THAT YES OF 2017

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

In October 2019, two years after she took up running in a dedicated fashion, Apoorva Chaudhary was among athletes representing India at the start line of the IAU 24-hour World Championships, in Albi, France. She covered a distance of 202.212 kilometers, at the event. The distance logged was a national best in the 24-hour run for women in India. The new record was less than a year after a previous national best of 176.8 kilometers, Apoorva set at the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018. This is her story:

It was February 2020; the Delhi before COVID-19 locked down India. For runners, there was a major event imminent – the 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon. People had begun reaching the city from other parts of India for that.

Connaught Place and the café we were in, bustled with activity. Apoorva Chaudhary recalled her years at Navodaya Vidyalaya in Bijnor, roughly 150 kilometers away from Delhi. These schools were commenced by the central government in 1985-86 to bring quality education comparable to the best in a residential school system. It was meant mainly for students from rural areas. Alongside studies, Apoorva was into running a range of distances at the school – 800 meters, 1500 meters and 3000 meters. She also played basketball. She didn’t get into teams higher up in the pecking order because she never came first in school races. As she put it, “ I always ran slowly, finishing second or third. My father used to tell me that I wasn’t doing a good job of sticking to the person who was leading.’’ Still the routine of boarding school meant, she participated consistently in sports. That routine was silver lining, for Apoorva secretly disliked boarding school. She hailed from Bijnor and her home wasn’t far off; she couldn’t understand why she had to be in boarding. She took part in the 1500 meters and 3000 meters till she completed her tenth standard.

From Himalayan Crossing, July 2016; the others in the frame are Tserin Negi and Avinash Pratap Singh (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

An eldest child, Apoorva had grown up with the belief that she would become a doctor. “ My grandfather always told me that I will become one,” she said. Her desire was to be an ophthalmologist. In India, the phase of education following matriculation is when professional orientation to studies creeps in. Those couple of years leading to entrance exams for professional courses are usually intense. After completing her twelfth at Bijnor, Apoorva attended coaching classes in Dehradun, chasing the ophthalmologist-dream. The natural outcome of a life dedicated to academics was that sports got completely side-lined. Then, a setback occurred. Apoorva didn’t make the cut in the entrance exam. With her hard work gone waste and chance to study medicine denied, she slipped into depression. For a brief period, she wondered whether she should make another attempt at clearing the exam. Then she gave up on that plan and opted instead for a B.Tech in biotechnology from Kurukshetra University.

Apoorva’s college days didn’t feature much sport. She occasionally played basketball and dabbled in yoga. More importantly, in these years, she developed serious asthma. Following her studies, Apoorva secured work at a company in Bengaluru. She shifted to the southern metro. Not long into this stint, she quit her job; she found it hard relating to experiments on animals, something the work required her to do. A period of volunteer work with NGOs ensued. During this time, following links she made in the film making fraternity, Apoorva said, she was called to act as body double in a film about Kavitha Kanaparthi. Founder of Globeracers, Kavitha organized foot races of ultramarathon distances under that brand. Kavitha was pregnant at that point in time and the film makers needed a body double for shooting some running scenes. Apoorva didn’t know what ultra-running was. During the shoot, she had to run on multiple occasions, at times notching up quite a distance. “ I don’t remember getting tired from those runs,” she said.

At the annual Adidas Runtastic Ambassador Meet, Berlin, September 2019 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

Her connection with Globeracers led to Apoorva volunteering for some of the events they organized. In February 2016, she volunteered for Run of Kutch. “ I enjoyed volunteering for the event. The work also entailed marking the route before the race,” she said. In that same year, she was called to volunteer for Himalayan Crossing, another race from the Globeracers stable. A ringside view to great challenges is often the best encouragement one can have to take the plunge oneself. “ I remember thinking about the insanity of the runners doing these ultra-long distances, little knowing that I myself would opt for such mileage in due course,” she said. Her foray into recreational running commenced after the second edition of Run of Kutch. Apoorva was into running and trekking. The latter activity picked up through personal trips to Dharamshala and Shimla and the visit to Spiti for Himalayan Crossing with Globeracers, peaked on a 2017 holiday in Ladakh that saw her ascent the popular trekking peak, Stok Kangri (20,187 feet). She had set out for Stok Kangri from Leh, alone and self-supported. Along the way, that altered a bit after she met a group from the army headed to the same peak. They in turn, planted in her head the idea of doing a Basic Mountaineering Course. She applied for the course offered by the state-owned mountaineering institute in Jammu & Kashmir and upon their seats for mountaineering being full, was offered a place in the skiing course. It should have been on her agenda for 2017 but then other things happened.

Sometime in 2017, she participated in an informal 15 km-run organized by Delhi Running Group, at Sanjay Park in New Delhi. For most people, their first major project in amateur running is the half marathon. Shortly after the run in Sanjay Park, Apoorva signed up for her first half marathon – part of Adidas Uprising, due in December that year. During her training runs Apoorva heard of runners finishing the half marathon in under-two hours. At Adidas Uprising, not only did Apoorva get her sub-two-hour finish, she emerged the overall winner among woman participants. The prize was a coupon worth Rs 10,000, using which she could buy Adidas products of her choice. She bought her most expensive pair of shoes till then, she said.

Apoorva and Kanan Jain sprinting towards the finish line at the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon, February 2020 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

After the Adidas Uprising event, Apoorva signed up for the half marathon at the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon of February 2018. She finished the race in 1:56:03. “ This was my second half marathon. At this event I met Kanan Jain. Later that year I was to volunteer for the Bhatti Lakes ultramarathon and Kanan was scheduled to try the 100 kilometer-run there. He asked me if I would be interested in attempting a 24-hour run,” she said. The 24-hour run that Kanan suggested was the one to be held by NEB Sports in December 2018 at New Delhi (Kanan Jain is a young ultramarathon runner. In the months to follow he would be part of the official team representing India at the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Albi, France. He is now Apoorva’s coach drawing up her training schedules for ultramarathon races). Apoorva said she had no experience of distance running except the two half marathons she had completed. Kanan persisted; he pointed to her volunteering for ultramarathons and her interest in hiking. He asked her to consider the idea. She did. What she found difficult to overlook was how Kanan had pitched the whole thing. He had asked her if she would like to represent India in the discipline of running very long distances. That was a target too hard to ignore. Next day, she said “ yes’’ to the idea.

