OUR REFLECTION IN PETER

Peter Van Geit at the talk in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was a small gathering, just outside the shop floor of a major sports goods retailer in Navi Mumbai. Maybe 15-20 people at best; a couple of them were the retail chain’s staff. But that didn’t stop Peter Van Geit from speaking passionately about what he had been doing the past several months.

A Belgian national and former employee of tech giant, Cisco, Chennai-based Peter is well known in the Indian outdoors. He was among prime movers at the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), contributed much to promoting the active lifestyle, helped clean up the city’s beaches, did excellent relief work during the Chennai floods and then got villainized when an unexpected forest fire killed several trekkers in Theni. That last incident from March 2018 was a tense chapter.

At CTC, one of the activities Peter and others embraced was ultrarunning. They would run for a few days covering a couple of hundred kilometers. In 2018, Peter commenced a personal project. Over 75 days, he ran (the right term would be fast-hiked) 1500 kilometers along trails and across some 40 high mountain passes in Himachal Pradesh and the then state of Jammu & Kashmir. This venture followed an earlier one in Vietnam, wherein he ran close to 2000 kilometers over hilly terrain. Then in 2019, running from the Uttarakhand-Nepal border towards Himachal Pradesh and Zanskar, he crossed 120 passes. The number includes little known routes taken by shepherds, who incidentally are his frequent refuge for food and shelter on these trips. Later that year, in a foray to the Maharashtra Sahyadri and the Konkan coast, he ran or cycled linking some 200 forts. Active on social media with his travel posts, Peter has a fan base. In January 2020, when Peter was in Mumbai to speak at the Himalayan Club, this writer shared a suburban train journey with him. He was quickly recognized by co-passengers and selfies taken.

At two presentations I attended this year, there was a slide that always drew laughs. It showed a small child sitting naked on a beach. “ That’s me. I was minimalist even then,’’ Peter would quip. He says traveling light makes him fast. On the trail, that means less stuff hauled around as he manages to either reach known shelter or camp light at lower elevation having already got past the high crux. That’s utter contrast with the regular. Consider this: a typical photograph of Peter from the Himalaya shows him in running shorts, a small backpack, a thin T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. The backdrop is high altitude; steep, snow clad, at times glacier, clearly cold. Other speakers at the same venue may have just presented slides of them and others in similar environment clad in multiple layers, armed with gear and heavy backpack. That would be the Himalayan experience of most in the audience too.

In the mutual admiration society we are, people flock to similar others. Peter gets applause but you wonder – was he accepted into the tribe? Much of the establishment sitting in judgement came up in a more structured fashion with outdoor courses done and rigid views of what defines a particular sport. They seem organization-builders; lovers of hive and the politics of the hive if we were all bees. Corporate – you could say, for imagery. Peter seems an activity-lover, happiest outdoors, happy to be afloat afterwards in a people’s durbar. In his heart warming short film, Peter stumbles, slips, gets his face liberally licked by a buffalo, does some sketchy river-crossings. Those formally trained in outdoor techniques will question some of his actions. Yet there he was, up in the mountains, doing a hybrid of running and high altitude hiking, most of the time solo. Solo is something few Indians like. Indians are all about groups. Further, where most of us make a whole annual trek out of one pass, he was polishing off a pass a day. For now in India’s world of hiking-mountaineering and running, the Peter-way is an outlier.

Here’s another vignette – Peter is a runner but now nurses little appetite for the organized marathons, ultramarathons and stadium runs that the majority of runners favor. He likes to be away from cities and crowds. When out in the Himalaya, he lives and eats with shepherds and at houses along the trail; he likes that simpler life. He navigates with digital map and GPS co-ordinates on his smartphone used offline and set to battery saving-mode. On the Konkan coast, confronted with the fort of Suvarnadurg located on an island a kilometer out in the sea, he just swam across to access it. The central values of his excursions appear freedom, solitude and living the life he wants. Accessible and easy to talk to, Peter may impress as anything from celebration of the outdoor spirit to bull in a china shop unintentionally smashing our gear laden surrogate commando self-image, with his minimalist approach.

Peter, in a Mumbai suburban train, en route to a lecture (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To be fair, Peter’s journeys in India fell in a list of projects headed to the body of work he achieved. Long before digital became commonplace in India, in 1997, a team of Indian women completed a trans-Himalayan trek from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh to the Karakorum Pass. They crossed 39 passes above 3000m, 15 passes above 2000m and covered 4500 kilometers in 198 days. In the years that followed, at least one seasoned outdoorsman anchored a project seeking to thread a hiking route from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border, replete with GPS co-ordinates for independent hikers to use. More than five years ago, when the Himalaya was yet to be run as Peter did, this writer spoke of the project in waiting to an Indian ultrarunner. Nothing happened. Over August-October 2018, a team of three young Indian mountaineers hiked from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border crossing 27 passes (please try this link for their story:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/13/a-long-walk-traversing-the-western-himalaya/). Then over 2018 and 2019, in two tranches, Peter crossed around 160 passes in the western part of the Indian Himalaya, visited 200 forts in Maharashtra and made the journeys available as digital resource. His own project, Peter has said, was initially spurred by data from a blog by Bengaluru-based trekker Satyanarayana; in the blog Satya used to document with GPS logs, the passes he visited.

It was two years ago that Peter resigned his job, did an Airbnb with his house and embarked on a new life of running around. At the February 2020 talk in Navi Mumbai, he spoke of young Indians he met during his long stay in the country, who were stronger athletes than him but whose promise faded with marriage and corporate life. The young people in the audience laughed. Peter’s face remained expressionless. “ It is not a laughing matter. Life is short and you live only once,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/; https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/)             

NO COUNTRY FOR CHILDREN?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Global population is currently around 7.8 billion. While that number rises, there is no matching interest in the type of world we are creating. The questions facing our industrial edifice and consumerist lifestyle are enormous. It goes beyond plastic, which is merely tip of the iceberg. Fundamental questions about how we live; perhaps even – why we live, remain to be addressed. Nothing puts these questions in focus as much as imagining back from our children’s future does. Here’s what a commission convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet said recently about the future we are gifting our children.

No single country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their future, a report released February 19, 2020 by a commission of over 40 child and adolescent health experts from around the world has said. The Commission was convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report, ` A Future for the World’s Children?, ‘ finds that the health and future of every child and adolescent worldwide is under immediate threat from ecological degradation, climate change and exploitative marketing practices that push heavily processed fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco at children. “ Despite improvements in child and adolescent health over the past 20 years, progress has stalled, and is set to reverse,” former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Co-Chair of the Commission, Helen Clark, was quoting as saying in a press statement on the report available on the website of WHO. “ It has been estimated that around 250 million children under five years old in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential, based on proxy measures of stunting and poverty. But of even greater concern, every child worldwide now faces existential threats from climate change and commercial pressures. Countries need to overhaul their approach to child and adolescent health, to ensure that we not only look after our children today but protect the world they will inherit in the future,” she added.

