2020 / LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Long read

2020 – What can one say of it? It was the year with a numerical elegance to it. In the end, it ended up a contest with an infectious virus that infected millions and claimed thousands of lives. Many countries announced lockdown leaving people stuck indoors. Sports ground to a halt and sporting events worldwide – including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – were postponed or saw their 2020 edition cancelled. As lockdown eased, signs of activity emerged. Distance runners set a series of new world records; in India, Avinash Sable set a new national record in the half marathon. The Tour de France happened, a few major city marathons were held in the physical form restricted to just elite athletes. The 2020 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), the only major road race since March to put feet on the ground in India, had its physical version confined to participation by elites. However in early January 2021, the organizers of the Chennai Marathon are expected to pioneer a bigger experiment – a run capped at a maximum of 1000 participants on a closed circuit at a location away from the city. The website of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) lists a handful of races from India in its calendar of events spanning January-February 2021; among them are the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon and a rescheduled, scaled down format of the Tata Mumbai Marathon (please note: such listings aside, the final picture is as available from event website). Meanwhile Bengaluru’s well known bicycle racing championships – BBCH – has resumed and there is a trickle of ultramarathon, trail running and ultracycling events beginning to happen.

During the pandemic, a healthy lifestyle with adequate exercise found fresh respect. The World Health Organization (WHO) went so far as to say: every type of movement counts. It was a reminder of the toll modern lifestyle had been quietly taking. Realizing the virtue of fitness amidst pandemic, the number of people resorting to a morning walk or run, increased. Cycling is an environment friendly and healthy mode of personal transport. It experienced resurgence. Bicycle stores worldwide saw stocks deplete causing waiting lists to manifest at some. Procuring fresh stocks was tough because manufacturing units and global supply chains were already impacted by the altered normal of pandemic. All in all, 2020 while painful was a mirror to human existence. Nothing highlighted humanity’s effect on the planet like the clean air of absolute lockdown and the images of wildlife exploring deserted streets. Nature found a breather to rejuvenate. It put us and our ways in perspective.      

Amidst all this, one major trend that happened in sport was the rise of virtual events. It influenced endurance sports in varying degrees. Cycling was well placed to host this trend because its ecosystem already had a device capable of facilitating digital interface – the trainer. Running took a while to catch up but by the last quarter of the year, there were plenty of race apps and virtual events for runners to stay busy with. While they didn’t replace the appeal of a road race, in times of pandemic, virtual events were a reasonable alternative for those needing goals to motivate themselves. However, from the classic triumvirate of endurance sports, swimming – it is a sport that is firmly a composite of action and medium – was badly hit. In India, pools stayed shut for many months and when the government permitted reopening, it was for only competition swimmers. Not to forget – every sport is now an industry of gear manufacturers, retailers and service providers complemented by sectors that support like aviation, railways, public transport and hospitality; there has been impact in these segments as well. Those plotting revival of events like road races have to first accept that an entire ecosystem was rattled.  

Through the lockdown and its progressive easing, this blog kept a conversation going with amateur athletes and a small number of elites. The end of a year provides opportunity to look back at the year as a whole and also look ahead. We spoke to runners, cyclists, doctors and race organizers:

A familiar picture from Mumbai running – Girish with backpack (Photo: courtesy Girish Mallya)

Runners in Mumbai know there is something missing. The third Sunday of January is usually when Mumbai hosts the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), India’s biggest event in running. For the city’s runners, the post-monsoon months are dedicated to training for TMM and the category of race one registered to participate in. It has been different in the last quarter of 2020. At the time of writing in December, there was still no official word on the fate of the annual marathon although the website of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) listed in its upcoming calendar of events, a rescheduled and scaled down version of TMM for February 28, 2021. Sources close to the race organizers confirmed ongoing discussions with government in this regard. For now, given no official information yet on the race website and the general awareness that COVID-19 will allow only a scaled down format even if a physical event happens, there is little of the regimented training to peak performance that runners at large chased in December 2019. There is a vacuum and Mumbai’s amateur runners know it as they jog into the New Year. “ I really wanted to participate in the 2021 TMM,’’ Girish Mallya, who has run every edition of the annual marathon since its inception in 2004, said. He would have liked to run at least 20 editions of the Mumbai marathon without missing any. `He runs because he likes the activity (he is known to jog home from office, after work); he also generally trains alone. He doesn’t find anything particularly appealing in virtual races because he already knows the solitude of running by himself. That is what made the city’s annual marathon special – it brought forth the community of runners, not just from Mumbai but from various parts of India and overseas. It gave a sense of being with and around others. However COVID-19 caused cancellation of races and the trickle of events resurfacing after lockdown require them to be cast differently; basically scaled down, to suit the safety protocols of the times. Girish reached out to the organizers of TMM suggesting that a 2021 edition – if there is one – be whittled down to just the full marathon and any physical race happening as a result also accommodate amateurs who have remained loyal through the years. “ If nothing happens, then I will make an exception to my indifference towards virtual formats and run the virtual TMM in the New Year,’’ he said.        

Srinu Bugatha at 2020 TMM (Photo: Chetan Gusani)

Going into 2020 ADHM in November, Srinu Bugatha was the defending champion among Indian elites. He finished second in 1:04:16. That race behind him, by end December, Srinu was training for the New Delhi Marathon of February 21, 2021. “ I feel good,’’ he said. In January 2020 Srinu had finished first among Indian elites at the year’s TMM in Mumbai with timing of 2:18:44. Two months later when the lockdown set in, he shifted to his village in Andhra Pradesh from the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune, where he normally trains. By around June he was back at ASI but had picked up an injury. It progressively led to a pause in his training. He then spent roughly two months resting, allowing the injury to heal. It was around October that Srinu recommenced his training. Regaining form takes a while. ADHM also happened at rather short notice. That won’t be the case with New Delhi Marathon. The event will be his first shot at qualifying for the marathon at the Olympics since COVID-19 blanketed the planet and the Tokyo Olympics was postponed by a year to 2021. The qualification is a challenge – for the men’s marathon, the entry standard is 2:11:30 (source: Wikipedia); faster than the current Indian national record of 2:12:00. The window to qualify continues till the end of May, 2021 and it is expected that more races would slowly start to open up worldwide in that period for athletes seeking to make the cut for the Olympics.      

Jigmet Dolma (left) and Tsetan Dolkar; after 2020 TMM (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

December, 2020 is different for Jigmet Dolma. For the past several years, the young Ladakhi runner, her running partner, Tsetan Dolkar and a team of runners from Ladakh were a regular fixture in a Mumbai drifting to year-end. They would arrive weeks before the annual marathon, train in the city under Coach Savio D’Souza and participate in TMM, typically securing a few podium finishes in the race. Jigmet and Tsetan used to run in the Indian women’s elite category. In the 2020 edition of the race Jigmet had placed fifth among Indian elite women, covering the course in 3:05:09. Tsetan finished in 3:05:12, to place sixth. Their participation in TMM was part of a larger program conceived and supported by Rimo Expeditions, enabling Ladakhi runners to compete in races in the plains. Coinciding as the trip did with North India’s winter, the months away from home also spared the runners Ladakh’s cold. It let them train properly. COVID-19 changed that. With India slipping into lockdown in March and most road races cancelled worldwide, this winter Jigmet and her fellow runners are in Leh. “ All of April I didn’t run. I rested. I started running locally and for short distances in May. It wasn’t possible to venture far because those days restrictions were strict,’’ Jigmet said, late December. Things slowly changed. She would manage an hour of training in the morning and an hour in the evening. She did strengthening exercises. The distance she could cover under the prevailing conditions of pandemic also increased; on Sundays she put in a long run of 25 kilometers. Asked how she motivated herself given there were no races to look forward to, Jigmet said, “ I kept telling myself, my chance will come.’’ She hasn’t resorted to any virtual race. Winter is a challenge for runner in Leh. Mumbai’s much warmer Marine Drive, where the team trained in December 2019, seems a long way off. “ Usually in Leh, I train early morning around 6.30. Now it is much later; you have to adjust it according to the cold,’’ she said.