The ultramarathon embraces distances beyond the length of a marathon. A 24-hour run is one of the many forms of ultramarathon. It is typically held over a short loop. The runner, who covers the maximum distance during the stated period, is the winner. In India, Runners for Life is credited with commencing the 24-hour and 12-hour ultramarathons through their event, Bangalore Ultra. 2017, the year Apoorva commenced her recreational running was also coincidentally host to the last edition of the Bangalore Ultra, pioneer in that space in India. Apoorva’s first tryst with distances beyond the half marathon happened soon after that “ yes’’ to the idea of attempting a 24-hour run. In 2018, she and Kanan participated in the run from Gurugram (Gurgaon) to India Gate organized by Aashayein. At 29 kilometers, it was far from ultramarathon. But the journey had begun.

From the 24-hour stadium run in Delhi in 2018; others in the frame are Sunil Shetty, Shyamala Gopalan and Shibani Gharat (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

The 24-hour run the duo targeted was scheduled for the end of the year. Apoorva had time to build up her mileage. “ If you have a goal, it is prudent to have pit stops before you reach the goal,” she said. To create a tiered progression towards the 24-hour run, she decided to do the 12-hour run offered as part of the 36-hour Stadium Run organized by NEB Sports in Bengaluru, in August 2018. To gain entry to this stadium run, Apoorva opted to first run a 50 kilometer-race at Mashobra Tuffman Shimla Ultra. As part of her training for this event, she had managed to do just one 50 kilometer-run. At the Tuffman event, she finished the race in 6:03:56 hours. “ This was my ticket to the 12-hour run in Bengaluru,” she said.

Unexpected twists in life had seen Apoorva resurrect her interest in running from school days and take to recreational running as an employed adult. Hers was a family of five; her father who is a farmer, her mother who is a homemaker and two younger brothers. Her parents were unaware of the changes afoot in the life of their daughter who had elected to work away from home. Nobody in Bijnor knew of Apoorva’s mission to participate in the 24 hour-run. Each time she visited Bijnor, the mission manifested in the form of unavoidable training runs. “ My father was not very happy with me venturing out to run,” she said. He had his reasons. There was the question of a woman’s safety; not many people ran regularly in Bijnor. If Apoorva was running for fitness, he felt a few days of exercise missed wouldn’t inflict significant damage. He was also unaware of the full dimensions of the journey Apoorva had set herself on and why she required to train diligently. Once during a visit home, Apoorva was admonished for stepping out for a run. Even if she had revealed her plans, till tangible results are produced, plans don’t hold water – that’s the Indian approach. Unfazed by the opposition, Apoorva proceeded with what she had to do. She would slip out of her home, walk some distance, change into running shoes and commence her run. “ I cannot afford to miss my runs,” she said. Over time, Apoorva apprised her mother about her passion for ultra-running. Eventually however, to circumvent the situation, for much of 2018, she kept her visits home to the bare minimum. Her determination paid off.

The day after the 24-hour stadium run in Delhi in 2018 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

At the 12-hour run in Bengaluru, Apoorva finished first among women and fifth overall, covering a distance of 99.76 kilometers. “ I had a target of 100 kilometers. I was completely overwhelmed by this experience. I hadn’t imagined that I would have the ability to do something like this,” she said. With this 12 hour-run, Apoorva’s circle of friends in running grew. Running groups wanted her to join them on their outings. It felt good. In the days following the 12-hour run, she increased her mileage as part of training for the upcoming 24-hour event in New Delhi. “ I knew that if I am opting for ultra-running, then I am opting for pain and challenge. One is always preparing for a worst case scenario in such long-distance races,” she said. However, there is more to preparing for an ultramarathon than just the mileage accumulated in training. Nutrition and hydration are important aspects. You have to know what foods your body can hold down and utilize while it is being pushed for endurance at the same time. There is no one size fits all; each runner’s preferred nutrition during a race is the outcome of trial and error. Then there is how you race; how you pace yourself when the distance to cover is huge. All this takes time. Experience counts. In December 2018, Apoorva stood at the start line of the 24-hour run with little understanding of fuelling plan or race strategy. “ Prior to the event, during my training, I had done two weeks of 100 kilometer-mileage and one week of 90 kilometers,” she said. It was modest mileage striking a balance between adequate training and saving yourself for a race. That may have addressed the running side of things. But as regards overall experience in the ultramarathon, she was very much on a learning curve.

The 24-hour stadium run in Delhi was tough. At the end of 12 hours, she had covered around 102.4 kilometers, which was more than what she managed in the 12 hour-run of August 2018. “ I was strong for the first 14 hours. Until about the 18th hour I was holding myself well but after that it became very tough. I was dehydrated, tired and nowhere near my target of 200 kilometers,” she said. She even began to doubt whether she would touch 100 miles (160 kilometers). She remembered ultra-runner Sunil Sharma intervening to help her. Vishal Adhav, another runner, started to pace her. “ He ran ahead of me and asked me to just follow his footsteps. For the last two hours of the race I kept doing that and got into a trance chasing the feet running ahead of me,” she said. Apoorva covered a distance of 176.8 km during that 24-hour period. It was a national best among women in India. But it was an effort that left her with questions. “ During breaks in the race I used to ask myself: why am I doing this?’’ she said. There was also a valuable lesson learnt. As part of her fuelling, she had tried yogurt. It suited her.