According to the statement, the report includes a new global index of 180 countries, comparing performance on child flourishing, including measures of child survival and well-being, such as health, education, and nutrition; sustainability, with a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions, and equity, or income gaps. While the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, excessive carbon emissions – disproportionately from wealthier countries – threaten the future of all children. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with current projections, this would lead to devastating health consequences for children, due to rising ocean levels, heatwaves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, and malnutrition, the statement said.

“ More than 2 billion people live in countries where development is hampered by humanitarian crises, conflicts, and natural disasters, problems increasingly linked with climate change. While some of the poorest countries have among the lowest CO2 emissions, many are exposed to the harshest impacts of a rapidly changing climate. Promoting better conditions today for children to survive and thrive nationally does not have to come at the cost of eroding children’s futures globally,’’  Minister Awa Coll-Seck from Senegal, Co-Chair of the Commission, was quoted as saying.

The report also highlights the distinct threat posed to children from harmful marketing. Evidence suggests that children in some countries see as many as 30,000 advertisements on television alone in a single year, while youth exposure to vaping (e-cigarettes) advertisements increased by more than 250% in the USA over two years, reaching more than 24 million young people. Professor Anthony Costello, one of the Commission’s authors, said, “ Industry self-regulation has failed. Studies in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA – among many others – have shown that self-regulation has not hampered commercial ability to advertise to children. For example, despite industry signing up to self-regulation in Australia, children and adolescent viewers were still exposed to 51 million alcohol ads during just one year of televised football, cricket and rugby. And the reality could be much worse still: we have few facts and figures about the huge expansion of social media advertising and algorithms aimed at our children.’’

Children’s exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with purchase of unhealthy foods and overweight and obesity, linking predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. To protect children, the independent Commission authors called for a new global movement driven by and for children. Specific recommendations include:

  • Stop CO2 emissions with the utmost urgency, to ensure children have a future on this planet
  • Place children and adolescents at the center of our efforts to achieve sustainable development
  • New policies and investment in all sectors to work towards child health and rights
  • Incorporate children’s voices into policy decisions
  • Tighten national regulation of harmful commercial marketing, supported by a new Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“ This report shows that the world’s decision makers are, too often, failing today’s children and youth: failing to protect their health, failing to protect their rights, and failing to protect their planet. This must be a wakeup call for countries to invest in child health and development, ensure their voices are heard, protect their rights, and build a future that is fit for children.” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said.

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

THE WORLD CHAMPION WE OVERLOOK

Manikandan Kumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When this blog met him, Manikandan Kumar’s triumph at the 2012 IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships was over seven years in the past. He hasn’t been idle. There have been other podium finishes including three more at the world championships. What have been less than ideal are our system of encouragement and the resource-rich we call: sponsors.

There was palpable imperviousness to the negative and the pessimistic, in how Manikandan Kumar spoke. “ I believe in myself. I grew gradually in climbing. It wasn’t easy. You can ask anyone – I never complain,’’ he said. It was now years since Mani, as he is popularly called, burst on to the scene. For this writer, that moment happened one night at an outdoor school in Ranikhet, when Kuttappa (Kuttss) Bommanda showed up for dinner apologizing for his late arrival. “ I was watching Mani’s climb at the Paraclimbing World Championships on my laptop. He has won it!’’ Kuttss, an outdoor instructor from Bengaluru, said enthusiastically. The year was 2012. Mani had become India’s first world champion in paraclimbing; the country is otherwise a relative unknown in the top echelons of competition climbing. Aside from fellow climbers and officials linked to that circuit in sports, practically none in India knew him.

Seven years since, the environment for Mani and his ilk in climbing wasn’t much different. Sport climbing was slated to debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo by mid-2020. But the discipline wasn’t yet on the list of sports for the Paralympics that would follow. That meant, Mani, a former world champion and still among the best in his category worldwide, wouldn’t get a shot at the Paralympics. Why blame the Olympic movement? Seven years since Mani’s triumph at the Paraclimbing World Championships, India was yet to have a distinct paraclimbing program. “ I would like to change that,’’ Mani said, sipping coffee. It was November 2019. We were at a café on MG Road in Bengaluru.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Born 1986, Mani is the eldest of three brothers; their father worked as a carpenter, mother remained a home maker. He grew up in Malleshwaram, a suburb of Bengaluru. When he was around five years of age, Mani had an attack of typhoid. “ That was when my parents realized that my right leg had been affected,’’ Mani said. He began limping. General literature on the disease, available on the Internet, speaks of typhoid as fever caused by bacterial infection. However, you also find mention of rare neurological complications that impact a patient’s limbs and movement. In Mani’s case, the affected leg stayed weak in terms of musculature and strength. The boy loved sports, particularly football. Limp notwithstanding, he plunged in and played. “ I faced no discrimination. I played without thinking of my disability,’’ he said. Those years, climbing wasn’t at all in the frame.

In 2002, aged 16, Mani found himself at an outdoor camp in Ramnagaram organized by The Association of People with Disability (APD). Located roughly fifty kilometers away from Bengaluru, Ramnagaram has historically been a climbing hotspot. The camp participants were introduced to bouldering and rappelling. “ We climbed two to three boulders. I liked the experience. One of the instructors suggested that I try out climbing at the office of GETHNAA, which had a climbing wall right behind their building,’’ Mani said. GETHNAA stood for General Thimayya National Academy of Adventure. At this point, the climbing wall adjacent to the city’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium was still a couple of years away; GETHNAA’s was the only wall around. Mani’s opening stint at the GETHNAA wall was encouraging. “ I climbed three routes. I felt I should take up the sport,’’ he said. He started attending the climbing sessions there regularly. Among the instructors he met there was Keerthi Pais, who would become India’s best known trainer in the discipline. Not long after this foray into climbing, Mani also participated in a state level competition, in the regular category; there was no separate category for the physically challenged. “ I remember doing a dyno at that competition. I did it using my better leg. Everyone was appreciative,’’ Mani said laughing. The right leg was still quite weak. He was at the threshold of an engaging format of progression with that limb, for climbing by nature is a sport demanding three-point contact with the rock or wall being ascended.

Photo: courtesy Mani

In the sharp divide between staying perched or falling, there is little room to spare a limb to haul up a weak one. Yet in the initial days, that, was exactly what Mani often had to do – he had to lift his right leg with his hand and place it on the next foothold. None of this stopped him from making the first major decision of his life. Mani completed his tenth standard and gave up studying. “ I had no interest in studies. I wanted to make a career out of climbing,’’ he said. He did not have the benefit of money and wealthy parents. His family was struggling financially. He had no sponsors or well-wishers. All he had was self-belief.

In 2002, Mani went to Delhi to watch the national climbing competition. It left him wanting to qualify for the next edition of the event. At an open competition held thereafter at Ramjas near Delhi, he was the only climber making it to the final in his age group. “ I got an appreciation letter for that,’’ he recalled. Now the desire to excel was picking up. That year was noteworthy for something else too. Mani was among those featured in a documentary film on climbing. “ Facing the camera, I blurted out that one day I want to be a world champion. It’s still there in that video,’’ he said. In 2003, he participated in the zonal competition and ended up seventh or eighth, narrowly missing selection for the national competition.  However, he got a wild card entry, the condition being he would have to do a trial climb and prove his worth before the senior official overseeing sport climbing. That done and initial rounds too cleared, Mani found himself among four climbers from the South Zone who featured in the final. He finished last but won the best climber award.