Thomas Bobby Philip (Photo: courtesy Chetan Gusani)

Prior to the lockdown, which commenced in March 2020, Bengaluru-based amateur runner Thomas Bobby Philip had made plans for the year. He wanted to travel to ten cities in India and run there, in the process meeting more fellow runners and those associated with the sport. The virus ensured that the project went into cold storage. Instead, as lockdown took hold, Bobby found himself deprived of his daily dose of running for seven straight weeks. As he put it, those weeks were a mixed bag. On the one hand, stuck at home, he was spending more time with his family and that felt fine. On the other hand, the runner in him suffered; the house arrest led to an erosion of his motivation to run. “ Before the lockdown; during the past eleven years I hadn’t stopped running for more than a week. Anyway, I don’t look back and question or judge what happened in 2020,’’ he said. Bobby was among those who used the lockdown to focus on workouts. He did strengthening exercises. “ My focus on strengthening grew exponentially,’’ he said. Then as the lockdown eased, he started the journey of getting back to running. After seven weeks lost to another reality, it was a challenge regaining the motivation to run and re-establish the erstwhile momentum. There were no races too on the horizon to serve as goal and lead runner on. “ Still I think I have managed well,’’ Bobby said. He was doing 10 kilometer-runs in sub-39 minutes, which wasn’t significantly off the sub-37 timings he was returning in the days before lockdown. One emergent trend was helpful – virtual races. At the time of writing, Bobby had done a virtual marathon organized by Nokia, the virtual version of the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon and was due to run the virtual format of the TCS World 10k. The full marathon happened in October; it was his first run of that distance since Bobby’s participation in the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon in January. He started training for it only about five weeks in advance. He completed the marathon in three hours, one minute (3:01), which was an improvement over his pre-lockdown timing at 2020 TMM (3:07:49 / the performance was affected by a preceding phase of illness). It was also in line with the reputation Bobby had come to garner in his age category – that of a runner finishing the marathon in around three hours to slightly less than three. “ In Bengaluru, life is almost back to normal for those pursuing the active lifestyle. When it comes to groups, the difference is people don’t congregate in big numbers. There are the safety protocols prompted by pandemic to follow,’’ Bobby said. A regular podium finisher at the races he used to participate in, he said that notwithstanding the relief offered by virtual races, nothing can replace the ambiance of an actual road race. The absence of events continues to be sorely felt. There is hope – in November, the 2020 ADHM featured a physical race restricted to elites and in January, the Chennai Marathon is due to try out a physical version capped at 1000 runners. But with news of virus mutation too around, it is still fingers crossed and proceed with caution as 2020 gives way to 2021.

Naveen John (Photo: courtesy Naveen)

Late December 2020, Bengaluru-based Naveen John, among India’s top bicycle racers, was kicking off a new training project in Hyderabad. He had shifted to Telangana’s capital to train for the Individual Time Trial (ITT) at the velodrome in Osmania University. “ The goal is to become competent in ITT over the next 40 days and become competitive by April 2021,’’ Naveen said. Guiding him online would be his new coach – Ashton Lambie. A track cyclist who has represented the US, Lambie is a former individual pursuit world record holder. Naveen’s temporary shift to Hyderabad is happening some nine months after the lockdown was first announced. In the early part of the lockdown, when everyone was expected to stay indoors, he had embraced virtual cycling platforms and kept up his training as best as he could. It required, some rewiring of cyclist’s motivational circuitry as the freedom of being out and the outdoor environment, were suddenly missing from the frame. By late May, his training had been good enough for Naveen to muse that if there was a national competition due, he would do well. Given progressive relaxation of the lockdown, he had also regained the freedom to cycle outdoors. What was missing however was a “ horizon.’’ He could rationalize the lockdown in many ways – for instance, it can be treated as similar to a phase of injury, something athletes are used to – but the lack of endgame and races had been unsettling. “ Previously my plans used to span three to four weeks. Now I am taking it one week at a time,’’ Naveen had said then. Slowly things have changed since. In November the Bangalore Bicycle Championships (BBCH) resumed its monthly race. Naveen won the December edition of the race. Amidst all this, there were a few other challenges. As lockdown eased in India and elsewhere, bicycle sales shot up. It led to never before seen waiting lists to buy cycles; the breakdown in global supply chains also put strain on availability of spare parts. Anticipating something of this sort, Naveen had stocked up on essential components in the days leading to lockdown. Elite cyclists train harder and longer than recreational cyclists. This causes more wear and tear to equipment. Despite his preparation, Naveen wasn’t spared. A shifter on one of his bikes malfunctioned and a new shifter to replace it couldn’t be obtained. Luckily, his predicament was noticed by helpful others and the required import from overseas was managed. Someone who races in India and overseas, Naveen is hopeful that more events will return in 2021. After all, notwithstanding pandemic, the 2020 Tour de France was held. And in India, a timeframe has been assigned for the 2021 nationals in cycling.

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

When the country went into lockdown in late March, runners who were dependent on the prize money that accompanied podium finishes at races were left in great difficulty. They used to bank on prize money to bridge the gap between living expenses and the modest income they earned through other means. Seema Verma, resident of Nalasopara, a suburb of Mumbai, had to rethink how she would make ends meet. Many years ago, she had worked as a domestic help after she was abandoned by her husband. In the initial days of the lockdown, with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, she had briefly contemplated going back to that role. Some running groups and individuals extended her support in terms of money and supplies for home. “ That help came as a major relief to me,” she said. During the early phase of the lockdown, she was completely confined to her one room-house. “ I did my core workouts and took to running inside my small house daily. I used to do 10 km runs inside my house and once I managed up to 17 km,” she said late December. When the lockdown norms began easing, she started stepping out for her runs, increasing the mileage slowly. But the absence of regular income remained a constant worry. She then started a flower vending business. “ Many years ago, I used to sell vegetables on a cart near the place where I stay. This time around, I decided to opt for selling flowers and bouquets,” she said. The business is risky as flowers do not have a shelf life longer than four days. “ On some days, the sales do not cover the cost,” she said. Seema wakes up early and goes for her run by 5.30 AM. “ Upon getting back, I set out for the market in my running clothes, to buy stuff. After that I shower and leave for the vending business,” she said. Her stall stays open from 9 AM to 12 noon and from 5.30 PM to 9 PM. On some days of the week, she misses her run as she has to be in the flower market to buy fresh flowers. “ If I land up late at the market, I get old, wilting flowers,” she said. Her son, now 19-years-old, has secured employment and his earnings help the mother-son duo to pay the rent for the house. Her running mileage is now around 15-20 km and on some days she does a half marathon. Recently, she did a 12-hour trail run in Pune and finished as the overall winner covering 67.2 km. But there was no prize money. “ I knew there was no prize money but I wanted to do a run before the end of the year,” she said. Seema is conscious of the fact that prize money races are still a long way, at least another six months away.

Ashish Kasodekar; from the 2019 edition of La Ultra The High when he became the first Indian to complete the event’s 555k race segment (Photo: courtesy Ashish Kasodekar)

In January 2020, Pune based-ultramarathon runner Ashish Kasodekar had completed the Brazil 135. By the end of that month, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in India but the rapid spread of infection leading to lockdown, was still some distance away. For those loving elegance in digits, February 20 was a special day; it was the 20th day of the second month of 2020. In some ways that perception betrayed the general optimism that greeted 2020, it had a nice ring to it. Ashish observed that day by hiking up Sinhagad fort near Pune, 16 times over 31 hours. The exercise provided a cumulative elevation gain matching the elevation of Everest. A major project in the months ahead was the 2020 edition of the Badwater Ultramarathon in the US; Ashish had secured a slot to participate in it. The virus decided otherwise. By March 24, India was into lockdown. Ashish followed the lockdown rules diligently. He kept himself busy indoors with a multitude of challenges from various sports communities including those into basketball, a sport he loves. He did strengthening exercises and watched motivational videos. There was also a book he had long wished to write; the lockdown proved ideal for the task. “ I didn’t find the lockdown period very troubling. I think most people who keep themselves busy with things to do would have managed it well,’’ Ashish said. He also admitted that as an ultramarathon runner, he may be used to existence as a litany of changes. During very long distance runs like an ultramarathon, athletes endure changes in weather, elevation and their own physical and mental condition. So a period of world gone indoors and mobility restricted can be mentally rationalized, alternatives to stay occupied, found. A travel consultant, Ashish’s business took a hit during the pandemic as globally, people cut down on travel drastically. He improvised. He commenced a mentoring program for those who wish to do something in life. He also started a camping trip with accompanying activity in the outdoors, done every full moon. But end December 2020, it was his fiftieth birthday due in 2021 that was keeping Ashish focused and fueled. He had commenced a personal project – visit 50 forts (the Sahyadri hills of Maharashtra have plenty of forts), plant 50 trees hailing from varieties indigenous to India, take 50 people out for lunch and run 60 marathons in 60 days. And if all goes well with the world, he should be in the US for the 2021 edition of Badwater.

Bharat Pannu; from virtual RAAM (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

For ultracyclist, Lt Col Bharat Pannu, 2020 was a keenly anticipated year. His earlier attempt at Race Across America (RAAM) had failed to take off following injury while training in the US, just ahead of the 2019 race. He was therefore determined to do RAAM in 2020. The onset of pandemic and the cancellation of races worldwide – including RAAM – was a setback for Bharat. RAAM is one of the toughest ultracycling events; anyone participating has to put in oodles of effort by way of training and preparation. For the second consecutive year, RAAM wasn’t happening for Bharat. Luckily, even as the real race got cancelled, a virtual version of it was made available by a technology platform in league with the race organizers. Bharat registered for it. What followed was a genuine high point in distance cycling by Indians, in a year impacted by COVID-19. Cycling on a stationary road bike in Pune along with friends who had signed up for the virtual version of the shorter Race Across West (RAW – a smaller race built into RAAM), Bharat completed RAAM and secured third place on the podium. He then moved to the virtual version of HooDoo 500, a race of approximately 850 kilometers and completed it in 41 hours, 25 minutes. Next he did a 12 hour-time trial and finished in third place, covering 390.4 kilometers in the allotted time. On October 10, he set out from Leh in Ladakh to attempt a record for cycling the Leh-Manali stretch. The authorities at Guinness Book of World Records assigned him 40 hours for the task. Bharat covered the distance in 35 hours, 25 minutes. Days later, he covered the 5942 kilometers of India’s Golden Quadrilateral (a series of highways linking the major metros of the north, east, south and west) in 14 days, 23 hours and 52 minutes. Details of the Leh-Manali and Golden Quadrilateral projects have been submitted to Guinness. “ Official ratification is awaited,’’ Bharat said, late December. Looking back, he felt he may have come off virtual RAAM and the third place he got in it, with a lot of positivism and good energy. It led him on to HooDoo 500, Leh-Manali and Golden Quadrilateral.

