LOCKDOWN & ME / DAYS OF CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Seema Yadav (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Across cities, with the gradual easing of lockdown norms, runners and cyclists have been stepping out for their daily dose of physical activity. That has brought happiness. However with the number of COVID-19 cases rising, there is trepidation in being out; not to mention – amid relaxation of lockdown rules overall, there has been stringent local lockdown happening. Select states, metros and townships have relapsed to tight lockdown of short duration. Given the lack of clarity, amateur athletes are cautiously optimistic about what lay ahead.

Just four days before India’s nationwide lockdown commenced in March, Faridabad-based Seema Yadav decided to head to Bhiwadi in Rajasthan. She wanted to spend a couple of days with her father, who was there on work. Seema took her son along on the journey.

Although worries over the virus had been brewing, the descent to lockdown was sudden. Soon after Seema landed in Bhiwadi, the one-day nationwide curfew was announced followed in no time by the 21-day lockdown. With the lockdown only getting extended thereafter, Seema was held up in Bhiwadi for close to three months. “ We led a minimalist life. We had the clothes we had brought with us. There were no amenities such as fridge and washing machine. We had a very basic television set and a not too good internet connection,” she said. Committed to running she had however carried her running and workout gear. During the first phase of lockdown, as there was no question of venturing out, she confined herself indoors doing strength training and stair workout.

When the lockdown eased a bit, she was able to step out of her house to the compound of her housing society in Bhiwadi and do slow runs around a 400 meter-loop. The lockdown came at a time when Seema was preparing for a long break to recover from a series of running injuries that had been plaguing her for some time. The focus therefore, was on strength training and yoga.

After being held up in Bhiwadi for 85 days, Seema has since shifted back to Faridabad and been venturing out for her daily run. “ Very early in the morning, I drive to village roads outside the city limits. The roads are empty and the villagers are just about getting ready to go about their daily chores,” she said of her current routine in running. At the time of writing her weekly mileage was around 50-55 kilometers.

Kavitha Reddy (Photo: courtesy Kavitha)

Kavitha Reddy’s last run before the lockdown commenced, was sometime in mid-March. She did not run for the first 40 days of the lockdown. “ There was worry all around. Everything was new about the pandemic. I decided to take it easy. It was a good break for a change,” the Pune-based runner said.

In the absence of running events to focus on (events were cancelled due to pandemic), the hiatus was welcome. Besides it came against the backdrop of increased workload on the home front. However, she found time to do workouts otherwise relegated to the backdrop amid hectic training seasons. Sometime towards the end of April, Kavitha started running inside her housing complex. With a 700 meter-loop possible there, she ran twice or thrice a week.

Every total lockdown treads a thin line between people staying safe and the impact their retreat indoors has on the economy. For a population to survive, the economy has to function. Slowly the lockdown rules began to relax. In the next phase, Kavitha was able to run on the road outside her building. That gave her a slightly longer loop of 900 meters. “ On weekends, I run longer distances. Group runs are out for the moment. Also, with whoever I meet during a run, I try to maintain physical distance,” she said.

Given no races on the horizon, her current priority is building and maintaining baseline fitness. Consequently, for now Kavitha’s training does not include speed runs. “ We are running to keep ourselves going until we get back to conditions where races are possible,” she said. Notwithstanding the increase in strength training and other home-based workouts, she admitted, there is the lingering question of whether one can get back to previous levels of endurance.

Brijesh Gajera (Photo: courtesy Brijesh)

Not running for a long period of time does impact aerobic fitness, Brijesh Gajera, Bengaluru-based amateur runner, told this blog. An employee of an IT company, Brijesh has been kept busy by work-from-home. He followed a fitness program that incorporated strength training, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and yoga. The house arrest of lockdown also unexpectedly gifted him the luxury of sleeping longer hours.

