament isn’t just about athletes, it is about everybody’s health,’’ he said. Rohan has no exercise equipment at home. But the new work-from-home routine and the overall economic slowdown has left him with more time on his hands than before. So he works out twice every day; mostly free hand exercises to maintain fitness. Following the evening session, he also meditates briefly. On the bright side, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics has given him more time to try qualifying for the open water swimming competition at the Games. “ You have to stay positive,’’ he said.

Srinu Bugatha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Srinu Bugatha was winner among Indian elites at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon. At that time with most marathoners looking for opportunities to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics (as per earlier schedule before the event was postponed to 2021), Srinu had set his eyes on the 2020 Barcelona Marathon. As Spain got hammered by COVID-19, the Barcelona Marathon was among events postponed. In the weeks that followed, the disease spread in India as well causing the nation to resort to lockdown. An army runner usually training at the Army Sports Institute in Pune, when lock down set in Srinu returned to his hometown of Vizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh. According to Srinu, he has been continuing his training there as best as he can. He is doing his strength training albeit with no access to a gym as gyms are all shut. “ I do freehand exercises and core workouts,’’ Srinu said. Additionally, his mentor Vickrant Mahajan, said, the athlete is focusing on strengthening his mind and staying positive. You need those traits to do well in sports. The lockdown is good opportunity to take stock, reflect. On the bright side, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics has opened up more time to train and qualify. With many marathons worldwide shifted to fall 2020, Srinu will be looking at events therein to attempt afresh, qualifying for the Olympics. “ The Barcelona Marathon has been rescheduled to October. We must stay positive and hope for the best,’’ Srinu said optimistically.

Priyanka Bhatt (Photo: courtesy Priyanka)

Mumbai-based ultra-marathon runner Priyanka Bhatt is part of the team representing India at the upcoming IAU 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships at Bengaluru on July 18 and 19. Given the state of the world and major sports events cancelled or postponed, there is an element of uncertainty about the Bengaluru event as well. Priyanka was training despite that.

“ Obviously, you can’t burn as much calories in a home workout compared to a 40 or 50 km training run,’’ said Priyanka. She is using the current opportunity to build her strength. “ My workout is a mix of core, leg strengthening, HIIT, yoga and stretching,” she said. Strength, agility, functional training and flexibility often get neglected to some extent when the focus is on piling mileage for an ultra-marathon event, she said. Priyanka was part of the team that represented India at the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held at Albi, France. She had covered a distance of 192.845 km during the 24 hours, securing a personal best.

At the current juncture, her workout ranges from about 45 minutes to an hour with 15 minutes of warm-up and cool down. “ I curate my own workout. I do a combination of exercises depending on what I have done the previous day,” Priyanka said.

Amit Samarth (Photo: courtesy Amit)

Amit Samarth is among India’s best known ultracyclists, having completed both Race Across America (RAAM) and the Trans-Siberian Extreme. Locked down in the city at India’s geographical center, he begins his day at six in the morning with a live work out session on Facebook, in which trainees from his sports academy and several others, participate. “ The academy has about 250 trainees. But the morning session on Facebook is open to all. I have been getting feedback from people overseas too,’’ Amit said. The session lasts between an hour to hour and half. However the hero of these days under lockdown seems to be the purchase he made roughly six months ago.

“ I used to have busy days that began pretty early. After finishing my work, it was typically late evening or night when I got around to cycling. My family and friends disapproved of me being out on a cycle in darkness. That’s how I bought the trainer six months ago. I wasn’t a major user of the device. But looking back, that now seems a lucky purchase because a home trainer is utterly useful for cyclist restricted by lock down,’’ Amit said. He has been using the training software: Zwift, mainly for customized rides and not for competing online. He conceded that the home trainer cannot replace the experience of cycling outdoors. “ It can be monotonous but I have the mental strength to endure that,’’ he said. Further the device has a few plus points. It eliminates distractions and allows cyclist to focus completely on the cycling. “ I maintain good speed, keep high cadence, try hill sections; the trainer automatically adjusts the resistance. Through all this, you don’t have to worry about traffic or getting a puncture. The mind-muscle co-ordination actually improves,’’ he said. And it seemed to be working well for him. “ Last week I covered 540 kilometers on my trainer,’’ he said. On the Sunday preceding this conversation, he did 200 kilometers in six hours 31 minutes. “ I started that session in the evening. By evening, the summer temperature in Nagpur becomes more tolerable,’’ he said.