From the world championships in Albi, France, 2019 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

For all athletes, there is a point when effort pays off and fortunes change. At home in Bijnor, the morning newspaper bearing reports of the stadium run in Delhi told Apoorva’s parents the full story of what their daughter had been up to. The training runs started to make sense. Neighbours who read the newspaper, asked: isn’t that your daughter? The win in Delhi also made the Indian ultra-running community take note of Apoorva. She was selected for the IAU 24-hour World Championships, due at Albi, France, in October 2019. By the time she got to Albi, Apoorva was more knowledgeable of her nutrition, hydration needs and racing strategy. “ That was my strongest 24-hour run,” she said of her experience at Albi. Running alongside Apoorva were some of the world’s best ultra-runners, including US athlete, Camille Herron, who would set a new women’s world record of 270 kilometers at the event. At the end of 24 hours, Apoorva had covered a distance of 202.212 kilometers. It was a new national best for women. And it had come less than a year after the previous national best of 176.8 kilometers she set at the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018.

Couple of days after meeting this blog at the café in Connaught Place, Apoorva filled in a gap in her progression to the ultramarathon. She ran her first marathon – the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon, held on February 23, 2020. She finished seventh overall among women and second in her age group of 18-34 with a timing of 3:28:45. Having graduated to ultramarathon from the half marathon, the classic marathon was a case of going back and catching up on a rung in the ladder, she had missed. On March 24, India slipped into a nationwide lockdown triggered by COVID-19. For almost a month, Apoorva – she now works at the Gurugram office of PeopleStrong, a technology firm in the HR space – was confined to her apartment in Gurugram. She focused on strength training. She was scheduled to represent India at the IAU 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships, slated to be held in Bengaluru over July 18-19, 2020. It therefore made sense to continue her training in whatever way she could. The Bengaluru event was subsequently called off due to COVID-19.

Training in Leisure Valley Park ahead of the world championships in Albi, France (Photo: Bounty Narula)

On May 25, Apoorva managed to travel to Bijnor, where her parents live. She resumed her running there, stepping out very early in the morning for her daily run. It is an hour when few people are out. It suits her for she generally likes to run alone and sometimes with one or two others. The morning run takes around two hours. With no races on the horizon, she does not need to train hard. Her parents are supportive. Nowadays on her return from training, her father asks her how the run was. He still worries for her safety but has his own emergent interest in fitness, which he blends into the solution. “ Today morning as I was returning home, he came cycling towards me. He wanted to make sure that I am alright. From tomorrow onwards, he says, he will be cycling alongside while I run. He says that will keep him fit too,’’ Apoorva said, mid-July. Asked if she had managed to answer that question of why she was running the ultramarathon (she had asked herself that during the 24-hour run in Delhi), Apoorva said, “ I think it has to do with wanting to get out of my comfort zone. If I don’t do that, I won’t get to know what I can do.’’ There was also another question begging an answer. Apoorva’s running had commenced in school. Despite running the 800 meters, 1500 meters and 3000 meters in that phase, she got nowhere. After a long hiatus and for no particular reason except curiosity, she took to recreational running in Bengaluru in 2017. By October 2019, she had set one national best and rewritten it. What was different about her journey in running, post 2017? “ I think Kanan gave me an engaging goal in that 24 hour-run and the prospect of representing India. I took it up but was at the same time under no pressure. I had nothing to lose,’’ she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This article is based on two rounds of conversation with Apoorva.)

PSYNYDE BIKES / IT’S TIME TO CYCLETOWORK

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes and is being used here with prior permission.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered the case of cycling, worldwide. Amidst the requirement to stay healthy and also keep adequate physical distance, the good old bicycle has emerged a fine combination of encouraging fitness and observing pandemic related protocols. News reports in the recent past cited bicycle sales spiking in several countries. The bulk of the new interest was in practical bicycles for commuting purposes.

Pune based boutique manufacturer of bicycles, Psynyde Bikes, plans to introduce a model that packs into this slot. Aptly named “ cycletowork,’’ the commuter bicycle had been in the pipeline for the past one to one and a half years, Praveen Prabhakaran, founder of the company, said. The pandemic and the relevance of cycling it highlighted, has authored an opportunity to formally bring the model to the market. True to Psynyde’s value-for-money positioning, the commuter bicycle is slightly high end in components and looks but affordably priced for those specifications. “ We are hoping to price it at around Rs 25,000-26,000,’’ Praveen said.

The bike, which has been designed by Psynyde in India, has an aluminum frame and steel fork. The frame is a completely new design with geometry meant for commuting. “ Its new from ground up,’’ Praveen said. The bike employs Shimano Tourney derailleurs at the front and back. It has altogether 24 gears (8×3 set up). Where it makes a departure from other similar models in the Indian market is with regard to its crank. “ It has a hollow spindle crank,’’ Praveen said. The hollow spindle crank is a bit fatter in build than its brethren. This makes it stiff and thereby capable of better response when it comes to translating effort to movement. At the same time, because the component is hollow inside, it is light and does not affect the overall weight of the bicycle, Praveen said.

The company has around 100 numbers of the commuter model in stock. “ We have been getting enquiries,’’ Praveen said.

Psynyde is a home-grown company, founded by cycling enthusiasts. Its earlier models – Psynyde Furan (MTB) and Psynyde Oxygen (hybrid) – are known well in the Indian market. The company started as an outfit making custom-built bicycles and performance oriented bicycle components. It is now a young, small enterprise that sells a limited number of bicycles designed by it. For more on Psynyde please try these links:    https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/, https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/, https://shyamgopan.com/2019/08/03/psynyde-bikes-weathering-tough-chemistry/

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

THE LITTLE TRAITOR

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

At the heart of elegance is simplicity.

When you have just one thing to say, things typically turn out well. When you have more than one thing to say, the game gets complicated. Not that simplicity loses its importance. Just that you have to analyze and delineate simplicity applicable across strands to link them all together.

The Little Traitor had its moments of doubt, when you thought it might derail and end up a mess. But it didn’t. Much of it thanks to the talent of a young actor called Ido Port supported magnificently by an equally competent cast led by Alfred Molina. This 2007 Israeli-American film, tells the story of Avi Leibowitz aka Proffy, whose family moved to Palestine after enduring the anti-Jew atrocities of World War II. The year is 1947. The region is controlled by the British and the modern nation of Israel is yet to be a reality.