“ Early June, I started running outside wearing a bandana to mask my face. My weekly mileage is around 40-45 km a week compared with 70-80 km during pre-Covid-19 days,” he said. He has also been cycling once or twice a week. “Runners have stopped hugging and shaking hands when they meet. Also, during long runs they maintain distancing while at the same time, staying in sight of each other,” Brijesh said. As it is prudent to run closer to home in these times of uncertainty, Brijesh has been exploring new routes in the area where he resides in Bengaluru.

Brijesh had signed up for Silk Route Ultra, a 122 kilometer-run organized by Ladakh Marathon and scheduled for September 2020. He doesn’t know what its fate will be. On July 2, the event organizers informed that the main Ladakh Marathon had been cancelled owing to COVID-19 but the two elite races in its fold – Khardung La Challenge and Silk Route Ultra – were under “ review” with final decision expected by end-July.

Lourdes Bosco (Photo: courtesy Bosco)

In Chennai, amateur runner Lourdes Bosco pursued a mix of running and working out at home through the period of lockdown. As he put it, mobility was quite restricted in the first two months of the lockdown. But even then, he was able to steal a few small runs in the neighborhood. Bosco’s rationale was simple – with people gone indoors, the small roads in the vicinity of his house cleared up. An early morning jog was therefore possible. As the original nationwide lockdown progressively relaxed, its administration became more accommodating (it tightens in accordance with calibration at state and district levels). Some amount of running has resumed although not to the distances of before. Group runs are avoided and adequate physical distancing is maintained. “ Work outs – I do it sometimes in the house; sometimes at the playground or on the pavement outside,’’ he said. He does these work outs roughly three days a week. Bosco devotes anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half for his running and related exercises.

Shilpi Sahu (Photo: courtesy Shilpi)

Bengaluru-based runner Shilpi Sahu was visiting her in-laws in Kannur, Kerala, when the lockdown was announced. She was held up there for seven weeks. And that meant no running.

For a runner, the absence of running can result in some loss of endurance. According to her, there is no substitute for running. Not running for an extended period of time leads to muscle tightness and niggling aches and pains, she said.

Shilpi started running towards the end of May, stepping out for short runs of about 40 minutes. Obviously, she is nowhere near her pre-COVID-19 level of running. “ I am trying to run 70-80 per cent of my peak mileage. I am also running at much lower pace,” she said adding that she steps out for a run alone or with her husband, who is also a recreational runner. She has been avoiding running in groups. Pandemic isn’t the time for that.

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

The lockdown worked positively and negatively for Mumbai-based runner and triathlete, Zarir Balliwala. These are tough times. For the businessman (Zarir manages Balliwala & Homi, an ophthalmic products company), the lockdown brought corresponding financial worry. The closure of swimming pools was another negative.

But otherwise, the lockdown has helped him pursue a fitness regime that entails a variety of physical activity – walking, strength training and stair workout; not to mention, catching up on much needed rest.

“ I have utilized the lockdown period well. I have been able to walk in my building complex, on a 300-meter loop. At home, I have been doing some dumbbell exercises, some bit of stair climbing, eating home food for every meal and catching up on sleep,” he said.

Sometime in May, Zarir took up the challenge of accumulating elevation gain equivalent to that of Mt Everest (8848 meters) in his building, over a period of 20 days. Zarir lives in South Mumbai, in a tower sporting 32 floors. In all, he climbed 3073 floors to cover 8848 meters. In June, he started running and cycling. His home workout and stair climbing made it easier for Zarir to get back into running and cycling with ease despite the long break that happened in between.

Vivek Pophale (Photo: courtesy Vivek)

It was in mid-June that Vivek Pophale resumed his running. By then lockdown norms had begun easing. Running alone was not a problem for him. Earlier too, he had generally trained by himself.  Vivek made his foray into recreational running in 2007, running half marathon races. After he joined the running group Life Pacers in 2017, he attempted his first full marathon in 2018.

The Navi-Mumbai-based amateur runner utilized the lockdown period to focus on an online workout schedule drawn up by his coach, Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Don) of Life Pacers. “ I was involved 100 per cent with this workout,” he said. He enjoyed that indoor exercise regimen. “ I would like to continue running, at least three times a week. Running events are unlikely for the next one year. My plan is to run at an easy pace without compromising my immunity,” Vivek said.

