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

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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

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

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

AT A GLANCE / APRIL 2020

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

2020 IAU 100 km World Championship cancelled

The 2020 IAU 100 km World Championship scheduled to be held on September 12 at Winschoten in the Netherlands, has been cancelled.

This follows the spread of COVID-19 across the world.

“ The current international situation would have seriously compromised the championships as many countries are now restricting international travel, invoking quarantines and advising citizens to remain indoors to prevent infection.  Even if the situation eases before September, any capability for international participation would be considerably reduced. First and foremost we had to consider the health and well-being of our athletes, officials and spectators in making this decision,’’ the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) said in a statement dated April 4, 2020, available on their website.

The 2020 IAU Congress has also been cancelled. “ We will work with the IAU Council on the future date of the Congress and elections,’’ the statement added.

2020 TCS World 10K rescheduled to September

A new date has been announced for the 2020 TCS World 10K.

The annual event in Bengaluru, originally scheduled for May 17 and then marked for rescheduling due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is now expected to be held on September 13. This is as per an official statement dated April 3, 2020, available on the event website.

“ We shall overcome this unprecedented situation and God willing the event will take place on 13th September 2020,’’ Vivek Singh, Joint-MD of event organizer, Procam International, was quoted as saying in the statement. Hugh Jones, Race Director, has said, “ Postponing the TCSW10K Bengaluru was bowing to the inevitable. It is just not possible to stage a race in currently prevailing conditions. Pushing the race date four months forward allows plans to be made with confidence for a race that is likely to be more competitive than ever.’’

Details on registration and surrendering registration already made are available on the event website.

2020 Race Across America (RAAM) and Race Aross West (RAW) cancelled

The 2020 edition of Race Across America (RAAM), one of the toughest endurance races in cycling, has been cancelled owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The race entails riding across the US, from its west coast to the east. The annual event also includes Race Across West (RAW), a race straddling a shorter length of the course.

In an email communique to participants on April 3, 2020, the organizers of RAAM informed, “ our decision to cancel the 2020 Races is consistent with the decisions made by other event sponsors and sports organizations around the world.  As COVID-19 rapidly spread around the globe in recent months, tournaments, games and other sporting events have been substantially modified, postponed or canceled. The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games to 2021 was an eye opener for every event organizer. More recently, the decisions by both Ironman and the UCI reinforced our decision.’’

It added, “ as the COVID-19 virus spread it became clear the coronavirus pandemic would make planning exceptionally difficult for race owners/directors. The COVID-19 virus became the overriding consideration in race planning. Two important facts were required to properly plan for and hold the Races: 1) how long would the pandemic last; and 2) can the race be put on safely for everyone involved. We soon realized it would be inappropriate to be considering a bicycle race when the entire world was dealing with such a serious public health crisis. ’’

The organizers pointed out that given RAAM goes through 12 states and 350 communities, there are several restrictive measures – ranging from limits on social interaction to steps designed to check overloading health care infrastructure to stay-at-home directives – issued by local, state and federal governments to be considered. The lock down orders in both California and Maryland, as they stand, prohibit the running of the race. The decision to cancel RAAM’s 2020 edition was based on all these factors.

“ RAAM has offered racers the option of a one-year rollover for at least the past decade. We are now modifying this policy to allow racers to rollover their registration to either the 2021 Race or the 2022 Race. Also, there will be no increase in registration fees for those rolling over to 2021 or 2022,’’ the email said.

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

A CURTAIN FROM THE PAST

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Will lock down alter how we like to see films?

It is a curtain I distinctly remember.

Huge, suspended from several feet above the ground with vertical columns of stitching gathering folds towards the bottom. Each horizontal fold resembled a concave arc. The bottom of the curtain had tassels. Every line of stitching, running down from the top ended in a small red light. At the appointed hour, the auditorium lights faded; the chatter in the audience receded to a hush, an instrumental hit – usually by The Ventures – played and the curtain with red lights rose slowly, revealing white screen behind. There was drama to it and a sense of magic about to visit enveloped us.

This is among my strong memories from childhood and it played out every time we visited a clutch of cinemas owned by the same promoter, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. After every show, the curtain was brought down and the next screening commenced with that mood-setting, repeated. Truth be told, I have to juggle my memory to remember the many films seen. But the sight of that curtain embellished with red lights, going up to engaging music – I don’t forget.