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal (Photo: courtesy Vijay)

At his house in Hyderabad, amateur runner Vijayaraghavan Venugopal’s quest is avoidance of boredom. There are strict restrictions in his locality. “ I have stopped running. Besides if you try doing it, I don’t think it will be a good example in these times,’’ Vijay said. His lifestyle is very different now. I try and do multiple things,’’ he said. According to him, he has devised a variety of exercises in small doses that can be done easily and many times through the day. The variety helps to keep it engaging. “ My daughter is more disciplined at keeping herself physically fit. So once every 2-3 days, I join her for a half hour of exercise. I also do stair workouts once a week,’’ he said. A keen cricketer in his college days, Vijay said he and his family have also been improvising indoor games, including cricket tweaked to the confines of their rooms. “ Basically anything to keep mind and body active,’’ he said.

CEO of a company in the sports nutrition space (Fast & Up), Vijay said that the lockdown period is challenging to any enterprise related to sports because the whole sector has come to a halt. He was hopeful that things should improve marginally going ahead. After all, difficult times notwithstanding, people have to be kept safe in isolation without significant damage to their jobs and the economy at large. At a company like Fast & Up, which straddles products catering to daily nutrition and those meant for more performance based-objectives; there has been some demand for the former courtesy people keeping their active lifestyle alive despite lock down. The priority therein would be to get underlying e-delivery systems functioning efficiently so that products reach customers at their houses. “ The next three months will be challenging for the space we work in. The idea will be to see how lean and efficient we can be in that while,’’ Vijay said.

However business aside, as regards any semblance of normalcy returning to running is concerned, he conceded six months may be a more realistic time frame. One reason for this was signals currently emanating from the domestic world of sports. There has been speculation of a whittled down Indian Premier League (annual cricket tournament) and very recently the annual TCS World 10K, which is treated by many runners as start of a new year of running, was assigned fresh dates in September. Given the spread of COVID-19, you will know the true state of affairs only when the next few months go by. “ It will be a very cautious, slow return to how things were. That is also how herd behavior unfolds – you wait to see a move, you wait to see if it is safe, you wait to see how those you know are responding, you test the waters and then, slowly the old movement restarts,’’ Vijay said.

Kieren D’Souza (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page)

As someone who travels abroad every year to participate in ultramarathons, Kieren D’Souza has runner-friends in Europe and the US. “ In the US, they are still able to get in a run. But in Chamonix and Italy, they are allowed to be out only to buy groceries. My situation is somewhere between these two extremes,’’ Kieren said. For some years now, he has been living in Manali, part of a group of people – around ten of them – living on rent on two floors of a building with three. There is a small patch of land nearby where Kieren cultivates potato, herbs and kidney beans. Amid lockdown, he gets to step out there. “ Running pretty much stopped from a few days before lock down. I continue to do my work outs indoors,’’ he said. His day starts at around 7.30 AM, once the early morning chill of the Himalayan foothills has petered off. By 11 AM, he is on his trainer, a very basic one he acquired four years ago. For the next 2-3 hours he pedals. Post lunch, around 5 PM, he does strength training that addresses his legs, core and upper body. “ I have a bunch of basic equipment – some weights, pull up bar,’’ he said. Unlike many other ultrarunners in India, Kieren is unique in that he is a young person who set out to make a living from the sport. All his races till August have been cancelled by the respective race organizers and there is lack of clarity on when and how momentum in sports may revive. What COVID-19 and the lockdown may mean to sports and the travel industry is something that bothers him. Like other young people, he thinks about the economic situation forecast for the months ahead. “ Once the lockdown eases, I plan to tackle some pending projects,’’ he said. Meanwhile, he has learnt to bake. “ I make my own bread now,’’ he said.