In 2004, he was back in the final. In 2006 also, he qualified for the national competition (in India, the national competition is at the apex of a series of zonal competitions arranged below it in the hierarchy). That year, he started working as a coach under Keerthi Pais, reporting every day to the new climbing wall that had come up near Kanteerava Stadium. In 2007, Mani didn’t qualify for the final at the national competition; it was the case in 2008 too. But the coaching continued, including accompanying his wards (they were in the junior category) who had made it to the national competition, to their respective events. The coaching assignment brought with it a small salary. Additionally Mani worked at outdoor adventure camps. The income he thus made was useful for his family.

Mani with Philippe Ribiere at one of the editions of Girivihar’s open sport climbing competition at Belapur in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

For over a decade in Mumbai, the city’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, ran an open climbing competition. It would eventually lead to two editions of the IFSC World Cup in Bouldering (IFSC – International Federation of Sport Climbing) being held in Navi Mumbai in 2016 and 2017. Mani had been to these events. Among foreign climbers visiting the open competition held in Belapur was Philippe Ribiere from France. “ He is someone I respect,’’ Mani said. At age four Philippe was diagnosed with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome and has excelled at climbing despite that. He started climbing at six. To others climbing so having overcome physical challenges, he is important not merely as example to follow but also as among those inspiring the first international paraclimbing competition held in 2006 at Ekaterinburg, Russia. More such competitions were held in the years that followed. Then in 2011, the first paraclimbing world championships were held in Arco Italy, under the auspices of IFSC. Mani had been following these developments. He had faith in himself and there was also that old statement to camera: one day I want to be a world champion, which had come out naturally, to explore.

“ Between 2009 and 2011 – that is when I realized, this is my chance. I watched all relevant videos of paraclimbing. I used to take note of participants at these competitions. After the 2011 paraclimbing world championships in Arco, I decided that no matter what, I am going,’’ Mani said. He didn’t tell anyone of his resolve. He commenced preparations in January 2012. Sometime in July-August 2012, he had a conversation with the zonal chairman overseeing sport climbing in South India. He agreed to forward Mani’s candidature. The venue for the 2012 paraclimbing world championships was Paris. Registration done, Mani’s next challenge was finding sponsors to cover the expenses of his trip. Karnataka State Housing Corporation covered the cost of his flight tickets. For the rest, friends, students, the parents of his students – they chipped in. “ Somehow I managed,’’ Mani said. It was his first time overseas; Mani traveled alone. “ The process of flying out made me resolved – it is now or never. There is no way I will complain,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Given the variety of physical disabilities and the way they impact human performance to different extents, paraclimbing has several cub-categories for participants. The categories are awarded on the basis of medical documents and examination. In 2019, there were as many as eight sub-categories in the men’s section at the world championships. In 2012, only the second year of the paraclimbing world championships, there were four sub-categories – Amputee Leg PD, Arthritis + Neurological PD1, Visual Impairment B1 and Visual Impairment B2. Mani was in the second segment – Arthritis + Neurological PD1. Mani reached Paris two days earlier. He stayed alone in a dormitory and on competition day, took a train to the venue. The competition featured lead climbing. Mani cleared the qualifying round (he estimated the climbing grade therein at around 7b) and made it to the final. Philippe Ribiere was among the competitors; he didn’t reach the final that year, Mani said. The final featured six climbers: two from France and one each from Italy, Brazil, Hungary and India. Each climber had one shot at the route on the lead climbing wall.

“ I almost made it to the top. I fell short by four holds. After the climb, I knew I was in the top three but didn’t know I had won. It was the Brazilian coach who told me that. I dropped whatever I had and ran to the notice board to check. It was true. I was over the moon. I had achieved my dream,’’ Mani said. He spent another two days in Paris; he wanted to see the Eiffel Tower. Then he returned to Bengaluru. Family; friends, the media – they all turned up at the airport to receive him. “ It was the biggest thing that happened for India in competition climbing,’’ Mani recalled. A country hardly mentioned in sport climbing suddenly had a world champion in paraclimbing. Mani has since had podium finish thrice at the world championships – second place in 2014, third place in 2018 and third place again in 2019. He is typically lone participant from India. “ India and Hungary – we don’t have teams. Other nations send large teams supported by sponsors and funds to the paraclimbing world championships. France is really big in paraclimbing,’’ Mani said. In August 2019, he was among recipients (in the land  category, for the preceding year: 2018) of India’s annual Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award.

Photo: courtesy Mani

One of the legacies of Philippe Ribiere’s push to hold a paraclimbing competition and the IFSC world championships that followed has been the emergence of more competitions – you could call it a circuit – where paraclimbers can participate. Mani has been active here and there are several podium finishes earned so. But it has indisputably been a pattern of ups and down; he won some, lost some and sometimes a setback or series of setbacks made him feel very bad. On the other hand, as Mani put it – even his idol, tennis great Roger Federer has had to deal with inconsistency in performance. “ If it can happen to him, it can happen to me. I just need to calm myself down,’’ Mani said. He does bouldering and lead climbing but his strength is in lead. The categories and rules of the sport have also got revised going ahead. At the world championships of 2018 and 2019, his category for participation was RP2. He continues to limp when walking but sustained climbing and pushing one’s limits has meant he no longer needs to free his hand and haul up that right leg. It is responding better. That said; his body strength is distributed differently from that of the average climber.

Mani has good upper body strength. One of the exercises used to train climbers features the campus board. It is usually installed at a slight overhanging angle and requires climber to ascend using handholds (typically horizontal wooden sections fitted on the board) with no footholds to support body weight. Climbers train to move sequentially, using one hand and the next; they also train to move explosively wherein they launch off using both hands and go for the next hold. “ My ability to campus is stronger than that of many normal climbers,’’ Mani said explaining how he compensates for the weak right leg. But his own success aside, he worries for paraclimbing in India because although there are physically challenged people who speak to him of foraying in that direction, few of them turn up later to climb. If they don’t turn up to climb and train, how can there be Indian paraclimbers? For now therefore, it is just Mani on the global map. He has been to five world championships so far (winning medals on four occasions). He would like to make that ten. He is also the first Indian climber to win gold medals in the US when he topped his category – neurological / physical impairment – at the 2017 and 2018 Adaptive National Championships conducted by USA Climbing. “ My ultimate goal is a medal at the Olympics. I am hoping that paraclimbing gets included in the Paralympics. I would like to keep competing till the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. One way or the other, people always encouraged me. That was motivating. Further, if anyone says I can’t do it, that is bigger motivation for me,’’ Mani said. Aspiration is one thing; as is personal commitment. What about the means?

