Bharat Pannu (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan is first to the finish line

Indian cyclist Lt Col Bharat Pannu was placed third on the leaderboard at the close of the Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM), at 11PM Sydney Eastern Standard Time, June 28. He logged 4086.28 kilometers.

“ After 12 days of hard work, day in and day out, WE DID IT. Successfully finished vRAAM with a total mileage of 4086km! According to the provisional leaderboard – WE MADE IT TO THE PODIUM! Kudos to all the other riders and crew. vRAAM is a race to remember,” an update on Bharat’s Facebook page said. It is understood that official confirmation of race result is awaited.

The event’s Facebook page announced Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan as provisional winner. “ The overall provisional winner who completed the full 4542km course is Hirokazu Suzuki,” the page said. Suzuki cycled 4539.80km in 11 days, 23 hours and two minutes, the leaderboard showed. His time of finishing was given as 17:33 hours, June 28. In second place on the leaderboard was putters29 from the UK. He had covered 4148.40km by race’s close.

At the time of writing, the VRAAM leaderboard was yet to formally specify the time taken to cover whatever distance they did, for riders other than Suzuki. “ All results will be provisional until verified by FulGaz and VRAAM,” the race organizers had said on June 25, while disclosing revised race rules that set the distance for being a finisher at 3248km. Cyclists have attributed the revision of race rules to the event being tougher than expected thanks to increases effected in cumulative elevation gain, probably to compensate for the otherwise contained nature of cycling on a home trainer with required support at hand. According to the revised rules, the winner is “ the competitor who has ridden the farthest distance by the end of the race.’’

Hirokazu Suzuki has participated in RAW and RAAM before (RAW – Race Across the West – is a race over a shorter distance built into RAAM). In an interview with Suzuki during his VRAAM attempt, available on the YouTube channel of ohioraamshow.com, the Japanese cyclist said that riding a trainer for this many days is harder than riding outside. Asked whether he planned to participate in the next edition of RAAM, Suzuki said it would depend on his ability to put together the required budget. The record for the fastest time to finish in the physical format of RAAM is held by Austrian ultra-cyclist Christoph Strasser. In 2014 he covered the race’s 4860km-route in seven days, 15 hours, 56 minutes. Strasser has won RAAM six times.

Hirokazu Suzuki (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of RAAM and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

A post about Suzuki available on the Facebook page of RAAM said: “ He’s done the Race Across the West twice (DNF in 2015, finished in 6th 2016), he was in the 2017 24-Hour Worlds where he finished 9th in the 40-49 group with 392 miles, and the following year he gave it his all in RAAM as only the second from his nation to attempt solo RAAM — the first was Kaname Sakurai who raced four years consecutively in the late 1990s.” It further added, “ As with many of us, Suzuki’s saddle time in recent months has been indoors, “I rode a bicycle 7365 km (4576 miles) by May—all on the indoor trainer (Zwift and Fulgaz). I was thinking of giving up riding a bicycle, but when I heard about the VRAAM, I suddenly decided to resume training.” The disappointment of his RAAM DNF has evidently weighed heavy on Suzuki, “I thought my challenge was over, and I never thought I’d have a chance to get revenge like this. The preparation time is short, but I will do my best. I want to continue cycling.”

The virtual version of RAAM followed the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the real race, announced on April 3. The subsequent virtual race was hosted on FulGaz, an Australian cycling app. Participants pedaled on a home trainer at location of their choice, the distance they logged appearing on screen as movement across the US. RAAM – its route runs from the US west coast to the east – is one of cycling’s toughest endurance races. Bharat, who is a familiar face in ultracycling in India, had been training for RAAM for the past couple of years. His 2019 attempt was prematurely terminated following an injury he sustained while training in the US. The subsequent 2020 attempt appeared lost due to pandemic till it found an extra lease of life in VRAAM. The virtual race – like the real one – had a cut-off of 12 days. The total distance to cover in the real race is approximately 4800km. Bharat did VRAAM in Pune. He had a crew to support him; two of them – Major Sandeep Kumar and Arham Shaikh – took the opportunity to complete VRAW (the virtual version of RAW).

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


From the 2019 100k IAU Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan. The Indian women’s team had placed second (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

This is an article by invitation. Sunil Chainani, marathon runner closely associated with Indian ultra-running teams, writes about the advances Indian women have made in the sport.  

  • At the 2019 100 kilometer IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning) Asia & Oceania Championships, held at Aqaba, Jordan, Anjali Saraogi set a new national best for the distance. She completed the run in nine hours, 22 minutes, breaking her previous record of 9:40:35. At the same course, debutant Nupur Singh ran the 100k in 9:36:15.
  • At the 2019 24-hour World Championships, at Albi, France, Apoorva Chaudhary notched up a distance of 202.211 km, a national best for women in this category of ultra-running event.
  • At the same 24-hour World Championships, Priyanka Bhatt covered a distance of 192.845 km.

In April 2020, RunRepeat.com published a study on trends in ultra-running. The study, done jointly by RunRepeat.com and IAU, analysed over five million results from more than 15,000 ultra-running events spread over the past 23 years.

Among the key findings was an interesting point – women runners were found to be faster than male runners in distances exceeding 195 miles (313.82km). “ The longer the distance the shorter the gender pace gap. In 5Ks men run 17.9% faster than women, at marathon distance the difference is just 11.1%, 100-mile races see the difference shrink to just .25%, and above 195 miles, women are actually 0.6% faster than men,’’ the study said.

Nupur Singh (Photo: courtesy Nupur)

The number of women participating in ultra-running events worldwide had also increased. Overall participation of runners grew steeply, showing a 345 percent increase in the last 10 years. According to the study, currently in ultra-running events, women runners account for 23 percent participation, up from 14 percent, 23 years ago.

Although running as a sport has been around for long, the modern running movement started taking roots in India only by the twenty first century. First off the mark was the craze for the marathon. Till around 2007, ultra-running was a little known sport in India. Participation in greater numbers in this endurance sport has been fairly recent, coinciding with the country’s growing passion for running the marathon. As distance running took off in big cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, the stream of those attempting distances beyond the marathon started to rise, slowly but steadily. From only a handful of ultra-running events a decade ago, the Indian count of events in the space, have grown and we have almost 50 ultra events in the calendar now.

The number of women participating in ultra-running events has risen but continues to be low compared to global levels. Alongside, the standard of performance has improved rapidly, especially that of women. While an increasing number of women were running ultra-running events in India and participating in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the biggest ultramarathon in the world, very few were competing in international events till 2016. Unlike in other athletic events, there was no formal Indian participation at regional and world championships.

Priyanka Bhatt (Photo: courtesy Priyanka)

In 2017 India became a member of the IAU; the sport also came under the umbrella of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the apex body for athletics in the country. In the same year, Indian teams participated in the World Trail and 24-hour Championships.

Till early 2018, even with lower cut-off standards compared to today, India found it tough to get more than one or two women to qualify for the national team. In the last two years things have changed and now we have women competing for places on the team.

Anjali Saraogi’s performance has been remarkable in the arena of ultra-running. She fought illness and injury to keep raising the bar and stay ahead of others several years junior to her. Anjali has repeatedly proved that ‘mind over matter’ is important in ultras. She has scaled great heights in the sport despite being based in Kolkata, a city which has much less of a running culture compared to Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Anjali was the star of the Indian team that bagged the silver medal at the Asia & Oceania 100 k championships in Jordan in 2019 – the team came really close to getting gold as we finished in 30:40:33, just 19 minutes behind a strong Australian team. She set a National best of 9:22 at this championship, shaving 18 minutes of her own best time on a tough course where world class athletes were 45-60 minutes slower than their normal times. For Anjali, running is a passion. She believes that destination is but a natural outcome of being focused on the process and journey and her willingness to brave adversities have helped her immensely.

According to her, improvements in her running have always been a part of “following my heart.” Her advice to aspiring women runners is: you will face many challenges but every low is followed by a high. Sometimes, all that we need is patience, self-belief and honesty towards self. The result will be beautiful.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Stadium ultras have gained substantial momentum over the past few years and within that the 24-hour stadium runs have witnessed a surge in the participation of women. Initially, our runners were more focussed on surviving the 24 hours with not much focus on timing. But this changed from 2017 when India sent out its first team for the IAU 24-hour World Championships in Belfast.

At the Belfast event, we had the first two Indian women cross the 160 km mark – Meenal Kotak with 160.328 km and Aparna Chaudhary with 169.245 km, which was a national best for 24-hour runs at that time. Aparna’s record lasted barely one year. Meenal broke it with her run of 175.48 km in Bengaluru in August 2018. This was then bettered by Gurgaon-based Apoorva Chaudhary, who ran 176.8 km in December 2018.

Apoorva’s improvement has been truly impressive – she bettered her own mark by an astonishing 15 percent at the IAU 24-hour World Championships, held at Albi, France, in October 2019 and became the first Indian woman to cross the 200 km mark. Equally inspiring was the performance of Priyanka Bhatt, who improved her July 2019 performance of 170 km by almost 23 km at the World Championships. Nine of the top ten 24-hour performances have been achieved between 2018 and now, and we can expect our women to keep raising the bar.