Embracing what you like to do and trying to make a career from it is not easy. There are challenges; not to mention – it is a lonely path with little of the comfort and belonging walking with the majority brings. As a young cyclist trying to make a livelihood from the sport, Sreenath Lakshmikanth has seen his share of ups and downs. It was in early March 2020 that he – Sreenath normally splits his life between Kochi and Bengaluru – shifted to Ooty (7350 feet elevation) to manage a bicycle store there. Ooty had seemed a good place to work and train. Three weeks after he reached the town in the Western Ghats, India courted nationwide lockdown.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sreenath stays alone. In retrospect, the shift to Ooty appears God sent. Even under normal circumstances, the hills are not as heavily populated as the plains. With lockdown, things thinned out further; the traffic on roads faded. Sreenath didn’t have a home trainer with him. Elsewhere in India, what has kept cyclists occupied is the home trainer. They either pedal away on it or they connect it to virtual reality apps and experience a digital version of being out on the road and racing with others. Viewed so, Sreenath should have been terribly handicapped, parked in Ooty with no home trainer for relief. But things panned out differently in the hill town.

“ I have been lucky. If you remember, we had a one-day curfew that preceded the nationwide lockdown. That day was diligently observed everywhere. On that day, I too did not venture out at all. But otherwise, I have been able to train regularly. My training schedule did not suffer because of lockdown. The only alteration I did was to reduce the length of my endurance rides. That is because we don’t have any races happening at present and so I don’t need to train intensely. Overall, I would estimate that I maintained my training at 70 per cent efficiency,’’ he said. Shorter endurance rides must have also ensured that Sreenath’s outdoor forays remained closer to home and containable.

Worldwide, cycling has picked up as a safe and healthy mode of transport amid pandemic. The bike store Sreenath works at is the only one of its kind in Ooty. The lockdown has encouraged local interest in cycling. People have begun using the opportunity to take to their bicycles, Sreenath said.

Sunder Nagesh (Photo: courtesy Sunder)

Lower pace and easy running appeared the general story in many towns and cities, this July. Hyderabad-based Sunder Nagesh is back on the roads for his regular quota of running. But these days he is running at a reduced pace. As he is running after a gap of some months, he wants to be careful.

He had registered for the Comrades Marathon and also got through to the Chicago Marathon. Comrades Marathon, the ultra-marathon held in South Africa annually, was cancelled and a virtual event was held in its place. With several major races cancelled or postponed, question mark graces the Chicago Marathon too, particularly given the spread of infection in the US.

During the lockdown, Sunder was an active participant in the online workout sessions held by Hyderabad Runners. “ My plan is to continue with these online sessions and also run outside. But I wish to do more than running and start cycling as well,” he said.

Satya Tripathi (Photo: courtesy Satya)

Satya Tripathi resumed his running and cycling in early June after being confined indoors for over two months. But there has been no reliable direction in lockdown; the situation is fluid. Relaxations have relapsed to stringent local lockdown. By early July, that was the case in Navi Mumbai where Satya lives. Just when people breathed a sigh of relief with relaxed rules taking effect, the region went into a strict lockdown originally meant for 10 days and now extended by another six.

Overall the lockdown has impacted the momentum of endurance training, he said. Lack of space to move about is an issue. Running inside the apartment is not advisable as it can lead to injury. Satya stayed engaged with a range of indoor workouts and climbing the stairs of the 13-storey building at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, where he lives.

Satya has enrolled for ` Run to the Moon,’ a virtual run organized by NEB Sports, Participants are required to run a minimum of 65 kilometers and a maximum of 300 kilometers during the one-month period starting from June 20 and ending on July 20, 2020.

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / THREE PROJECTS FROM ALIBAG

Image, courtesy: Sumit Patil

When this blog met Mumbai-based long distance cyclist Sumit Patil for a chat in February 2020, COVID-19 wasn’t yet the stuff of lockdown in India.