Photo: courtesy Mani

So far – notwithstanding four podium finishes at the world championships and several medals on the paraclimbing circuit – Mani has no steady sponsor. For his trips overseas, he now taps crowd funding. “ Funding has improved with each year. But it worries me that despite so many medals won, I still have to struggle to get backing,’’ he said. It felt strange hearing that for Bengaluru is home to wealthy IT companies (with CSR accounts to their credit) and IT professionals have been big in the pursuit of adventure sports like climbing. Adding to Mani’s frustration was that able bodied climbers of less achievement in competition climbing found sponsors in India. The anger was clear in his tone. He was willing to explore more zones of discomfort as regards his climbing but that question puzzled: why aren’t sponsors interested in him, a paraclimber? “ Why should I seek their sympathy? Will you sponsor me only if I seek your sympathy? I am not complaining. Why don’t you appreciate my hard work instead?’’ Mani asked on the subject. It was the only time in our conversation his wall of optimism showed cracks. Meanwhile his coaching continues and he lays much hope on two of his wards; the prayer is that at least one of them secures a podium finish at a world cup in the future. “ I want some able bodied climber to win a medal at a world cup or the world championships. It is a big task for Indian climbers. But with the right approach, it is possible,’’ Mani said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the years of participation at national and zonal climbing competitions and podium positions earned therein, are as stated by the interviewee.)             

ZIA

Zia Chaney (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

With a December 2019 personal best of 3:47:34, Zia Chaney has the eligibility to participate in the 2021 edition of Boston Marathon. Hers isn’t the regular running story. It is one of overcoming setbacks, not just once but thrice, all of them the physically and mentally draining sort.

Zia Chaney was used to the physically active life.

Born into a family settled in Pune for decades and growing up in the city, she had been into sports right from her school days. She was focused on the sprints – 100 and 200 meters – and hockey. Following studies, she moved to Mumbai and worked with Sony Music India as a product manager. Unable to pursue the sports she was already into, she turned to visiting the gym for alternative. She was committed to fitness; committed enough to make time for it despite busy work schedule. “ I found time to hit the gym during work hours,’’ she said, a pleasant winter afternoon in Pune.

Her love for the physically active life gained momentum after she moved to Chicago following her marriage in 2000. “ My husband Vishal Jain is a fitness enthusiast. I joined a gym in Chicago. We were there for five years. After I returned to Pune, I joined a local gym,” she said. We were on the balcony of her apartment, tucked into a quiet road in Pune. Unusually for the city located at an elevation of 1837 feet on the Deccan Plateau, the winter of 2019-2020 felt mild.

Photo: courtesy Zia

In 2010, Zia was detected with first stage breast cancer. She had to undergo mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation sessions. Both these types of treatment can be physically exhausting. To rebuild her strength, she tried running on the treadmill. “ A friend suggested I run outside instead of indoors,” Zia said. Thus began her journey in running.  She started running in 2011 and a year later was training with a group of runners in Pune informally organized under Pune Marathoner’s Club. “ We were around 30 people in that group. Michael Francis, who was overall leader, encouraged us to train and enroll for the full marathon at the 2013 edition of Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. He ensured that we covered every facet of marathon training – hill repeats, short runs, long runs, strength training,” she said. Michael Francis – he is no more – was a name one came across in the story of some good amateur runners from Pune, among them Kavitha Reddy. Zia crossed the finish line of her first marathon – the 2013 edition of SCMM (now Tata Mumbai Marathon) – in four hours, 40 minutes and one second. “ It was a great feeling to finish that first major run,” she said. Running became an integral part of her life.

Wikipedia describes cancer as a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body. According to the website of the US based-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 100 types of cancers affect humans, among them – breast and ovarian cancer. About five to 10 per cent of breast and 10-15 per cent of ovarian cancers are hereditary. It means cancer runs in your family and may be caused by change in certain genes that you inherited from your parents. A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. It acts as instruction and contains information to build and maintain cells. A gene is made of DNA; it tells the body what traits will be passed on from parent to child. As per the Human Genome Project information archive, the current consensus is that humans have between 20,000-25,000 genes. But the number has fluctuated a lot since the project began. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor-suppressor genes critical to fighting cancer. “ When they work normally, these genes help keep breast, ovarian, and other types of cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way. Sometimes a change or mutation occurs in the BRCA genes that prevent them from working normally. This raises a person’s risk for breast, ovarian and other cancers,’’ the CDC website said.

Photo: courtesy Zia

In 2013, not long after Zia completed her first marathon in Mumbai, medical tests provided discouraging news. She tested positive for anomalies in the BRCA gene. “ It turned out my father was a passive carrier,’’ Zia said. It put her earlier encounter with cancer as product of condition likely built-in and capable of return. She underwent her second cancer related-surgery in August 2013; this time her ovaries were removed as precaution. The test result and subsequent medical procedures affected Zia, who had begun enjoying running and had just completed her first marathon. Needing time to recover, she was forced to miss the 2014 edition of SCMM. But she refused to succumb to her predicament. There was a new fascination growing, one that also sought to harness the power of two other sports she liked – swimming and cycling; the triathlon. According to Zia, she likes activities that are goal oriented. It is known that training for the triathlon and getting down to actually doing one, entails discipline and adherence to goals. By the end of 2014 Zia attempted her first Olympic distance triathlon in Hyderabad. “ It went off very well,’’ she said. She secured a podium finish in her age category.

In 2015, a rejuvenated Zia was back at the start line of SCMM. The goal now was to progressively improve her timing. She finished the 2015 race in 4:05:52. She continued her appearance at SCMM the next year and in 2017 secured second place in her age group of 45-49 years, covering the 42.2 kilometer-distance in 4:05:05. Same year, she signed up for a workshop on running conducted by Bengaluru based-coach and mentor, Ashok Nath. Soon after that workshop, Zia left for Berlin to attempt the marathon there.  In September 2017, she ran the Berlin Marathon crossing the finish line in three hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds. Her determination was paying off. The progress was clear – from four hours, 40 minutes and one second at 2013 SCMM to three hours, 57 minutes and 30 seconds at 2017 Berlin. Then cancer struck again.

Zia (far right) with from left: Ashok Nath, Gitanjali Lenka and Tanmaya Karmarkar (This photo was downloaded from Zia’s Facebook page and is being used here with her permission)

On her return to Pune, Zia went for her annual check-up. “ I had noticed lumps on my breast over the preceding few months but thought nothing of it. During the check-up, I pointed them out to the doctor. He too thought it would be nothing. Nevertheless, we scheduled a biopsy and my worst fears were confirmed,” Zia said. The relapse meant several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, this time more in number and with greater intensity than the treatment she had endured before. According to the website of American Cancer Society, radiation therapy uses high energy particles or waves such as X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons to destroy or damage cancer cells. Cancer cells grow and divide faster than normal cells. Radiation makes small breaks in the DNA inside cells preventing them from growing and dividing and causing them to die. Advances in radiation physics and computer technology during the last quarter of the 20th century have made it possible to aim radiation precisely. Radiation therapy however carries a risk. There is a small chance that it may cause another cancer. Consequently, use of radiation is a well thought out decision. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, employs powerful chemicals to destroy fast-growing cells in the body. It can have side effects during the treatment phase and for some time afterward. “ The first time cancer struck, I had to do four rounds of chemotherapy. The second time around, I had to do 16 rounds of chemotherapy and then follow that up with doses of radiation,” Zia said.