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: Bounty Narula)

“ It was a roller coaster ride,’’ Apoorva Chaudhary said of 2020. An ultramarathon runner who has represented India, at the start of the year she was focused on already announced international events like the Asian championships. The last event she participated in was the 2020 New Delhi Marathon, which she had treated as a training run for races ahead; that was in February. Roughly a month later, India entered lockdown. After a month stuck indoors in Gurugram and with work from home the new norm, Apoorva shifted to Bijnor to be with her parents. She continued her training and strengthening exercises there. Her coach monitored online. Things were fine for a while; then she began to lose her motivation. According to her, in the pre-pandemic scheme of things it was possible to rejuvenate a day of poor motivation to run by running in the company of one’s friends. With COVID-19 and its protocols blanketing the world, people drifted apart. Old remedies to tackle monotony weren’t available. This was a real low point. Apoorva realized she needed a change. She temporarily shifted to a homestay in a village near Dehradun; a sort of `workation.’ More important, she decided to pick up a new skill – horse riding, for which she associated with a local school that maintained a stable. “ It was a longstanding desire anyway,’’ she said. At the same time, she continued her running in the village. The experience helped her regain her motivation. As regards training, Apoorva said that her focus has been on strengthening exercises and a volume of running that is short of peak levels. The idea is to hang around in that stage of fitness where a few weeks of determined training will take her to peak condition. At the time of writing, Apoorva was back in Bijnor but there was a potential new recipe on the cards for the new normal. The hills offer fine refuge for her interests; she may take off again.       

Kieren D’Souza; running in the mountains (Photo: courtesy Kieren)

2020 was a special year for Kieren D’Souza. For the past several years he has based himself in Manali but spent a few months every year overseas participating in events there. With the pandemic pausing sport events worldwide and crippling international travel, Manali became Kieren’s world. An ultramarathon runner and more importantly an aspiring mountain athlete, the predicament suited him as he was able to spend more time in the mountains that had become his training ground. On June 16, 2020, he had run from Mall Road in Manali to the base of Friendship, a 17,352 feet high-peak and then made his way light and fast to its summit. It took him seven hours and fifteen minutes to reach the summit from Mall Road. He then descended and ran all the way back to Mall Road. With that effort Kieren had hoped to kick-start the culture of Fastest Known Time (FKT), a tradition that is well established abroad. Towards the end of August, he embarked on another project. With Mall Road again as start line, he ran from Manali to Hampta Pass (14,009 feet) which brought him to Lahaul and from there over the Rohtang Pass (13,051 feet) back to Mall Road in Manali. Then in October, he elevated the game to a whole new level. This time he didn’t start from the town’s Mall Road. The objective was Deo Tibba (19,688 feet). The road head for accessing it was roughly a half marathon away from town. So the run was designed as road head to road head instead of Mall Road to Mall Road. He did a recce of the route on the mountain. For the actual attempt, a support group of individuals pitched in; they were spread out along the mountain slope and manned three camps where Kieren also parked his mountaineering gear in advance. On October 1, he commenced his run from the road head. Past base camp, he moved up Deo Tibba alpine style and without using any ropes. At the concluding portion of the climb to the summit, he and a friend roped up briefly for safety but used no ice screws or any such protective equipment. The entire passage from road head to road head took him 19 hours, 38 minutes, Kieren said. With the project finding a sponsor in the skin cream brand Nivea, a related film was also made. This model of activity and documentation using media appears sustainable going ahead, Kieren said. It may be some time before the pandemic settles to containable proportion and the world is back to relaxed mode and travel as before. But if the paradigm of existence he discovered in 2020 sustains, Manali can continue to be a productive year round base for his pursuits, Kieren felt. Viewed so, 2020 was an interesting year for the young man trying to live his dream of being a mountain athlete.

Gopi. T (blue vest) at 2018 TMM. Just behind him is Nitendra Singh Rawat; they finished first and second respectively in their category (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

For Gopi. T, among India’s best marathon runners, 2020 has been a year of inevitable downtime catching up. The elite athlete had transitioned from 2019 to 2020 with a persistent leg injury. But he soldiered on as it was an important year for athletics – the Tokyo Olympics was due and he had to qualify for it. He skipped the 2020 TMM held in January. He set his eyes on major marathons like the Tokyo Marathon, Seoul International Marathon and London Marathon – they have a better course and typically more favorable weather conditions – for a shot at qualifying for the Olympics. In March 2019, Gopi had got his personal best at Seoul, when he completed the marathon in 2:13:39 (it is the closest any Indian runners has come yet to the longstanding national record of 2:12:00) and placed eleventh. One reason for valuing course and weather conditions in 2020 was that Olympic qualification required meeting an entry mark of 2:11:30. It is a challenge. Part of the national camp, he was assigned to train in Bengaluru. But Gopi’s injury slowly worsened. By the time lockdown set in, he was scheduled for knee surgery. Post-surgery, he was advised bed rest for close to two months to help the healing. In June the first steps in rehabilitation commenced. He continued his recovery and conditioning as best as he could; maintaining the momentum when he traveled home to Wayanad in August, as well. At that time, he could jog a short distance, walk and then repeat the mix again. Gyms hadn’t reopened in Wayanad. So Gopi did his strength training at home. Meanwhile, when the new list of athletes at national camps for the September-December period was disclosed there was nobody mentioned under the category of men’s marathon. Upon return to Bengaluru, Gopi continued his strength workouts and jogging on his own, outside the premises of the Sports Authority of India (SAI). At the time of writing, he was back to running but it had to be done carefully because there was an occasional pain on his left knee. “ I can do up to 30 minutes on the treadmill now,’’ Gopi said, late December. Needless to say, qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics looks doubtful. “ I think the reasonable option for me would be to focus on the Asian Games of 2022 and train accordingly,’’ Gopi said.

Anjali Saraogi; from the Asia Oceania 100K Championships in Aqaba, Jordan (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Kolkata based-Anjali Saraogi used the period of lockdown to catch up on her strength training. Among India’s top ultramarathon runners, she invested in gym equipment and worked out at home. In terms of running – an act that requires person foraying out from home amid pandemic – she chose to play it safe so that none in her family were put at risk. It was June by the time she could venture out for running and even then, she was limited by the fact that the locality she lived in was often in and out of being a containment zone. That made it difficult to pile on mileage, something crucial if you are an ultrarunner. “ The 1-2 hours of running most amateur runners do, does not suffice for us. We need 3-5 hours at times’’ Anjali said. In the past one month or so things have been better. Case numbers have slowly declined and there is a sense of normalcy returning. Consequently, Anjali’s running too has benefited from the improvement in overall ambiance. Asked if the challenges of 2020, including the way it hampered training for long distance runs, had imposed a lengthy curve to regaining form on India’s ultrarunners, Anjali said that a few months of consistent training would be all that is required to get back to form. Further, from among known ultrarunners, there are those who managed to take off to the hills periodically or shifted for long periods that side to train. Such locations have comparatively less people than India’s crowded cities and case numbers have also been less. Needless to say, training has continued better in those parts. “ The difficulty has been for those running in the cities,’’ Anjali said. About 2021, she believes that things should improve post-March and after June-July life should be much closer to normal. However, even as running events recommence, Anjali said that people may warm up to it only gradually as an element of confidence and safety in travel has to be felt at large. This could take time. “ Basically as regards 2020, I feel thankful for all the blessings I have in my life. The safety and good health of my loved ones – that has been the priority,’’ she said.      