In the roughly five decades that have followed since, my generation saw the cinema experience transform. As it drifted from passion to business, one of the first casualties was that curtain. Among the last songs that I recall, played specifically for the curtain, was the theme from the 1971 movie `Shaft’ and selections from Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. Then, the attention to detail began fading and the curtain rose amid general chatter in the hall, pop hits of the day playing in the backdrop. Eventually the curtain stayed up day-long or rose for each screening with no fanfare. By then probably, the movie theater had become the business model of today; milking a piece of built-up real estate for revenue.

The multiplex trend took long to reach India and Kerala. But once it did, after some time spent savoring our first lot of two screen-cinemas, we moved fast to establishments with multiple screens. Where refreshment used to be a cup of tea or samosa grabbed during intermission, a whole industry of refreshments came to roost on the premises. The sound of chips beings crunched and fingers groping popcorns in cardboard boxes became part of viewing. Cellphone calls also entered the frame. Meanwhile ticket prices altered dramatically.

Years ago, there used to be the front row seats, first class, balcony, dress circle and boxes. As a school boy supported by parents, I enjoyed the balcony perspective with family.  By high school and college, when friends grew more important than family and the idea of supporting oneself was gradually instilled, balcony gave way to first class and front row. Employed, one reverted to balcony and even sampled dress circle and box. As multiplexes grew, the seating system lost its linkage to tradition. There were no fancy names for seats connecting cinema to the tradition of theater; only distinction by capacity to afford. The richest lounged on deck chair-like seats eating popcorn and slurping soft drinks. Those unable to afford as much, took the other seats. A family of four visiting the theater could easily cost a thousand bucks now. My first job in the late 1980s paid that much as monthly salary.

Cinemascope and 70mm were high technology in my childhood (in fact, black and white films were still around). Today, despite the proliferation of mobile phones for distraction, the cinema house is a veritable convergence of technology albeit tastelessly executed; its curtain raising-moment is a thundering cacophony of audio advertising the power of resident sound system. Where starting a theater was once linked to passion for medium, owners transformed to large companies owning multiplex chains.

The competition among theaters and its competition with other audiovisual platforms like streaming have been fueled by both convenience and immersive viewing experience. Arguably the need for countering an array of distractions is more with streaming platforms; a mobile phone for instance is usually in shared or public space and if you are seeing a film, it has to compete for your attention suitably. The influence of this authorship was visible in streamed content, which typically tended to be more weaponized (designed to grab attention) than content intended solely for the theaters.

Until the last Academy Awards, streaming platforms were kept at a distance by the film fraternity. The 92nd Academy Awards took place on February 10, 2020. At that time, going by what has been reported from China, a nation known for its secrecy, COVID-19 was two to three months old. A month later, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the disease, which now spanned many countries, could be called a pandemic.

By late March 2020, large numbers of people worldwide were in a state of lock down to check infection. With social distancing advocated, cinema halls were forced to shut. On the other hand, streaming platforms became busy; television, computer, tablet and mobile phone had become the new cinema hall. The disease’s impact on the global box office was estimated at a few billion dollars. Multiplex chains were in financial distress. Newly released films that saw their theater run threatened by COVID-19 were quickly shifted to streaming platforms. Some others decided to release straightaway on streaming platforms. There is hope that when the present health crisis is past, people may revert to theaters. We are bound to have differing opinions on that. While history shows instances of crisis easing to a return of the old, crisis also leaves its imprint.

A key aspect deciding the future of cinema halls will be the quality of viewing experience. We definitely crave immersion. But it is abjectly incorrect to argue that all content becomes immersive when shifted to big screen. A film like 2013’s `Gravity’ certainly comes alive on big screen. But there are hundreds of other titles, you can comfortably watch on the cell phone without diluting the experience. Further, with the proliferation of technology and conveniences ranging from snacks to waiters serving you at your seat, the movie theater is not anymore a temple for immersive experience. It is a business model. The audience is a study in profitable distraction. Nowadays, great theater experience also has much to do with who you were lucky enough to have as audience alongside.

Another shift has been of the generational sort. A generation of youngsters out there used to life with mobile phone, don’t appear to have any problem focusing amid multiple stimuli. Seen so, the pairing of mobile phone and decent headphones isn’t too bad a deal for immersive experience. You can sit by yourself and see what you want. It reduces the cinema hall to tradition and traditions fade or settle to being optional.

Maybe it’s time for digital curtain on small screen, set to music of your choice.