Between chemotherapy and radiation, Zia felt, the latter was more energy-sapping. She drove herself to the radiation sessions but was usually fatigued by the time a round of treatment got over. She persevered. The chemotherapy sessions started in January 2018 and continued till May. She lost all her hair. “ I needed to be strong to take the impact of chemotherapy and radiation,’’ she said. So in between, the chemotherapy and radiation, Zia worked out at the gym in her apartment complex. It was an abject challenge because each time the illness struck and treatment protocols kicked in, her fitness dropped drastically requiring her to work her way back from scratch. “ When your base line fitness falls steeply even a few minutes of running on a treadmill becomes a struggle,’’ she said. Zia found huge support from her family – husband, two daughters and her parents – and her friends. “ I never felt emotionally weak. Children don’t allow you that luxury. In fact, they helped me focus. My elder daughter took care of me during my relapse,” she said.

Photo: courtesy Zia

There were no races for Zia in 2018. Following her treatment, she spent a brief while with her husband and children in the US, convalescing. There she restarted her running. Then in August 2018, after she got back to Pune, Zia commenced training under Ashok Nath. He put her on a plan building basic fitness. She also continued with her swimming sessions; they worked as cross training compatible with her interest in running. At the 2019 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Zia decided to opt for the half marathon. She secured second place in her age category of 45-49 years, completing the run in one hour 53 seconds. Training under Ashok Nath was helping her improve her running economy. That year at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), Zia bettered her half marathon timing to 1:48:34. The performance boosted her confidence. Could she aspire for a Boston Qualifier (BQ) time, which makes runner eligible to participate in the iconic Boston Marathon?

In history, 1848 is sometimes called the Year of Revolution for the spate of political upheavals that swept across Europe. Across the Atlantic however, that year opened on a slightly different note. On January 24, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter and sawmill operator, discovered gold at Coloma on the South Fork of the American River sparking the California Gold Rush. According to information on the Internet, the resultant rush of miners pursuing fortune, produced some 750,000 pounds of gold worth an estimated 14 billion dollars in 2014 but also left behind deep environmental scars. The river at its center – American River – is 30 miles long, stretching from origin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to its confluence with the Sacramento River in the Sacramento Valley. Music lovers would remember it for Folsom Dam, in turn linked by name to the town of Folsom and Folsom Prison, inspiration for Johnny Cash’s hit song from the 1950s: Folsom Prison Blues. Today, the river is the main source of drinking water for Sacramento, capital of California and the seat of Sacramento County. Every year, the Sacramento Runners Association organizes the California International Marathon. According to Wikipedia, its course “ follows a historic gold miners’ round beginning at Folsom Dam, passing through suburban Sacramento and ending at the State Capitol.’’ The race starts at an elevation of 366 feet and concludes at 26 feet.

Photo: courtesy Zia

Zia decided to attempt her BQ time at the 2019 California International Marathon. “ Although the marathon’s course is net downhill, it has a lot of rolling hills,” Zia said of the race in December 2019. The weather was in the range of 8-9 degrees Celsius and route passed through picturesque countryside. “ The crowd support was very good,” she said. Sole cause for concern was her knee, which started hurting over the final 10 kilometers. Zia finished the run in 3:47:34. It was a BQ in her age group. Not to mention – a personal best for her. At the time of writing, she planned to register for the 2021 edition of Boston Marathon.

Given the emergent knee injury and requirement to rest the joint, Zia opted to stay out of the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon. At the door to her apartment, a lemon yellow Cannondale hybrid bicycle was parked. It seemed well used and well looked after, a stance of readiness to move in the machine betraying the attributes. The bike and swimming appeared her training for now and potential way out of knee injury. In fact against the backdrop of the knee issue, the triathlon appeared more sustainable to Zia. “ I will continue to do triathlons. But my heart is in running. The feeling after a run is amazing. I feel strong after running. It balances me completely,” Zia said, adding, “ as regards physical activity, there is no giving that up.’’

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

CHANGE OF MIND ON DENALI

Seema Pai (Photo: courtesy Seema)

In late June 2019, Seema Pai from Bengaluru reached the summit of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. She returned with many questions in her head and the desire to rethink the projects she was working on.

It all started unexpectedly with a hike in the Sikkim Himalaya in March 2015. That was when Seema Pai and her partner, Dinesh Kaigonahalli, met Sergei Chulkov, a Russian mountain guide. They agreed to meet again; hopefully in the Caucusus Mountains, the mountain system at the intersection of Europe and Asia. A few months after the hike in Sikkim, Seema and Dinesh had an enjoyable outing in Ladakh, trying out a hiking route they hadn’t been on before, in the eastern Nubra Valley. The trek involved three passes all above 17,500 feet in elevation. At its end, the duo decided to extend their outdoor experience to the Caucusus. It seemed appropriate in another way – they were well acclimatized from their stay and hike in Ladakh. Why waste that fitness with a return to the plains?

They flew to Moscow and from there, traveled to the resort town of Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol Krai where they met up with Sergei. Given their recent acclimatization to high altitude and the fact that its benefits stay on for a brief while, Sergie recommended that they attempt Mount Elbrus (18,510ft), the highest peak in the Caucusus. A mountain guide, he kitted them out for the trip. That was how Elbrus happened. With it, rather unexpectedly, Seema found herself looking at the possibility of attempting Seven Summits. It wasn’t something she sought. Elbrus happens to be among mountains constituting the Seven Summits challenge in mountaineering. She had just traveled to Russia and climbed it. So, how about trying the rest? First accomplished by American businessman Richard Bass in 1985, Seven Summits entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The seven peaks are: Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica) and Kosciuszko (Australia) or Puncak Jaya aka Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia). That last choice depends on whether you view Australia as continent or tectonic plate; if latter then Puncak Jaya in Papua, Indonesia qualifies to be highest.

On Elbrus (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Belonging to Bengaluru’s early crop of woman rock climbers, Seema has been climbing, hiking and going on expeditions to the Himalaya for many years. A self-made person with multiple rebounds from testing predicaments to her credit she owned of a couple of shops selling outdoor gear in the city. In mid-August 2017, after another acclimatization trek in Ladakh, Seema and Dinesh flew to Tanzania. In less than a week they were atop Kilimanjaro (19,340ft), the highest freestanding peak in the world and the highest mountain in Africa. In early 2018, the two of them traveled to Argentina in South America, where Seema successfully climbed Aconcagua (22,841ft). All these ascents – Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua – were guided trips that were also supported (meaning – use of support staff) to varying degrees. It made the next expedition, Denali, stand out. Trips to Denali are mostly self-supported. It is only in the Himalaya and the mountains of Africa that clients are indulged with support services. In the world of hiking and mountaineering, respect is highest for people who do things by themselves. Seema was certain she did not want to be a tourist on Denali. She wanted an expedition in which, she did her share of hard work. There was also another angle at play here.