The disease was somewhere between worry and real worry; there was what it did in China and Europe and it had made its presence felt in the country. But mask to every human face, deserted roads and loss of livelihood didn’t seem hinted at for immediate future. Shops and cafes at Prabhadevi in the city were busy; people were out, traffic was heavy – there was little pointing to gathering storm, except that sense of uncertainty lingering within. Sumit had projects in mind for the year. The following days indicated need for course correction. The disease was quickly gathering momentum. It was clear that cycling projects in far off locations and travel to those places had become a shaky proposition. Originally a resident of Alibag near Mumbai, the cyclist shifted out from the city to his home in the coastal township, where his parents lived.

Alibag is known for its farmland, beaches and resorts. Not one to idle, Sumit’s first project upon arrival was to get the people around interested in a ride designed such that the aggregate elevation gain of participants would match the elevation of Mt Everest (8848 meters). The project design was clear. This wouldn’t be about people tackling inclines and logging great doses of elevation gain for individual milestone. On the other hand, it would be about keeping personal milestones modest and spreading the effort around so that sense of community is strengthened through goal achieved collectively. The place Sumit chose for the project was Karli Khind in Alibag where a loop of 1.4 kilometers entailing elevation gain of 96 meters (figures are approximate) was possible. That meant close to 95 repeats of the loop would be needed to equal the height of Everest. Sumit had done this on March 13, 2015, a date he recalls as a Friday the 13th. “ For 2020, we decided to restrict the number of loops per head to a maximum of three so that people of varying ability can participate,’’ Sumit said. On the appointed day – March 13 again and a Friday to boot – fifty four people turned up on their bicycles to attempt the project. Riding from 4AM to 7AM, they accumulated in all, 150 loops. Everest and more, was in the bag. A little over ten days later, India slipped into nationwide lockdown. From then till the time of writing, the virus and its capacity for havoc would dominate people’s imagination.

Sumit Patil on his home trainer in Alibag; riding to raise funds for Prabodhan Trust (Photo: courtesy Sumit)

The initial part of the nationwide lockdown was strictly enforced. Those loving the active lifestyle were reduced to working out at home and trotting around in their courtyard or the space around their housing complex. This was the case with Sumit too in Alibag. He ran a bit. Further, among the classic endurance trio – swimming, cycling and running – cycling was best placed to tackle lockdown. Not all cyclists therein, but those with access to home trainers. With a trainer you could do a stationary ride at home. Connect it to one of the emergent virtual reality apps and you could do a ride with self as avatar on computer screen and even have others – represented by their avatars – join you on the ride. Sumit has a home trainer in Alibag. But he is also the sort who can’t shut himself out entirely from reality. It wasn’t long before the pains of the outside world got to him. A major tragedy unfolding through April-May was that of migrant workers. They are the manpower – often overlooked – building big cities and keeping them running. As cities shutdown in panic, these workers were left in the lurch. Thousands of them began trying to get home from the cities and towns they were stuck in. With no public transport available due to lockdown, people walked and cycled long distance to reach their villages. Concerned citizens responded. But given the scale of the problem, the initiatives were often inadequate. Yet for those with a conscience, what little intervention they could do, mattered. The migrant worker issue troubled Sumit. As he put it, if you have been a cyclist, hiker or runner pushing your limits, you would have known what hardship is; you would have also known what a food stall operated by utter stranger or some such relief in the middle of nowhere means to exhausted human being.

Already on Zwift and with the virtual riding season underway, Sumit moved to fashion an initiative around his home trainer. He would ride on the trainer, spread the news of his pedaling on social media and seek contributions. He wanted to ensure that there would be no leakage in the pipeline delivering the funds raised to those in need. A friend introduced him to the Dhule-based Prabodhan Trust. They were already working on the migrant workers issue. Sumit structured his initiative such that people wishing to contribute could do so directly to the Trust. The basic unit of the contribution was fixed at Rs 100 per kilometer ridden.  It was intended to discipline monetary inflows. The hundred rupees could be split as required by those wishing to donate; that is their choice. On May 20, pedaling on his home trainer from Alibag, Sumit covered 644 kilometers in 30 hours. As the ride unfolded on Zwift, some of his friends from the cycling world occasionally kept him company.  “ We raised close to Rs 190,000,’’ Sumit said.