For Proffy’s family, who have moved here with Israel in mind, the British presence is unacceptable. The youngster and his friends emulate the adults around them. They forge their own little conspiratorial circle, assume a cloak of secrecy and hatch plots designed to irritate the British and force them to leave. Life changes when Proffy is caught for being out during curfew by a British soldier, Sergeant Dunlop. The boy confronts the soldier with tenor molded by the adult world around him; he resonates defiance and anti-British sentiment. Dunlop though, proves to be the inquisitive self-critical sort with an appetite for learning. He seeks Proffy’s help to learn Hebrew and understand the writings of Judaism. For Proffy, it becomes opportunity to brush up on his English. Unknowingly the little boy finds in Dunlop, a person he can confide in and talk to comfortably, something his father, committed to Israel and cast on serious lines, has denied him. As his friendship with Sergeant Dunlop grows and he fails to report for his gang’s next mission, Proffy’s friends discover his proximity to the enemy soldier and brand him a traitor.

Into this simple story line, are added the strands of Proffy’s own growing up. Such layering in the narrative is made possible by the empathy Dunlop offers; it opens up room in the story for more than one of Proffy’s struggles. For a while, having enjoyed the simplicity of the film progressing on a single track – something you find in works from the Middle East and West Asia – you fear, it may end up a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Miraculously it doesn’t. Ido Port, his expression alternating between the puzzlement before questions; delight at the opportunity to know and the satisfaction of knowing, holds the narrative together with his portrayal of Proffy. The multiple strands blend and you end up with a heart-warming film. The movie is based on the novel, Panther in the Basement by Israeli author, Amos Oz.

The Little Traitor is currently available on Amazon Prime.

Try it.

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

MAGICAL ANDES

This image was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Sometimes there is a wealth of meaning in coincidence.

Mid-July, 2020 as one of India’s biggest online AGMs (Annual General Meeting) got underway – the company in question also seeing it as opportunity to showcase its technological capability – I was watching a docuseries set in distant South America.

From my little apartment that has been address cast in stone since the nationwide lockdown began, I traversed the 7000 kilometer-length of the world’s longest mountain chain, taking in a multitude of fantastic ecosystems and the people in their midst. Watching Magical Andes, currently available on Netflix, was without doubt an uplifting experience.  In my early fifties and freelance journalist to boot, I am resigned to the fact that I won’t see the places I have marveled at in the pages of books and the videos of the Internet. My earnings season on Earth is over. What I have left still, is an imaginative mind. Like the Andean Condor, recently reported in The Guardian as capable of flying 100 miles without flapping its wings, a window to the world’s wild places with few people therein, is a high that is strong enough to keep me happy for a few days. It gives me something to dream about; a counterpoint to latch on to and stay afloat in world locked down by virus.

To be honest, the 2019 docuseries although lovingly shot and narrated, is not exceptional. It is an edited view that diplomatically evades the negatives of life. Let’s face it; the countries the Andes passes through have known their share of trouble. At the same time, the series doesn’t drip sugary, like a tourist brochure trying to attract visitors. Its idiom stays midway between brochure and documentary. It is a nice balance of abject wilderness; wine country, adventure sports, Martian landscape valued in space research and a variety of human characters happy to be alive and working in the Andean environment. It is more or less a place as it is; emphasis on geography’s power to shape life. I don’t know how the series may work on the tourist but it worked well for this journalist. Had it been too journalistic with life’s troubles spewing forth, maybe it wouldn’t let the bird in me escape lockdown’s gravity and fly.

On that same note, the reason this docuseries engaged me at this juncture in time was the journey outdoors – albeit on the Internet – it offered, just when tech companies have been promising a contact-less future authored by data, digitization and advanced telecom. Those last three have few complaints about the lockdown upon us. No thoughts of whether we miss being human. They have the capital and political patronage to make things happen their way. So what if humanity can’t move about? We have you in the cross hairs and everything will be home delivered as long as you pay for it.

Well Magical Andes was a case of home delivery for me. But the good thing about documentaries of this sort is that they help me stay true to my wiring – life is outdoors; not indoors. Not to mention – there is a difference between future trends as sought by you and trends rendered inevitable by the power of corporate capital. The first is a choice; the second is an imposition. The first celebrates freedom; the second doesn’t care if world is free or not. Series seen, I am already off on 7000 kilometer-journey in my head, riding imaginary bike bought with imaginary money. I nurse a small fear though: how long before them with capital control the space between my ears as well? How long before they kill my imagination?

Magical Andes; try it, if you haven’t already.

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

AT A GLANCE / JULY 2020

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Chicago Marathon. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

2020 Chicago Marathon cancelled

The 2020 Bank of America Chicago Marathon has been cancelled.

A statement available on the event’s website said, “ On Monday, July 13, event organizers and the City of Chicago announced the decision to cancel the 2020 Bank of America Chicago Marathon and all race weekend activities in response to the ongoing public health concerns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

“ In regard to the unique set of circumstances surrounding the decision to cancel the 2020 race, the event has put into place an exception to our standard event policies. Each registered participant will have the option to receive a refund for their 2020 race entry or to defer their place and entry fee to a future edition of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon (2021, 2022 or 2023).

“ 2020 Bank of America Chicago Marathon registered participants will be contacted via email with additional information and the opportunity to select one of the following options,’’ the statement said.

More details are available on the race website.

2020 Ladakh Marathon cancelled

The 2020 Ladakh Marathon has been cancelled.

A press release dated July 2, 2020, available on the event’s website said, “ Ladakh Marathon which had been scheduled for 13th September 2020, has been cancelled because of COVID-19.

“ This year, the Ladakh Marathon would have been holding its 9th edition. Like previous editions, this small community of ours was greatly looking forward to welcoming runners from around the world. This 9th Edition was even more special as Ladakh Marathon had become a Qualifying Event of Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group. However, we also cannot simply ignore a global crisis of such proportion.

“ In India, even as we exit from the nationwide lockdown, we are witnessing a peak in positive COVID-19 cases. The border areas of Ladakh are also currently facing a tense situation, so we are looking at the coming months with great uncertainty.