If you go through Wikipedia’s page on Bill Watterson, a sentence to remember is his observation that he works for personal fulfilment. Watterson is the creator of the popular comic strip: Calvin and Hobbes; first published November 18, 1985. Despite its success, Calvin and Hobbes had a syndicated run of only ten years, from 1985 to 1995. According to Wikipedia, Watterson stopped drawing the strip with a short statement to newspaper editors and readers saying that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium. He is also known for his battle with publishers against merchandising his characters; something he felt would render his characters cheap. Amid the comic strip’s immense popularity even today, Watterson’s take on commercialization is, arguably, not as well-known. Seema is a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes. In her childhood, she had been the strong-willed, independent sort with penchant for courting trouble. The story of the six year-old adventurous boy and his stuffed tiger had instant appeal. Among concepts that she latched on to was the idea of the transmogrifier, the cardboard box Calvin uses many times to transform himself and Hobbes into a variety of characters. She had long wanted her own cardboard box.

From the expedition to Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Alaska has been an emblem for the world’s wilderness spaces. There are other places similar to it or near similar, but when it comes to imagining vast snowbound landscapes, polar weather and animal and human existence evolved in such circumstance, Alaska easily invades the brain. It is also true unfortunately that some of the results of human intervention – like oil spills; they too enter the frame. Alaska is home to North America’s best known mountain – Denali. For many years, the mountain was also known as McKinley, called so after William McKinley, 25th president of the United States who was assassinated in September 1901. Although its height is only 20,310 feet – significantly less than many of the peaks in the Himalaya – Denali is both a big mountain, among the world’s most northerly big mountains, quite cold and capable of attracting feisty weather conditions. There is also plenty of raw ascending involved given the walk-in starts at around 7000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. According to Wikipedia, the first verifiable ascent of Denali was in 1913, by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tallum. Within the Seven Summits world, Denali is among the most demanding climbs because in addition to whatever it offers, the challenges are tackled with few of the luxuries of guided ascents. After Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, as Seema knocked on Denali’s doors she knew a different experience waited. This would be her personal transmogrifier to become the sort of outdoorsperson she wanted to be.

In Bengaluru, along with her regular training, Seema commenced a special 24 week-program designed for the Denali ascent. The focus was cardio-vascular, core and strength training. Additionally she also pulled heavy tyres and periodically did stair workouts at an apartment block having 15 floors; her backpack loaded to almost 30 kilos. Then just before heading to the US, she and Dinesh spent two weeks in Ladakh. They hiked to two passes – Stok La and Ganda La – without much load; they carried just about five to six kilos of stuff in their backpack. The idea was to take it easy, provide a tapering, relaxed phase to all the hard work that had gone in. It was also a case of repeating the pattern they had resorted to before the previous peak ascents as part pf Seven Summits – Ladakh was ideal place to acclimatize ahead of expedition. Early June, they flew from Delhi to Seattle via Frankfurt. There they met Madhu Chikkaraju and Pranesh Manchaiah, climbers from Bengaluru who had previously been on Denali as part of faculty for a premier outdoor school. Seema had tied up with them for the Denali attempt. At Anchorage in Alaska, which they reached on June 16, they were also joined by Brian, who had come from Oregon. Seema’s birthday – her fiftieth – was celebrated at Anchorage in the company of her expedition team and friends from Sacramento, who showed up for the occasion. There was some final shopping also done at REI, Anchorage.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

A few days later, the team proceeded to Talkeetna. “ It is a rugged place,’’ Seema said.  Here, the expedition’s gear and supplies were reviewed and repacked. Given an expedition proceeds setting up camps on the mountain and a load ferry precedes each camp, the supplies had to be repacked in plastic and dry bags so that they could be buried six to seven feet deep in the snow; each such cachet is identified with markers bearing the expedition’s name. “ Since there is nobody to help you haul what you take, every unwanted gram is left behind. You orient yourself for life based on essentials and what is relevant,’’ Seema said.

Talkeetna was where the final paperwork and briefing related to the expedition got done. The rangers who interviewed the team had already seen the climbers’ biodata. They had much respect for the altitudes of the Himalaya. But that didn’t stop them from checking whether the predominantly Indian team was aware of what it took to attempt Denali. They made sure the team members knew glacier mountaineering, that they knew the basics of climbing; they even asked how many trips Seema had made to the Himalaya given Bengaluru is in South India. Their focus was more on Madhu and Pranesh, who were the more experienced members and assuming responsibility for the rest. The region around Denali is a national park. The rangers gave a Power Point presentation on dos and don’ts; they also provided an overview of the route available for the season, prevailing conditions and how many attempts had happened as yet. The park service, responsible for maintaining the environment and ensuring visitors’ safety, provided sledges (to pull gear) and poop buckets (to collect and ship out human waste). You have to pay for these. “ The park officials were professional and articulate,’’ Seema said. The private expedition was given the name: Team Bengaluru. They would attempt Denali via the popular route – the West Buttress Route.

Indicative of the ice, wilderness and far flung settlements ahead, there were plenty of planes around in Talkeetna. They do the work of ferrying people and supplies to remoteness. Alaska is among regions that birthed bush flying, wherein the tough terrain that planes take off and land on offered few prepared landing strips and runways. It called for tough pilots, tough planes and much innovation. Bush planes are characterized by their ability to operate from short landing strips, large tyres to tackle bumpy terrain, undercarriage designed to host floats and skis and high wings that permit easy loading and unimpeded gaze downward for pilot and passengers. Alaska’s first bush pilot was Carl Ben Eilson, hailing from North Dakota in the US. Bush planes, pilots – they are as much part of Alaskan stories as nature and people are, in the region. Team Bengaluru flew from Talkeetna to Kahiltna East Fork Glacier. The Kahiltna Glacier is Alaska’s longest; it is 71 kilometers long. “ You are supposed to be dressed for life on glacier and ready for it from the moment you step on to the plane,’’ Seema said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

The plane dropped off the team and their gear, took on those waiting to go back and left. It was now down to four people, their supplies and a vast landscape. Backpacks weighed over 20 kilos; there was roughly 55-60 kilos of gear per head in total. The distance from East Fork at roughly 7000 feet elevation to Denali’s summit – 20,310 feet – is 29 kilometers. Sense of work to be done, sank in for reduced to the minimalism of so much stuff, a few humans and  nothing else around, one thing was clear – none of that gear is going to move unless human being hauls it. “ I am thankful that I put my butt on fire in Bengaluru, preparing for this expedition. You have to be fit if you want to attempt Denali as part of a self-supported team,’’ Seema said. It was the evening of June 19, 2019. Aside from two metal shelters, there was no other permanent installation at Kahiltna East Fork. It was just miles of glacier. You saw the lower portions of Denali; its middle and higher reaches remained unseen. The months of May, June and July form the traditional window to attempt Denali. Thanks to global warming, Seema said, late July is not recommended while late April-expeditions have begun happening. Although flying with Seema to Talkeetna, Dinesh wasn’t part of the climbing team. He was scheduled to return to India. Dinesh is among Bengaluru’s pioneers in rock climbing, a former NOLS instructor in mountaineering and one of the original founders of India’s popular backpack brand: Wildcraft.  Before leaving Talkeetna, he went for a cruise on the river. The settlement is at the confluence of three rivers – Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. From the boat, he saw Denali in the distance. He recalls thinking how massive it seemed. Mt Foraker: Mt Hunter, Denali – they are all in the same area. But Denali towered above the rest.