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

SEBASTIAN COE: CURRENT SITUATION CAN BE AN OPPORTUNITY TO REIMAGINE SPORT

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics (this photo was downloaded from the World Athletics [then IAAF] website in February 2019. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit. This should and could be the new normal.’’

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics, has said that the predicament the world currently finds itself in can be an opportunity to look at sports differently.

In an open letter to the athletics community, dated March 27, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, Coe said, “ in sport we have a unique opportunity not to tip toe around things and tweak at the edges. We have the chance to think bigger, to rip up the blueprints and banish the ` that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality.’’ He felt that while the current priority is to tackle the pandemic, stay healthy and stay at home, in the long run, social distancing may actually bring the world closer as a community and sport can be right at its center.

“ The situation the world finds itself in today is a huge wake up call for all of us – as human beings, as businesses and as sport. We should capitalise on this and work out new ways of delivering events, create and plan new events that embrace the many as well as the few. We can use this time to innovate and extend our sport across the year. Rather than just focusing on one-day meetings and one-day road races at one end of the spectrum and 10-day extravaganzas at the other end, we should look at weekend festivals of running, jumping and throwing that take advantage of the Southern and Northern Hemisphere seasons. We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit (I rather fancy more people are exercising this week – doing 15-minute exercise routines in their homes or going out for a daily walk – than they have probably done in the last month). This should and could be the new normal. We don’t have to do things the same way,’’ Coe said.

According to him the recent announcement by the Japanese Government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was what athletes wanted. “ The focus of us all must be on the health and well being of ourselves, our families and our communities. And hard as this is for us in sport to say, sometimes sport needs to take a back seat,’’ Coe said.

The new dates for the Tokyo Olympics haven’t been announced yet. Once that is available, “ we will look at what, if any, impact that decision has on our World Athletics Championships Oregon 21,’’ he said. World Athletics, Coe noted, is currently focused on four priorities. First, it would like to get athletes back into competition as soon as possible, once it is safe to do so. “ We will continue to do whatever we can to preserve and create an outdoor season of one-day meetings in 2020, starting and ending later than usual, so athletes, when they are able and it is safe, will have access to competitions in every region. Diamond League events have been postponed up until June at this stage, as have Continental Tour Gold meetings, but we are mindful that our athletes need to compete at some point this year so they can benchmark their performances and adjust their training accordingly for an Olympic Games in 2021,’’ he said in the letter.

Second, World Athletics plans to expedite it’s review of the Olympic qualification process “ and release any changes to the process as soon as possible so athletes know where they stand. Last week all sports agreed to the IOC’s proposal that all athletes currently qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will remain qualified for next year’s event. In athletics the primary qualification avenue is by meeting the entry standards set out in March 2019. Once those places are allocated, the remaining athletes are drawn from the World Ranking list. As of today, all athletes who have met the entry standards for their event will remain qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. This is approximately 50% of the places. What is important now is that we develop a clear and fair process for the remaining athletes to qualify, given many events have been postponed. We will work with our Athletes’ Commission, our Council and the IOC to do this. We are also looking at how we can preserve an outdoor competition season this year with a series of one-day meetings on each continent that may begin as late as August and run to early October, so our athletes can get back in to competition as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so,’’ he said.

Third, there is the need to reorganize the global calendar of events, not just for the next two years which will see some major disruptions, but for the long term. We are committed to working with all sports to sort out the sporting calendar in 2021 and 2022 and this will take some time and compromises all round. We started a review of our own sport’s global calendar in February, bringing together a team from different aspects of our sport and from different parts of the world to review the range of events that happen every year on a national, regional and global level, ‘’ Coe said. According to him, World Athletics is looking to expand its one-day meetings and deliver high quality events in all parts of the world so that athletes do not have to travel across the world to compete and earn a living but can do so on their own continents and in their own countries.

Fourth, World Athletics has teams that are planning a new kids athletics programme; new events and competition formats, new partnerships to help get the world moving, new collaborations around sustainability, air quality and health and the use of new technology to highlight the talents of athletes and bring it home to millions of fans around the world.

The priority for all right now is to contain the pandemic, stay healthy and stay home. “ But where we can continue to drive our sport forward, we must,’’ Coe said, adding, “ the world will not be the same after this pandemic. It will be different and that could be a good thing. Going back to core human values, back to basics of what is important, redefining our purpose, is something we can all do on a human, business and sporting scale. We have heard a lot in the past week from governments, health care professionals, Prime Ministers and Presidents about social distancing and we are all practising it. But as I said at the beginning, although we may be separated physically during this period, my instinct is that ultimately this will draw us closer together, not further apart.’’