The BRO signboard (Photo: courtesy Sumit)

Virus wasn’t the only challenge nature had in store. Cyclones usually lash India’s east coast washed by the Bay of Bengal. Depressions forming in the calmer Arabian Sea to the west rarely bloomed to cyclone proportion and when they did, generally tended to move north or north-west. The Indian state of Maharashtra had been spared damage by cyclone for long. Thanks to climate change, the behavior of the Arabian Sea has altered in recent years.  Some ten days after Sumit’s ride to raise funds for migrant workers, on May 31, an area of low pressure developed over the Eastern Arabian Sea. In the next couple of days it evolved into a deep depression and by the noon of June 2, it had become a cyclonic storm christened Nisarga. On the afternoon of June 3, it made landfall at Alibag leaving a trail of destruction in the region. “ It was bad, really bad,’’ Sumit said. People rallied around in their respective localities to clean up the damage.

For the past several years, Sumit has been a regular visitor to Leh (Ladakh). He has cycled much in the region and been a guide multiple times for the classic Manali-Leh bicycle trip. The Border Roads Organization (BRO), which maintains important roads in these parts, is known for its memorable signboards. One such board had stayed in Sumit’s memory; it said: Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India Is One. Around mid-June the process of relaxing the nationwide lockdown commenced. Among the rights restored in part during this phase was the freedom to exercise outdoors. A modest amount of running and cycling became possible. Alibag has a young outfit called Alibag Cycling Club. When the idea of a group ride was proposed, it was soon realized – this social tradition loved by every riding club wouldn’t be ideal amid pandemic. Protocols recommend no bunching of people. The paradigm shifted to riding with masks on, maintaining adequate distancing and dispensing with the socializing over refreshments `group’ typically implies. Next you needed an objective that respected above mentioned mode of riding and yet stayed interesting.

Members of the Alibag Cycling Club; this photo was taken on an occasion preceding pandemic and lockdown (Photo: Dr Akshay Koli)

The club picked on Sunday, June 21 – the year’s longest day (summer solstice) – as occasion to host every participant’s longest ride. Once again, the emphasis wasn’t on a few strong riders logging 100-200 kilometers. “ What we wanted was just longer than your longest yet. That could be any small amount. We also suggested ways to make the strain less. In a sunrise to sunset endeavor, you could cycle some hours in the morning, go home for lunch and then cycle again a few hours in the evening,’’ Sumit said. To make the whole thing even more engaging, the imagery in that BRO signboard was invoked and the aerial distance from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, which is roughly over 2500 kilometers, pointed to. It would be wonderful if the aggregate mileage of all participants matched or exceeded that figure. By now, some of Sumit’s friends in cycling sought that the affair not be kept exclusive to riders from Alibag. They should be able to pitch in with rides at other locations. The June 21 ride saw 172 people take part. Their cumulative mileage was in excess of 7000 kilometers. The youngest cyclist participating in the initiative was five year-old Ovi Pathre, who cycled 20 kilometers. Riders from Pune, Panvel and Uran brought in some 200 kilometers. The rest was met by cyclists from Alibag.

At the time of writing, the lockdown was still going on (its severity depending on location and level of infection) and Sumit was still in Alibag.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Photos of the rides of March 13 and June 21 couldn’t be had; according to Sumit, pandemic related protocols and participants cycling on their own meant no opportunity for group photo.)                     

FORD v FERRARI

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

Or as some would say: the Holmes in Miles

The world’s best-known detective, Sherlock Holmes, has been interpreted in many ways in the retelling of his stories through the years.

Nowadays, what keeps us glued to his character is less the story and more the example he offers as a fellow loner in world by humans.