Life on a giant glacier comes with its own protocols. There were assigned camping spots on Kahiltna East Fork and limits on how far you venture off the designated zone for there are crevasses. You respect the safety markers that have been put up; you also watch out for each other. Climbers heading to Denali stick to the assigned path, identifiable thanks to periodic markers and the footprints of those who went earlier. On vast, barren glacier with nowhere to hide, a pee-break or poop-break finds you going about your business while others look away to provide an illusion of privacy. Tents, easily set up on other types of terrain, can be installed on a glacier exposed to the wind only after sufficient snow has been shoveled off and a flat trough excavated for the pitching. With so much ice around, snow goggles are a must. Sleep is quite different from mountaineering in the Himalaya. The Alaskan year is divided into two halves of summer and winter. June is summer and in summer, daylight never goes off fully. “ You put a scarf on your eyes and try to sleep. I went to Denali like a student. You have to have humility. What I liked about Denali is that you can’t be competitive in this landscape. If you are still competitive, then you are spiritually zero. Nothing works here without team work,’’ Seema said. The first few days of load ferry is done wearing snow shoes, designed to prevent feet from sinking into snow. Back in Bengaluru, Seema had trained to pull sledges (that’s what the earlier mentioned tyres were for). Still doing it for real was a challenge. She hadn’t factored in how traction would be with snow shoes. On the approach to Denali, she elected to do her hauling in the backpack instead. The team used snow shoes and sledges till the fifth day. Then they were cached (buried) in the snow at Windy Corner to be retrieved on the way back. Past this point, Seem also stopped using both her trekking poles. It became a pole and an ice axe. Among the camps en route, the one at 14,200 feet was sizable. “ It resembles a colony and is just ahead of the actual climb up Denali. This camp has a medical facility with Gammo Bag to tackle altitude induced sickness,’’ Seema said.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Fixed ropes installed every season for the climb, commenced from this camp. Here the team also faced their first set of serious problems. To begin with a storm was forecast. Bad weather typically entails lasting it out for a fresh window to open up. That puts pressure on the team’s supplies. Then, one of the team members became unwell, apparently caused by altitude. The medical personnel advised that the individual descend for safety. He was relocated to camp at 11,000 feet. Simple as it sounds, in reality this wasn’t easy. In the thick of an expedition with work to do and summit to gain, altitude sickness is rarely acknowledged by patients. When it is established through external intervention, there is the issue of patient buying into it adequately and descending to safety. Finally in small alpine teams, when one person is taken out of the frame, the others have to pull that much more for there are only so many to get the job done. The diagnosis of altitude sickness and descent to safe camp to park the individual – all this happened alongside responsibilities parceled out and load ferry continued to set up higher camps. By now the body clock had gone haywire; in Denali’s blurred divide between day and night sleep was happening at hours distinctly odd by the habits of lower latitudes. And so one of the timelines read like this – team members after transferring their colleague to lower camp (where his condition started to improve) got back to the camp at 14,200 feet by 3AM. They rested till 3PM and then left for high camp at 17,200 feet – below Denali Pass – which they reached by 10.30PM. The weather was starting to go bad. They rested till 8AM, then, left for the summit at 10AM. The narrative may as well have been of one long solar day; sleep – a case of badly required shut eye and not world blanketed by darkness.

The summit push is divided into three parts – there is the Denali Pass, the summit slope and a large slushy snowfield, replete with the associated risks of glacier travel. The team moved efficiently, tackling Denali Pass in under-two hours. “ Summit day was 12 hours long for us. We reached the top of Denali at 5.50PM on June 28. Luckily for us, the weather didn’t worsen that day and the next. Having gained the summit, we got back to the camp at 11,000 feet and our friend recuperating there, by around 10PM,’’ Seema said. Reunited and briefly rested, they wound up the camp at 11,000 feet and descended to East Fork at approximately 7000 feet. Having returned to Bengaluru, Dinesh had been monitoring the weather in Alaska online. He saw the storm forecast. He also saw that around the team’s previously calculated summit window, conditions were holding and not deteriorating further. “ Up and down Denali in eleven days is admirable,’’ he said.

For Seema however, there were other thoughts taking root. The whole Seven Summits journey had been triggered unexpectedly. Once she launched into it, there had been the related big expedition-rigmarole of impressing sponsors, articulating purpose and marketing it. All of that to try and raise funds. A century ago, in times vastly different from now, George Mallory could say he wanted to climb Everest “ because it’s there.’’ Now, adventure finds support because it promises relevance for sale in human collective. Empowerment; no-limits, team work – such descriptions help market adventure, when it is actually a case of nothing but because-its-there and you wanting to try it. Bucket lists by fifty are perhaps no different. Or to be more precise – there is nothing wrong in wishing for something but if you want it to be a soul-cleansing experience alongside, then it has to be just that and not what impresses sponsors and human collective. Seema had Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali in the bag. Everest, Vinson Massif and Puncak Jaya remained. Denali in particular had come after much preparation. She had worked for it. It had been mission mode. And just when it delivered results, it also posed questions. What are you on a mountain for? “ I don’t want anything in mission mode anymore on a mountain. I want it to be a fuller experience of what it is like to be out there. On a normal expedition, one is happier. You have time. Mission mode, chasing an objective or ambition, does not offer opportunity to connect deeply to the experience, ’’ she said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Denali done, Seema has been questioning her pursuit of Seven Summits. “ I don’t wish to go after the remaining peaks in Seven Summits. On the other hand, Denali has given me the confidence to attempt bigger peaks. Not tick them as some objective achieved. Woh race mein nahin lagne ka….’’ she said. Not to mention – Seven Summits is an expensive proposition and the peaks remaining to be climbed – Everest, Vinson Massif (in Antarctica) and Puncak Jaya (in Indonesia) – are costly affairs owing to challenges in logistics or the commercial enterprise they come wrapped in. Is mountaineering all about measurement by capacity to afford costly expeditions and logistics? In days of commercial expeditions like today, it would seem so. “ The problem in life is that sense of accomplishment easily transforms to self-obsession. I don’t want that,’’ Seema said. Back in Bengaluru, she has been reassessing her life. Alongside her business, Seema has maintained a presence in farming. The latter’s appeal has been growing. Denali was indeed transmogrifier.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Seema Pai please try this link: https://whynotat50.com/)                

LIMITLESS

Limitless; film poster

Every morning you see people running. Seen as movement, it is near similar. As story, each runner is different. Limitless, a film about women and running, chronicles a few of these stories. We spoke to some of the amateur runners featured in it and the team behind the film.

In February 2019, Seema Verma participated in the 50 kilometer-race at Tata Ultra Marathon in Lonavala, near Mumbai. She finished third in her age category of 18-44 years.