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

TAKE HOME THE EXPERIENCE

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

When ` The Aeronauts’ released, there were those who disapproved of how the film mixed fact with fiction.

The 2019 film tells the story of a balloon ascent by scientist James Glaisher and pilot, Amelia Wren. They reach nearly 37,000 feet up in the sky, an altitude never before touched by human beings. The year is 1862, more than 90 years before the first ascent of Everest (29,028 feet), perhaps the nearest elevation one can compare in terms of exposure to low-oxygen environment and pretty cold temperature. The balloon’s occupants don’t have the benefit of enclosed chamber, electronic communication to stay in touch with those on the ground; they don’t even have clothing appropriate for those heights.

You keep warm wearing oil skins and in the film, Glaisher is shown to have traded his skins for bringing aboard more scientific equipment. At height, the scientist slowly starts to lose his head to oxygen deprivation. He pushes for greater and greater elevation even as the dangers in doing so are evident to the pilot. Eventually he passes out, leaving Amelia Wren alone to make sure that the still rising balloon is somehow forced into descent mode. This she achieves by climbing atop the balloon and opening its gas valves, something she was unable to do from within the safety of the passenger basket because the balloon’s mechanisms got frozen at altitude.

The depiction of these aerial scenes is marvelous and edge-of-the-seat. The actors have done a good job. Felicity Jones lives her role as Amelia. Eddie Redmayne as scientist-adventurer appears an unorthodox choice at first. Going by cinematic tradition, such roles are usually played by the physically dominant, tough-looking sort. But it works beautifully – and there is probably a message for stereotyping in there – for Redmayne is quite convincing in his role bridging the nerdy and the adventurous. It is the early days of meteorology. In the film, Glaisher goes up doubted by his peers; his belief that the weather can be predicted is laughed at. He returns from the balloon flight with knowledge that the atmosphere isn’t one homogeneous layer, it is composed of various strata, each different from the other. Additionally, the two aeronauts have a flight record to their credit – the highest altitude yet reached.

The problem is – a similar flight actually happened. James Glaisher existed in real life. Amelia Wren is fiction. Going by information about the film available on the Internet, the film makers created the character (ingredients drawn from real life female aeronauts) to address gender imbalance in the scientific fraternity and also connect the film to a contemporary audience. But doing so, they did injustice to the person who was actually there on that flight with Glaisher. That person was Henry Coxwell, an aeronaut and writer on ballooning. On the ascent Glaisher lost consciousness (as shown in the film); the last reading reported on his barometer was 29,000 feet. It was up to Coxwell then to engineer their descent. Having lost sensation in his hands due to the extreme cold, he is said to have opened the gas valve by pulling the relevant chord with his teeth. Both men lived to tell the tale. As do Glaisher and Amelia in the movie, except that on celluloid, there is no Coxwell. Replacing him is the lovable, adventurous woman played by Felicity Jones. The critics have a point.

If you can be alright with the above mentioned flaw (call it artistic license), then ` The Aeronauts’ is an enjoyable film. It is not even-paced. Given the private backdrops of the main protagonists unfolds as the story goes along, there is plenty of back and forth between distinctly different worlds. The world of flight is clear; it is a set of situations and protocols to follow. On ground, life lost to social rituals rolls along at a pace betraying no similar urgency or direction. The back and forth hops can tire. After a brief life in theaters, where according to Wikipedia it grossed $ 3.3 million against production budget of $ 40 million, the film shifted to streaming on Amazon. That’s where I saw it in March 2020. I watched it over several days, partly due to the uneven pace of the movie and partly due to my poor attention span as resident of world with multiple distractions. But if you ask me what I thought of this film, I would say: wonderful.

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

Towards the end of ` The Aeronauts’ you hear Amelia say, “ you don’t change the world simply by looking at it. You change it through the way you choose to live in it.’’ What made this film attractive to me is how it leveraged modern technology to bring alive the challenges and hardships felt by pioneers. Flying is so common nowadays that very few among us pause to imagine what the sensation may have been like for early entrants in the field. None of us possibly think of how it may have been for balloonists. They didn’t dash around at speed like those in planes. But moving at a slower pace, they touched some fantastic altitudes. (remember India’s Dr Vijaypat Singhania, who reached 69,852 feet above sea level in a hot air balloon in 2005? He took off from Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course; the landing was near Nashik). It is estimated that the Glaisher-Coxwell flight may have touched 35,000-37,000 feet; that is several thousand feet higher than Everest. Today we look back at the first ascent of Everest in 1953 and applaud Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary for managing the task with what equipment they had. The plot of ` The Aeronauts’ is 90 years before Everest was successfully climbed. Discount the flaw critics zeroed in on, take home the experience. Not to mention – a character called Amelia Wren.