“ As per the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for holding events involving mass participation, we have undertaken a risk assessment exercise and have taken the collective decision to cancel the four races of the 9th edition of Ladakh Marathon so as to not endanger our runners, the residents of Ladakh, our volunteers and staff.

“ All registrations for these 4 races (Marathon, Half Marathon, 10 km and 5 km) which were to be held Sunday 13th September 2020 have been automatically transferred for a period of two years to 2021-2022,’’ the statement said.

However, it added that the status of the two elite races – the 72 km Khardungla Challenge (17,618ft) and the 122 km Silk Route Ultra – is “ under review’’ as the number of participants is restricted to 200. A final decision on these two races is expected by 30th of July. “ Until then, we request all registered runners of these two races to NOT reserve any flights,’’ the press release said.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe becomes a member of IOC

The president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, has been elected a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), news reports said on July 17.

Coe was nominated in June. But to be admitted, he needed to first step down from other private business responsibilities he held which constituted potential conflict of interest. World Athletics wasn’t having a member on the IOC since 2015.

A statement dated July 17, available on the website of World Athletics said, “ World Athletics is honoured to have regained its International Federation membership of the IOC today. World Athletics would like to thank all IOC Members for their trust in our sport.” The IOC too had a statement on its website confirming the development. According to it, the 136th session of the IOC elected two vice presidents, two executive board members and five new members.

World Athletics revises its shoe technology rules again

World Athletics has revised further its rules governing shoe technology.

“ These amendments, approved by the World Athletics Council and introduced with immediate effect, are based on significant ongoing discussions with the Working Group on Athletic Shoes, established this year, and with the shoe manufacturers,’’ a press release dated July 28, 2020 available on the website of World Athletics said.

They alterations include changes to the maximum height of spiked shoes for track and field events and the establishment of an ‘Athletic Shoe Availability Scheme’ for unsponsored elite athletes. The maximum height for road shoes (40mm) remains unchanged.

“ The purpose of these amendments is to maintain the current technology status quo until the Olympic Games in Tokyo across all events until a newly formed Working Group on Athletic Shoes, which includes representatives from shoe manufacturers and the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI), have had the opportunity to set the parameters for achieving the right balance between innovation, competitive advantage and universality and availability,’’ the statement said.

Details are available on the website of World Athletics.

According to World Athletics CEO Jon Ridgeon, the previous rule changes, announced in late January, were designed to give the athletes clarity before the Tokyo Olympic Games, which were originally due to take place in July-August this year. However the later postponement of the Olympic Games for a full year, due to the global pandemic, gave the governing body more time to consult with stakeholders and experts and develop amended rules that will guide the sport through until late 2021.

Meanwhile the new Working Group on Athletic Shoes (WGAS) met for their first meeting on July 22. It is tasked with scoping and overseeing studies around shoe technology, exploring definitions to provide clarity to athletes about the shoes they are able to compete in, creating a robust certification and control process and providing expert advice and recommendations to the World Athletics Competition Commission on the future direction of World Athletics’ Rules and Regulations concerning elite athlete shoes for the long-term which may or may not be different to the current rules, the statement said.

World Athletics Council resolves to expel RusAF if payments not received by August 15

The World Athletics Council has decided to expel the Russian Federation (RusAF) from membership of World Athletics if it does not make the outstanding payments of five million dollars in fine and 1.31 million dollars in costs before August 15.

According to a press release dated July 30, 2020 available on the website of World Athletics, the Council, meeting by teleconference due to the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, agreed to follow the recommendations of the Taskforce, delivered by chairperson Rune Andersen in his report. Addressing the Council, Andersen expressed his disappointment that the Taskforce had seen “ very little in terms of changing the culture of Russian athletics” in the past five years.

He said the Taskforce had spent an enormous amount of time and effort trying to help RusAF reform itself and Russian athletics, for the benefit of all clean Russian athletes but the response from RusAF had been inadequate.

According to the press release, in the light of a letter sent to World Athletics by the Russian Minister of Sport Oleg Matytsin, which promised payment of the overdue amounts by August 15, the Council decided to recommend to Congress to expel RusAF from membership of World Athletics, but to suspend the decision.

However this decision will come into effect immediately and automatically if RusAF does not meet the following conditions:

  • Payment in full of the two outstanding RusAF invoices to be received on or before close of business in Monaco on 15 August 2020.
  • The RusAF Reinstatement Commission to provide the draft plan referenced in the third paragraph of Council’s decision of 12 March 2020 – of suitable scope and depth, with an implementation plan and progress indicators – to the Taskforce on or before 31 August 2020.
  • Any changes required by the Taskforce to the draft plan to be incorporated to the Taskforce’s satisfaction on or before 30 September 2020.
  • The plan to be brought into effect and satisfactory progress achieved against the plan (as determined by the Taskforce, based on the input of the international experts appointed by World Athletics), as reported by the Taskforce to Council at each of its subsequent meetings.

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / DAYS OF CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Seema Yadav (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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

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

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

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

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

Kavitha Reddy (Photo: courtesy Kavitha)

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

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

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

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

Brijesh Gajera (Photo: courtesy Brijesh)

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

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

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

Lourdes Bosco (Photo: courtesy Bosco)

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

Shilpi Sahu (Photo: courtesy Shilpi)

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

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

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

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

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

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

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

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

Vivek Pophale (Photo: courtesy Vivek)

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

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

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

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

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

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

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

Sunder Nagesh (Photo: courtesy Sunder)

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

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

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

Satya Tripathi (Photo: courtesy Satya)

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

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

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

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / THREE PROJECTS FROM ALIBAG

Image, courtesy: Sumit Patil

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

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

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

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

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

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

The BRO signboard (Photo: courtesy Sumit)

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORD v FERRARI

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

Or as some would say: the Holmes in Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SWIMMING’S PHASE OF WOES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The closure of swimming pools has meant tough times for swimmers, coaches and support staff

While COVID-19 has been a setback for sports at large, it has been particularly harsh on swimming.  And within that the impact has been hardest on competition swimmers.  “ Pools have been shut since around March 19. In competition swimming, there is no real replacement for the swimming pool. Dryland work outs cannot fully substitute training in the pool. It will be difficult for swimmers to get back to earlier performance levels,’’ Zarir Balliwala, President, Greater Mumbai Amateur Aquatics Association (GMAAA) said. The prolonged closure of pools has derailed this year’s district and state level competitions. Question mark graces the nationals too.