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal (Photo: courtesy Vijay)

In February 2020, when Vijayaraghavan Venugopal participated in the 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon, the virus had reached India and was on the cusp of becoming a global worry. But few anticipated the rapidity with which things happened thereafter culminating in a massive, lengthy lockdown. “ It was an unpredictable year,’’ Vijay said, late December. The CEO of the sports nutrition brand Fast&Up is also a well-known amateur runner with podium finishes in his age category. “ From the world majors, I have the London and Tokyo marathons left to participate in. I also want to do New York again to attempt a sub-three hours-finish. I applied for New York but didn’t get through. After the New Delhi Marathon I was hoping to try the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon and the TCS World 10k. None of that happened because of the pandemic,’’ he said. On the other hand, COVID-19 and the lockdown it forced gave Vijay 2-3 months away from running. That was useful to both heal a longstanding injury and to reflect. One of the outcomes has been a growing interest in the shorter distances – 5k and 10k. Traditionally these distances have been important to groom marathon and half marathon runners. In India however, while the elite athletes usually follow above said path, most amateurs launch off straight into the half marathon. “ Over the last few months, I have been looking more at 5k and 10k. Hopefully, that should stand me in good stead when things improve in 2021,’’ Vijay said. A fan of racing events in the physical sense, he didn’t do any virtual runs. “ I look forward to the revival of actual races,’’ he said. His estimation is that following the elites-only ADHM of November and the proposed Chennai Marathon of early January 2021, a small number of events should emerge in the first quarter of the New Year. But it will still be touch and go and dependent on factors influencing overall sentiment like vaccine rollout, the nature of further mutations to the virus etc. The big events may be hesitant to return soon; the smaller ones associated with smaller volume of participation may be the first off the block. However, small volume-events may face the hurdle of financial viability as sponsors may stay off citing little mileage by way of publicity. “ Things should be clearer by the second half of 2021,’’ Vijay said. Having said that, he agreed there have been some new encouraging trends too as a result of the pandemic. On the average, everyone’s morning walk, run or bicycle ride is happening in an ambiance featuring more people out seeking to put in some exercise. It paints a unique scenario – one in which, races and the old racing focused approach to the sport may have receded temporarily but general interest in being physically active has likely grown. This newfound value in the physically active lifestyle is one of the less highlighted legacies of COVID-19. “ Recently Fast&Up hosted a virtual 5k run. There was a race with prize money and a run without it. The majority of people registering for the event were newbies to our website,’’ Vijay said.

Gerald Pde (Photo: courtesy Gerald)

Architect and runner, Gerald Pde, stays with his family roughly five kilometers away from Shillong in Meghalaya. That gives him access to the local woods. The way things played out, being near the woods was a blessing in times of pandemic and lockdown. The last event Gerald and the team of runners from Run Meghalaya, attended, was the Tata Ultra in Lonavala, held in February 2020. A month after that race, India entered lockdown. Back in Shillong, for Gerald and family, the first three weeks of the lockdown when it was fresh off the starting block and strictly enforced, were tough. “ After those three weeks, I started to venture a bit into the nearby woods,’’ Gerald said. It was a pleasant experience because in proportion to people gone indoors and the din and stress of human activity on planet diminishing, the local flora and fauna was staging a comeback. By May, Gerald had begun exploring trails in these woods. “ It was one of the positive sides of the lockdown. I got to know the smaller roads and trails better,’’ he said outlining how running returned to his life at this stage. Post September-October, things have drifted closer to normal. “ At peak physical condition in pre-pandemic days I used to log weekly mileage of 140-160 kilometers, sometimes a bit more. Now I am at around 100 kilometers,’’ Gerald, who is among the founders of Run Meghalaya, said. According to him, the lockdown experience would be near similar for other runners living in the neighborhood of Shillong. Run Meghalaya regularly sends runners from the state to participate in various running events in India. Some of them have been podium finishers at major races like TMM. Before lockdown set in, Gerald had set his eyes on the 2021 edition of Hong Kong 100; it has since been cancelled. Now he is toying with the idea of attending the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships due in Chiang Mai, Thailand in November 2021. Asked how Tlanding Wahlang, a regular podium finisher at marathons who has also represented India in the ultramarathon, was faring, Gerald said that he lived in a distant village where COVID-19 cases have been few so far. “ He must have been able to continue his training without too many problems,’’ Gerald said.        

Karthik Anand (Photo: courtesy Karthik)

When the first phase of lockdown was announced in March 2020, Karthik Anand, who runs his own enterprise, saw his work take a dip. It gave him more free time. The Bengaluru-based runner spent the month of April and May focused on his workouts and runs. In the process, his timing efficiency in the five kilometers and the half marathon improved. “ I was able to continue running through the lockdown period. I did not face any hassles running on the roads of Bengaluru,” he said. Karthik immersed himself in training and organizing training races during these months. As a member of Pacemakers, a marathon training group based in Bengaluru, Karthik led the process of organizing runs over distances ranging from 10 km, half marathon and 32 kilometers to the marathon; he managed the logistics for these outings. These running events were held for a very small number of participants with safety protocols in place. Pacemakers held these runs in July (10 km), August (21 km) and September 2020 (32 km and the marathon). The September 2020 race helped the runners of the group who had signed up for the virtual segment of Boston Marathon 2020. The group was able to get permission from the police to organize these runs as the number of runners was small and all COVID-19 protocols such as maintaining physical distancing and avoiding contact were in place. Pacemakers plans to hold a marathon – yet again of above said containable dimension – in January 2021 coinciding with the traditional timing of India’s biggest event in running: the Tata Mumbai Marathon. It is held annually on the third Sunday of January. The January 2021 run in Bengaluru is being organized by Pacemakers, Jayanagar Jaguars and Runners 360, all city-based training groups. The run is exclusively for the members of these groups, Karthik said.

Idris Mohamed (This photo was downloaded from the runner’s Facebook page)

These have been interesting times for amateur runner Idris Mohamed, currently based in Chennai. For several years he has been a familiar face on the Indian road racing circuit, often securing podium finish in his age category. When the lockdown struck Idris was in Chennai; his family, in Thiruchirappalli. For three to four months he didn’t get to visit them. That was a trying period. He continued with his strength training and the new line of work he had commenced – coaching. It is now a bit over a year since he donned the role of a coach. He does this in two ways. He is a coach with Asics Running Club in Chennai; he also coaches on his own. The latter is proving valuable now because people have begun getting tired of online coaching. With the earlier restrictions on mobility now relaxed, it is possible for Idris to offer one on one coaching. “ When I started coaching I was a bit nervous because I was unsure if I would be able to articulate, communicate and teach as required. But now I am comfortable. I find coaching very fulfilling,’’ he said. Engaging with another person and helping him / her, shifts the focus away from oneself; it is a healthy relief in these times. Idris also operates a fitness studio in the city. Besides podium finishes on the domestic road racing circuit in pre-pandemic days, Idris was also active in the world of Masters Athletics. At the Masters Asian Championships held in Malaysia in December 2019, he secured gold medals in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m. Notwithstanding the expectations and the pressure to train these achievements bring, Idris felt that the lockdown offered a relevant dose of downtime. “ My aim during the lockdown and the unlock phase that followed was to do what is needed to maintain my physical fitness without getting into heavy intensity workouts and such,’’ he said. It may have affected his performance. Recently he ran the virtual TCS 10k and his timing of 42 minutes was slower than the 37 minutes he clocked at the same event in 2019. Once things are fully back to normal, Idris hopes to train as well as he used to before. He has a reason – he would like to participate in the next edition of the Masters Athletics World Championships.        

Shilpi Sahu (Photo: courtesy Shilpi)

The sudden lockdown resulted in people getting stuck wherever they were. Shilpi Sahu, from Bengaluru, was held up in Kerala for seven weeks. It put a complete stop to her running. All over the country, the initial phase of lockdown was rather strict with even those out on their regular morning walk or jog sometimes accused of flouting the law. Shilpi resumed running only sometime in May; she started out with small distances. She has been running alone during these months of pandemic. “ It is quite okay to run on the road and we are able to pull the mask down as people are few early in the morning,” she said. In Bengaluru, there are some areas with open space and less crowding. The fear of contracting the disease forced many runners to stop training outdoors completely but with time they have begun venturing out, she said. Shilpi has not been participating in any of the virtual running events. “ A few of us travelled to the place where Kaveri Trail Marathon is held every year and did self-supported training runs of varying distances,’’ she said. The 2020 Kaveri Trail Marathon, a much loved event, was cancelled owing to the pandemic.

Siddesha Hanumanthappa (this photo was downloaded from the runner’s Facebook page)

When the COVID-19 lockdown was announced in March and Work from Home (WFH) commenced, Siddesha Hanumanthappa found himself with more time on his hands. A scientist by profession, he has been running regularly for the past 29 years. A break in running due to the lockdown was unacceptable for him. He realized that it would be possible to continue his running streak, if he set out early from his house. “ I would leave my house as early as 4 AM and try and finish my run by 6.30 AM,” he said. To do this, Siddesha would wake up at 2.30 AM, finish his core workouts and strengthening exercises and then embark on his day’s run. A couple of times, policemen stopped him on the road and asked why he was out. But that was it; nothing ever got out of hand. Over time, Siddesha started building up his mileage – initially it was 10km; he increased it to 15km and 20km. “ By April, I was hitting 35km daily mileage and by May I touched 38-40km,” he said. His monthly mileage which was averaging around 350-400 km in the run up to lockdown, touched 750km in April and 950km in May. By early July, his daily mileage had increased to 38-40km. “ Then somebody asked me why I was not doing a marathon,” he said. It prompted him to start running distances equivalent to a marathon (42.2km). On July 17, he ran a marathon. He sustained the trend. By December 18, he had completed 100 marathons in 2020. According to Siddesha, as of December 29, including the events he ran before lockdown like the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon, he had completed 104 marathons and the year’s total mileage on feet was around 11,000km. “ All my runs through the lockdown period and after the lockdown got relaxed were self-supported. Along my route in central Bengaluru there are street vendors on cycles. I stop at each of these vendors to buy water or coffee or chikki,” Siddesha said. Despite his daily running, he has not had any injuries. He attributes it to his core and strength workouts and post-run stretching. Siddesha, who has run some of the World Marathon Majors – he did Boston, New York and Chicago – has mostly stayed away from virtual runs.