Currently a resident of Nallasopara, Seema, 37, was left to fend for herself by her husband. He deserted her. She worked as a domestic help for several years eking out a living for herself and her son. In the early days, she had to lock her toddler son at home and go to work. In the documentary film Limitless, she breaks down as she reminisces about those traumatic days.

The film (currently available on Netflix) features the stories of eight women and their foray into running. Seema is one of them. She started running in 2012; around the same time, she also started learning karate. Her employer introduced her to the concept of marathon.

She took to running seriously and over the years has managed to get podium positions in some of the races that she participated in. She has now stopped working as a home worker and focuses on training for middle-distance and long-distance running. She is currently sponsored by EbixCash World Money. The prize money that she earns from running races helps supplement her income.

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Going ahead, she was slated to run the 2019 edition of Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon and the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon. She is on the constant lookout for running events where the possibilities of podium finish are high.

Kolkata-based Anuradha Dutt started running in 2011. “ Running is the best thing which happened to me after our son came into our lives. It keeps me positive, sane and most importantly it has made me fearless,’’ she said. Encouraged by her husband, she was one of the early women in town to take to wearing sports bra and shorts for running. Women would often come up to her and compliment her for her fit body and attire. “ A couple of years ago at a race in Mumbai an unknown lady came up to me at the finishing line and praised me for carrying my stretch marks so gracefully,’’ she said.

Anuradha wants to train harder and ensure that she stays injury free in the process. She is the Project Co-ordinator of Interlink Calcutta, an institution for the differently abled. “ Running is a form of therapy for differently abled students and more students taking to running keeps them positive and strengthens their self-belief,’’ she said.

Viji Swaminathan, a Chennai resident, was worried about her weight, which led to confidence issues. “ I weighed over 100 kilograms. I decided to start walking. While walking I would run from one lamppost to the next and slowly got into running,’’ she said. Running was the best thing that happened to Viji, a classical dancer. She was never into sports. Her first running event was Bengaluru 10K, held in May 2012. Two months later, she participated in Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM).

Viji Swaminathan (Photo: courtesy Viji)

“ My best running years were during 2012-2014. After 2015, I have been plagued by injuries,’’ she said. Nevertheless, running is an integral part of her life now. She also has a fitness group, UNIS (Unleash your Inner Strength) Running, aimed at a lifestyle focussed on being fit.

Anuradha and Viji are among the other women featured in the documentary film, Limitless, which showcases stories of women from varying backgrounds; the challenges and triumphs they faced during their foray into running. The other woman runners featured in the documentary are Karishma Babbar, Mandira Singh, Monica Becerril Mehta, Sharada Venkataraman and Saloni Arora.

Limitless was conceptualised and funded by IART (Indian Amateur Runners Trust). The finance for the film was arranged through an informal crowd-funding approach. IART put out a call across India to women to write in their stories about running. Women from across the country wrote in to share their experiences and these were curated in a manner that showcased a diverse mix of stories from different cities and socio-economic backgrounds, said Vaishali Kasture, amateur runner, corporate executive and trustee of IART.

Vrinda Samartha (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

“ Women face a lot of constraints and challenges in everything, especially in running. Every time a woman gets out on a training run, she has to manage many things on the home front – plan food, manage school-going children or adolescents and sometimes elderly parents, not to mention – manage their own employment,’’ said M.S. Dileepan, amateur runner and trustee of IART. Shooting the film was a logistics challenge as the team had to work on a shoe-string budget with hired equipment. “ Each of the shooting schedules had to be completed in a limited time,’’ Vaishali said.

IART did most of the work for the production and exhibition of the film, said Ashok Nath, Bengaluru-based running coach and trustee of IART. The trust arranged for all approvals, organised fall film premiers and media meets. The production work was assigned to Believe Films, a film production house. The film has found fresh momentum after its debut on Netflix in October this year, its director Vrinda Samartha said.

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

OLYMPIC GAMES IS NOT A BUSINESS MODEL: THOMAS BACH, PRESIDENT, IOC

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the recent general assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) held in Doha, Qatar, Thomas Bach, president, International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that the Olympic Games is not about making money.

In a speech, the text of which is available on IOC’s website, Mr Bach while emphasizing solidarity and political neutrality as vital to the universality of the Games has spoken against those associating the Olympics with business model.

He outlined the IOC’s mission so, “ our mission is to bring the entire world together in a peaceful competition; this is it. And what is the most important thing there, and what makes us so unique, is the entire world, is this universality and to achieve this universality, to show with the Olympic Games, the unity of humankind in all our differences. This is what makes the Olympic Games so unique, so important and so valuable.’’

Having explained the importance of political neutrality as ingredient for the mission, he said, “ another  means  to  achieve  this  universality,  besides  this  unity  and  this  political  neutrality,  is  solidarity. Without  solidarity,  without  caring  for  each  other  among  all  the  NOCs,  among  all  the  sports, there is no universality. And there, and some people, they want to explain to us that the Olympic  Games  have  to  be  considered  as  a  business  model.  It  must  be  about  how  can  we  maximise  profit  and  how  can  we  then  distribute  these  profits  according  to  the  economic contribution of the different stakeholders to this Olympic Games and to the economic success of this Olympic Games? And there to be extremely clear, the Olympic Games are not about making money. The Olympic Games are not about maximising revenues. The Olympic Games are there to  accomplish  our  mission  to  unite  the  world  through  sport  and  to  promote  and  to  defend  our  values− this is our mission.

“ So for the IOC, there I’m sure I can speak on behalf of all of you because you are the guardians of this solidarity. For us, as I said, in this G20 speech, money for us is just a means to achieve our mission because if we consider the Olympic Games to be a business model, we would not have  206  National  Olympic  Committees  and  the  athletes  from  the  entire  world  in the  Olympic  Games. We would not have athletes from 33 or 28 sports in the Olympic Games. It would only be a very select group, a very select group of athletes, not even of National Olympic Committees, but a select group of athletes in a select group of some of the Olympic sports; and the Olympic Games, as we know them, and the Olympic Games as we want them, and the Olympic Games as they were conceived by Pierre de Coubertin 125 years ago, would cease to exist. We would just  have  another  entertainment  product  in  this  world,  competing  with  other  entertainment  products,  but  not  related  to  any  kind  of  values  anymore;  it  would  just  be  show,  entertainment,  without any values, without any contribution to a better society. And  therefore,  we  will  not  consider  the  Olympic Games to be a business model.’’

The speech was available for reference along with related news report (dated October 17, 2019) about the Doha meeting, on the IOC website. The G20 meeting referred to in there happened in June 2019 at Osaka in Japan. At that June meeting in Osaka, Mr Bach had said, “ in a year from now, more than half of the world’s population will follow the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition. At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the world will see athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team united.’’

Apprising the gathered G20 leaders of IOC’s need for solidarity, he had said, “ this is the reason why we reinvest 90 per cent of all our revenues in the athletes and in developing sport around the world. In hard figures, this means five billion US dollars in the four years of an Olympiad. But please do not worry: not a single cent of taxpayers’ money goes to the IOC budget. We generate our revenues exclusively through sponsorship and media rights. But to be clear, for the IOC, money is not an end in itself. Money is just a means to achieve our mission.”

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