According to Zarir, the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) is seized of the matter and it has spoken to the government. But with no response that can be acted upon available yet, the closure continues. With it, elite swimmers training for events like the Olympic Games, endurance swimmers who have crossed channels and straits worldwide as well as recreational swimmers – all have been left high and dry. The tough situation was brought to focus when ace Indian swimmer Virdhawal Khade tweeted mid-June that he may have to consider retiring from the sport if pools stayed shut. Virdhawal is the current national record holder in 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle events and the 50m butterfly. He represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. “ Regaining form will be an uphill task if elite swimmers don’t have access to the pool for long,’’ Sebastian Xavier, former national record holder in swimming who represented the country at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, said. On June 30, 2020, espn.in carried a report by Jonathan Selvaraj on swimmer Sajan Prakash, the only Indian elite swimmer who is currently training, thanks to him being in Thailand. Sajan who is still recovering from injury described his return to the pool after the virus triggered-lockdown. “ Going back to the water, I felt as if my body was made out of stone,” he was quoted as saying in the report.

Most people linked to swimming realize that with the virus sparing little room to argue their case, one has to simply hope for the best amid existing challenges. “ You have to look at the positive side,’’ Kaustubh Radkar, former national level swimmer and now a well-known triathlete and coach, said when asked how swimmers may tackle the predicament. He suggested that the best option would be to treat lockdown with its lack of access to pools, like a period of injury. “ Take it as if you are addressing injury. If I dip into personal experience, I had shoulder surgery in 2009 and was out of action for three months. You have to make the most of what is available. What you can do right now is indulge in shore based exercises and keep a positive attitude,’’ he said. With shoulder injury, Radkar estimates the dip in fitness levels he experienced over those three months at about 50 per cent. Without injury – which would be the apt way to estimate for the current situation – he felt the dip in swimmers’ fitness levels should be 25 per cent.

The above encapsulates only the physical aspect of how swimming is missed. Most people see the pool as a fun environment. That is typical landlubber perspective, one in which swimming is the exception and activity on land is the norm. This isn’t necessarily the perspective when you are a committed swimmer who is very comfortable in water. In that predicament, the way you miss swimming is more visceral. Asked how a dedicated swimmer may miss water, Radkar said that the question cannot be answered generically as the nature and extent of impact varies from person to person. Speaking for himself, he said, “ for me, water is very calming. When I am in the water, it is a perfect state of existence. There is no distraction. It is meditative and positive,’’ he said.  Zarir too recalled tranquility as the essential quality of water. This should give an idea of what exactly those embracing water as preferred medium of sport must be missing in these times of pools shut due to pandemic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Swimming pools have been studied in the past for how they spread disease. The National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is part of the United States National Library of Medicine. There is a study titled “ A Review and Update on Waterborne Viral Diseases Associated with Swimming Pools’’ by Lucia Bonadonna and Giuseppina La Rosa, published January 9, 2019, available on its database. The introduction to its abstract says:  Infectious agents, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and molds, may threaten the health of swimming pool bathers. Viruses are a major cause of recreationally-associated waterborne diseases linked to pools, lakes, ponds, thermal pools/spas, rivers, and hot springs. They can make their way into waters through the accidental release of fecal matter, body fluids (saliva, mucus), or skin flakes by symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. In its concluding remarks, the study noted: In light of the health hazards posed by swimming pools, it is essential to constantly monitor water quality in swimming pools and to assess the effectiveness of treatment and disinfection processes and compliance with standards. Specifically, appropriate chemical and microbial evaluation of water quality should be carried out, especially when large numbers of bathers are expected to use the pools. Overcrowding should in any case be prevented. Since the behavior of swimmers may affect water quality, strict rules of behavior in the pool should be followed and enforced, including shower before entering the water, wash hands after using the toilet, take children to bathroom before swimming, and, importantly, avoid swimming while sick. This study provides an overview of the health risks associated with swimming pools. In other words, you can’t pretend risks don’t exist. However the study precedes the COVID-19 pandemic by almost a whole year.

Similar studies specific to our COVID-19 times, were hard to locate. On May 15, 2020, www.covid19facts.com, a website hosted by Reckitt Benckiser (in India, their best-known brand is Dettol) posted an analysis by EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) Healthcare on the risk of contracting COVID-19 from swimming in the pool or the sea. According to it, the biggest risk with swimming is likely getting too close to other people, for example in enclosed pools, changing rooms or on beaches, rather than infection from the water itself. Citing a report from the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Higher Council for Scientific Research), the analysis said that its authors concluded: it was “highly unlikely” that people would be infected from contact with water. However, they warned, leisure swimming tends to involve a loss of social distancing, which is the major risk from using pools or beaches. In swimming pools, the authors say, “the use of disinfecting agents is widely implemented in order to avoid microbial contamination of the waters” by users. They say that “the residual concentration of the disinfecting agent present in the water should be sufficient for virus inactivation.” They admit there is “currently no data” on what happens to SARS-CoV-2 in seawater, but say that “the dilution effect, as well as the presence of salt, are factors that are likely to contribute to a decrease in viral load and its inactivation.” They say this is based on what happens to other, similar viruses. Rivers, lakes, and untreated pools are riskier, they say, and are “ the most inadvisable aquatic environments” for swimming. The report authors stress that the most likely way people could get infected while swimming “ is through respiratory secretions that are generated by coughing, sneezing and person-to-person contact” in busy spaces. The analysis also cited what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to say on the subject. It quoted CDC: “ There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas. Proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) of these facilities should inactivate the virus in the water.” They also advise that the salt in the sea and dilution effects make it unlikely the virus would survive. CDC’s recommendations in full may be viewed on this link:  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/parks-rec/aquatic-venues.html