Venkatesh Shivarama (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It is difficult to filter and highlight what exactly drove bicycle sales during the pandemic because the market for bicycles straddles several price categories and each category has its uniqueness. This blog usually writes on performance cycling; it features road bikes, hybrids and mountain bikes – all slightly expensive (to genuinely expensive), mostly imported (or at least featuring imported components) and falling in the premium segment of the Indian market. Herein, the demand is said to have been fueled by the need for mobility and physical fitness, with the latter mentioned by those in the bicycle industry as perhaps the more dominant demand driver. The pandemic highlighted the importance of staying physically fit. “ We typically sell bikes priced between Rs 25,000 to Rs 100,000. When lockdown began to ease, there was a surge in demand; it was nearly ten times what we experienced in pre-pandemic days,’’ Venkatesh Shivarama, senior cyclist who also runs the Bengaluru-based bicycle retailer, Wheel Sports, said.  Available stocks were lapped up by buyers and fresh stocks have been difficult to procure. There is a reason for it. The surge in demand for bicycles was worldwide and shops in several countries were exhausting their stocks. This put pressure on the entire supply chain from retailer to importer to bicycle and bicycle gear manufacturers. Adding to the strain was the fact that all these sites were also limited by the pandemic in their capacity to function properly. And even if they became fully functional, there was sufficient demand piled up to keep supplies inadequate for a while. The availability of spare parts (components) was also badly hit. Waiting lists for bikes and components materialized. Likely complicating the situation were the inherent peculiarities of the business. Bicycles in the premium bracket are truly international pieces of machinery. The aggregate is designed in one place, the frame is made in another place, the components come from still other places and the final assembly may be elsewhere. There is much shipping involved. Additionally, within the ecosystem of components manufacturing, there are names which stand head and shoulders above the rest with sizable reputation and market share to their credit. Thus a good quality chain may be sourced from a couple of reputed companies but the same cannot be said of the cassette, wherein if you want the best, the choice is limited. Getting the dominant brands (in component manufacturing) to respond quickly to demand spikes of the scale witnessed recently won’t be easy. On the other hand, expecting competing component manufacturers to step up also won’t be easy because fresh investments require a lead time to yield marketable products. Switching component suppliers is also easier said than done because there are well settled price points to meet in the market. Further, in India, some key bicycle components like good quality imported tyres have become victim of protective trade barriers. Consequently, according to Venkatesh, a range of components spanning chains to cassettes, tyres and tubes have suddenly become difficult to access. The only way out is for the market to stabilize with time. “ I am hoping that by February-March 2021, we should be in a better situation,’’ Venkatesh said.   

Zarir Balliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Among sports that were hit hardest by the lockdown, was swimming. “ It has been quite a wash out this year,’’ Zarir Balliwala, President, Greater Mumbai Amateur Aquatics Association (GMAAA), said. From the time lockdown took effect in late March, swimming pools stayed shut. While pools have since opened for competition swimmers (the central government announced it as part of Unlock 5 effective October 1; states followed but based on their risk assessment, Maharashtra allowed competition swimmers to access pools from early November), there will be a long curve to regaining the earlier levels of performance. “ There is only so much dryland work outs can do to keep swimmer in shape. Ultimately swimming needs access to water. From late March to the time competition swimmers were permitted access to water again, those into swimming have been without the medium of their sport. So it will be a long journey getting back to form. The journey to peak performance levels will likely be longer for those specializing in the sprint events,’’ Zarir said pointing out that a lot of hard work is required to shave off those seconds in timing which make a winner one. He expects that if all goes well and the next round of district, state and national level competitions get back on track, then by April 2021 some level of performance should return to the sport. There are also grey areas in the unlock format. For instance even as competition swimmers have been allowed access, it is up to the managers of a pool they approach to decide whether it makes sense to open the facility and keep it running for a small group of users. Categories like channel swimmers (endurance swimmers and open water swimmers seeking to cross straits and channels) who too benefit from access to pools, don’t qualify to be called competition swimmers. Same would be the case for triathletes as many participate in well-known competitions that are however not part of what the government normally recognizes as competitive events. As yet in these instances, the managements of pools have used their own discretion and tried to view requests sympathetically. Finally, there is the continuing absence of recreational swimmers from the frame and the question of when they will be allowed back to the pool. Zarir hopes that more clarity will be available in the first half of 2021.        

Corina Van Dam, popularly known as Cocky (Photo: courtesy Cocky)

In Mumbai, Corina Van Dam (Cocky) was disappointed when Swimathon, a swimming event that was to be held towards the end of March 2020, was cancelled due the pandemic and lockdown. Cocky was slated to participate in the 10 km event. She had done all the necessary training. Soon after that, a triathlon slated to be held in April at Mahabaleshwar was also cancelled. “ I discovered the balcony in my apartment; I began seeing it in new light. I started running in the balcony; I also did some cycling. Just before the lockdown, I had bought a trainer for my cycle and that helped me cycle indoors,” she said. She also followed many of the online home workout programs put out by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), an online community of recreational runners; she also followed other running groups and coaches including Girish Bindra. “ I do not like to do core and strength workout. But during the lockdown I did these workouts regularly and now they have become a part of my routine,” Cocky said. It was sometime in mid-July that Cocky commenced running and cycling outdoors. A recreational triathlete, she has been missing her swimming pool sessions. Pools stayed shut for long due to the pandemic and when the government decided to reopen some, it was for competition swimmers. Not one to be boxed into a corner by these limitations, of late Cocky has been doing open water swimming in the sea. Additionally, she engaged herself in a number of challenges thrown up by various running groups such as 100 days of running and Run to the Moon among others. “ Besides these, I fashioned my own challenges to keep the fitness activity going,” she said. Cocky also enrolled for the virtual race of Amsterdam Marathon. She chose a one kilometer-loop in the area where she resides and ran at night to cover the distance of 42.2 km.  The cops in the area knew her well; so being out at those hours wasn’t a problem. Closer to the time of writing, she cycled from Mumbai to Malvan. “ I will continue to do some of the virtual events,” she said.

Sharath Kumar Adanur (Photo: courtesy Sharath)

At Jamshedpur, Sharath Kumar Adanur was able to continue his running through the COVID-19 lockdown. His house is within a fairly large gated community. “ I was able to run inside my housing complex in a 600 meter-loop. When the lockdown norms started to ease, I ventured out for easy runs and occasional time trials,” he said. During the peak lockdown period, he also focused on strength training. Many recreational runners have been participating in virtual running events but Sharath has not opted for these. He made an exception for a 10 km virtual run organized by Tata Steel, where he managed to get a personal best for the distance. He completed the run in 34:24 minutes, an improvement on his previous personal record of 35:32 minutes set at TCS World 10k in 2017. Sharath did the Tata Steel Virtual run at the JRD Tata Stadium.  “ I wanted to get a good timing. Running on an athletics track was really good and it helped me with my timing,” he said. Sharath also did a Fast & Up 5km virtual run on a request from a friend. “ This one I did on the roads,” he said. He finished the run in 17:01 minutes. He has however stayed away from doing other virtual runs. “ I have not felt any attraction for these virtual running events,” he said. He is slated to do a physical marathon organized by running groups in Bengaluru, on January 17, 2021. Getting back to running a physical event will be a welcome change from these past few months of solitary running, Sharath said.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar)

Coach and runner Dnyaneshwar Tidke was completely confined to his house in Panvel during the early days of lockdown. For Dnyaneshwar, who normally runs six days a week, the confinement prompted him to work on his overall strength, agility and flexibility. He started creating videos of his workout plan for his wards at LifePacers, a marathon training group based in Navi Mumbai. “ The videos focused on whole body workouts with emphasis on stretching, flexibility, coordination and balance apart from strengthening,” he said. Alongside his role as a coach, he started to offer challenges to his team including squats, push-ups among others to keep the runners engaged and motivated. By the end of April 2020, he was able to venture out for outdoor running. “ There are many trails quite close to where I stay. I would set out early morning on my two-wheeler, park it and run on those trails,” he said. Over time, he started to build his mileage. “ I was able to work on good base-building during this period,” he said. He believes he is on an upward curve in terms of his endurance and fitness as a runner. His weekly running mileage is around 80-100 km these days. But he has largely stayed away from virtual events and has also not encouraged his team at LifePacers to pursue that route to stay motivated. The experience of a real race is something that he misses immensely. A competitive runner and an age category podium finisher, Dnyaneshwar believes real races will start in a limited way from the second half of 2021.