Apoorva attributes her improvement to increased mileage, better nutrition, adequate rest and increased focus on flexibility and strength training. “ I changed mentally by starting to visualize my performance on race day – replacing negative words with positive words. I set challenging goals and focused on achieving them,” she said.

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

Ultra running requires long hours of training. Given the traffic and weather conditions in our cities, such training is usually possible only early in the morning. Our women athletes face several challenges including work and family pressures, safety while running, lack of training partners and limited access to coaches, sports physiotherapists and nutritionists.

It is extremely heartening to see the emergence of new runners from across the country; competition for places in the Indian teams is getting tougher. Athletes are now training much more scientifically with additional focus on strength training and nutrition.

The performance of these amazing women has led to many more women believing in their abilities and we should hopefully see continued improvement in our standards in the coming years. Provided positive conditions, it is likely that in the next 1-2 years we could see the following marks being achieved by our women ultra-runners:

  • 100 K – 8:30-8:45
  • 24 H – 220-230 km

Listed below are the best performances achieved by our women in different category of races. Almost all the records have been set in the past 12 months and some of the runners from the 2017 and 2018 teams are now finding it tough to qualify.


  1. Anjali Saraogi (2017) – 8:38:23
  2. Gunjan Khurana (2019) – 9:47:42

100 K

  1. Anjali Saraogi (2019) – 9:22:00
  2. Nupur Singh (2019) – 9:36:15
  3. Anjali Saraogi (2018) – 9:40:35
  4. Gunjan Khurana (2019) – 9:57:33
  5. Darishisha Iangdoh (2019) – 10:19:28

(Note – the performance of Anjali, Nupur and Gunjan in 2019 was on a tough course in Jordan where world class athletes from Japan were 45-60 minutes slower than their personal best timings)

24 Hours

  1. Apoorva Chaudhary (2019) – 202.211 km
  2. Priyanka Bhatt (2019) – 192.845 km
  3. Apoorva Chaudhary (2018) – 176.8 km
  4. Bindu Juneja (2020) – 176.67 km
  5. Meenal Kotak (2018) – 175.48 km
  6. Hemlata Saini (2019) – 173.177 km
  7. Deepti Chaudhary (2020) – 171.23 km

(The author, Sunil Chainani, is a Bengaluru-based management consultant and runner. He is a member of the committee appointed by AFI that oversees the selection of Indian ultra teams and has been a support member of Indian teams that participated in recent international events. This article was edited by Latha Venkatraman. The findings of the RunRepeat.com-IAU study may be accessed on this link: https://runrepeat.com/state-of-ultra-running)


This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

For some of us, lockdown has meant back to basics; courting the life simplified.

To put it in terms of cinema, I found myself avoiding many of the special effects laden, gizmo-totting stuff of recent years lauded for the billions they minted at the box office. Suddenly it felt too much for my ageing processor. Probably because there was anyway COVID-19 around to depress me, I also avoided dystopian themes – be it dystopia by futuristic technology and fascism, or dystopia by stories of annihilation and extinction, some of which incidentally showcase virus attacks. No thank you – one virus is enough. Instead, clean, uncluttered frames of nature and human stories began to appeal. Plus, I found myself happily watching films meant for children; they seemed unabashedly original.

When I read the synopsis of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made on Disney-Hotstar, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into although I sensed the main protagonist with polar bear-partner had an inviting Calvin and Hobbes ring to it. I stared at the still photograph announcing the film for a while and then said, “ affirmative.’’ In I went into the world of Timmy Failure, a boy on the edge of entering middle school, living and breathing the life of a detective. He is very serious about the detective agency he runs from home in partnership with his polar bear-partner, Total; their agency is aptly called Total-Failure Inc. Timmy lives with his mother, who he is close to. Constantly seeing himself as professional detective running a sleuthing agency, he speaks the jargon, dreams of shifting into a bigger office and tells his mother who has a low paying job that his agency will hire her for ten times the salary. That is the Failure ecosystem and the incidents that unravel, form the film’s story. The film is based on Stephen Pastis’s book by the same name; Pastis has authored seven books in the Timmy Failure series.

I loved the movie for its wonderful mix of life and fantasy and its unapologetic portrayal of the same. That word – unapologetic – it is important because when you become middle aged like me and slowly shed the weapons and armour you accrued for living the adult life with its many exigencies (making sense being one), you fully appreciate the value of childhood. That was one phase when you could be yourself and not give a damn, which is the tussle dawning in Timmy’s life – he is on the verge of going to middle school and it could require sacrificing his detective business for the compulsions of normal life. Winslow Fegley plays the title role of Timmy and Ophelia Lovibond appears as his mother Patty (if you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you will remember her as Kitty Winter from Elementary). Wallace Michael Shawn brings Timmy’s teacher, Frederick Crocus to life while Craig Robinson dons the role of his school counselor Mr Jenkins. The casting is perfect right down to Kei as Charles “ Rollo” Tookus, Timmy’s best friend. This 2020 film is directed by Tom McCarthy (he is a director, screenwriter and actor) whose previous work includes well known films like Up and Spotlight.

Let me restrict myself to saying just this much and suggest instead: watch the movie.

Try it.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Please see the updates at the end of this article. Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan concludes his ride on June 28 evening with 4539.80km logged; VRAAM’s Facebook page mentions him as provisional winner.

Indian cyclist Lt Col Bharat Pannu has been maintaining his position in the top quartet of the ongoing Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM).

As of 12.30PM, June 27, he was placed third with 3526.01 kilometers covered. Except for Japan’s Hirokazu Suzuki who has stayed secure at the very front – at the time of writing he was at 4024.07km – positions have been switching back and forth in the tightly packed places from second to fourth. In second position, just ahead of Bharat was Putters29 (UK) at 3576.97km while in fourth, was Mixirica (Brazil) at 3477.15km.

In fifth place was Filipe Matos of Portugal with 3264.53km pedaled. From fifth to eighth place (3228.89km) as well, the riders were separated by narrow margin. As per revised race rules, the distance for being a finisher at VRAAM has been set at 3248km, reached latest by 11PM (Sydney Eastern Standard Time), June 28. Those aspiring for podium finish would continue riding. “ The winner will be the competitor who has ridden the farthest distance by the end of the race,’’ organizers had informed on June 25.

VRAAM has the same overall cut-off as RAAM – 12 days. Participating cyclists have said that tweaks to cumulative elevation gain – done reportedly to compensate for the otherwise comfortable setting of being at home and cycling on a home trainer – have made the race (and the shorter VRAW built into it) tougher than anticipated.

Meanwhile, from Indian cyclists attempting VRAW, Anand Verma was seen to have completed in 10 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes. Earlier, Vivek Shah had been the first Indian cyclist to complete VRAW; he placed eleventh overall. Following him were Jitendra, Major Sandeep Kumar (sandeeptrooper), Sachin Shirbhavikar and Praveen Sapkal; the latest being Anand Verma who placed 52nd overall. Arham Shaikh was at 1352.66km (as of 12.30PM, June 27). To finish VRAW, cyclist has to totally pedal 1528.20km in 12 days. Arham, who is part of Bharat’s support crew, started his attempt of VRAW much after the others had commenced.

Update 1: As at 10:07AM, June 28, Bharat had covered 3915.57km; he was continuing in third place. Potters29 (UK) was placed second at 4025.15km and Mixirica (Brazil) was fourth with 3878.29km under his belt. Hirokazu Suzuki with 4392.67km pedaled, was leading the field. In VRAW, Arham Shaikh completed the 1528.20km distance in seven days, 13 hours and 50 minutes to place 36th overall. Given the leaderboard is dynamic, the overall position of Indian finishers in VRAW at said hour was as follows: Vivek Shah (11), Jitendra (19), Sandeep Kumar (22), Sachin Shirbavikar (34), Arham (36), Praveen Sapkal (42) and Anand Verma (51).

Update 2: Checked at 7.50PM (IST), June 28, the VRAAM leaderboard showed that Japan’s Hirokazu Suzuki had concluded his ride at 4539.80 kilometers logged. He covered the distance in 11 days, 23 hours and two minutes. His time of finishing was given as 17:33 hours, June 28. Putters29 (UK) was in second position at 4148.40km while Bharat was third at 4086.28km. Mixirica (Brazil) was placed fourth with 4066.91km. At the time of writing, Suzuki was the only rider yet with a formal finish time. While as per revised race rules announced on June 25, anyone covering 3248km by 11PM Sydney Easter Standard Time on June 28 is deemed a VRAAM finisher “ the winner will be the competitor who has ridden the farthest distance by the end of the race.” The Facebook page of VRAAM said, “ the overall provisional winner who completed the full 4542km course is Hirokazu Suzuki.”

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

It is a good move but keeping a few concerns in mind wouldn’t hurt

If you take the typical Indian school and college education, there won’t be a day that passes by without emphasis on academics. In the glaring divide between curricular and extra-curricular activities, the latter – even if it contributes more to shaping an individual – is distant second. You may excel at arts and sports but it counts for little, except a sprinkling of grace marks. There is also this angle of how close to academics and bolstering its luster, your chosen interest is. Things literary agree with the Indian mind. As do music and dance, if they happen to be the classical sort. Cultural tastes that are more freewheeling or innovative, and sports – they don’t count as much.