A.B.Belliappa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In January 2020, A. B. Belliappa had finished third in the half marathon at the year’s Tata Mumbai Marathon. As lockdown set in, the army runner hailing from Coorg in Karnataka took himself to a village in the state’s Hassan district, where he has been training to ensure his fitness levels don’t drop. Hassan has an average elevation of 3220 feet. “ I have been focusing on strength training and core workouts. The gyms are shut. So I train by myself,’’ Belliappa said when contacted. The logic he was following was simple. Since running is impossible now, he does his strengthening exercises in longer, stiffer doses. What supports this approach is that in the present circumstances, there is also more time available for rest and recovery. “ Although we are away, we can speak to our coaches when required,’’ he said.

Lt Col Bharat Pannu (Photo: courtesy Bharat)

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, Lt Col Bharat Pannu had a general sense of what to expect. The email of April 3, 2020 informing that the year’s RAAM had been cancelled wasn’t therefore completely surprising. Competitive athletes like a goal and RAAM had been Bharat’s for the last two years; his 2019 attempt had to be given up owing to injury. Ahead of the April mail from race organizers, he had kept alternatives in mind. He would aspire to do well in domestic bicycle races. But the lockdown in India added a new dimension – everyone, cyclists included, would have to be indoors. Committed cyclists like Bharat have trainers – devices that help convert a road bike into an indoor trainer – at home. With RAAM out of the picture, his training volume could be restored to normal levels. But the interesting thing was, as you talked to the army officer, you realized that his regular schedule was by no yardstick upset or compromised because he was limited to being indoors in Bengaluru. The training for cycling was going on as per plan. Every day (there is a day of rest too) he has a strength training session at home from 6AM to 8AM. The main difference was that the sessions were accompanied by a video conference call (on his phone) that allowed him and his friends to enjoy each other’s company as they worked out. “ We are a small group. Each day, one of us takes the lead in overseeing the session. We stay connected for the whole duration. In fact, we now feel we may not rejoin gyms after the lock down. This is working out pretty well, ’’ Bharat said, adding, “ sticking to your goals is important. Being flexible is even more important.”

Vikramgad’s runners. Dnyaneshwar is in the back row, second from left. This photo was taken in 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dnyaneshwar Morgha is well-known when it comes to podium finishes in the open category at races in Mumbai. He typically participates in distances of half marathon and less. He lives in Vikramgad, a little over 100 kilometers away from Mumbai. It is mildly undulating terrain. From a sufficiently high point, you can see the hills of Jawahar in the distance. Dnyaneshwar’s main source of livelihood is farming. A very good runner, he participates in races for the prize money, which helps bridge deficit in agricultural earnings. Locked down at his village in Vikramgad, his training is currently restricted to what he can manage indoors. “ I do strength training and stretching for about half an hour, every morning,’’ he said. Thanks to agriculture, the family has food to sustain them. But the earlier income that used to come from selling agricultural produce in the market – that has been impacted by lock down. “ We manage,’’ he said, adding, “ the summer period is usually a lean season for races and the lockdown is happening in summer. I wonder how the rest of the year will be.’’

