BEHIND A NATIONAL BEST

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

At the 24-Hour Stadium Run organized by NEB Sports in Bengaluru on January 23 & 24, 2021, Sandeep Kumar, ultra-runner from Surat, won the 100 kilometer-race in seven hours, 56 minutes and 22 seconds, a new national best for the distance. Here is an overview of his journey in the sport:

In the days leading to the NEB 24-hour Bengaluru Stadium Run held on January 23 and 24, 2021, Sandeep Kumar’s plan was to attempt the 100 kilometer-category therein, as a training run. “ I  was not approaching this event as a race. My training was far from adequate. Also, I had been traveling on work across the country and so was not able to chalk out a good training program,” he said.

Before the Bengaluru event, Sandeep could manage two long runs as part of his training plan – a 71 km-run in Manali (through Solang and the Rohtang Pass) and a 60 km-run in Surat; the latter three weeks ahead of the stadium run. He managed decent training mileage for only a week. “ I planned to take this event as a training run. I wanted to support Abhinav,” he said. Like Sandeep, Abhinav Jha, a naval officer, is among India’s leading ultramarathon runners.

On the first day of the event in Bengaluru – Saturday, January 23 – the weather was fairly good. Participating in the 100 kilometer-category, Abhinav covered the distance in 7:57:35 hours. The timing was a new national best. The previous national best was 8:04 by Mumbai-based runner, Deepak Bandbe, who secured it at the 2019 IAU Asia & Oceania Championships in Jordan. The day after Abhinav’s run in Bengaluru the weather changed. It became very warm in the morning and afternoon hours. “ I started running at 5.30 AM on Sunday. I ran non-stop as long as my body allowed me to do so. In the early hours, the weather was good. But as the day grew warmer fatigue started to creep in. I also began to sense tightness in my quadriceps,” Sandeep said.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

For his run, Sandeep had sought support from the team, which assisted Abhinav earlier. The naval officer, who had commenced his run at 5 PM on Saturday and finished it only a few hours before Sandeep started his attempt, pitched in to help. It was a heart-warming gesture; typically long runs exhaust athletes and dispatch them to rest and recovery. “ Abhinav mixed drinks for me. It helped me to hydrate well during the race. It was amazing that Abhinav helped out so not long after finishing his shot at 100 km,” Sandeep said. Also lending consistent support to Sandeep was Sunil Chainani, member of the committee overseeing ultra-running at the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and who has in the past accompanied Indian teams to events overseas.

Backed thus by a good team, Sandeep was able to pile on the miles. The 30 to 50 km phase went off well. “ I felt I was getting my energy back. From then on I paid attention to my nutrition. I just focussed on getting by, one hour to the next,” he said.

The Bengaluru stadium run was the first event on track for Sandeep. It was also a case of runner progressively getting back into the thick of action after enduring an uncertain period. Earlier in August 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, IAU had held a six-hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run for ultra-runners across the world. From India, 25 runners completed the run, held on August 29 and 30. Running in Surat, Sandeep had logged the maximum distance among Indian runners with a mileage of 79.53 km. It was an encouraging performance given the intervening months of lockdown caused by COVID-19 had been trying. In the initial phase of lockdown, norms had been strict; it forced Sandeep to stay indoors. For an ultra-runner, training mileage has to be high. The complete absence of running was very difficult to handle. “ The mind and body felt caged,” he said. He used to wake up very early to do short runs or opt to run late at night. Eventually, he took to meditation. It helped him weather those months.

For the IAU 6-hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run, Sandeep commenced general fitness training sometime in July 2020 and by early August 2020, he started run training. He chose to run in Surat as it was familiar training ground. His run went off well, helped by his training and the pleasant weather. Roughly a year before this virtual run, in 2019, Sandeep had been part of the Indian team at the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships in Jordan. However, the race that fetched Sandeep the attention of India’s ultra-running circles was the Comrades Marathon. Over 2017 and 2018, he had completed the uphill and downhill versions of this iconic race in South Africa in the best timings reported till then by an Indian runner.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

Sandeep comes from a farming family in Haryana. His grandfather was in the Indian Army. Typically, the son should have followed the father’s footsteps but being the only son Ishwar Singh (Sandeep’s father) was vested with the responsibility of managing the farmlands owned by the family. During his schooling years at Sonipat, Sandeep Kumar engaged in a variety of sports – cycling, running, trail running – but mostly on his own and not on a formal basis.