In March, when nationwide lockdown was announced in India, the total number of COVID-19 cases was around 500. By July 6, that had changed to a total count (since the disease appeared in India) of almost 700,000 cases; third highest in the world. The original lockdown had relaxed but with relaxation of norms leading to further spread of infection in some places, stringent lockdowns were happening at local level. Such imagery stacks the cards against adopting a kinder view towards swimming pools. The people this blog spoke to agreed that the reopening of pools would have to be a well thought through decision; one that authorities may take only when they are absolutely sure of allowing it. At least one senior coach this blog spoke to said he was anticipating another couple of months of closure. He explained the reason. “ At the complex where I work, during busy hours, we may have around 100 people in the water and almost double that number on land. You can’t have that in a situation like the present. Only when infection numbers have dropped significantly, can we examine possibilities of return to swimming with new protocols in place,’’ he said. Pools have opened in some countries and the general practice seen there is not allowing use of shower rooms, changing rooms and locker rooms. You come ready to swim and once you finish your session, you put your clothes on top of wet swimsuit and go. Asked if it would be possible to open pools just for elite swimmers (so that their training isn’t damaged beyond repair), they felt it should be possible to do that with above said restrictions and strict lane discipline in place. The report on espn.in provided insight on how Sajan Prakash is training at Phuket’s Thanyapura Aquatic Centre. “ Among the rules we have to follow since the opening of swimming pools has been to train in separate lanes. In the past, because we had to share the pool with other members of the centre, we would all have to swim in a single file in the same lane. Very often you’d find someone’s hands touching your toes. It’s much less distracting to have your own lane,” Sajan, who represented India at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, was quoted as saying, in the report.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Athletes are only one aspect of sport. When sport is an industry, there are many others dependent on it. Their livelihood is hit when pandemic strikes and sports goes for a toss. With pools shut, there are swimming coaches and support staff finding it difficult to make ends meet. As with any industry, vulnerability depends on how secure your employment was. “ Those working for big institutions that run swimming pools and those located in major metros, may not be affected severely. But freelancers and the employment ecosystem around pools in smaller cities and towns would have been affected,’’ the head coach at a school in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, reputed for its strength in swimming, said. Sebastian Xavier is among those trying to raise resources to help. He forwarded to this blog information on the fundraiser Lets Pool In, which seeks to support 100 persons from the affected category with a one-time financial grant of Rs 10,000. “ It is a good move,’’ the earlier mentioned coach also said, adding he wished the amount per capita was more. Resident in the emergent livelihood problem around shut swimming pools is a little remembered detail. India’s lockdown started in March, just as summer vacation was approaching. The warm months of summer are when pools are at their busiest; Lets Pool In estimates that the summer months contribute as much as 60 per cent of annual revenues for this industry. So in 2020, the business of swimming pools and coaching therein has already lost its best earnings season. Not to mention – the coaching camps of summer play a role in scouting the next generation of the talented young.

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / F.K.T IN INDIA GETS A BOOST, COURTESY KIEREN D’SOUZA

Kieren D’Souza; from the run up Friendship Peak. He is seen here a few hundred meters below the summit (Photo: 4Play / provided to this blog by Kieren)

It was in early June 2020 that Kieren D’Souza approached the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Manali with a request, strange for the times in which it was being tabled.

An ultra-runner with affinity for the mountains, it is now some years since Kieren made the tourist town in Himachal Pradesh, his base to train and live. The local mountaineering institute had been where he did his Basic Mountaineering Course years ago; the course had proceeded for training in the direction of Friendship Peak (17,352 feet). A non-technical peak, it is generally recognized as an easy climb. However a mountaineering course unfolds accommodating the wishes and abilities of a large number of students. Kieren’s batch completed their training successfully but did not climb Friendship. The desire to summit it, stayed in his head.

In the years that followed, the young man was acknowledged as a promising ultra-runner. A lover of the outdoors, it wasn’t long before he veered off the distance runs of the cities and embraced trail running and the ultramarathons of altitude. Besides polishing off a clutch of such runs in India, he completed Spartathlon and races within the UTMB fold. All this exposed him to emerging trends in the sport, one of which was the gradual but steady ascent of the mountain athlete – an athlete at the confluence of diverse disciplines like running, hiking and mountaineering.  It was this fancy that Kieren indulged, training and living in Manali, a town at 6725 feet offering quick access to several peaks of modestly high elevation in the neighborhood. He didn’t want to climb them in the regular expedition way or the comparatively lighter alpine style. Instead what fascinated him was the paradigm of fast ascents where the skills of running, hiking and mountaineering blended.  Plus, he wondered about the possibility of commencing the walk or run, right from Manali and ending it there with no car or hired transport in between. Away from the minimalist format, he also thought of attempting peaks in winter.

Challenging as these parameters may seem, fact is – dedication to the task at hand can prepare a person for the demands of aforesaid light, quick raids at altitude. A midnight in August  2016, this writer had seen Kieren running up Khardung La (17,582 feet) in shorts and T-shirt as part of the 111km-race of La Ultra The High. It was quite cold but he managed well. Roughly three years later, Peter Van Geit, hailing from Belgium and based in Chennai, would run across many passes in the Himalaya of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, often clad in nothing but shorts and T-shirt; a small daypack bearing essentials slung from his shoulders. Manali afforded views of several peaks ideal for the minimalist style. None attracted Kieren as much as Friendship, playground of the local mountaineering institute and climbed by many during tourist season. The peak located close to Beas Kund is part of a handful of peaks in the area regularly visited by climbers; other prominent ones in the vicinity of Friendship include Shitidhar (17,224 feet), Ladakhi (17,536 feet) and across the valley – Hanuman Tibba (19,625 feet). Kieren’s first attempt on Friendship was a winter climb. In January 2018, he and Aditya Pandey tried a fast ascent seeking to polish off the peak in under-two days. “ We failed, we didn’t reach the summit. We didn’t have the right gear for climbing in winter,’’ Kieren said over the telephone from Manali. A winter ascent is still on the agenda. It’s a different ball game entailing not just physical fitness but also investment in right gear.