Seema Yadav (Photo: courtesy Seema)

For much of the lockdown period, Faridabad-based recreational runner, Seema Yadav, spent time in Bhiwadi in Rajasthan. She had landed there with her son during his school break to visit her father and with the sudden imposition of lockdown ended up being there for nearly three months. She did indoor workouts and stepped out to run when lockdown norms eased a bit. Following a brief period back in Faridabad, she returned to Bhiwadi for another month’s stay. “ I was anyway in the process of recovering from injuries. I was following the physiotherapist’s plan, which included strength training among other elements,” she said. Seema had enrolled for the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) virtual race but was unable to do it because of personal reasons. “ Every year, I try and get a personal best at ADHM. I wanted to finish the run in one hour and 30 minutes,” Seema said. A few days before the event, her husband had to have an emergency operation and she was forced to suspend her training as she had to juggle managing the home front, taking care of her son and staying connected with the hospital, where her husband was admitted. A doctor by training, Seema couldn’t visit the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions; she coordinated with her husband’s doctors. “ I started training again after everything reverted to normal at home. I decided to do a virtual half marathon on December 12, 2020. I found out that there was a virtual run, Millenium City Marathon on the same day,” she said. She completed her run in 1:30:18, improving from her previous personal best of 1:34:12 set at the 2019 edition of ADHM. Seema plans to continue with her training runs, time trials and strength training. “ I may sign up for a physical race, if the number of runners is small,” she said.

Girish Bindra (Photo: courtesy Girish)

At the start of the lockdown, Mumbai-based Girish Bindra set about fashioning his own workout plans that incorporated various elements of strength training, core workout and high intensity interval training. A coach for Asics Running Club, Girish sometimes broadcasts his workouts on social media platforms for the benefit of his mentees. After the lockdown norms began to ease, he started frequenting the outdoors for his training runs. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled for the virtual London Marathon that was held in early October, 2020. His training for London Marathon was far from adequate. On the day of the run, a short heavy downpour forced him to delay the start but overall the run went off quite well in terms of support and performance. Girish has participated in a number of virtual running events this year including Comrades Marathon, Berlin Marathon, Chicago Marathon, Amsterdam Marathon, Barcelona Marathon, New York City Marathon and ADHM where he did the half marathon distance. He also did Asics Ekiden Challenge 42.2 km relay as well as a solo marathon and the 50 km category of the virtual race of Tata Ultra.

Abbas Shaikh (Photo: by arrangement)

Abbas Sheikh, recreational runner and coach from Mumbai, was confined to his house in the initial phase of the lockdown. That period was quite difficult; he even doubted whether he would be able to return to running. “ I started running in June but the mileage was quite low. I found it tough to run. Even a 10 km run would take so much time,” he said. Gradually, he was able to get back to his full-fledged training plan and coach other runners alongside. Although virtual runs became a fad during the phase of lockdown and its progressive relaxation, Abbas did not enroll for any of them. However, he did pace runner Kranti Salvi, when she did the virtual London Marathon. According to Abbas, virtual events may work as motivation but they lack the authenticity of the real event. A physical event is a composite of many live ingredients. “ I don’t see any point going for virtual runs.  In any case, I run 30-40 kilometers on weekends. Every other weekend I run a marathon as part of my training,” Abbas said. His role as a coach found traction when lockdown norms started to ease in June.  “ But the pick-up in interest started sometime in September and now entire families are turning up to train,” he said. Abbas works with Coach Savio D’Souza; he is part of Savio’s team. He said he has registered for an upcoming 12 hour-stadium run in the city.

Pranali Patil (Photo: courtesy Pranali)

In the initial phase of lockdown, when the quarantine centers and field hospitals for treating COVID-19 were still being set up, hospitals saw an inflow of patients affected by the virus. At the same time, fearing spread of infection, the general intake of those suffering from other diseases and approaching hospitals for treatment, reduced. In that period, Navi Mumbai-based Pranali Patil, an anesthetist by profession, saw that her free time had increased. But it meant little by way of mobility because the early phase of lockdown was also the strictest; nobody ventured out except for essentials. Pranali trains with the marathon training group, LifePacers and for the first three months of the lockdown she followed the online training sessions of her coach, Dnyaneshwar Tidke. “ I also took to skipping rather seriously,” she said. She tackled the 30-day challenge posed by her training group; Pranali’s challenge entailed running a minimum of five kilometers daily for 30 days. “ I also got into yoga during the lockdown months,” she said. At the time of writing, life had come full circle with her workload at the hospital increasing as many of the elective surgeries put on hold during the lockdown have been rescheduled to now.

Kavitha Reddy (Photo: courtesy Kavitha)

Once the lockdown took effect, it was almost 45 days of no running for Pune-based Kavitha Reddy. A frequent podium finisher at road races, she used the time to do strength training at home. She resumed running by jogging within the premises of her housing society; it yielded her a loop of around 750 meters that she would repeat. She did so for a month and then began running on the adjacent road. The loop there was smaller – about 450 meters – but it gave her the feeling of being out. Motivation was an issue in the early phase. Given there were no road races to focus on, it was a bit difficult initially to keep oneself running and training. Around late June, she began going out farther, running longer distances, mostly alone. In July she started to go beyond her immediate suburb twice or thrice a week. In the second week of July, she returned to regular training, running four to five times a week. There was no speed training or any such strenuous work out. The emphasis was on getting back to routine; she and her training group also did some time trials to get a sense of where each one’s performance level stood after the enforced break from routine caused by lockdown. Over July, August and September, they did three ten kilometer-runs (one 10k per month) and over October, November and December, three half marathons (Kavitha missed one of them). Amazingly she secured two personal bests; one each in the 10k (41:23) and the half marathon (1:30:23), the latter, an improvement over her timing at the 2020 Mumbai marathon. “ The personal bests have been an encouragement for me,’’ Kavitha said. Asked if the lack of any pressure to perform – it has been one of the side stories in running during the pandemic – contributed to the improved performance, she said it may be so. “ I hope the momentum carries forward into the approaching season of races slowly reviving,’’ she said. However she said that the return to participating in events will be gradual and based on people – including her – feeling more and more confident about the overall environment.          

Himanshu Sareen (Photo: Shweta Sareen)

In Mumbai, Himanshu Sareen’s fitness regime during the early phase of the lockdown was centered on training for the virtual Boston Marathon with an aim to improve his speed. He had signed up for the Tokyo Marathon, Barcelona Marathon and Boston Marathon in 2020 but all these three events were cancelled due to the pandemic. Boston Marathon was held in the virtual format for those who had registered for the April race. In the months preceding the virtual Boston Marathon, Himanshu’s training, designed by his coach Ashok Nath, focused on two aspects – general fitness and improving speed. A sub-three hour marathon runner, Himanshu completed his virtual Boston Marathon in 2:58 hours. The virtual London Marathon was scheduled a fortnight after Boston Marathon. Himanshu had eyed it as a training run but on the day of the run, he appeared to find his momentum and pushed for a better timing. He finished the distance in 2:52, improving from his virtual Boston Marathon finish. For the virtual race of New York City Marathon that was next on the cards, he had initially planned to travel to New York for a holiday and do the run there. But with the pandemic showing no signs of ebbing, he ruled out travel and decided to run close to his place of residence. He finished the run in 2:47 hours, a personal record. “ The weather was not so good on the day I chose to run NYCM. But having done two marathons, I could capitalize on my good form to push for a personal best,” he said. Virtual runs do not offer the thrill of a real race. “ The experience of travelling to the venue, going to the expo and running through famous landmarks is absent in a virtual race,” he said. Himanshu has traveled across the world to run marathons and races of other distances. “ Virtual runs do offer some advantages. You can wake up at the time of your choice and start the run a few minutes late or early. For shorter distances, we can do multiple attempts too,” he said. Himanshu used the lockdown period to improve his time efficiency over the shorter distances such as one mile, 5 km, 10 km and half marathon. “ I have got reasonable improvement. This focus will continue,” he said.

Dr Rajat Chauhan in his role as race director of La Ultra The High; this photo is from an earlier edition of the race in Ladakh, location: North Pullu near Khardung La (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

With only days left for 2020 to draw to a close, Delhi-based ultrarunner and specialist in musculo-skeletal medicine and sports and exercise medicine, Dr Rajat Chauhan, shared his take on the year, from the perspective of a healer. To begin with, the pandemic and the lockdown that followed saw a major shift in work pattern; Work from Home (WFH) became the norm. This resulted in people making do with infrastructure that wasn’t originally meant for such purpose. Some companies disbursed money for staff to upgrade work facilities at home but ultimately the alterations and improvements rarely match what an office made for work offers. Adding to this has been extended hours of work; from the earlier 8-10 hours of work, people – given they were anyway at home – were on call for 13-14 hours. The resultant chair-bound life and stress have caused an increase in aches and pains. But it is the next point Dr Chauhan mentioned that genuinely engaged. Doctors like him are usually accessed against payment of a fee. As the economy got hit by pandemic and lockdown, many people lost their jobs or witnessed salary cuts. This meant their disposable income for treating medical complaints likely shrank. There is probably a lot of people out there who aren’t reporting their health problems because they can’t afford consultation fees and treatment. It prompted Dr Chauhan to highlight the need to invest in precautionary measures and advise pushing physical limits conservatively, in his social media interactions. As he put it, the number of people running for physical fitness is likely much smaller than those doing it for mental peace and happiness. “ At some point, running becomes important because it is contributing to your mental well-being,’’ he said. Given the economic pressures and mental depression of pandemic, the existing pre-pandemic army of runners and their daily activity has been complemented by the entry of new runners jogging to beat the blues and old ones jogging more to beat the greater load of blues. Adding to this has been the emergent culture of challenges – back to back running, back to back exercises, virtual races and pressures caused by social media advertising what everyone is doing. “ On the average, the number of over-use injuries appears to have gone up,’’ Dr Chauhan said. What is overlooked in such incessant physical strain is the importance of recovery. It is during recovery time that the body adapts and gains optimal strength and stamina. When you deny the body adequate time to recover, you are pushing things downhill. And yet again, the point to remember is that courtesy salary cuts, job losses and resultant avoidance of medical intervention, we may not be seeing the complete picture. “ In the end, you say running did this to you. But it is not running that is to be blamed; it is you and how you handled running that is at fault,’’ Dr Chauhan said.    