In families that are into farming, it is general practice to recruit all available hands for farm related activities, especially when schools close for the summer holidays. Sandeep did his share of enduring the hard work. What must have been a chore at that point in time has probably proved beneficial to Sandeep in later years; ultra-running entails coping with hardship. But it would be still more years before he got seriously into running.

Through his years of study at the Government Engineering College, Sonipat, Sandeep did not involve much in sporting activity though he did take part in runs over distances of 3 km and 5 km without any prior training. On securing his degree in engineering, by way of campus recruitment he was offered employment at Larsen & Toubro (L&T) at Surat in Gujarat. “ After an initial stint in design, I was shifted to the execution department. Here, the work required walking 10 to 15 kilometers, visiting the various sites and departments,” he said. Sandeep joined a gym to strengthen himself for this assignment. “ I developed a muscular body. It was completely unsuited to long-distance running but at that time I had no clue I would go into running,” he said.

After five years in the execution department, Sandeep was transferred back to design. “ It was a desk bound assignment. Initially, it was a relief from all that walking about. But soon, sitting throughout the day started to stress me out,” he said. In 2011, he incorporated a one kilometer-walk as warm-up before his gym session every evening. The walk slowly became a warm-up run and in due course, a part of his daily routine. He also commenced doing trail runs of short distances.

In 2014, he participated in a 5 km run (an event) finishing it in 30 minutes. “ I was happy with my speed though at a younger age I have run faster. This performance motivated me to take up running,” he said. Running was also a source of strength; it gave him a sense of equanimity.

Photo: courtesy Sandeep

In 2014, Sandeep heard about the Surat Night Marathon, held in March. He enrolled for the half marathon. “ During my training for this run, the longest distance I ran was 16 km. During the race, I was able to run non-stop for about 15-16 km. After that I resorted to walk-run. The last 6 km was tough. I had no idea of hydration. I drank too many energy drinks and ended up with electrolyte imbalance,” he said. Sandeep finished the run in 2:02. His next major outing was the full marathon at the 2014 edition of Hyderabad Marathon. The training was again inadequate. He completed the race in four hours, 15 minutes, 48 seconds. “ During the Hyderabad Marathon, I realized that I enjoyed long distance running. I started reading up on running and understood that I should also focus on speed among other things,” he said. This time he got his preparation right. At his next outing, which was the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, Sandeep finished in 1:31, a marked improvement in his timing in the half marathon.

Running is like living; there’s always room for improvement. Although he had been training well, over time Sandeep understood that his recovery was slow. “ I realized that I was not following a good diet. I had to reduce the intake of saturated fat and increase multi-grains in my diet for a lean body, which is critical for long-distance running,” he said. He believes his timings improved substantially after he tweaked his diet and incorporated nutritional foods. In the process he also gave up dairy products and in 2016 adopted a vegan diet.

Sandeep Kumar (left), in his role as race organizer (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

In 2016, Sandeep enrolled for his first race in excess of the full marathon distance, a 55 km-run at the Vadodara Ultra. By now, he had also started offering tips to other runners and doing training runs with them. Sometime in 2016, a local runner had approached Sandeep Kumar for coaching for running ultra-distances. This runner had attempted the 2016 edition of the Comrades Marathon, an ultra-marathon of roughly 89 kilometers, held every year in South Africa. However, he had failed to complete it within the mandated finish time of 12 hours. He wanted to attempt the race again in 2017.

Up until then Sandeep had been largely focussed on the full marathon and had completed only one race that was in excess of the marathon distance – the 55K race at Vadodara Ultra. After the conversation with the above mentioned runner, the idea of attempting the Comrades Marathon began to assume shape in Sandeep’s mind. The runner agreed to help Sandeep with the visa process. At L&T, Sandeep was able to get leave as his new projects were scheduled to commence much after the race. He enrolled for the 2017 edition of Comrades Marathon. The ultramarathon held every year in May or June in South Africa, attracts a large number of ultra-runners from around the world. The contingent from India has been growing over the past few years.

For the 2017 edition, Sandeep trained mostly in Surat. He occasionally traveled to Dudhani near Silvaasa to do a long run of 60 km across hilly terrain; he did this a couple of times before the race. “ “I managed to get four months of training and notched up a total mileage of 2100 km,” he said. The training mileage was good. Yet there was trepidation on how the race would pan out.