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

“ THE IMMUNE SYSTEM IS VERY RESPONSIVE TO EXERCISE’’

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (this photo was downloaded from the doctor’s Facebook page)

Dr Pravin Gaikwad is a well-known pediatrician in Navi Mumbai. He and his wife Arati, also a doctor, have been running a clinic in the Navi Mumbai suburb of Nerul for the past several years. The two are longstanding distance runners and triathletes. They have been frequent podium finishers in their age category at various events. In addition to being a doctor, Pravin heads coaching and mentoring at Lifepacers, a Navi Mumbai-based fitness group composed mostly of runners. On March 6, 2020, this blog spoke to Pravin on the importance of exercise and balanced lifestyle in maintaining good health, central to which is a strong immune system.

Is it possible to strengthen our immune system naturally? What should we do for that?

Very simply put, immunity is your defence against invading bacteria and toxins. It is the system involved in defending your body. There is still much to be known in this regard. The main organs involved include thymus, spleen, liver, lymph nodes, bone marrow; cells include T-cells, B-cells, some cytokine proteins, phygocytes – they are like scavenger cells, then those that are anti-inflammatory in function – there are so many things involved. Even the bacteria in the gut – microbiota – they help in immunity to a great extent. So, from a bird’s eye view, a lot of things are involved.

In Marathi, there is a saying: sainya pothavar chalta; it means an army runs on food. Similarly, the easiest way to strengthen immunity is nutritious food, naturally cooked and visually having a range of colors. There are of course more detailed technical specifications but the typical balanced diet we were all taught in school – in India we are fortunate that our ancestors have been following it for ages – if you follow that, the immune system will be good. Along with good nutrition, sleep is an important thing. If you compromise on sleep, you risk compromising your immunity due to factors like hormonal imbalance; so sleep and rest are vital. Third, physical activity is important for maintaining a healthy immune system. Stress is capable of compromising immunity and therefore ability to withstand stress – which physical activity can contribute to – helps strengthen immunity. Among things to avoid: smoking definitely impacts immunity. Alcohol beyond a limit also has the same effect. These habits have to be cut. Smoking is a big no; alcohol only in moderation if somebody wishes to have it. To my mind, these would be the natural ways of maintaining a healthy immune system – nutritious food, adequate rest and sleep, developing ways to withstand stress and avoiding bad habits.

Can you explain how regular exercise helps to fortify the immune system?

The immune system is very responsive to exercise.

The initial perception was that exercise causes problems in immunity. That view was based on studies of endurance athletes; it was found that their immunity can be a bit low. Later, it was found that immunity was better in these people while performing acute short term exercises. Research and data showed that generally less than 90 minutes of endurance activity a day, is definitely helpful. More than 90 minutes could also be useful but there are other angles to consider. Next would be the number of days. There is no mention that you should do this all days of a week. If you refer the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, what they say is: 150 minutes in a week plus two strength training sessions. That last recommendation – the strength training sessions – is something most of us neglect. My view of this is: the 150 minutes typically ends up as moderate physical activity because it will include warm-up and cool down. So the real overall time for exercise will exceed 150 minutes per week, I feel. You cannot increase your heart rate to 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate just like that. It has to be gradual. Otherwise there will be repercussions of not warming up properly. So to sum up, regular physical activity genuinely helps in strengthening immunity. It serves as adjuvant (a substance that strengthens the body’s immune response) to strengthening the immune system.

When there is earlier mentioned physical activity of less than 90 minutes the count of anti-inflammatory proteins, cytokines, neutrophils, phygocytes, NK (natural killer) cells, cytotoxic T-cells, immature B-cells – all this goes up. After a certain time, it comes back to normal. But what is important is that a summation effect occurs (summation effect in medicine is described as the process by which a sequence of stimuli that are individually inadequate to produce a response are cumulatively able to induce a nerve impulse). Over a period of time, immunity is found to be better.