It is one of the less acknowledged facts of our furiously networked life – we are lonely. Within that, there is a clear intellectual loneliness starting to proliferate. The bulk of our livelihood and the process of making money, grow on organizations that are often dull for no better reason than that they are organizations or commercially motivated entities. Minds not conforming to this space become liability. Ranks are closed and formations tightened to weed out the unwanted. The consequent loneliness of those forced to right-size has typically no place to seek empathy from, except imaginary companions on the journey like Holmes.

Of all the works based on Holmes, the TV series Elementary comes closest to this paradigm (the older Granada series starring Jeremy Brett is top notch for its loyalty to Holmes as originally conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). In one of the episodes (Rat Race: season 1, episode 4), this subsurface spin even explodes to explicit articulation as Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes puts a bunch of bankers in their place, informing them that he has no reason to stand in awe of their industry given he knows well what they do. Listening to it will make those of us who have experienced the coldness of money, happy. It endears as antidote because we live in a period where submission to collective (without adequate inquiry into how the collective operates) is fast becoming smothering ideal. Yet as creative content, Elementary weakens at this point because sometimes the punch in creativity is in how powerfully you wield subtlety for idiom.

That is why the film Ford v Ferrari, directed by James Mangold and currently available on Disney-Hotstar, felt excellent. It tells the real life story of Ford’s quest to perfect the Ford GT 40 and beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in France.  With two solid actors – Christian Bale and Matt Damon – in the lead, there is little need for words to describe their effort. What kept me engaged was the brave balance the narrative struck between the innovation, design, engineering and testing that go into making superb cars and the brand-driven intellectual dullness of the capital-laden organizations, which get to build them.  It is a paradox coped with not just in the automotive business but across categories of business and on that count, the film appealed to me despite my attraction for cars not being high.

Ken Miles (played by Bale) is a maverick British race car driver and a struggling mechanic. He knows well how the machinery of a car harmonizes to produce cutting edge performance; he also knows how to harness all that energy like the conductor of an orchestra. For folks like him, the whole thing smacks of art and art is well, for art sake. You don’t cut corners and in your pursuit of a valued ethic, you call a spade, a spade. That isn’t how Leo Beebe (played by Josh Lucas), Ford’s senior vice president, given charge of the company’s racing division, imagines racing. For him, performance on the race track dovetails into feeding the Ford brand and pleasing his boss Henry Ford II. The corporate structure matters. Against this matrix, an eccentric like Miles is not team player enough. And so at the 1966 edition of Le Mans, Beebe recommends the unthinkable with the approval of Henry Ford II. Just when Ferrari’s challenge crumbles and Miles in his Ford GT 40 is firmly in the lead, Beebe tells Carroll Shelby (portrayed by Damon), entrusted with the project of defeating Ferrari, to inform Miles to slow down and finish along with the second and third placed Fords so that it is a great photo opportunity.  Three cars from the same stable cross the finish line together to embellish a brand. It is a terrible moment of averaging individual talent. It even results in fellow Ford drivers Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon being declared winners over Miles by an obscure technical detail (their cars commenced the race a few meters behind Miles’s in the starting order, so in the team finish, that got added in their favor), but the latter takes it in his stride. Miles thanks Shelby for the opportunity he got to race at Le Mans.

Miles’s graciousness masks the tragedy and abject injustice resident in that moment of a company’s triumph. It reminds us of the importance, capital and inevitability by dominance award corporates notwithstanding the human brain remaining unimpressed by such muscle. For a while, depending on what your own experience has been at the hands of organized world, you see Miles as not just race car driver but an emblem of talent scorned. In that universality of Miles’s character, this 2019 film soars beyond being merely a document on the Ford GT 40 and its defeat of Ferrari at an iconic race to being like that fat book compiling Holmes’s adventures you deem must-have in the book shelf. You know life’s disappointments will be many. Refuge to recover should always be at hand. See Ford v Ferrari, if you haven’t. Holmes, Miles – they are utterly different, yet somewhere similar for the reasons they appeal to us.

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