From Comrades (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

In South Africa, Sandeep started the race slowly but after the 40 km-mark found the going tough.  He kept moving. “ My legs felt very stiff and I wanted to give up several times. I persisted,” he said. During the last 12 km of the race, he rediscovered his momentum and sped all the way to the finish line. His finish time for the uphill version of Comrades Marathon was 8:24 hours, a new national best for men from India for that distance. “ When I finished the race, I felt on top of the world. I got hooked to ultra-running,” Sandeep said. The next year, he ran the downhill version of Comrades Marathon and finished in 7:30:17, another Indian record.

According to Sandeep, the diverse experience of enjoying natural beauty, traveling and getting to know different cultures, people and cuisines makes ultra-running appealing. As every ultra-run is a lengthy engagement, it lets him use all his knowledge about sports and mental skills. “ Ultra-running tests the character. It defines who I am; I talk a lot to myself during a run,” he said.

In 2018, for the first time ever, India sent a team of runners to the 100 km IAU World Championships in Croatia. For the sport of ultra-running in India, it was an important moment. Thanks to his performance at Comrades, Sandeep was among seven ultra-runners chosen to represent India at the championships. In 2019, he ran the Boston Marathon and finished the race in 2:56:07. He also ran the 43 km IAU Ultra Trail Championships in Portugal, not as part of the Indian team but in the open category. In the same year, he represented India in the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan on November 23, 2019. The men’s team secured a gold medal and one of the team members, Deepak Bandbe, finished on the podium with a bronze medal. Sandeep’s performance in Aqaba was not up to his expectations. “ After 60 km, I developed severe cramps and had to slow down,” he said.

The victory lap; Abhinav Jha carries Sandeep Kumar on his shoulders (Photo: courtesy NEB Sports)

A year and two months later, his fortunes appeared different at the stadium run in Bengaluru. Notwithstanding the heat, Sandeep was able to manage his hydration well thanks to the volunteers helping him with his needs. Once he crossed 60 km, Sandeep realized that he would be able to continue running despite the stiff quads. According to him, he wasn’t chasing a national best or any such mark. However at around 75 km, it became apparent that his progress was in line with the national best set earlier by Abhinav; and if he managed things properly, that mark could be revised too.“ I know my body well. I can push for a good finish. I finished the race in good shape,” he said. January 23-24, 2021 remain special for ultra-running in India, in that within a span of several hours the national best for the 100K was rewritten twice – first by Abhinav Jha and then by Sandeep. A report on the IAU website by Shibani Gharat, highlighting the sportsmanship displayed, said that following Sandeep’s run, Abhinav carried the new national best-holder on his shoulders for a 400 meter-lap.

Away from participating in races, Sandeep has teamed up with ultra-runner, Nupur Singh, to organize ultra-trail races under the banner of Great Indian Trails or GrIT, a couple of road races, training camps and coaching under the banner of RunGineers. He is an IAAF level-1 athletics coach and ACSM certified trainer for the marathon. He is also an active promoter of veganism. Going ahead, he plans to focus on his own running and his roles as an event organizer and coach in ultra-running.

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

A WORKSHOP IN NAVI MUMBAI

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In the concluding months of 2020, an accomplished ultra-cyclist discovered the beauty in sharing his knowledge and skills through an extended workshop. Here’s an overview: 

Bala Sitaram Rokade bought her cycle about two years ago. She was into the active lifestyle. She had been running regularly since 2015, was training women interested in physical fitness and had become an ambassador for Pinkathon in the Seawoods area. At the time of purchasing the bicycle, she didn’t know how to cycle. “ I wanted to learn cycling,” she said. Having learnt it; prior to the pandemic-induced lockdown of March 2020, the maximum distance she cycled at one go was approximately 25 kilometers on that road much loved by runners and cyclists in Navi Mumbai – Palm Beach. In October 2020, as the relaxation of the lockdown progressed, Bala enrolled for a workshop on cycling that she came to hear of through the social media channels of Everest Cycling Culture (ECC). It spanned a few weeks. “ The workshop enhanced my confidence to cycle on the road and on Palm Beach. Within a fortnight of training at the workshop, I did my first ride of 100 kilometers,” she said.

