Bharat Pannu; from 2022 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Bharat)

It was the tenth day of his participation in the 2022 edition of Race Across America (RAAM) and things were not going well for Bharat Pannu.

He had developed a mild fever and was feeling chilly during daytime. It wasn’t a sudden onset. A vague sluggishness had been threatening to derail plans since race commencement. It wasn’t the predicament Bharat Pannu deserved. Since 2017, the ultra-cyclist had been trying to participate in and complete the 4800 kilometers-long Race Across America (RAAM). He had done the needful diligently, including crewing for the participating team in 2018 so that he would understand what went into a successful completion of the iconic race. In 2019, with much preparation done, he reached the US for his shot at RAAM. Unfortunately, he suffered an accident while cycling in the US, ahead of RAAM. It left him with a broken collar bone. His plan to race had to be abandoned.

Late 2019, the first cases of what would eventually come to be called COVID-19 were reported. By early 2020, it was a full-blown pandemic, and the world was forced to shut down. Sport went into hibernation; sporting events dried up. The year’s RAAM was cancelled. However, a major development of the pandemic phase featuring people loving the active lifestyle trapped indoors, was the spurt in virtual formats of sport. In cycling, the use of trainers (the device replaces the rear wheel of the bike and allows it to be used as a stationary bicycle that can be pedaled indoors) was already a reality. High end trainers, computers and digital apps used in combination allowed races to be simulated. RAAM debuted a virtual race. Bharat who had been training for RAAM, grabbed the opportunity. Pedaling from an apartment in Pune and enduring the challenges of covering simulated ultra-long distance from a parked bike, Bharat achieved something remarkable – covering 4086 kilometers, he placed first in his age category and third overall in the competition.

The virtual RAAM was followed by attempts to set new records, cycling along India’s highway system called the Golden Quadrilateral and the popular high-altitude road linking Leh and Manali. In both instances, he made it to the Guinness Book of World Records. Beneath the record-breaking effort, there was a niggling worry. Bharat knew that his performance could have been better. In the happiness of podium finish in virtual RAAM and new Guinness records established, introspection got postponed. Correction happened in the 2021 edition of Ultra Spice, among prominent endurance races in India. “ I did this self-supported race and had a good time,’’ Bharat said, adding that the run up to the event and the actual race gave him space to rectify the shortcomings he had noticed in 2020.

By now he was feeling good and ready for another shot at RAAM. But COVID-19 was still out there haunting the world in repeated waves of infection. Overseas travel continued to be plagued by uncertainty and the requirement for extra care and quarantine. RAAM is a supported race; every cyclist has a crew. Anyone of them falling sick would suffice to upset plans; worse, if that happens in the US or during the race, it could mean much investment wasted. For participants from India, RAAM is a costly affair. “ In 2021, RAAM didn’t appear viable to me owing to the restrictions still in place,’’ Bharat said. So, he rolled over his eligibility to participate, to 2022. Following the decision to postpone his RAAM attempt; in October 2021, he cycled in nine days from the west of India to the east – from Koteshwar in Gujarat to Kibita in Arunachal Pradesh.

Within India, events in sport were slowly regaining tempo and normalcy. Bharat had his basket of events to choose from and stay busy. But there were other developments to cope with. An army officer, Bharat’s interest in endurance cycling and his competence in the sport, was noticed by the establishment. In July 2021, the aeronautical engineer aligned with the Indian Army’s aviation wing, was transferred from Bengaluru to Ahmednagar (a major base for the army’s armored corps) and put in charge of the Indian Army’s Cycling and Rugby teams. While that no doubt ensured a scenario in which, a person’s favorite sport became the stuff of his regular work, the new responsibilities – he was now overseeing the training and performance of whole teams – may have deprived Bharat of the level of attention he should have shown himself to be in good shape for RAAM. “ I got involved in so many things,’’ Bharat said. He made the best of what his predicament offered and reported to RAAM’s starting line in California in June 2022. There was no shortage of confidence, he and his crew were looking forward to a good outing, he said.

As its name denotes, RAAM entails a ride across the United States, spanning its east-west sprawl. In races, Bharat is known for his ability to fare strongly in the second half. When in the initial part of 2022 RAAM, Bharat trailed other participants, it didn’t bother him or his crew. It seemed to fit his style and known pattern of performance. On the fifth day however, it suddenly struck home that the team may find itself in trouble. Till Durango, the progress hadn’t been too bad; the lag was manageable. Then it began to get warm impacting Bharat’s progress. Decisions were taken and a sincere attempt made to improve progress. It yielded result. The rest of day five wasn’t bad. Day six too was good. “ At this point, I was only slightly short of the average speed required to complete the race within the stipulated cut-off period of 12 days,’’ Bharat said. The turnaround in fortunes was short-lived. Four days later, on day ten, that mild fever manifested and along with it, chills, and shivering.

Bharat Pannu; from 2022 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Bharat)

Bharat’s performance started to fall. His average speed began to decline. His crew got worried. It was clear that if Bharat didn’t rest adequately, he risked damaging his health. The team decided to exit the race. It was a tough decision to stomach. “ I didn’t have any saddle sores. My fingers were fine. My nutrition was perfect,’’ Bharat said. He thinks that the initial lag may have cost him dearly. Aside from requiring him to push later to make up for the lag, it also brought him to some of the portions of the course susceptible to bad weather, just when the conditions turned bad. He got hammered. “ I now understand that you must push from day one itself,’’ Bharat said.

Another reason for his disappointing exit from RAAM in 2022, could be the deficit in training. It wasn’t as good as it was for the races, he previously participated in. And yet, it isn’t all about likely deficit either. In the best of times, to be good in ultra-cycling and fit enough for RAAM, Bharat was training at least 20 hours a week. That is three to four hours daily atop regular office work. “ For the body, office time and sleep time became the only periods for recovery,’’ he said. So, was there an element of too much done over several years, also contributing to the outcome at 2022 RAAM? That’s a tricky slope to set cyclist’s drive, on. Bharat admitted that he had been physically active and challenging his limits for a long time. He maybe in need of a break. On the other hand, too long a break may make return to form, a longer haul. On the question of returning to RAAM, he said, the mind must decide on that subject. “ All said and done, it is a race that requires a fit mind above everything else,’’ Bharat said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation had in October 2022. Its publication got delayed. Apologies for the delay.)     

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