The basic concept of any disease is inflammation. Acute inflammation is useful to the body; chronic inflammation is not. Inflammation can be caused by three things. First is trauma, second is infection and third is allergy. Chronic inflammation is caused by stress. Acute inflammation is caused by acute exercise; that is beneficial, over a period of time it develop the ability of the body to withstand the stresses properly. The body becomes stronger. Ultimately, that is immunity. Then, there are different patho-physiologies. One is that thanks to the summation effect, the immune systems itself becomes more active and capable of adapting better. Another thing to mention here is the microbiota. One third of these beneficial bacteria are the same in you and me. Two thirds is different. Initially it was learnt that the more diverse the bacterial flora, the better is our immunity. Then it was found that athletes have more diverse bacterial flora. One reason for this is that once you are into regular physical activity you tend to address your nutrition intake better. Besides diverse bacterial flora, good diet also leads to optimum vitamin levels.

One of the effects of regular exercise is that it helps reduce instances of obesity. In obesity, the fat cells can contribute to chronic inflammation and chronic inflammation can compromise immunity. Another angle is that of ageing; with age, immunity reduces. The process is called immunosenescence. When you age, the immune system gets progressively dysregulated. It raises susceptibility to various diseases. When there is regular exercise, there is delayed immunosenescence through improved regulation of the immune system. There is something called telomeres in our chromosomes. With ageing its length reduces. However in the case of those with regular physical activity, their telomere length has a better chance of staying normal. That is part of the anti-ageing effects of regular physical activity.

If you exercise or you run – especially run – everything else falls into place. You automatically give up smoking; limit your alcohol intake, take care of your nutrition, sleep and body composition. Just being into fitness, puts the other components into place. Having a goal catalyzes it.

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (photo: courtesy Pravin)

You mentioned about the WHO prescribed norms for exercise. You have rich personal experience as swimmer, runner and triathlete. What would you say is the apt quantity and quality of exercise for an average individual?

I would definitely insist on strength training sessions; at least twice a week. As we age our growth hormone levels decline. Testosterone level declines. Your muscle mass is going to decline. The fat mass will increase. Ultimately, the muscle is a furnace. This means that with the same diet, the same exercise – aerobic without strengthening – you still gain weight. When you strengthen your muscles, not only do you get the popularly known advantages like reduced chances of injury, improved balance and improved bone density; you also slow down the growth hormone decline. Talking of growth hormone, sleep and growth hormone is related. When you have good sleep, there is good growth hormone secretion. All this gives you that anti-ageing effect, more energy and combined with better muscle mass, the potential for a higher level of activity. So do strength training at least two days a week. It should be for the whole body. It can’t be that you are a runner and therefore you strengthen only your legs. Aerobic physical activity can be anything – running, swimming, cycling. I think, 30-40 minutes of such activity – as WHO says, moderate physical activity – with warm-up and cool down and with heart rate rising to 80-85 per cent of maximum heart rate, is good enough.

Now, there are those who wish to challenge themselves. Let’s take the marathon as example. One study showed there was 2-18 per cent increase in sickness level – particularly respiratory tract infections – was found in marathon runners two months before a race and 15 days after a race. We are subjecting ourselves to multiple stresses during those months leading to a race. After running a marathon, there are a lot of chronic inflammatory changes which occur in the body. In my own case, after a marathon I usually do HSCRP (Highly Sensitive C-Reactive Protein) test. The figures are usually high. Then it settles down. I generally run only one full marathon a year. I rarely run half marathons but I do quite a few 10-kilometer runs. It is those speed runs that are more important from a health point of view. Fast for one minute, then slow for one minute – like that some 6-8 times in one particular run, that will be enough exercise. Running for two hours, three hours – that is not really required; it can cause chronic inflammation. Studies show that when you start exercising, in the initial stage, you are contributing to improving your immunity. As you elevate exercise, the risk increases. In heavy exercise, the risk can go up by two to six-folds.

How do you decide severity of exercise? If you take any of the amateur athletes who are pushing themselves, how can they know if they are exercising beyond acceptable limit or not?

Let us talk of the elite athletes. They do severe exercise. But their bodies have adapted gradually to that level of exercise. This is what amateur runners often miss. Good coaches don’t increase mileage by more than 10-20 per cent a week. Every fourth week, you try to incorporate a cutback-week. Follow these routine things. Let me give you the example of Comrades Marathon. I did Comrades in 2018; myself and my wife, Arati. We did not do Comrades back-to-back. I might do it once more when I turn 60. Given Comrades entails lengthy training of 4-5 months, if you are doing it regularly, you may be erring on the side of greater inflammation. Overtraining may also not give you enough sleep. So to return to your question of what qualifies to be severe: if you are not getting up fresh, if you are not sleeping well, if you don’t have enough energy for the day, if your appetite is less, if you are falling ill, if your immunity is declining – those are all signals from the body telling you to cut down. A new runner, for three years at least, he should not run a full marathon. Also remember – running is a muscle-shortening exercise. With age and with constant running – it’s going to affect your speed. Some of the elite runners in the later part of their life, become triathletes. Swimming has the ability to restore muscles to their original length. Plus it involves a different muscle fiber; it also improves breathing.