Indeed the best way to sell sports in India is to highlight how the active life helps overall, including in studies. Needless to say, back in my school and college days, someone good at sports typically meant either an average student or a straggler in academics bailed out by grace marks. It was rare to find a combination of academic excellence and excellence at sports. For a long time, we justified the academics heavy approach on the grounds of India being a third world country where career took precedence. Now however, the continued justification reeks of conservative mindset.

Liberation from this academics-centric approach has been the dream of many Indian students. Even present day parents should agree because the number of middle aged adults and senior citizens who can convincingly say that they discovered what they are and got around to doing what they like to do, are few. Maybe none of us will ever really know that. But it remains one of life’s great quests and if great quests and questions are what education is all about, then, teaching you to discover yourself and become what you think you can be (or what all you can be), should be the purpose of going to school and college. Sport is an important tool in this journey. It tells you much about what you are the first time you rendezvous with it; it goes on to tell you what you are capable of as you train and improve. By what yardstick can you say this isn’t education? Media reports of June 11, 2020 quoted the Union Minister for Sports, Kiren Rijiju, saying that sports is set to become part of educational curriculum. It was encouraging news. The details of government policy in this regard, are still not known. But viewed as promised move, it hints of benefits.

Besides introducing young people to sports and putting sports on a more even platform with academics, it should provide job opportunities and job security to those specialized in physical education and coaching. Amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, Kolkata-based newspaper, The Telegraph, had carried an insightful article on the plight of those teaching non-core subjects at school, sports being one. When things shrink to essential (as in lockdown), like a drowning man reaching for a log, the Indian imagination of education instantly grabs academics to stay afloat. The rest become dispensable. If sport is part of curriculum, such injustice to the ` dispensable’ may become rare. Given the benefits of the government move can be imagined, let me focus on a couple of concerns. After all, good policy reserves vision to address concerns as well.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For most people Brie Larson is the actor who played Captain Marvel on screen. In 2017, she directed a film called ` Unicorn Store.’ Three years later, it was among films I watched during the COVID-19 lockdown. What made me click on the film when it showed up on Netflix was the presence of Joan Cusack in the cast. She is a wonderful actor. As it turned out, I found nothing remarkable about the movie. But towards the final quarter, there was a stunning piece of dialogue from Cusack’s character, addressed to her daughter played by Larson; it went: the most grown up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about. I will remember Larson’s directorial debut for that single sentence, which encapsulates an approach that is the abject opposite of what the Indian education system drills into you. Here it is all about success and winning; to the extent, very few venture into unfamiliar territory including what they actually care about. Perpetuated across the years and imposed on large populations, this authors a mental trap. It skews the imagination towards certain priorities as though nothing else matters. This tenor is present in the Indian interpretation of sport too. I never forget what I once saw at the swimming pool of a housing society. A child, who was clearly hydrophobic, being shamed in front of others by his coach as the parents watched approvingly.

In India, the drive is to excel; not become comfortable with what you are doing as prerequisite to decide in due course, how you would like to navigate further.  A good example is the popular positioning of the Olympic Games as elite aspiration in sport. That is premature strategy when exploration of sport hasn’t happened yet at the required breadth and depth in India, a country of 1.3 billion people. It is the potential panacea for this predicament, which we see in the government move to make sport part of educational curriculum as well as the realistic assessment that the 2028 Olympics and not the earlier editions would be practical goal to improve medals tally. Still if you foray with Olympics as direction, you risk putting people off through excess evangelism of one sort and search for suitable talent. Instead, can you make young people fall in love with sport? Can you make them love it such that they don’t mind failing at activities they care about and come back for more?

Opening up young minds to the myriad possibilities indulging in athletics or playing a game offers, is an engaging task. Some won’t have a mountain to climb; they are already so good that all they need to do is slide into the lake of success. It is a coach / teacher who works with average talent and takes them places that you should applaud, not the ones making a beeline to train the best primed talent.  India has too many teachers / coaches of the latter sort; it is also what parents endorse. So you see, before we make tall claims for the future, there is a way of looking at human beings that has to be put in place. Without it, we risk doing to sports what we have already done in our mainstream academic education. One approach worth mentioning in this regard is India’s amateur running movement. Except some from the corporate category who are forced into it because it is the in thing to do at offices, amateur running is a personal choice. It is also a conscious choice because for many, it is an option exercised in midlife. There is no compulsion; no coercion. Yet the performances returned by Indians in their thirties, forties and fifties – long past the energy of school and college – has been fantastic. There are now several people running sub-three marathons from these age groups and in 2019, we had the first Indian finisher in a 555km ultramarathon at altitude. Marathons and ultramarathons are not for school and college. Point is – isn’t there something for educational curriculum to learn from these cases of results gained through affection for something and not, compulsion to do it?

Second, not everyone will be good at sport. There will be those whose wiring is different. There will also be those whose wiring is neither for academics nor sports. If the intention of making sports part of the curriculum is to treat these segments the same way those inclined to sport were once treated, then, you are not educating. You merely author one more reason to rank youngsters into winners and losers. Under education, we must all be helped to find ourselves and our capabilities. Sport – and academics – should not be put on a pedestal. It must be there at the same level as any other potential, resident in the human being.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Finally, there is the issue of a blindness upon us that isn’t for want of eyes but happens because we block vision with our insularity. In sport, there is an insularity born from world view by nothing but athletic prowess and the disciplined focus which goes into accessing that prowess. When everything is focused on performance, the mind becomes dull to so many things that are critical to keeping us aware overall. That is when like art hijacked for propaganda, sport degrades to being an appendage in service of other goals, political ideology and image building being examples. Mass displays of athleticism and physical coordination – the sort seen at certain giant ceremonies – also betray this tenor. Just like money is no guarantee of brilliance and some billionaires have uttered the most stupid things, pursuit of sports holds forth promise of awareness; it does not guarantee it. If you want a mind that is conscious of existence and responds consciously, then introduction to sport and one’s rooting in it has to be an experience immersed in appreciation of freedom. Individual and freedom – these are the two fundamental building blocks of awareness. That’s why the swimming pool episode matters – that little boy’s sense of individual was crushed; forced to perform and conform he would have also lost his appreciation for freedom. Instead, doesn’t he deserve the chance to overcome his fear of water, fall in love with it and find out if a swimmer lives in him?

It is this author’s personal opinion that notwithstanding instances of excellence produced, India’s mainstream academic education has contributed little to overall awareness and appreciation of existence. We are like foot soldiers following set recipes (all reform seeks to do is replace one curriculum with another). We shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in sport. Sport should set us free.

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


Bharat Pannu (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

Please see updates at the end of this article; revised rules for finishing were disclosed on the afternoon of June 25.

In the ongoing Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM), Lt Col Bharat Pannu was in third position overall as of 2AM, June 25. The leaderboard of the race showed that he had covered 2784.61 kilometers in the days since June 16, when the event commenced.

In the lead was Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan who had pedaled 3169.06 km. Second and fourth places were held by cyclists from the UK; a cyclist identified as putters29 at 2792.32 km and Brad Lincoln at 2748.45km, respectively. The second, third and fourth places were thus separated by narrow margin. At 10.45PM on June 24, Bharat was in fact placed second. In a Facebook post on the approach to Day 9 of the race, Bharat noted that although much distance still remained, “  I can very gladly say that the toughest sections of the race are now over.”

The virtual version of RAAM follows the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the real race, announced on April 3. The subsequent virtual race is being hosted on FulGaz, an Australian cycling app. Participants pedal on a home trainer at location of their choice, the distance they log appearing on screen as movement across the US. RAAM – its route runs from the US west coast to the east – is one of cycling’s toughest endurance races. Bharat, who is a familiar face in ultracycling in India, had been training for RAAM for the past couple of years. His 2019 attempt was prematurely terminated following an injury he sustained while training in the US. The subsequent 2020 attempt appeared lost due to pandemic till it found an extra lease of life in VRAAM.  The virtual race – like the real one – has a cut-off of 12 days. The total distance to cover in the real race is approximately 4800km. At the time of writing, 22 riders were listed on the VRAAM leaderboard (accessed via FulGaz website) of which 15 had gone past 1000km and 11, more than 2000km.

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

RAAM has a second race built into it – Race Across West (RAW) – which is smaller and runs along the initial portion of the race route. Major Sandeep Kumar, who is a keen cyclist and part of Bharat’s support crew, completed the virtual version of RAW – VRAW – successfully. He covered the distance of 1528km in five days, seven hours and 33 minutes. As of early June 25 on the VRAW leaderboard, he was placed 23rd overall and third among Indian cyclists (he features as sandeeptrooper). The first Indian cyclist to complete VRAW was Vivek Shah. He did so in four days, 10 hours and 33 minutes.  The second Indian cyclist at the finish line was Jitendra who completed in four days, 23 hours and 58 minutes. The fourth Indian cyclist to finish was Sachin Shirbavikar (seven days, 25 minutes). Praveen Sapkal (1342.74km) and Anand Verma (1143.37km) were still on their way. At the top of the VRAW heap was Simon Potter of the UK; he completed the race in three days, five hours and 11 minutes.