Kieren D’Souza; from the acclimatization run of June 4, ahead of attempting the FKT on Friendship Peak (Photo: 4Play . provided to this blog by Kieren)

Two years later, by February 2020, Kieren was resolved that a run to the summit of Friendship and back should be attempted. Then COVID-19 brought everything to a grinding halt. By late March, all of India had slipped into a nationwide lockdown to check the spread of infection. Sporting activity came to a halt; even the morning jog disappeared as people withdrew indoors. In Manali, Kieren was reduced to working out at home and cycling on his home trainer. This he did, diligently. From late April, the town started allowing two and a half hours of morning exercise. “ I ran as much as I could in that duration,’’ Kieren said. Friendship Peak returned to focus. A young man trying to make ends meet through career in sports, Kieren’s fast ascent project was cast as a mix of athletic performance and media; there would be a film crew to document his journey.

Given lockdown, he needed permission from the authorities. That was how in early June, amid lockdown now relaxed a bit, he ended up at the SDM’s office talking about trail running and a shot at Friendship. He was asked to provide a window of choice for the attempt. It wasn’t hard to zero in on one. The effects of the approaching monsoon would begin to manifest in the region by around June 20. It would be best to wrap up the attempt before that. “ We asked for June 14, 15, 16 and 17,’’ Kieren said. While the process of obtaining approval was underway, on June 4, he essayed a foray up to an elevation of 4000 meters (13,123 feet) on Khanpri Tibba, a nearby mountain, to acclimatize. Once permission was sanctioned by the SDM, on June 14, Kieren did a recce of the trail to Friendship. That too would have contributed some bit to acclimatization.

Kieren started his run on June 16 at 1.02AM from Mall Road, Manali. He ran from Manali to Solang and onward to Dhundi, from where he took the true left of the Beas River and proceeded upstream. That is the path hikers take to reach Beas Kund. However Kieren didn’t require reaching this alpine lake. Much ahead of it is the deviation to the base of Friendship. The mountain’s real ascent starts at a long ridge called Lady Leg. From here onward there was snow. Kieren continued in running gear with one addition for this stage on, being micro-spikes fitted to his shoes. Some ways up, is a col. Members of the film crew were already in place at these points. At the col, he changed to slightly warm attire and traded his running shoes for proper mountaineering boots and crampons. He also left the small backpack he had been running with, there. Roughly three and a half hours later, he was on the summit of Friendship. Altogether, it had taken him seven hours and fifteen minutes to reach there from Mall Road, Manali. The film of the climb shows him running on the return too, all the way to Manali. Kieren told this blog that the GPS data from the trip has been submitted to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) to be officially ratified. The IMF is the apex body for mountaineering in India.

A July 2 report in the South China Morning Post quoting Kieren, positioned the run up Friendship as an exercise in Fastest Known Time (FKT). It is a culture that is quite strong overseas but is yet to catch on in a big way in India. Compared to the institutional scrutiny characterizing records in mainstream outdoor disciplines like mountaineering, FKTs started in the comparatively diffuse regions of outdoor sports – like the overlapping zones of running, hiking and mountaineering. They are actually loved for their informality as regards verification and the organic evolution of new quests. Perhaps you could call them the paradigm adopted till given activity becomes mainstream and formal.  “ With a dwindling number of outdoor milestones to be achieved first, top adventurers are trying to achieve them fastest. Trails of every length and mountains of every size are increasingly becoming racecourses for those lured by the challenge of the F.K.T,’’ an article by John Branch, in the New York Times of August 5, 2015, said. Commissioners in the space are unofficial. In the US, the article said, that position belonged to ultra-runner and former atmospheric physicist Peter Bakwin and the website he commenced. Claims of record timing are naturally accompanied by questions from competition. Bakwin has stepped in occasionally to settle some such disputes. It is a dynamic world in which quests crop up; records are claimed, some record holders specify rules and others question it. “ Trickier questions surround the degree of support the athlete receives: unsupported (carrying all supplies from the beginning), self-supported (collecting additional supplies along the way) and supported (having a team that provides everything from pacesetters to nightly shelter and food). Bakwin lists them all. It is left for readers to decide which is most impressive,’’ the article said. According to it, FKTs have no governing body. On the other hand, as Bakwin points out, the existence of questions and suspicion, indicate how passionately people in the field track FKTs. One of the best known FKT pursuits in the US is trying to be the fastest on the roughly 3500km-long Appalachian Trail (for more on this please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/28/the-pursuit-of-endurance/).

Kieren D’Souza; from a run in winter in Manali. The town can be seen in the distance (Photo: Nitish Waila / provided to this blog by Kieren)

In his earlier mentioned piece in the South China Morning Post, Mark Agnew wrote, “ D’Souza hopes that other runners will be inspired to set their own FKT and he has already received messages from other interested mountaineers or runners. But more importantly, he wants to show those who are apprehensive about starting mountaineering that it is not all-consuming. “ I’m not saying they will do it in one day, that’s not the point, but definitely over a shorter time,” D’Souza said.’’ There hasn’t been a culture of documenting FKTs in India. In the past, for instance, a speculated FKT would surface periodically around Stok Kangri (20,190 feet), the popular trekking peak in Ladakh. Outdoor clubs in Maharashtra harbor stories of people who did fast hikes in the Sahyadri. Same holds true for Friendship Peak as well. Kieren told this blog that he was aware of earlier attempts by some of his friends to climb the peak fast but a precedent on Friendship essayed in the specific style he did was unknown to him.

With COVID-19 causing cancellation of major events in running worldwide, Kieren has all of 2020 and likely a chunk of 2021, to focus on projects similar to the one he accomplished on Friendship. There is also the chance to sample the virtual versions of some iconic trail races. UTMB for instance, has said it will be informing of developments in this regard. Kieren can do such runs from Manali.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The heights of peaks and elevation of towns quoted in the article are as available on multiple websites on the Internet.)