Franco Linhares (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Franco Linhares enjoys a special place in Mumbai rock climbing circles. At 69, he is one of the oldest, most consistently active rock climbers in the city. Not just that, regular climbing kept his grades in the sport quite decent making him an inspiration for youngsters. Weekends found him at the crags of Belapur in Navi Mumbai; during the week he visited any of the artificial climbing walls that have come up in Mumbai. Committed to the sport, he is among the early ones who opted for voluntary retirement from work and set out to pursue their passion. Now locked down at his home, Franco has been working out twice a day; 40-45 minutes in the morning, same quantum of time to sweat in the evening. One reason he has been regular at his workouts is that it helps him keep his climbing muscles active. “ If I don’t do my exercises, I risk surgery at some injured spots,’’ Franco said. Additionally he has a finger board – a board with features built into it that climbers love to do pull ups on or hang from – at home to stay engaged. This year he had been paying special attention to strengthening his knees with a view to resume running. “ My goal was to start running by May 1. Given the present state of affairs, I doubt if that will happen,’’ Franco said. The knee exercises however continue.

Girish Bindra (Photo: courtesy Girish)

Locked down in Mumbai, Girish Bindra devises his own workouts covering various aspects of fitness – core strength, functional training, HIIT. He often ends his workout with a barefoot walk or run inside his house. He does heavy workout that includes HIIT two or three times a week and also takes a day off once a week.

“ It is very important to focus on food intake, hydration and rest,” Girish said. A coach for Asics, Girish said practitioners of home workout should be conscious when to stop. “ Each person has a different capacity,” he said adding that the period of being home bound should be used to assess one’s workout capability. “ Being home bound, my sleep has improved as I am not required to wake up early to head out for a run,” Girish said.

Kabir Rachure (Photo: courtesy Sapana Rachure)

Navi Mumbai-based Kabir Rachure had successfully completed RAAM in 2019. He was planning another attempt in 2020. Then two things happened. India went into lock down; in far off USA, 2020 RAAM was cancelled. With the event he was focusing on taken off the racing calendar, Kabir reduced his training load. Meanwhile lockdown meant no cycling outside and resorting to trusted trainer indoors. His day under lock down starts late. He sleeps late, gets up late and by evening treats himself to an indoor cycling session of an hour or two on the trainer. “ If it is an hour, then I do high intensity training; if it is two hours, then I do low intensity,’’ Kabir said. He has been using Zwift for the past two years. However he does not indulge in any interactive online racing with others. Instead, he trains alone with rides customized to his needs. “ A few days ago, we did have an online group ride involving a few of us. That was done via video conferencing. Chaitanya Valhal took the initiative to organize it. It was interesting,’’ Kabir said. Someone who has been into physical fitness and gym visits for long Kabir’s strength training was now composed of free hand exercises done at home. With lockdown, gyms have shut.

Shubham Vanmali (Photo: courtesy Shubham)

Shubham Vanmali is a young long distance swimmer with channel crossings and swims across straits to his credit, including pursuit of Oceans Seven. He conceded that swimming pools shutting down with resultant loss of access to water, impacted dedicated swimmers greatly. Water has a therapeutic effect. “ When pools shut, it wasn’t just the loss of physical activity. It affected you psychologically too. But then I cannot complain because at the moment there are people all over the world, who are affected so. It is something we have to cope with,’’ he said. When the lockdown started, the initial days were a struggle for him. His daily schedule went for a toss; he became a night owl sleeping at 6 AM and waking up at 5 PM. Then he realized he had to set things right. “ I got back on track. Now I sleep by 10 PM and get up at 5 AM. Managing my sleep schedule has emerged the most important thing for me,’’ Shubham, who lives in Navi Mumbai, said. By 6 AM, he commences a training routine. He does not have any exercise equipment at home. “ All I have are resistance bands, a stick and a skipping rope,’’ he said. But with some amount of creativity they suffice to train muscle groups critical for swimming. Sometimes the creativity goes beyond these three items. For instance, a laptop bag filled with stuff to be tad heavy doubles up as a kettle bell. A typical training session involves warm up, exercises and stretching. He does cardio workouts in the morning; strengthening exercises in the evening. After every three days of training, he takes a day off. A youngster aspiring for a career around his interest in sports, Shubham also devotes time to think about how best to prepare for the economically challenging times that lay ahead, past lock down.