Unlike the real RAW which has a cut-off of 92 hours, the virtual race has the same duration as VRAAM – 12 days. This allows interested riders to take their shot at this smaller race any time in that duration. At the time of writing, the positions on the VRAW leaderboard were therefore still dynamic. For those supporting a VRAAM participant as member of his crew, the longer cut-off in VRAW is particularly useful.  With Sandeep having completed VRAW, fellow member of Bharat’s support crew and a former finisher in the eight person-team category at RAAM, Arham Shaikh, has since commenced his attempt at VRAW. As of 2.20AM on June 25, Arham had logged 909.18km as per the virtual race’s leaderboard. All three – Bharat, Sandeep and Arham – were cycling in Pune.

Arham Shaikh (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Sandeep said that VRAW had been a learning experience for him. “ I learnt a lot as regards managing nutrition and sleep, not to mention extended hours on the saddle. The event has raised my self-confidence and I will be looking for further challenges in ultra-cycling now,’’ he said. VRAW also gave him the opportunity to be at home and yet compete with good cyclists from around the world. “ It was the best I could reap from lockdown conditions,’’ he said. In the first 24 hours of the race Sandeep covered more than 350km. Thereafter he had a difficult phase due to an emergent knee problem that was then contained with the help of the team physio. From the third day onward things started to improve. “ It was however a grueling race for me,’’ he said. The main reason for this was the additional dose of elevation gain that the race designers introduced. It was probably done to compensate for the otherwise stationary nature of virtual racing with all that you need for support, at hand. According to Sandeep, in VRAW, the elevation gain freshly added was of the order of around 10,000m; it took cumulative elevation gain over the 1528km pedaled to around 25,000m. “ We were just climbing,’’ he said laughing. Similar tweaks have been done to the parameters of the significantly longer VRAAM too. In his earlier mentioned Facebook post, Bharat provided a break up of how the race had progressed (distance cycled plus cumulative elevation gain) till Day 8: Day 1 – 399km / 11,500m; Day 2 – 767km / 17,800m, Day 3 – 1,180km / 23,400m, Day 4 – 1,470km / 28,400m, Day 5 – 1,843km / 33,000m, Day 6 – 2,078km / 39,000m, Day 7 – 2,358km / 45,650m. The real race is known to have cumulative elevation gain of over 170,000 feet (51,816m).

According to Sandeep, he took some time to get used to the FulGaz platform. Up until the VRAW attempt, for his home-based training, he had been mostly a user of Zwift. The new technology required the group he was with, to correspondingly upgrade their computer and telecom hardware. Thus even as they didn’t leave India for a real race overseas, the virtual project wasn’t without its imprint on the purse. Then there was technology’s teething problems to sort out; primarily lags in updates registering on the app’s screen while the cycling was on. “ FulGaz listened. They were supportive and sorted the issues out,’’ Sandeep said.

Update 1: In a major revision to the rules of the race, VRAAM informed on June 25 via its Facebook page that any rider covering 3248km within the stipulated cut-off period would be deemed a finisher. The message read:

After careful consideration and a thorough review of the VRAAM course, in addition to the health and well being of all competitors we have made the decision to reduce the official race qualifying finish distance to 3248km.

To be an official VRAAM finisher competitors will need to complete the following;

Complete 3,248km by 11pm June 28th Sydney Eastern Standard Time

All results will be provisional until verified by FulGaz and VRAAM. Race Across America HQ will verify the official solo RAAM qualification distance within the next 48 hours.

The winner will be the competitor who has ridden the furthest distance by the end of the race.

When contacted, Sandeep said that the challenging parameters of the virtual race had been taking a toll on riders participating from various parts of the world. There was concern growing over how people may finish because after more than nine days on the saddle and the route proving tough, riders hopeful of finishing continued to stare at good distance still left to cover. In their urge to complete, sleep levels had been dropping. There was fatigue. A couple of good riders reported injury. It is assumed that these factors may have led to the revision of rules. “ Bharat has been fine so far. But we have to be careful because the onset of injury is typically sudden,” he said.  As regards podium finish, the understanding in Pune was that those pursuing it would have to keep riding past the 3248km currently assigned to finish. Cyclists riding the farthest by race’s close (the end of the 12 day-duration) would be best placed to claim space on the podium. As of 2.35PM June 25, the second and third positions on the VRAAM leaderboard had changed from what it was much earlier in the day. Bharat was back in second place having covered 3015.92km; a rider identified as mixirica from Brazil was placed third at 3012.28km. Putters29 had slipped to fourth (3001.14km). These positions continued to be bunched. Suzuki of Japan was way ahead at 3354.04km.

Update 2: Checked at 12.40PM on June 26, Bharat was in fourth position having logged 3326.76km. That placed him well past the 3248km, which is the revised distance to be deemed a VRAAM finisher. Mixirica (Brazil) was at 3352.45km and potters29 (UK) at 3354.59km; Suzuki was at 3573.46km. Meanwhile from among Indian cyclists attempting VRAW, Praveen Sapkal had finished in nine days, two hours and 38 minutes. Anand Verma was at 1329.96km and Arham, at 1240.03km.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Names from the leaderboard quoted in the article are as they appeared on the list. In some cases there was no gap between first name and surname; discretion had to be suitably exercised for the purpose of writing.)         


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A drug that is familiar to mountaineers finds mention in humanity’s ongoing tussle with COVID-19. We use the juncture as an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and the drug in question.

Dexamethasone has been part of medicines used to treat high altitude illness for several years. Notwithstanding the lives it may have quietly saved so, its moment in the limelight happened in mid-June 2020 when news reports from the UK said, it was proving to be a life-saver in the battle with COVID-19. The drug’s name wouldn’t have escaped the attention of mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts. Proper acclimatization, hydration, descent to safe altitude when beset with discomfort and having acetazolamide and dexamethasone in the first aid kit, form the classic defence against high altitude illness.

Colonel (Dr) S. P. Singh (Retd) is currently Additional Professor, Department of Physiology, All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), Rishikesh.  He runs India’s first course in High Altitude Medicine there. A product of the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), Pune, Dr Singh has been working in the field of high altitude medicine and physiology since 2008 when he was posted to the Indian Army’s High Altitude Medical Research Centre, in Leh (Ladakh). He has a number of publications in the field and was a member of the team that wrote the latest edition of the army’s guidelines for prevention and treatment of high altitude illness. Dr Singh responded to questions posed by this blog.

“ Dexamethasone is a medicine that is used for treating a large number of illnesses, including those due to inflammation (within that, auto-immune diseases where the body’s immune system attacks its own cells; for example: rheumatoid arthritis) and allergy; for example: skin allergies, eye allergies etc. It is also used as a life-saving drug when severe inflammation threatens dire consequences. The body produces corticosteroid hormones (better known to doctors as glucocorticoids) which are essential for life and continuously regulate a host of functions including energy production, water content of the body, immune regulation and behavior. An important function of glucocorticoids is to help us overcome stress. The term stress implies any shift in the environment that changes or threatens to change the existing optimal state of the body. Thus, extreme heat, cold, low environmental oxygen ere all examples of stress. Large amounts of glucocorticoids are secreted by the adrenal glands of the body to help overcome stress, ‘’ he said.

Dexamethasone in the context of AMS

In mountaineering, dexamethasone is spoken of in the context of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).  According to Dr Singh, AMS is the most common illness to occur in un-acclimatized sojourners arriving at High Altitude (>2700m/9000ft). It consists of a constellation of symptoms viz., headache, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, giddiness / dizziness and weakness / fatigue. Most people who develop these symptoms recover spontaneously or with symptomatic therapy (pain killers, anti-vomiting drugs and rest) within 2-3 days. Thus, AMS is a harmless illness, in terms of no threat to life and limb. Yet, it is important that people with AMS not ascend higher till their symptoms resolve completely. This is so, because we believe that approximately one per cent of people with AMS will develop High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) if they ascend higher while symptomatic. HACE involves collection of excess water in the brain (brain edema) and can kill a person within hours of onset.

Hypoxia (the condition in which, the body or a portion of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply at the tissue level) is the direct cause of AMS. It leads to an increase in the pressure of Cerebro-Spinal Fluid (CSF – a derivative of blood in which the brain and spinal cord float) inside the skull. This is associated with increased leakiness of brain capillaries, which allows excess water to enter the brain from the blood causing very mild brain edema (in contrast to the florid edema of HACE). The cause of the increased leakiness of capillaries might be mild inflammation due to low oxygen at high altitude. Dexamethasone appears to prevent / treat AMS / HACE by inhibiting inflammation, preventing / reducing capillary leakiness and improving blood oxygen levels by salutary effects on the lungs. Because steroids have a general action to help us overcome stress, dexamethasone helps overcome the stresses of high altitude in the first few days while the body responds to and settles down in the new environment.

Since dexamethasone decreases capillary leakiness and has positive effects on the lungs to improve blood oxygen levels, it is of benefit in the prevention and treatment of AMS, HACE and HAPE. However, dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid. “ It is important to remember that much higher doses of (synthetic) corticosteroid are given, than are naturally present in the body, to suppress inflammation and allergy. These high doses also carry the risk of significant adverse effects. For instance:  when given in the case of pneumonia due to a bacterial infection, dexamethasone will suppress fever and symptoms of lung infection but if the infection is not treated simultaneously with antibiotics it will spread throughout the body. Therapeutic doses must, therefore, be given with great caution, under strict supervision, along with other therapy,’’ Dr Singh said.