The 100k ride was essayed as loops on Palm Beach, a pretty flat road. Bala covered the distance in around five hours. Following the workshop, Bala began attempting BRMs, which are self-supported long distance rides held with a cut-off time but no competition among participating cyclists. It is typically the first stepping stone for those aspiring to know the world of endurance cycling. Internationally, the tradition of brevets or BRMs is overseen by the Audax Club Parisien (ACP); each country has a local chapter that supervises rides within its domain. Bala did her first 100k (Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi) in 4:58 hours; the second 100k (Belapur-Khopoli-Belapur) in 5:18 hours and on January 30, 2021, a 200k BRM (NMMC building near Belapur-Dhapoli) in 12:58 hours. Officially, BRMs start from 200k; the 100k is classified as Brevet Populaire (BP). “ I wish to try becoming a Super Randonneur,” the 50 year-old said. To be a Super Randonneur or SR, a cyclist has to do BRMs of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers in one SR season.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

February 2021. At a small cafe in the subway below the Seawoods  railway station, Kabir Rachure recalled his predicament in the second half of 2020. “ I was bored,” he said. Among leading endurance cyclists in western India, Navi Mumbai-based Kabir has been a podium finisher at domestic ultra-cycling events and a finisher in the 2019 edition of Race Across America (RAAM). Like others in the country, he had seen life in his neighborhood come to a halt with the pandemic and lockdown. Weird for ordinary human beings to behold, the specter of life brought to a standstill was weirder still for the cyclist used to training outdoors daily. In the initial phase, it was unsettling. Kabir trained indoors but the repetitive pattern of a bleak existence was boring. Past its strictest phase, as the lockdown started to relax and he recommenced his outdoor rides, Kabir thought of ways to overcome the ennui that still nagged him. Although there were virtual events organized by friends that he participated in and instances of Everesting (an activity in which, cyclists pedal up and down a hill multiple times till the cumulative elevation gain equals that of Everest – 8848 meters; it is done by runners too) he attended, he knew it would be some months before the old calendar of physical events in endurance cycling got restored. It left him with time on his hands and thoughts around how such time may be put to good use.

Everest Cycling Culture is a leading name in the bicycle retail business in Navi Mumbai. For some years now, it has functioned as a modern bicycle shop in the suburb of Seawoods. ECC anchors a community of cyclists replete with weekend rides covering modest distances. Kabir knew ECC well. Long before the lockdown  of 2020, he and the well known Nagpur-based ultra-cyclist Amit Samarth, had been speakers at a function organized by ECC. He had also given a talk at ECC after completing RAAM. In the period of the phased dismantling of the lockdown, Kabir realized that what would satisfy him is sharing and coaching. Thanks to his excursions in the field of ultra-cycling, he had built up a well of experience. Besides the grace in sharing, helping others improve their skills can be a sort of healing for the mind emerging from pandemic and lockdown. Not to mention – the timing seemed apt because in the wake of lockdown being relaxed, in India and elsewhere in the world, there had been a sharp surge in interest in cycling. The pandemic had highlighted the importance of physical fitness. Among avenues to stay fit, cycling ranked at the top because it mixed exercise with the joy of movement and at the same time ensured physical distancing, which had become an important aspect of pandemic-related safety protocols.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to AbdulRab Kazi, founder and admin of ECC, it’s online community of cycling enthusiasts is currently over 3000-strong and spread across 19 WhatsApp groups in Navi Mumbai. “Kabir has been associated with ECC since 2014-15. We were talking one day when Kabir broached the idea of a training workshop,” Kazi said. ECC quickly bought into the idea. Amateur cyclists typically need some guidance to gain confidence and give wing to their abilities. The workshop seemed ideal for that. “ We decided on a format that would have Kabir ride with the trainees at least three days a week and assign them homework for the remaining days,” Kazi said. ECC circulated the proposal on social media to their members. Alongside they also reactivated an old WhatsApp group they had. Called Wheelist, it was originally meant to address members nursing dreams of personal expeditions and projects. Those interested in the workshop were encouraged to come aboard Wheelist. The workshop was named: Train with Kabir. A fee of Rs 1000 was charged for the program to ensure that only those truly interested (and having suitable cycles) would participate. Around 17-18 applications were received. From that, 13 persons were selected to attend the workshop. It was a varied field ranging from abject recreational cyclists to those who had already done BRMs. It was also varied in terms of age. The diversity suited ECC because its aim is to get more people on the saddle and help them acquire the capability of riding 100 kilometers, comfortably and responsibly. As regards age, Kazi felt that in today’s times many people wake up to their capabilities late. Amateur running and cycling has plenty of people who picked up the sport in middle age. “ At ECC, we have a wide range of age groups, from 9-10 year-olds to those above 70,” Kazi said. Among those who applied and made it to the workshop was, Bala.