Ashwini G (Photo: courtesy Ashwini)

In February 2020, Ashwini G had secured a national best for women in the 12-hour run at the Tuffman Chandigarh Stadium Run. The Bengaluru-based runner covered a distance of 111.78 km. She had enrolled for the 100 km distance at Greater Noida Running Festival, which was to be held on March 14, 2020, and Ooty Ultra, slated for April 5. Both these events were cancelled.

“ I have no event on the cards. I should now focus on strength. Running is easier to do. Strength training requires a lot of discipline and dedication,” she said. Within strength training, her focus is on building endurance as she is largely into ultra-distance running. “ I do two sessions daily and these are complementary workouts,” she said adding that her home fitness regimen includes resistance band workout, jogs, walks, working out with dumbbells, agility training and core workout apart from yoga and foam rolling.

Dr Mahendra Mahajan (Photo: courtesy Mahendra)

For India, it was the Nashik based Mahajan brothers – both of them doctors – who opened the account at RAAM. In 2015, they had finished first among men under 50 in the two-person team category at RAAM. The brothers’ interests span cycling, hiking, mountaineering and running. When reached an evening early April, Dr Mahendra Mahajan was less than an hour from starting his daily workouts. “ We stay in a bungalow and are fortunate to have a gym on the terrace. We do our work outs together as a family,’’ he said. The sessions last between one to one and a half hours. “ The focus is mostly on strength training and exercises for the core,’’ he said. Sometimes, depending on his mood, the doctor works out twice a day. If that’s the case, then he tries to add variety and keep the sessions distinct. Two to three times a week, he cycles on the home trainer. He is an old hand at the trainer, having commenced using it in 2014. However, it’s a basic trainer and he is not on Zwift. “ With a basic trainer, it can sometimes be boring. But I manage with music or TV for company, to keep me going,’’ he said. He has also been using the time made available by lockdown to catch up on his reading – books on Everest feature on the list.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more articles on the runners, cyclists, swimmers and climbers featured in this article, please type their name into the box assigned for search on the blog.)

“ IT IS A FINE LINE THAT SEPARATES LONELINESS FROM SOLITUDE’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Two Indians, who spent months at sea, share their insight on managing isolation. Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) recalled vignettes from his 2009-2010 voyage, circumnavigating the planet in a sailboat, solo and unassisted. Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi spoke of how she and her crew tackled isolation during their 2017-2018 circumnavigation. Both voyages were part of the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project.

From midnight March 24, 2020, India was placed in a 21 day-lockdown to check the transmission of COVID-19, the disease that first surfaced in China in late 2019 and within a few months graduated to be a global pandemic.

The lockdown meant families, couples and those living alone confined to their houses. Isolation can be a strange experience. Our houses are homes because that is where we return to for secure rest and belonging after being out on work. It is a different sensation when that blend of in and out is replaced by a state of being in – housebound – permanently. Variety, often described as the spice of life, disappears in its familiar form and begs reinterpretation. The hours are felt as minutes and seconds; they sit heavy on your shoulders. Confined to limited space, your dwelling rises to meet you in myriad small details, all previously ignored because you weren’t there for long, like now. If you are staying alone, the solitary existence may corrode to loneliness. How do you cope with this?

Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) was quick to respond to the subject. “ It isn’t much different on a boat,’’ he said. In 2010, he had become the first Indian to complete a solo unassisted circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat, the INSV Mhadei. Seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans and seas. It is a vast blue, big enough to isolate boats even when they are sailing under no strictures like completing a solo, unassisted circumnavigation in accordance with the rule books of the sport. Dilip who was serving in the Indian Navy then, didn’t have any prior expertise in meditation. Nor did he court such techniques on the boat to keep his act together.

What kept him engaged was the simple fact that when you are solo sailor afloat in a vessel at sea, ensuring that the vessel is in good condition and you are in good shape is pivotal to keeping the voyage alive. The sea is a dynamic, unforgiving medium, its dynamism ranging from its moods to its long term impact on the vessel you are in. You take care of the boat. The boat takes care of you. Such connection with the vessel in which you are afloat is viscerally felt at sea, even as the parameters of solo unassisted sailing allow you no human alongside for company.