Descent is the definitive cure for all high altitude illness

The other major drug for AMS is acetazolamide (Diamox). According to Dr Singh, acetazolamide creates a mild acidosis in the body. This counters the alkalosis (the normal pH of blood is 7.35 – 7.45. pH<7.35 is acidosis and pH>7.45 is alkalosis) that is inherent on ascent to altitude. As a result of the acidosis caused by acetazolamide the rate and depth of breathing increases and the water content of the body reduces (due to excess urination). These effects are bound to be beneficial because more breathing means more oxygen in the body. Also, since AMS / HACE / HAPE are all conditions of excess water in the brain / lungs; maybe less water in the body helps. Acetazolamide also has a mild direct effect of decreasing the pressure inside the skull by reducing formation of CSF. “ Acetazolamide is best known for preventing AMS / HACE and has a smaller role (as dexamethasone) in the treatment of these conditions too, although dexamethasone is far superior for treatment. Clinical experience and some scientific studies suggest that acetazolamide may have a role in the prevention of HAPE too. This is, however, not yet established,’’ Dr Singh said.

High altitude; from an expedition to Denali (20,310 ft) in Alaska (Photo: courtesy Seema Pai)

In the context of AMS, both these drugs – acetazolamide and dexamethasone – are typically talked of as prophylactic treatment. Dr Singh explained it. “ Prophylaxis means to administer a drug before the occurrence of an illness, when the chances of the illness occurring are high, to prevent the occurrence of the illness. For example: hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) has been touted for prophylaxis / prevention of COVID-19. As already brought out, dexamethasone is effective in the cure of AMS but is usually not necessary. AMS is amenable to symptomatic therapy (pain killer for headache, anti-vomiting drugs for nausea / vomiting) and if needed some oxygen supplementation for a short period (usually 30-60 minutes helps significantly). Descent is not necessary for the treatment of AMS, but the decision must be guided by local conditions, tour itinerary and logistics. For example: if the rest of the team has no option but to ascend and the person with AMS can’t be left alone, it is better to send him down with one more person rather than risk HACE by ascent. Cases of HACE and HAPE must descend as soon as possible, unless, of course, institutional care is available at the altitude of occurrence. For instance: people arriving in Leh, who develop HAPE or HACE are treated in the hospitals there. After recovery, the patient with HACE should not ascend further but the person with HAPE may, with exercise of due caution. Descent is the definitive cure for all high altitude illness,’’ he said.

In general, acetazolamide (Diamox) would seem more popular with the outdoor fraternity as a means to check AMS. It is a good drug for prevention of AMS / HACE and may be of benefit for prevention of HAPE too. “ More importantly acetazolamide is a safe drug. It is given to some patients with eye problems (glaucoma) for months and years with minimal adverse effects. So, we know it is safe. With dexamethasone one must be careful of the dose and duration it is taken and even so, some people might develop adverse effects at lower doses or shorter durations,’’ Dr Singh said. He feels that a first aid kit for mountaineering should contain both the drugs. “ Acetazolamide is our old friend that will prevent all three acute high altitude Illnesses – AMS, HACE and HAPE; whereas dexamethasone is the life saver in an emergency situation. No medical supervision is required for ingesting acetazolamide. If you know you have no drug allergy to sulfonamides (an antibiotic with structural similarity to acetazolamide) go ahead and take acetazolamide. A dose of 125mg (Diamox) twice a day or 250mg sustained release preparation (Iopar) once a day, starting the day before you ascend to altitude and continued to the second day there, is a great way to prevent / reduce the severity of AMS / HACE. If you intend to continue climbing and know you are prone to AMS, continue acetazolamide to the second day of reaching your target altitude. Should you find the benign side-effects such as a metallic taste in the mouth or tingling of the lips, hands and feet troublesome you could shift to dexamethasone tablet 4mg twice a day. But it would be good to not take dexamethasone in this dose for more than 10 days. A combination of both drugs in the same doses may also be used if you want to go high (from sea-level to >3500m in one day) very fast and have to indulge in strenuous activity there without time to acclimatize. Given in these doses for the recommended duration, medical supervision is not needed, provided the cautions mentioned above are adhered to,’’ Dr Singh said.

None of this however takes anything away from the merit in patiently acclimatizing to high altitude. That is the safest method. Patience – respecting the time needed for the body to gradually acclimatize – is, key. “ In my experience, there is nothing that can replace natural acclimatization,’’ Dr Tsering Norbu of Ladakh Institute of Prevention (LIP), said. Based in Leh, the retired physician is known well to visiting mountaineers. “ If you are not allergic to sulfa drugs, then we prescribe Diamox. We don’t approach dexamethasone in a similar fashion because it is typically used as a life saver in cases of AMS where the situation is bordering HACE,’’ he said. Being a tourist destination 11,500 feet up from sea level, Leh gets its fair share of high altitude illness. LIP is a NGO working in the domain of health. When patients require formal medical intervention, he refers them to the district hospital, Dr Norbu said.

COVID-19 and dexamethasone

On June 16, 2020, amid world battling COVID-19, BBC reported that dexamethasone “ cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth.’’ This was a finding from the UK. What made dexamethasone significant beyond its stated life-saving ability was the fact that it was available in good supply and was affordable. The name of the drug must have struck a bell immediately with mountaineers worldwide. Asked what likely made dexamethasone relevant in the treatment of COVID-19 patients on ventilator support and whether medically there is any parallel in the stress the body underwent with what happens during AMS, Dr Singh said, “ since dexamethasone helps combat stress it could possibly help in COVID-19 pneumonia or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). COVID-19 involves inflammation which damages the lungs even as it fights the virus. Dexamethasone can suppress inflammation and because it reduces capillary leakiness it should reduce the severity of the symptoms caused by ARDS. The caution that needs to be kept in mind, I believe, is that dexamethasone is not the definitive cure (it does not kill the virus) and by suppressing inflammation which controls the infection even as it causes symptoms, it might worsen the infection. If, however, adjunctive therapy to kill the virus is available then dexamethasone could help tide over the critical time in ARDS when inflammation does more harm than good to our body. The disease process of ARDS in COVID-19 involves increased capillary leakiness. Other than that, there is little in common with HAPE. Having said that, I believe a respiratory physician may be able to help you better with this question,’’ Dr Singh said.

Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman is an endocrinologist with the Indian Army. A regular runner, he has contributed in the past to articles related to health on this blog.  “ Dexamethasone in COVID-19 is as an anti-inflammatory to counter the cytokine storm that happens especially in the more severe forms of the disease,’’ he said. Further on June 17, BBC followed up with another report explaining how dexamethasone works in the case of COVID-19. “ This drug works by dampening down the body’s immune system. Coronavirus infection triggers inflammation as the body tries to fight it off. But sometimes the immune system goes into overdrive and it’s this reaction that can prove fatal – the very reaction designed to attack infection ends up attacking the body’s own cells. Dexamethasone calms this effect. It’s only suitable for people who are already in hospital and receiving oxygen or mechanical ventilation – the most unwell. The drug does not work on people with milder symptoms, because suppressing their immune system at this point would not be helpful,’’ the report said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For a pulmonologist’s view, this blog reached out to Dr Jacob Baby, Lead Consultant (Pulmonology), Aster Medcity, Kochi. “ Dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid; they are naturally occurring chemicals produced by the adrenal glands located above the kidneys. Corticosteroids affect the function of many cells within the body and suppress the immune system. They also block inflammation and are used in a wide variety of inflammatory diseases affecting many organs. Dexamethasone is 20-30 times more potent steroid action than naturally occurring cortisol. It reduces inflammation by blocking an enzyme named phospholipase A2, which breaks cell wall phospholipid and releases inflammatory mediators. Glucocorticoids function through interaction with the glucocorticoid receptors by up-regulating the expression of anti-inflammatory proteins and down-regulating the expression of pro-inflammatory proteins. It is cheap and easily available and used as effective anti-inflammatory in many inflammatory diseases like asthma and rheumatological disorders like inflammation of muscles, inflammation of blood vessels, chronic arthritis, and lupus. It also exerts excellent anti-edema (reducing swellings) action enabling its use in cancerous conditions, brain swelling and also swelling in the spinal cord,’’ Dr Baby said.

On how dexamethasone works in the case of COVID-19, he said, “ Recovery Trial in the UK – for treating COVID 19 – had an arm investigating dexamethasone. Oxford researchers announced the results of the dexamethasone trial, in which 2104 enrolled patients were administered 6 mg of the drug for 10 days. Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one-fifth in patients receiving only oxygen. One death would be prevented by treatment of around eight ventilated patients, or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone. The drug reduced the 28-day mortality rate by 17 per cent with significant benefit among patients requiring ventilation. COVID-19 causes accumulation of cytokines mainly IL-6 in the lungs. IL-6 increases inflammation in the lung cavity which causes the production and accumulation of fluids in the lungs. Dexamethasone reduces inflammation and suppresses immune activation of immune agents. The drug induces anti-inflammatory effects by reducing the secretion of cytokines into the lungs.’’