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom (Photo: courtesy Ramesh; this picture is from the New Delhi Marathon)

While several races spawned apps offering the event in virtual format and some other events debuted purely as children of the app era, not every race organizer bit the virtual-bullet. One such event that accepted cancellation of its 2020 edition in view of COVID-19 but desisted from floating an app was the Spice Coast Marathon held in Kochi. City based amateur runner and one of the founding members of the running group Soles of Cochin (they organize Spice Coast Marathon), Ramesh Kanjilimadhom put the decision in perspective. According to him, the attraction in Spice Coast Marathon is the opportunity to run in Kochi; the marathon route runs through Fort Kochi, which is home to much history and heritage. Neither that ambiance nor the enthusiasm of the organizers, supporters and the volunteers can be captured in an app. Runners know this well. “ Take for example, the Hyderabad Marathon. I personally think it is among the best in its class in India. They have a great set of volunteers. But will an app convey all that?’’ Ramesh asked. It raises the question: who wants the app the most? Very likely, the ones valuing it are the sponsors as the app offers a platform to keep events and supporting brands visible at a time when physical races are getting cancelled owing to pandemic. Apps don’t cost a lot to make. When Spice Coast decided to cancel its 2020 edition and not have an app alongside, the organizers checked with the sponsors if it was alright. “ They were cool about it,’’ Ramesh said. While he did encourage some of his friends to run virtual races of their choice, Ramesh didn’t register for any virtual event. He likes the real event and is waiting for things to settle down and the machinery of physical events to revive. His own experience of 2020 has been akin to a year of reflection and experimentation. The absence of races has infused an element of naturalness into running. There are no external goals to chase and to that extent running right now, is less synthetic. “ In the initial part of the lockdown, like everybody else, I too was indoors. When the freedom to move returned, I recommenced my running and it has progressed consistently. I used the opportunity to try slow running and heart rate running. A lot of people have changed their approach to running,’’ he said pointing out that there are others too who have used this juncture to revisit questions around why they run, what sort of running they wish to do and how to train.

The 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) in progress; elite contingent on the right (Photo: by arrangement)

By all accounts, the return of physical races depends on government, race organizers and participants, feeling confident. A persistent lacuna herein has been the absence of a body representing race organizers. Such a platform can be helpful in times like the present, when the multiple verticals that usually converge to enable a race have to be spoken to and their confidence in events restored. But said platform is absent. Events of some scale with pandemic protocols in place were reported from China, US and Australia in the final months of 2020. In race organizer-circles there is expectation of events capped to limited participation, happening with safety protocols in place, in the first quarter of 2021. How successful they will be is anybody’s guess. The race organizer can organize and invite but ultimately participation must manifest and that is influenced by how secure the overall situation feels. As mentioned in the introduction, the Chennai Marathon with participation capped at a maximum of 1000 runners is slated for early January and talks are on for a similar event over a shorter distance in Hyderabad later the same month. They should work as icebreakers, test cases. A recent survey of runners by one of the players in the industry indicated that prospective participants at races may be willing to pay more so that event managers can put safety protocols in place. Meanwhile, with no mass participation road races since March 2020, the industry of running saw its share of economic impact. At various related organizations, sources said, there have been instances of delayed payment of bills and salaries, layoffs and migration of skilled hands to other sectors. It is also believed that some of the marginal outfits may have given up and shifted their attention elsewhere. Before the pandemic, India was estimated to have more than 1300 road races of various dimensions being held annually. On the other hand, just as life under lockdown highlighted the importance of essentials over luxuries, the tightrope act of organizing races with safety protocols in place and not making it very expensive either, has got managers revisiting the event model to separate the essentials from the dispensable add-ons. Suddenly the focus is on what a running event actually requires – COVID-19 protocols; timing certificate, proper measurement of distance, well defined closure of roads, hydration, aid stations, medical assistance – that sort. The more superfluous items of the pre-pandemic business model seem chop-worthy. “ This is a good opportunity to recast the business model of these events and make them more relevant to running,’’ Venkatraman Pichumani of You Too Can Run, said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Please note: some of the timings, mileage and number of marathons run are as said by the athletes spoken to.)

WHO: EVERY TYPE OF MOVEMENT COUNTS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The World Health Organization (WHO) has highlighted the importance of a physically active life.

“ Up to 5 million deaths a year could be averted if the global population was more active. At a time when many people are home bound due to COVID-19, new WHO Guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour, launched today, emphasize that everyone, of all ages and abilities, can be physically active and that every type of movement counts,’’ a press release dated November 25, 2020, available on the website of WHO said.

According to it, the new guidelines recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week for all adults, including people living with chronic conditions or disability, and an average of 60 minutes per day for children and adolescents.

WHO’s statistics show that one in four adults and four in five adolescents do not get enough physical activity.  Globally this is estimated to cost 54 billion dollars in direct health care and another 14 billion dollars to lost productivity.

The guidelines encourage women to maintain regular physical activity throughout pregnancy and post-delivery. They also highlight the valuable health benefits of physical activity for people living with disabilities.

Older adults (aged 65 years or older) are advised to add activities which emphasize balance and coordination, as well as muscle strengthening, to help prevent falls and improve their health. According to the release, regular physical activity is key to preventing and helping to manage heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and cancer, as well as reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, reducing cognitive decline, improving memory and boosting brain health.

“ Being physically active is critical for health and well-being – it can help to add years to life and life to years,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was quoted as saying in the release. “ Every move counts, especially now as we manage the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must all move every day – safely and creatively,” he said.

All physical activity is beneficial and can be done as part of work, sport and leisure or transport (walking, wheeling and cycling), but also through dance, play and everyday household tasks, like gardening and cleaning, the release said. “ Physical activity of any type, and any duration can improve health and wellbeing, but more is always better,” Dr Ruediger Krech, Director of Health Promotion, WHO, was quoted as saying. “ If you must spend a lot of time sitting still, whether at work or school, you should do more physical activity to counter the harmful effects of sedentary behavior,” she added.

“ These new guidelines highlight how important being active is for our hearts, bodies and minds, and how the favourable outcomes benefit everyone, of all ages and abilities”, said Dr Fiona Bull, Head of the Physical Activity Unit which led the development of the new WHO guidelines.

According to the release, WHO encourages countries to adopt the global guidelines to develop national health policies in support of the WHO Global action plan on physical activity 2018-2030. The plan was agreed by global health leaders at the 71st World Health Assembly in 2018 to reduce physical inactivity by 15 per cent by 2030.

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

COVID-19: THE DAY AFTER IN RECOVERY AND RUNNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For a while now, the world has been grappling with a pandemic necessitating lockdown, use of masks, physical distancing and other health protocols. Runners were among those affected by COVID-19. Experiences have varied. Some had a robust engagement with the virus; some others had a brush with it.

The general observation is that the recovery phase has to be dealt with carefully so as not to trigger any further health complications. Resumption of running or any sort of heavy training post COVID-19 has to be slow and cautious, doctors said. Runners have also been advised by their coaches to recommence training gradually, keeping in mind the varying degrees to which the virus has impacted people.

We spoke to a few runners who contracted COVID-19 about their journey through the infection and their return to physical activity. We also spoke to a couple of coaches for their suggestions on how runners, who recovered from COVID-19, may manage their return to running. For a complete overview, please read this article in conjunction with the piece by doctors Arati and Pravin Gaikwad, available on this blog.

Dhruv Dubey (Photo: courtesy Dhruv)

July 3, 2020 – Dhruv Dubey remembers that date well. A recreational runner from Kolkata, he had set a personal mileage target of 3000 kilometers for 2020. In 2019, he had covered a distance of 2100 km. He felt the urge to increase the distance this year.

But the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced change of plans. Once the initial stringent lockdown was over, Dhruv explored running outdoors and managed to cover fairly good mileage during the months of May and June. But in early July, a setback occurred. On July 3 he got a fever. He waited for a couple of days but the fever did not subside. He began to lose his sense of smell. A test proved that he was COVID-19 positive. He was allowed home quarantine.

“ I had fever for about nine days. After my fever subsided, I had some lung issues. My lungs were affected. My VO2 max came down to 40 from my peak of 47 ml / kg/ min,” he said. Despite recovering from the infection, Dhruv continued to experience weakness. “ On July 26, I started my fitness regimen but felt very tired,” he said. He gave it some more days. By the time he was able to get back to some level of activity, almost a month had passed since the first onset of fever. “ I started with the home gym and then I slowly started running, attempting very short distances with many walk-breaks in between,” Dhruv said.