“ There are plenty of things to do on a boat. There are repairs, maintenance work – they keep you fairly busy. You also need to rest adequately,’’ Dilip said. It is an observation many of us who have embraced routines under lockdown – like cleaning the vessel we live in; our house – would easily identify with. Once the boat related-tasks were taken care of, Dilip read a book, watched a movie or cooked himself a nice meal. “ Basically, you slow down your life, slow down the pace of everything you do,’’ he said.

Contacted in early April, Dilip was home in Goa, locked down like the rest of India. He felt that there was similarity between the lockdown experience ashore and what he had experienced at sea on his long voyages. Admittedly, there is one major difference. During a solo voyage on the vast blue, even if sailor is alone on his boat, the boat is moving. Your house on the other hand, is a very rooted entity that stays still in one place. You see the same views. That isn’t the case at sea, which is a convergent ambience of many natural elements in their free form. “ Every sunrise and sunset is different. Every day is different,’’ Dilip said. Still the fact remains that a voyage is a mix of diverse experiences and on those days of nothing but wide blue featureless sea, it is how you approach the stillness that matters.

Being alone on a boat does not have to automatically mean loneliness. “ It is a fine line that separates loneliness from solitude,’’ Dilip said. Loneliness comes with a sense of being mentally dragged down. Solitude on the other hand is different; it has the ring of something positive, something that you can work with. The key to coping with isolation, Dilip said, is changing that potential loneliness to solitude. Care for boat and care for self eventually become meaningful acts in solitude. At his home in Goa, Dilip has his mother for company during the lock down. “ On the boat, I was alone. I used to talk to the boat,’’ he said, adding, “ it is all in you.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Dilip’s voyage was part of the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project. It was conceived by the late Vice Admiral Manohar Awati, an inspiring naval officer who retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command. The solo unassisted circumnavigation, which was Sagar Parikrama’s first major achievement, was followed by a solo unassisted non-stop circumnavigation by Commander Abhilash Tomy; that voyage spanned November 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013. In February 2017, the INSV Mhadei was joined by a sister vessel, INSV Tarini. Over September 10, 2017 to May 21, 2018, an all-woman crew from the Indian Navy successfully completed a circumnavigation on the Tarini. The crew was led by Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi. In terms of predicament, there is much that is similar between a crew out on circumnavigation and a family enduring isolation. Unlike journeying solo, one of the challenges here is handling multiple human beings in the confines of limited space. Since people react differently, it was very important for the crew to know each other, something their months of preparation and time spent working together on training voyages, gradually instilled.

“ Over time, we transformed to being more receptive of each other. Instead of talking more, you began to listen more. Eventually, we didn’t have to speak much to be understood,’’ Vartika said. According to her, an important aspect in such situation of crew aboard sailboat on voyage of several months, is remembering to honor each other’s need for personal space. It checks the ambiance from becoming too overbearing on self. As with solo sailing, routines addressing the boat’s need for repair and maintenance, count here too. That is unavoidable on a boat. “ It is extremely important to set a routine. If it isn’t there, you lose your sense of time. On a boat there are plenty of tasks and standard drills to do,’’ she said. At any given point in time, there has to be somebody keeping an eye on the boat and its surroundings. The crew takes turns to be on watch. Those not on watch, enjoy personal time. “ With crew around, the situation is different from solo endeavors in that we have to see each other for long and we have nowhere else to go. But remember – they are also the persons who will come to your assistance when you are in need of help,’’ Vartika said. She and her crew picked up the required skills during their training, which exposed them to potential situations and taught them suitable solutions. “ Any meditation and such – that was personal. Besides, what could be a better medium to meditate in than living amidst and listening to the ever changing sounds of the sea to soothe us mentally and emotionally,’’ she said.

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