(Compiled and edited by Shyam G Menon, freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On January 14, 2020, the website of Time magazine carried an article by Melissa Godin listing the instances when athletes brought political protest to the Olympic Games.  The incidents range from support for Irish independence to fists raised in Black Power salute, protest against the erstwhile Soviet Union and declining to compete against Israel as means to highlight the plight of Palestinians. What prompted the compilation was – earlier that month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) disclosed new guidelines regulating protest by athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which guards the political neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games already deals with this subject.  But it was vague about what constitutes protest. Time magazine noted that the new guidelines, which mention examples of what count as protest, coincide with rising activism among athletes, especially those from the US. In August 2019 two US athletes had been placed under probation for a year after one knelt and the other raised a fist during medal ceremonies at the Pan American Games (they were protesting against gun violence, racial injustice and the recent acts of their country’s president). The report cited the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, saying that the Olympic Games must never be a platform to advance political or any other divisive ends. He maintained that the political neutrality of the Games is undermined when the occasion is used by organizations and individuals “ as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.’’

At the same time as the magazine article appeared, COVID-19, which would characterize 2020 in a defining way, was only weeks into being reported. It would be another two months before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic and the question of whether the 2020 Olympic Games would be held or not would haunt the IOC. On March 24, the Games were eventually shifted to 2021. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died as a result of police excess in Minneapolis, USA. It was a horrific incident, one that sparked a wave of protests in the US with reverberations elsewhere. In the mood of protest following Floyd’s death, Bach’s observation from January and Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter attracted attention afresh. Early June, the IOC confirmed to the Daily Telegraph that it stood by Rule 50. Days later, Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics told the Independent, that he wouldn’t discourage athletes from expressing their views as he felt the current generation is more willing to speak out than previous generations were. “ There is nothing in World Athletics’ Integrity Code of Conduct to prevent athletes from protesting as long as it is done in a respectful manner, considers other athletes and does not damage our sport,’’ Coe was quoted as saying in the report by Lawrence Ostlere. For proper perspective, it must be mentioned here that Coe, a former world record holder and Olympic champion, who also anchored the organization of the 2012 London Olympic Games, has been nominated to the IOC. World Athletics hasn’t had a member on the IOC since 2015. To be admitted, Coe needs to first step down from other private business responsibilities he holds which constitute potential conflict of interest.

Over the last decade or so, the factors that contribute to social justice have taken a beating in many parts of the world. Governments have veered to authoritarianism, there is a general feeling that justice is partial to capital, inequality in wealth distribution has grown and those left out feel marginalized. Simply put – topics for protest are many. So are governments with trumped up public image and skeletons in the cupboard, who will be sensitive to protest. Amid this, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the virus. As COVID-19 swept across a planet devoid of vaccine to combat it, the best solution we had was to break the chain of transmission. Hygiene protocols and physical distancing became primary defence. Above all, it demanded that we accept a cardinal truth – the virus exists. If you don’t accept that it exists then all the hygiene protocols, physical distancing; even the frantic search for a vaccine – they lose relevance. The protests over George Floyd’s death happened because people acknowledged that the problem at its core – the virus causing it – exists. Compared to that, Rule 50 sanitizing Olympic venues of protest is the equivalent of pretending that the world’s problems don’t exist in the first place. Athletes may be elite by virtue of being at the Olympics. But they hail from mainstream society and many of them have experienced firsthand, discrimination based on race, gender, economic and social inequality. How can you pretend that society beyond the stadium doesn’t exist? It is what you come from; it is what you go back to.

To its credit, Rule 50 does not altogether ban protest. A document called Rule 50 Guidelines Developed by the IOC Athletes’ Commission, available on the IOC website, explains the details. According to it, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter provides a framework to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games. It states that no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas. “ It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.  Specifically,  the  focus  for  the  field  of  play  and  related  ceremonies  must  be  on  celebrating athletes’ performance and showcasing sport and its values,’’ the document said. For emphasis, it pointed out that even the head of state of the host country gets to utter only a preset sentence declaring the Games open. Neither they nor any government official is allowed any further comment on any occasion during the Games. Besides no government official can appear in a medal ceremony. “ While respecting local laws, athletes have the opportunity to express their opinions, including:

  • During press conferences and interviews, i.e. in the mixed zones, in the International Broadcasting Centre (IBC) or the Main Media Centre (MMC)
  • At team meetings
  • On digital or traditional media, or on other platforms.

It should be noted that expressing views is different from protests and demonstrations. It should be noted, too, that these guidelines are also applicable to any other accredited person (trainers, coaches, officials, etc.)’’ the document said, adding, “ Here are some examples of what would constitute a protest, as opposed to expressing views (non-exhaustive list):

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.’’

The problem here – it would seem – is one of comparative mileage. Since protests seek public attention, the proverbial valve on the pressure cooker that Rule 50 provides is only worth its weight in visibility and media coverage. At any Olympic Games, the most watched footage probably relates to the opening and closing ceremonies, the competition at various sport venues and the medal ceremonies. Who watches press conferences and interviews? Only journalists go there and reports filed subsequently are allotted due significance by editors depending on the overall news flow from the larger sport event. Consequently, someone could ask this question and it would seem relevant: what matters more in a stadium – the advertisements of sponsors selling this and that or a black band on an athlete’s arm reminding us of social injustice the world is yet to comprehensively address? It goes to the heart of human existence: what are we alive for? Having said that; it must be mentioned, protesters too need to keep a few things in mind. Just as advertisements become irritating through excess, an overdose of protest can progressively leave us indifferent to calls for social justice. That’s the danger in world by trend and perception management, which is what our times have become. So perhaps there is relevance in leaving sport alone?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Although rarely said as such, one strong motive for keeping sport free of controversy is that it helps sport events happen by making available a sanitized platform sponsors can support. To be precise, it isn’t total no-no to controversy; it is opportunistic leverage with partiality to clean slate as best bet for sustaining long term. On the other hand, money’s aversion for conscience and its appetite for opportunism catches the goat of anyone with a conscience. Notwithstanding this tussle, fact is, political neutrality has its benefits. Cast so, sport becomes an avenue for engagement among people when other options more easily lost to politics, are exhausted. Neutral sport is an important instrument in humanity’s tool box. It brings us to the question: what if you have a grievance but don’t protest? What if you let your performance in sport, do the talking instead?

Jesse Owens is among the biggest icons of the Olympic Games. He came up the hard way. Although a successful university athlete, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. He enjoyed no scholarship and worked part time jobs to pay for his education. On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten meet in Michigan, he rewrote three world records and equaled another in a span of 45 minutes. Next year he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. The world sat up and took note. However on return home, his life continued to be a struggle. He had difficulty finding work given the social environment of that period. He filed for bankruptcy in 1966, hitting rock bottom before his predicament improved. Despite his personal struggles, he didn’t initially support the protest on the podium at the 1968 Olympics (according to Wikipedia’s page on Jesse Owens, he became more sympathetic of the incident, later); he tried to convince President Jimmy Carter that the US shouldn’t boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics as sport is politically neutral. Yet eighty four years after the Berlin Olympics, with more sterling performances by athletes to show and more social fissures and inequalities added worldwide, we are left wondering: will Olympic triumph alone suffice to focus the world’s attention on social justice delayed or do we need to sport a black band on prime time as well? How different is 2020 from 1936? Or is it not different at all? If things haven’t changed significantly, what kept it so? Those are the questions. The answers won’t be easy for IOC or anyone, to handle.

On June 14, 2020, Global Athlete – it calls itself “ an athlete-led movement that will inspire and lead positive change in world sport, and collectively address the balance of power between athletes and administrators” – put out a statement claiming that recent statements of the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) proposing banning of athletes who take a knee in solidarity with the anti-racism movement, constitutes “ a clear breach of human rights.” The statement which said that the “ collective voice” of athletes had “ pressured the IOC to pivot on its position and now consult with athletes on Rule 50,” also called upon the IOC and IPC to abolish the rule.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

With swimming pools still shut, top swimmer says he may have to consider retirement

In what is a clear sign of the quandary competition swimmers are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown, Virdhawal Khade, among top swimmers in India has said that he may have to consider retirement.

Khade is one of six swimmers from the country, who secured the lower (B) Olympic qualification mark, for the now postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He achieved it ahead of the lockdown. In India, lockdown started on March 24. Among other things, it resulted in sports facilities – including swimming pools – being shut.  Close to three months later, in recent relaxation to lockdown rules, the freedom to exercise, cycle and be out jogging – have all been restored and assigned specific hours. However swimming pools and gyms are still shut.

Activities like cycling and running have also adapted in part to using virtual reality as alternative to the absence of races. Swimming has no such option. In the early half of the lockdown, long distance swimmers this blog spoke to were all into strength training at home, which they admitted is a poor alternative to being in water. It was the best one could do under the circumstances.

Khade is the current national record holder in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle and 50m butterfly events. He picked up a bronze medal in the 50m butterfly event at the 2010 Asian Games.

According to a Reuters report on Khade’s predicament, dated June 15, 2020 (since published in the general news media), secretary-general of the Swimming Federation of India (SFI), Monal Chokshi, said that of the six swimmers who made the earlier mentioned Olympic qualifying mark, only Sajan Prakash, who is training in Thailand, has managed to get back to the pool.

The SFI has approached the sports ministry for a solution, the report said.

Ironman 70.3 Goa postponed

Ironman 70.3 Goa scheduled to be held on November 8, 2020 has been postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“ We are working diligently to secure a new race date for the second half of 2021,” the organizer of the event said on the event’s Instagram page.