I think, accepting your declining pace helps you sustain the act of running and enjoy it for more years. Throw off your watches and measuring devices and run. Go with the flow. Except when training for a race, I don’t resort to these gadgets. The longevity of physical activity and fitness is more important than results delivered by great pace. Unfortunately we are fascinated by that pace.

You spoke of the importance of mixing fast and slow running for meaningful work out. There are many people who prefer not to run and are instead into walking. Can they too leverage this blend?

It can be done. In terms of evolution, we are born to run. Once we get used to a certain level of activity, it is normal for the body to learn to use less calories to deliver the same outcome. You do a particular activity, you get some benefits. But later, you don’t. I have been running for years in Navi Mumbai. In that time I have seen many people walking religiously in the morning. But some of them are also gaining weight. That’s because their bodies have got adapted to the routine. They are no longer getting the benefit of walking. You can get the benefit by challenging yourself. There are simple things you can do. For example, you can change the time of your walk; sometimes walk in the morning, sometimes walk in the evening. That way, the body gets a bit shocked. Second, change the terrain. Go to the hills for a change; the body gets challenged in a different way. You can try brisk walking. People try aerobic walking too; you walk like you run. Normal walking burns 4-5 calories per minute. Aerobic walking will burn 8-10 calories per minute. You can introduce the Fartlek concept in walking. Or keep an app that collects data about your walking, if data is a source of motivation for you. Anything that can be measured can be improved upon. I feel somebody who can walk for 30 minutes should be able to run. And if you have been running regularly for three months, you can become a runner. The point is – whatever physical activity you are engaged in, you should challenge yourself a bit. Plus, don’t forget strength training. That helps you walk faster too.

What kind of effect does stress have on the immune system?

Stress impacts the immune system. Stress is of two types. There is the psychological type. Then there is the physico-chemical type which encompasses environmental stress, food, toxins we inhale etc. The body has a tenacious ability to adjust to the challenges in the environment. But if your immune system is compromised or you are under so much duress that the resultant stress is beyond your capacity to cope with, then it can manifest as disease. It can give rise to chronic infections, auto-immune diseases, inflammations and even cancer. I remember a study on anti-depressants used in the treatment of cancer. They don’t address the cancer per se; they address the stress factor. Beta blockers are medicines used to tackle the higher levels of hormones like adrenalin that can be triggered by stress. Prolonged chronic stress can result in more pro-inflammatory cytokines and health conditions thereof.

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (Photo: courtesy Pravin)

How important is rest and recovery in the scheme of things?

Seven to nine hours of sleep will maintain your growth hormones properly. Memory consolidation also happens during sleep. This is important for children. There was a time when school used to be from seven in the morning till twelve noon. You come home and sleep. That consolidates memory. Evening you play. Then you study, eat and sleep. You find something similar in elite runners. They train twice a day. For them, their sleep consolidates their training. Amateur runners, who hold down jobs and pursue their passion, are probably at a disadvantage here. If you can catch a nap some time in between, it helps. It should also be mentioned in this context that use of alcohol and excessive use of mobiles disturbs sleep pattern. If you want good performance, eventually it is about TNR – Training, Nutrition and Recovery. Recovery is where our muscles actually get trained. Then they perform better. On partially trained muscles if you exert, they will be prone to injury. Rest and recovery are the same things. It is very important. I can give you an instance from personal experience. My personal best in the marathon is three hours 38 minutes, which I got at the 2017 Mumbai Marathon. Some days before the event I developed pain in my left calf muscle. So I stopped everything. After 15 days of rest, a Thursday night, I ran around six kilometers to see how the leg held. On Sunday, I got my PB. That forced rest of 15 days helped. The body always gives you a signal of how it is feeling. You just have to listen to it. I also strongly believe in the seasonality of endurance activities. We were typically expected to peak in the winter months because that is when most of the events were held. But now there is an event every weekend. People participate. I feel we should not. Constant racing is not going to improve your performance. You have to give your body time to recover.