Another was fifty year-old Ajith B. Nair, who stays in Seawoods and works as a chief manager at State Bank of India. He had been living the regular working man-existence with physical fitness denied its due share of attention, when a physiotherapist he consulted for a knee problem, recommended cycling. Initially, he borrowed his son’s bicycle for the purpose. “ I liked the experience,” Ajith said. He joined the cycling community at ECC. About a year and a half ago, still unsure whether his new interest in cycling would become a serious engagement or not, the bank officer purchased an affordable hybrid bike – Riverside – from Decathlon. “ My goal on the days I cycled was to pedal for an hour or in terms of distance, about 20 kilometers. I hadn’t heard of BRMs and so knew nothing about them,” he said. However courtesy, the supported group rides offered by ECC, Ajith had to his credit a long bike ride of around 60 kilometers prior to reporting for the workshop. That was the longest distance he had covered. In the course of the workshop (it started on October 20), Ajith did a 70km-ride on Palm Beach. “ It was at the workshop that I got my first insight into what BRMs are,” he said. Ajith did his first BRM, a 200km-ride in November during the course of the workshop. In December, he did his second BRM, this time a 300km-ride. He plans to continue participating in BRMs. But the best thing that the combination of cycling, workshop and BRMs have done is that it has given him a hobby he can continue anywhere in India. “ BRMS are there in many cities now,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

A structural engineer by profession, Parag Kulkarni, 48, used to be a recreational cyclist.Owner of a Giant road bike, he was a member of the ECC cycling community. The longest ride he had done ahead of the workshop was of 100 kilometers; it was a supported outing with ECC of 70 kilometers complemented by a 30km segment on his own. According to Parag, in the early stage of the workshop, the participants along with Kabir, did a slightly long ride covering Palm Beach and the nearby Parsik Hill. This gave Kabir an idea of where each trainee was in cycling; he was able to customize inputs for each in addition to the general sharing of knowledge, which every workshop entails. Parag participated in his first BRM roughly three months ago, a 200km-ride that he completed in approximately 13 hours. Going ahead, he wishes to attempt being a Super Randonneur. But for that, he feels an emergent problem in cycling has to sort itself out. One of his BRMs (a 400k one) had to be aborted because of a couple of punctures, including one that ripped the tyre. Parag managed to hire transport and get himself and cycle back to Navi Mumbai. Unfortunately in the months after lockdown’s relaxation, the sudden surge in cycling and bicycle purchases had created a shortage of bikes and spare parts. Good tyres have become difficult to procure. It took him a couple of weeks to find a replacement for the damaged tyre and that meant no cycling for the period. The difficulty in finding spares also means that amateur cyclists pushing their limits may have to do so conservatively, for damaged parts are currently tough to replace.

Anup T. V was among the more experienced of the trainees. The 41 year-old forex dealer working with Kotak Mahindra Bank and residing in Sanpada, is a triathlete with a few Ironman events under his belt. It was around three years ago that he bought his first bicycle – a Firefox Rapide hybrid. The decision to take up cycling was mainly to check weight gain. He also became a member of ECC. In the ensuing months, he was one of the attendees at the talk hosted by ECC featuring Amit Samarth and Kabir; the former had completed both RAAM and Trans Siberian Extreme while the latter was preparing for RAAM. “ A day after this talk, I signed up for my first triathlon – the Ironman 70.3 held in Dubai in 2019,” Anup said. The journey to that event saw him acquiring a second bicycle, a road bike – Scott Addict 30. Following the Dubai Ironman, Anup participated in the 2019 Ironman Goa and a triathlon of 70.3 dimensions in Kolhapur. The last Ironman event he competed in was in New Zealand. Held in March 2020, it was a case of leaving an India before lockdown, competing in New Zealand and then returning to an India and world altered by the pandemic-induced lockdown. With ECC, Anup had done rides of 100 kilometers and more. Back in 2018 he also did a 200km-BRM on his hybrid bike, covering the distance in roughly 13:15 hours. During the course of the workshop, Anup did two BRMs of 200km each – from Navi Mumbai towards the Pune side, up Bhor Ghat and back. The first one he completed in approximately 10 hours, the second in 11 hours. Later he did a 300km-BRM in roughly 15:10 hours and a 400km-BRM in 23:15 hours. In November 2021, he plans to participate in the 600km category of the Deccan Cliffhanger, an event used as a RAAM-qualifier by many. Interestingly, despite his ability in cycling, Anup’s focus is not ultra-cycling; it is the triathlon. He has set his eyes on an upcoming Ironman in Lanzarote, Spain, which is reputed for its tough cycling leg. “ I would like to keep doing an Ironman every one to one and a half years,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Seventeen year-old Lenin Kennedy was the youngest trainee at Kabir’s workshop. Until then, he had been the regular recreational cyclist-sort, taking his bike out once or twice a week for rides approximating 20 kilometers on Palm Beach. Owner of a Dodge hybrid cycle, he was also a member of ECC and with the group, had done rides that were 50-70 kilometers long. The workshop has taken his relationship with cycling to another level. While many of the other participants at the workshop proceeded to participate in BRMs, Lenin couldn’t as his age didn’t make him old enough to enroll for one. So the youngster had his own 200km-ride on Palm Beach, which he completed in roughly nine hours. “ I am now interested in getting into professional cycling. I wish to take part in road races,” he said.