“ In what has been a continually evolving and challenging time globally, we recognize that this may come as a disappointment but look forward to providing athletes with an exceptional race experience in the future,” the statement said.

Ironman 70.3 Goa made its debut in 2019. The triathlon saw huge participation from Indian amateur triathletes.

2020 TCS New York City Marathon cancelled

The 2020 TCS New York City Marathon, set to take place on November 1, has been cancelled. New York Road Runners (NYRR), the event organizer, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York, have made the decision to cancel the world’s largest marathon due to coronavirus-related health and safety concerns for runners, spectators, volunteers, staff, and the many partners and communities that support the event, a press statement dated June 24, available on the website of New York Road Runners said.

“ While the marathon is an iconic and beloved event in our city, I applaud New York Road Runners for putting the health and safety of both spectators and runners first,” Mayor Bill de Blasio was quoted as saying. “ We look forward to hosting the 50th running of the marathon in November of 2021.”

“ Canceling this year’s TCS New York City Marathon is incredibly disappointing for everyone involved, but it was clearly the course we needed to follow from a health and safety perspective,” said Michael Capiraso, president and CEO of New York Road Runners.  “ Marathon Day and the many related events and activities during race week are part of the heart and soul of New York City and the global running community, and we look forward to coming together next year.”

According to the statement, NYRR will be connecting directly with runners registered for the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon by July 15 with more information regarding the cancellation resolution details, including the option to receive a full refund of their entry fee or a guaranteed complimentary entry in 2021, 2022, or 2023. Runners who gained entry through a charity or tour operator should reach out beginning July 1 to that organization for the options available to them.

This year’s marathon was set to be the 50th running of the event, which began in 1970 and has grown to become the world’s largest marathon with 53,640 finishers in 2019.

“ Runners registered for the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon and others from around the world will be invited to participate in the third annual TCS New York City Marathon – Virtual 26.2M taking place from October 17 through November 1. Further details on the virtual marathon will be shared in July. In addition to the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon, the 2020 Abbott Dash to the Finish Line 5K on October 31 has also been canceled,’’ the statement said, adding, “ The 50th running of the TCS New York City Marathon will take place on November 7, 2021.’’

2020 Berlin Marathon cancelled

The 2020 Berlin Marathon has been cancelled.

The event was earlier suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic; city authorities decided that all events with more than 5000 persons would be prohibited till October 24, 2020. The Berlin Marathon was originally slated to take place in September.

On June 24, the race organizers announced its cancellation.

“ As hard as we have tried, it is currently not possible to organize the BMW BERLIN-MARATHON with its usual Berlin charm. Fun, joy, health and success are attributes that characterize the BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, but we are not able to guarantee all of this at the moment. Your health, as well as all of our health, is our first priority. Therefore, taking into account the Containment Measures Ordinance due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its latest update on June 17, 2020, the BMW BERLIN-MARATHON 2020 will not be able to take place on September 26-27, 2020. Furthermore, it will also not be possible – after extensive examination and various discussions, also with the authorities – to hold the event at a later date this year,’’ an official statement on the race website said.

Among countries in Europe affected by COVID-19, Germany was perceived as the most efficient in dealing with the disease. It managed the first wave well and the national lockdown was subsequently relaxed. However in recent weeks the country has been tackling new clusters of infection.

Badwater 135 cancelled

The 2020 Badwater 135 has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ultra-running event, promoted as the world’s toughest foot race, covers a distance of 135 miles (217.26 kilometers) from Death Valley to Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney, in California, USA.

The 43rd edition of the foot race was to take place over July 6-8, 2020.

Four ultra-runners from India – Ashish Kasodekar, Mandeep Doon, Munish Dev and Praveen Sharma – had been invited to participate in the race. When contacted, Ashish said that the runners from India withdrew in May given the cancellation of flights between India and the US due to COVID-19. The formal cancellation of the event was communicated to participants through email, media reports on the subject said.

During the 2019 edition of Badwater 135, Japan’s Yoshihiko Ishikawa had set a new course record of 21 hours, 33 minutes and one second.

With real race cancelled, UTMB offers virtual alternatives

The organizers of UTMB Mont Blanc plan to launch UTMB for the Planet, a digital sporting event, which will include four virtual races.

The four virtual races will be based on the main distances of the event, the race organizers have informed in a communication to the running community posted on the race’s website. The said four virtual races will be UTMB Virtual 50, UTMB Virtual 100, UTMB Virtual 170 and UTMB Virtual 240.

The 2020 edition of UTMB Mont Blanc was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Entry into UTMB for the Planet virtual races is free, the statement said, adding “ all participants are invited to donate the amount of their choice when they register to support WWF France projects. ‘’ The virtual races will be officially launched on July 20 and will be accessible to runners from around the world. The virtual races will be live from July 20 to August 30 and will be hosted on a new UTMB for the Planet digital platform.

According to the statement, to encourage the greatest number of runners to take part, participants will be able to complete their chosen distance over several runs or in one go. The classification will also take into account the kilometre-effort (for any gain of 100m in elevation, one kilometre is added to the distance of the route) for people who cannot integrate elevation gain in their run. “ In addition to the virtual races, original and exclusive challenges will be organised with our partners and will be available on the digital platform. These challenges will offer different sporting formats such as night races, team events or challenges based on elevation,’’ it said.

193 athletes to benefit from welfare fund for pandemic hit times

World Athletics and the International Athletics Foundation (IAF) have announced that 193 athletes from 58 member federations will be offered one-time grants of US$3000 through an Athlete Welfare Fund announced in April to help support professional athletes experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“ The IAF expects to begin making payments to athletes as early as the end of this week,’’ a press release dated June 21, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, said.

According to it, the IAF received 261 eligible applications by the 31 May deadline. These applications were evaluated by the IAF to ensure they met the eligibility criteria, under the oversight of an expert working group, chaired by World Athletics President Sebastian Coe. To be eligible athletes had to be qualified for selection for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (by entry standard), had to be able to demonstrate a justifiable welfare need through significant loss of income in 2020 compared to 2019, and must never have had an anti-doping violation.

Athletes ranked in the top six on the World Rankings, those who finished in the top six in any Gold Label Road race in 2019, and those who earned more than US$6000 in prize money from the 2019 Diamond League were not eligible to apply in order to help focus support to those most in need.

Initially totaling US$500,000 when its creation was announced on 28 April, generous contributions have since made US$600,000 ultimately available to athletes in need, the statement added.

2020 London Marathon: hopeful still

The recent cancellation of the Great North Run in the UK, needn’t imply that the same fate awaits the 2020 edition of the London Marathon, the organizers of the latter event have said.

In an open letter dated June 19, 2020, available on the website of the London Marathon, Event Director, Hugh Brasher said, “ I am sure earlier this week you will have seen the news that the Great North Run was sadly, but understandably, cancelled. There has been much speculation that this means the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon will also be cancelled. However, it doesn’t.

“ All road races have unique challenges. These might be transporting people to the start; transporting them from the finish; the density of runners on the course; the density and movement of spectators; providing runners with appropriate medical care and facilities such as loos and drinks; dealing with the logistics of road closures and reopenings – the challenges are always different for every race. The team at London Marathon Events has been looking at the logistics of the Virgin Money London Marathon and coming up with innovative ways to socially distance the event. We have also been working with other mass participation event organisers in the UK, including the Great Run Company and Human Race, to make recommendations to the UK Government on how mass participation events can return,’’ he said.

Brasher pointed out that there are currently just over 15 weeks before the planned date of the 40th London Marathon on October 4, 2020. On the usual timescale for the event, it would be the equivalent of the first week of January. “ That means there is still plenty of time to train and there is neither a need, nor should there be a desire, to be at your peak fitness yet. We still don’t know whether we will be able run together, walk together and be together on that journey of 26.2 miles on 4 October. Almost every day we hear hopeful news from other countries and we hear tales of despair. However, what we do know is that we have hope, desire and ingenuity. Hope that the world will have found a way through Covid-19 by October,’’ he said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

World Athletics publishes safety guidelines for in-stadium outdoor competitions

World Athletics has published a set of health and safety guidelines to assist competition organisers to minimise the risk of spreading coronavirus when staging in-stadium outdoor events during the current pandemic, a press statement dated June 11, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics said.

The guidelines, drafted by World Athletics’ Health and Science Department, also address the post-peak period, as described by the World Health Organization (WHO) and are based on scientific and medical knowledge of the virus responsible for COVID-19. The document offers guidance for professional athletes, support staff, technical officials, workforce, volunteers, medical staff and media. Although it doesn’t include guidelines regarding spectators, the WHO has produced a document and risk-assessment tools for mass gatherings.

“ Competition organisers are advised to undertake a four-point risk assessment for all accredited attendants. If an individual scores two or higher, it is recommended that they should undergo a medical clearance protocol before the event,’’ the statement said.

Other recommendations include:


  • Welcome desks organised by local organising committees (LOC) at airports or railway stations should provide each arrival with a welcome bag that includes single-use masks (three per day, minimum), bottles of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and a leaflet to explain the health and safety protocols for that particular event.
  • When being transported from an airport or railway station to competition hotels, all passengers and drivers should wear a mask and be seated at an appropriate distance away from one another. One-way flows should also be implemented to avoid mixing of people.
  • LOCs are also strongly recommended to organise and use a medical encounter registry, recorded on an electronic system, to facilitate identification and further contact of potentially infected individuals.