Herein, on the nutrition front, one study found that 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for a marathon or any activity beyond 90 minutes, helps reduce the post-race inflammation. Polyphenols – found in fruits – also help similarly. Banana and good carbohydrate intake is thus good for your recovery.

There is the observation that you are good in-season depending on how well you trained off-season. What do you recommend for the off-season?

Mileage has to be less. I would put emphasis on agility, strength training, nutrition and making sure your weight does not increase too much. Don’t compromise on sleep. One hour of physical activity in this period is good enough.

In terms of the quality of running you do in the off-season: take it easy – would that be correct?

Take it easy. But then don’t run easy every time. Do simple things like – open up your strides for 20 seconds, recover for a minute and then open up again. Do that six to eight times. Cool down. Or you can do Fartlek with your friends around; that is enjoyable. Keep long runs fewer in number than when you are training for a race. Similarly reserve tempo runs for the time you are training towards a race.

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

2020 TOKYO OLYMPICS POSTPONED

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

2021 World Athletics Championships may be rescheduled to accommodate new dates of Olympics. 2021 World Aquatics Championships too exploring similar options.

Please see update at the end of the article as well; new dates have been announced. 

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has been “ rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021,’’ an official statement dated March 24, available on the website of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said.

According to the statement, the decision followed a conference call between Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan and Thomas Bach, President, IOC. They were joined by Mori Yoshiro, the President of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee; the Olympic Minister, Hashimoto Seiko; the Governor of Tokyo, Koike Yuriko; the Chair of the IOC Coordination Commission, John Coates; IOC Director General Christophe De Kepper; and the IOC Olympic Games Executive Director, Christophe Dubi.

“ In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,’’ the statement said.

It was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Speculation about the 2020 Olympics – whether it will be held on schedule or postponed – had been in the air for a while. While the IOC maintained that the Games would be held on schedule with indication of rethink emanating only recently, some sports bodies and athletes clearly said that prevailing conditions were not ideal. Further, Australia and Canada announced that they will not be sending their squads to the Games if it was to take place over July 24-August 9 as scheduled earlier.

News reports on the postponement of the Games pointed out that the two major disciplines of swimming and athletics will be having their respective world championships in 2021. The 2021 World Aquatics Championships is expected to be held in Fukuoka, Japan from July 16 to August 1 while the 2021 World Athletics Championships is due in Eugene, Oregon, USA from August 6-15.

In a separate statement dated March 24, 2020, available on their website, World Athletics, while welcoming the decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, informed that they have been in talks with the organizers of the 2021 World Athletics Championships to reschedule the event if required.

“ World Athletics welcomes the decision of the IOC and the Japanese Government to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021. It is what athletes want and we believe this decision will give all athletes, technical officials and volunteers some respite and certainty in these unprecedented and uncertain times, ‘’ the statement said. It added that World Athletics will “ continue to do whatever it can to preserve and create an outdoor season of one-day meetings in 2020, starting and ending later than usual, so athletes, when they are able and it is safe to, will have access to competitions in every region. This will help them benchmark their performances and adjust their training accordingly for an Olympic Games in 2021. In light of this announcement, we will also expedite our current review of the Olympic qualification system, in cooperation with the IOC, and release any changes to the process as soon as possible so athletes know where they stand.

“ World Athletics stands ready to work with the IOC and all sport on an alternative date for the Olympic Games in 2021 and has already been in discussion with the Organizing Committee of the World Athletics Championships Oregon 21 regarding the possibility of moving the dates of this highly popular worldwide event. They have assured us that they will work with all of their partners and stakeholders to ensure that Oregon is able to host the World Athletics Championships on alternative dates, including dates in 2022.’’

FINA, the international governing body for swimming, has also said it will explore flexibility regarding the dates of the 2021 World Aquatics Championships. In a statement dated March 24, available on FINA’s website, the organization said that following the joint announcement by the IOC and the organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, concerning the postponement of the Games to 2021, FINA will work closely with the host organizing committee of the 2021 FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, the Japan Swimming Federation and Japanese public authorities, to “ determine flexibility around the dates of the competition, “ if necessary and in agreement with the IOC.”

Update: New dates have been announced for the 2020 Olympic Games, recently shifted to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tokyo Olympic Games will now be held over July 23-August 8, 2021 and the Paralympic Games from August 24 to September 5, 2021. This is as per a statement dated March 30, 2020, available on the website of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

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