Fifty two year-old Prabhat Paranjpe, a telecom professional working with Reliance, has been a recreational cyclist for the past six years or so. His bike is a Trek 3 series MTB, purchased in 2013-14. “ I used to be a weekend rider,” Prabhat said. His rides usually covered around 50 kilometers; “ 25 kilometers one way,” as he put it. From Navi Mumbai, he used to ride in the direction of South Mumbai, Thane and Kalyan. A member of ECC, on his rides with them he cycled a bit longer. “ I didn’t know much about BRMs,” he said. What drew him to the workshop was a simple instinct. During group rides with ECC he had noticed others who were better  than him at cycling longer and faster. He wished to improve. He also wanted to give himself adequate motivation to graduate from being merely a weekend rider to somebody who cycled more regularly. “ I was hoping to bring in some discipline and knowledge,” he said. That seemed possible with the workshop because it was scheduled to be at least a month long affair (it eventually lasted some more to accommodate Kabir’s commitments as a cyclist). During the course of the training program, Prabhat did two rides that were longer than any he had attempted before. He did his first 100k ride; Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi, which he completed in roughly five and a half hours. The next was supposed to be a 200k BRM but Prabhat required some customization. The route of the ride from Navi Mumbai included the Bhor Ghat, which lay on the approach to Lonavala. Given he was on a heavier MTB with 21 (7×3) gears to boot, Prabhat was doubtful of how he would fare within the paradigm of a BRM. So Kabir suggested an alternative – accumulate 200 kilometers by riding from Navi Mumbai to Kasara and back. This Prabhat did; he covered the distance of 205km in approximately 13 hours, stops included. Unfortunately after the workshop, there was a minor loss of momentum in Prabhat’s cycling as the months of January and February had to be surrendered to business travel and recovering from illness. Past mid-February 2021, he said, “ I have just got back to cycling. I did a 50k this weekend and should be doing a 100k next weekend.” Not one to chase timings and such, he seemed interested in solo, self supported tours on his bicycle. “ Maybe I will ride to Pune next,” he said. 

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From the conversation with Kabir, a visible streak in the training process appeared to be sharing of his personal experience and nudging people towards attempting BRMs. As he pointed out, the physical ability to cycle is there in most people; what varies is the personal experience gained from cycling long and hard. That is what ultra-cyclists like him bring to the table at a workshop. Years of training and pedaling long distances have given them insight into how to endure extended hours on the saddle and tackle various situations related to person and bike as they evolve. In the latter context, the encouragement to try BRMs makes sense because they are self-supported rides; the rider has to manage challenges en route himself / herself. But in addition to the above and the general satisfaction he got from helping fellow cyclists improve, there was probably another reason why Kabir elected to coach. Although he and others from his generation in cycling continue to dominate ultra-cycling events in India, the gap between them and the next wave of talent has been narrowing. Kabir thinks that in general, the basin for this talent currently runs through Mumbai-Navi Mumbai, Nashik, Pune and Bengaluru. These are regions that have produced prominent names in ultra-cycling (riders and coaches), around who, other cyclists have since clustered or grown. Each successive wave of talent rides in having benefited from more opportunities to cycle and improve, than the generation before it. So at some point, it is inevitable that new names will hog the podium. Nobody wins forever. What genuinely endures in such reality is one’s accumulated bank of experience as a cyclist. It makes sense to share it.