At the stadium

  • Spectators and accredited personnel should have two completely separate entrances and the flows should not cross. Accredited personnel should only be granted access to the competition venue if wearing a face mask and with their personal hand sanitizer.
  • Face masks should be worn by everyone in the stadium, with the exception of athletes when warming up or competing in their event.
  • Warm-up zones should be large open-air areas within a short walking distance of the competition stadium, and access to it should be strictly controlled. Athletes should be invited to enter the warm-up area following a specific timetable. All accredited personnel should wear a mask and wash their hands before entering warm-up zones or dedicated toilets.
  • Masks should also be worn in call rooms, which should be arranged in an outdoor location. It is also mandatory to disinfect chairs between each use.

In competition

  • The number of people on the field of play should be kept to a minimum, and officials who will be coming into close contact with athletes should wear protective glasses or a plastic face shield, in addition to their mask.
  • Once athletes have crossed the finish line, they should try to keep their distance from the public and officials, where possible, until they collect their belongings from the call room.

Specific guidelines for individual disciplines:

  • Starting blocks should be cleaned between each race.
  • Chlorine should be added to the water jump for the steeplechase.
  • Relay batons should be cleaned between each use, and relay teams should be discouraged from gathering or hugging after a race.
  • The use of hand sanitizer should be recommended before each attempt in vertical jumps.
  • Officials should clean the landing mat between each jump, using a mop and virucidal solution or use a thin layer of recyclable plastic or tissue that can be placed on the jumping mat.
  • Sand in jumping pits should be mixed with a solution that contains biodegradable and non-skin-aggressive virucide agent.
  • Officials who handle throwing implements should clean their hands or use disposable gloves after each handling.
  • In combined events, the room used by athletes to recover between disciplines should be open-air, if possible. Coaches should be encouraged to interact with their athletes using electronic devices.

After competition

  • Media mixed zones should also be outside, if possible, and the number of people in the area should be kept to a minimum. A plexiglass screen should be placed between the athletes and the media, and cleaned after each interview, and separate interview boxes should be used if there are multiple positions. Without screens, a safety dead zone of three metres should be adopted when journalists interview athletes, and masks should be used by both parties.
  • To keep the number of people on the field of play to a minimum, live award ceremonies are not recommended, but alternative digital solutions are encouraged.
  • Once the competition has concluded, a thorough disinfection procedure should be undertaken.

The guidelines in full are available for downloading on the World Athletics website. “ The document is dynamic and will be updated as and when more evidence and scientific-based knowledge becomes available,’’ the statement said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Over 43,000 participate in virtual Comrades Marathon

Over 43,000 runners from 103 countries participated in the first virtual Comrades Marathon – Race the Comrades Legends – on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

From India, 316 runners registered for the virtual run. Compared to registrations for the virtual event, paticipation for the last edition of the race in its physical form – 2019 Comrades Marathon – was capped at 25,000 (source: Wikipedia).

The 2020 edition of Comrades Marathon, held annually in South Africa, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual race, held in its place, offered various distance options – five kilometers, 10 km, 21.1 km, 45 km and 90 km. At the end of the run, participating runners had to upload their race data.

News reports said Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) may consider organizing more virtual races as the response to its first event has been overwhelming.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Runners from around the world including India will be attempting the virtual race of the Comrades Marathon – Race the Comrades Legends – on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

The 2020 edition of the ultra-marathon, held annually in South Africa, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organizers of the Comrades Marathon decided to hold a virtual race on the same day as the real race was scheduled to be held.

The virtual race offers various distance options – five kilometers (Couch2Comrades – Fun run), 10 km (Comrades Sprint), 21.1 km (Comrades Legends Half Marathon), 45 km (Half Comrades) and 90 km (Comrades Legends Ultra). Participating runners are expected to upload their race data at the end of the day. Finishers will be couriered the Race the Comrades Legends medal.

Among overseas events, Comrades has a dedicated following in India. Preparations for it are different from taking a shot at one of the World Marathon Majors. The route at Comrades links Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province. Besides distance, the route features elevation gain and alternates each year between an uphill and a downhill run. The event is actually an ultramarathon lurking behind the name of a marathon. Participants therefore court an extended period of training. In Mumbai, those who sign up for Comrades usually graduate through regular long distance training runs (and events therein) to several group runs including in places like Lonavala for a feel of hilly terrain. This long duration of engagement with the event and fellow runners headed to South Africa, builds an ephemeral sense of community. The onset of pandemic and the eventual cancellation of the real event in South Africa would have brought inevitable disappointment. June’s virtual Comrades will offer some consolation.

“ I guess the attractive part is that it will probably be one of those few chances to run virtual Comrades Marathon. Also, the medal will be unique,” said Mumbai-based ultra-runner Satish Gujaran. Satish is the first and the only Indian runner yet to complete Comrades Marathon ten times consecutively. At the time of writing, nearly 80 runners from India had enrolled for the virtual race, of which nine were scheduled to run the 90 km distance. In India, recreational runners have not been able to get out for training runs as the lockdown was stringent. “ Without much training, it may not be possible to run 90 km, especially for runners from Mumbai,’’ Satish said. He has opted not to run the virtual race. Instead, he may pace some runners on Sunday.

Dr Anand Patil (This photo was downloaded from the runner’s Facebook page and is being used here with his permission)

Notwithstanding Satish’s observation, among those attempting the 90 km virtual race is Mumbai-based ultra-runner and triathlete, Dr Anand Patil. He is a surgeon by profession. “ This was to be my ninth Comrades,’’ he said referring to the now cancelled 2020 edition of Comrades. He has run the ultra-marathon for eight years in a row.

Dr Patil is attempting the virtual race despite not having done any training during the lockdown so far. He was hoping to resume running after the latest round of relaxation to lockdown. That would still leave him only a week or so to the virtual event. A recreational triathlete, Dr Patil said he has completed the Ironman triathlon 19 times. He also did the Ultraman in Australia in 2017. His background in endurance sports, including a past featuring back to back long distance runs, is what has given Dr Patil the confidence to try the 90 km-run without any dedicated training done recently.

“ I have worked on a training formula called fitness pyramid. At the base of this pyramid is stamina. The other elements of this pyramid are endurance, strength and speed. Even if I don’t train for a couple of months, I will be able to do an ultra-distance event,” Dr Patil said. Further, according to him, a diet that is abundant in micronutrients and is devoid of supplements is good to build immunity.

It is generally said that during exercise and for some time thereafter, the body experiences a dip in immunity. Consequently, in these times of pandemic and need to preserve immunity, debates on exercise have been partial to avoiding extreme strain. Asked of this angle, Dr Patil said he is not worried about his immunity dipping during the 90 km run. Immunity, according to him, is a function of many factors. “ Factors such as hereditary attributes, diet – these are important for building Immunoglobulin G, an antibody, in the human body. Any physical activity releases cortisol, which is also good for the immune system,” he said.

For Sunday’s virtual race, Dr Patil is contemplating routes in two places – Lonavala and Mumbai. He sought approval from CMA (Comrades Marathon Association) to start his run at 5:30PM on Saturday to enable him to run in Lonavala. “ CMA replied saying that I can start my run at 1AM on Sunday. That does not work for Lonavala,” Dr Patil said. He will therefore be running in Mumbai. He has sought approval from local authorities in Mumbai to start his run at 1AM as there is a curfew from 9PM to 5AM due to the ongoing lockdown.

Manisha Srivastava (Photo: courtesy Manisha)

If all goes as planned, on Sunday, Dr Patil will commence his run from Gateway of India; move to Colaba, Metro Cinema, Mantrayala, NCPA, Babulnath and onward to Haji Ali, Worli Sea Face, Mahim, Bandra Sea Link toll naka, Mela junction at Worli and end the route at Shivaji Park. The distance required for the virtual event will be completed using repeated short loops within the larger route.

Gurgaon-based ultra-runner Manisha Srivastava has also opted for the 90 km distance for Sunday’s virtual race. She will be running inside her apartment – it is a fairly big one, and on the stairs of her building to accumulate the required elevation gain.

For the entire period of lockdown, she focussed on home-based workout and did not step out for a run. “ Until the lockdown was announced, I was training for Ultraman Canada,’’ she said. Confined to her apartment for the past two months, Manisha decided to do the virtual race as a means to reconnect with her training.

Ultraman Canada, originally slated to be held in July 2020, has been postponed to July 2021. Ultraman is a three-day triathlon stage race. The first day starts with a 10 km swim followed by a 145 km bike ride. The second day has a 275 km bike ride and on the third day there is an 84.4 km run. Each of the disciplines must be completed in 12 hours.

Update: Dr Anand Patil completed his 90 km run in 14 hours, two minutes and 32 seconds. Having secured permission from the authorities, he commenced his run at 12:05AM from Gateway of India. He finished the run well although Mumbai’s humid weather and heavy vehicular traffic did weigh him down. Manisha Srivastava completed her run in 11:29:45 hours. Running inside her house was a challenge as it caused the GPS device to work with a lag, she said. At last count over 300 people from India had registered to run the virtual Comrades Marathon. In all, some 43,000 people from all over the world, participated in the event.

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