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

AT A GLANCE / FEBRUARY 2021

L L Meena (right, with the Indian flag) Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani

Ultra-runner L. L. Meena passes away

Noted ultra-runner, L. L. Meena, passed away on February 10, 2021, following a battle with cancer.

Meena, who worked with the Indian Army had turned 39 on February 1. He had been running ultra-distance races for the past several years and had represented India in both the 2018 100 kilometer IAU World Championships in Croatia and the 2018 24-hour IAU Asia & Oceania Championships in Taipei.

“ He was running ultra-distance races much before India started sending teams to represent the country in international championships,” Sunil Chainani, member of the Ultra Running Committee of Athletics Federation of India, said. At the Taipei event, he pushed himself over the last couple of hours to help India secure the bronze medal. He was among the three top Indian finishers, the others being Ullas Narayana and Sunil Sharma, Chainani said. The team medal is decided on the performance of the top three runners. The Indian team was represented by six runners at that event.

Many ultra-runners remember Meena as a kind, genuine, compassionate, extremely helpful and down-to-earth person. He was known to be very supportive of runners. “ In Croatia, we had rented a large apartment for the event. Meena would cook for all of us,” Sunil Chainani remembered. “ He was extremely supportive and a very positive person. You won’t find another ultra-runner like Meena. We ran together at many events,” Pranaya Mohanty, ultra-runner, said. 

“ He was a very selfless individual,” Anjali Saraogi, ultra-runner, said. Meena used to call people without fail, on festival days and their birthdays, to wish them. She remembered in particular the support he offered at the 100 kilometer IAU World Championships in Croatia. Anjali came into this event as a comparative novice. “ Meena had already done many ultra-runs and stadium runs. He used to call me and provide tips and suggestions on how to prepare. He was protective and encouraging,” she said. In the run up to the event Anjali came down with dengue fever. Result – on the day of the competition, as the run got underway, she found herself really challenged. “ I was suffering. The competition in Croatia was held on a loop. There were many instances when Meena and I passed each other on that loop. At each instance, he would overlook his own suffering and encourage me,” Anjali said, pointing out how Meena never lost sight of the team. “ His passing is a big loss for the Indian ultra-running community,” she said.  

According to those who knew him well, the type of cancer Meena suffered from was tough to overcome. It was detected in the second stage. Both the news of Meena’s ailment and his eventual passing, reached the running community late. Chander Kandpal is among those who knew Meena well. He comprehended the situation obliquely at the 2020 New Delhi Marathon. At one of the hydration points en route, he came across Meena cheering and supporting the runners. Chander noticed the typical signs of chemotherapy on Meena; that was how he got to know of the predicament. “ He used to come to Delhi for treatment. After the diagnosis, which I think was sometime in August 2019, Meena didn’t participate in any event. But he would turn up to cheer and support others,” Chander said, adding, “ anybody can be a good runner but being a great human being, that is not possible for everyone. Meena was just that. He was the finest human being in the ultra-running community.”  

New national records in 20km race walk

Sandeep Kumar (Haryana) and Priyanka Goswami (Uttar Pradesh) became the first Indian athletes to qualify for next year’s World Athletics Championships Oregon22 when they broke the national record in the 20km race walk for men and women respectively, a press release dated February 13, available on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI) said.

The event concerned was held on a 1km-loop on Morabadi Road in Ranchi.

“ Together with Rahul Kumar, who finished second in the men’s event, they also qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games to be held later this year. Both men are athletes from the Army Sports Institute They took the number of Indian race walkers who have made the grade to five, joining K T Irfan and Bhawana Jat.  Their efforts have raised the number of Indian qualifiers to 14 so far,” the release said.

Results:

Men 20km walk: 1. Sandeep Kumar (Haryana) 1:20:16 (new national record / old: 1:20:16, K T Irfan, London, 2012 and Devender Singh, Nomi, 2016); 2. Rahul Kumar (Haryana) 1:24:41; 3. Hardeep (Haryana) 1:47:47.

Women 20km walk: 1. Priyanka Goswami (Uttar Pradesh) 1:28:45 (new national record / old: 1:31:29, Baby Sowmya, Delhi, 2018; awaiting ratification 1:29.54, Bhawana Jat, Ranchi, 2020); 2. Bhawana Jat (Rajasthan) 1:32:59; 3. Sonal Sukwal (Rajasthan) 1:36:05.

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