Slowly, he began inching up his running mileage. He also resorted to pranayama (practice of breath control in yoga). He felt the improvement with every passing day. “ My lung exhalation capacity improved,” he said. A vegetarian, Dhruv paid attention to his food intake and also took supplements, which aided the recovery. August was mostly focused on stepping out of the house, walking and light jogging. September was a better month in terms of his fitness workouts. His improving health has helped him get back to a training plan devised by his coach Ashok Nath.

“ I did an easy 21 kilometer-run last weekend. I was able to complete it without taking a walk-break,” Dhruv said, late September. He was able to complete the run in two hours, 32 minutes compared to his personal best of 1:58 for the half marathon distance. He believes his sustained focus on fitness, nutrition and overall health over the past few years helped him tide over COVID-19 and get back to running.

Kamalaksha Rao (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Hennur Bamboo Ultra)

During the initial days of the lockdown in Mumbai, Kamalaksha Rao, 73, stayed indoors but kept up his workout regimen, including running inside his apartment. When the lockdown norms began to ease, he stepped out to run.

On the morning of July 11, 2020, he ran a distance of 21 kilometers. That evening he came down with fever and body ache. “ I took a pill but the body ache persisted for the next two days. I also began experiencing loss of smell. I went to a doctor, who suggested that I do a COVID-19 test,” Kamalaksha said. He tested positive.

Although the civic authorities suggested home quarantine for him, he decided to get admitted to a hospital as his granddaughter lives with him. “ I was in Vivanta Hospital, Malad, for six days. From there, I shifted to a COVID care center where I stayed for three days. I then shifted to my neighbour’s apartment, which was vacant. I stayed there alone for 11 days,” he said. Following this long stretch of time, he tested negative for COVID-19.

He commenced his physical activities with walking and slow jogging. “ COVID affects joints and muscles. I was told by doctors to keep moving. When I was at the COVID care center, the people managing it would ask everyone to keep walking,” he said. Kamalaksha also consulted a cardiologist as he wanted to get back to running. Following that he resumed running but at a very slow pace. Every Sunday he would increase the distance he was running. He also had a small goal he was gravitating to – he hoped to run 42.2 kilometers during the Virtual London Marathon of October 4, 2020. He planned to run close to his residence in Malad. On race day, Kamalaksha started his run at 4.40 AM. The septuagenarian ran the first half of the marathon and walked the next 21 kilometers. He had a target of finishing in eight hours. He finished in 7:20 hours. “ It was a self-supported run. I had carried a bag. During the run, I had two gels and two nutrition bars,” he said. He planned to do recovery walks over the next few days.

Rachna Bhatnagar (Photo: courtesy Rachna)

Rachna Bhatnagar, a resident of Kharghar in Navi Mumbai, took to recreational running about a year and a half ago. She joined LifePacers, a Navi Mumbai-based marathon training group and in the ensuing period ran many 10-kilometer-races. Through the lockdown period, Rachna kept up her home fitness regimen, which included a series of workouts. She contracted COVID-19 in the fourth week of June.

“ My husband got fever first. Then I got throat ache and headache. My son also got fever and experienced loss of taste and some breathing issues,” she said. All three of them tested positive and were admitted to a hospital. While at hospital, Rachna did suryanamaskar (yoga), starting with two sets a day. She increased the counts daily. She also walked for ten minutes daily and did some stretches. Ten days later, Rachna tested negative. “ After I came home, I did another test, which was again negative,” she said.

In the initial days, post-COVID-19, she experienced tiredness. “ In the early phase after recovering from the disease, if I did housework for ten minutes I needed to take 20 minutes rest. That’s when I increased fluids intake. In one week I recovered,” she said. She commenced walking and took to slow running interspersed with walk-breaks. “ I have slowly increased my distance. Now, I walk-jog for about 10 kilometers and jog-run for up to seven kilometers,” she said. According to her, managing recovery is the crucial element in the stage following disease and the body’s battle with the virus. “ It is essential to stay positive. I kept away from negative people and negative news. The whole recovery process is a mind game,” she said.

Arun Waghukar (Photo: courtesy Arun)

As of early October, Arun Waghukar, a runner from Kamothe, Navi Mumbai, was back at work. When we spoke to him for this article, he was still in the recovery phase after contracting COVID-19. “ I had a toothache and kept avoiding going to a dentist. But I finally had to visit the dentist as the toothache got severe. I had four sittings with the dentist. Three days later, after my last dentist session, I developed symptoms – body ache and fever,” Arun said.

With some pills prescribed by a doctor, his fever disappeared but the body ache persisted. He tested positive for COVID-19. An employee of Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), he was admitted to the JNPT Hospital.

After he recovered, he started doing yoga and pranayama. “ I plan to recommence my running from October 20 by which time I would have finished one month after recovering from the coronavirus,” Arun said. He resumed work at JNPT on September 30, 2020. Early October, he was still doing an hour of yoga in the morning including sun salutations and various types of pranayama.

Arun commenced recreational running in 2015 and has been running half marathons mostly. In January 2020, he ran his maiden marathon at the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

A doctor with the Indian Army and a longstanding runner, Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman combines interest in the sport with a background in medicine. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in India, his daily work in Delhi – where he is based – included treating defence personnel who had contracted the infection. This was on since April-May. In September, he was doing a recovery run in Delhi after a virtual marathon when he sensed an element of tiredness that was more than what he normally felt after running 42.2 kilometers. “ I initially thought it may be because of the weather,’’ he said. A COVID-19 test showed that he was positive for the virus.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman (Photo: courtesy Muthukrishnan)

Asked how an otherwise healthy individual like him contracted the virus, Muthukrishnan pointed out that the general benefits attached to running shouldn’t be brought into the frame as presumed layer of defence. “ The chances of getting the virus are probably the same for all now given it is there in the community. Further in my case, being a doctor I deal with COVID-19 patients. So the source could have been from anywhere, from travel to life in the community to work at the hospital,’’ he said. Soon after he tested positive, Muthukrishnan commenced ten days of quarantine. He was asymptomatic. In the initial phase of the quarantine period he took complete rest. To stay happy, towards the concluding portion of the quarantine, he did some mild indoor exercises; he also walked indoors. In the post quarantine test for the virus, he tested negative.

Muthukrishnan now wanted to get back to running. He started the process with an ECG to get an idea of heart rate and heart condition; he also did tests for inflammation markers. When this blog spoke to him in early October, roughly a week had gone by since completion of quarantine. In that while he had moved through days of only walking to a mix of walk-jog to about an hour of slow running. “ The initial days were trying. The disease leaves you a bit tired,’’ he said, adding, “ you cannot see COVID-19 as just another viral disease because first, we are still learning about it and second, studies show that it is capable of impacting the body’s organs including the heart. That makes it important to revisit the fundamentals of your health before you restart physical activity.’’

As he put it, given the still evolving knowledge about the disease, the return to running would be largely based on runner’s ability to listen to his / her body. Plus, through the period of illness, recovery and return to running, nutrition is critical. “ As runners, we have this tendency to eat such that we don’t put on weight. When you are enduring COVID-19, recovering from it and slowly getting back to running, that old logic can be counterproductive. You have to eat well, have a balanced diet,’’ Muthukrishnan said.       

Sanjay Motling (Photo: courtesy Sanjay)

Dr Sanjay Motling started running during his days as a research scholar in engineering, at Jadavpur University. According to him, in 2014, he participated in his first running event (a half marathon); in January 2020 he did his first full marathon – the Tata Mumbai Marathon. Currently a resident of Panvel near Mumbai, in September 2020, after the lockdown caused by COVID-19 was eased; he and his friend drove to a village at the base of the hills not far from Panvel, for a weekend run. During the rains and just after it, the place is pretty; it is a spot runners like to visit for their long runs. That night, back in Panvel, he developed a mild fever. Following intake of paracetamol, he felt fine. But next night the fever returned. The subsequent three days went by without any symptoms. On Friday, he reported for work. But that night, the fever came back. “ It was a mild fever, it never exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it was always below that,’’ Sanjay said. On Saturday however, he developed a minor cough. “ I felt something wasn’t good and decided to go for testing. On Monday, the test result showed that I was COVID-19 positive,’’ he said.

That day itself, he was admitted to a hospital. A day earlier, the friend with whom he had gone for the weekend run, was also admitted to a hospital having tested positive for the virus. Sanjay spent eight days in hospital. The first night there, he developed shivering. But the remaining days felt quite normal although he was on medication. For 4-5 days during this period he did yoga and breathing exercises. Upon discharge from hospital, he was advised to continue taking his medicines but a week into it, tests showed that his sugar levels were up considerably. The doctor recommended that the medicines be stopped. “ Aside from the first couple of days since discharge from hospital, I haven’t felt tired,’’ Sanjay said. When he could find the time for it, he did yoga; he also started going for walks. Early October he told this blog that he felt ready to restart his old training sessions in running. Sanjay’s friend has also recovered.             

Rahul Sangoi (Photo: courtesy Rahul)

A runner from Pune, Rahul Sangoi tested positive for COVID-19 but remained asymptomatic throughout. At his home, Rahul’s uncle tested positive prompting the rest of the family to test for COVID-19. “ I did not move out of the house for 15 days but I continued my home workouts,” Rahul said. He was prescribed a five-day course of antibiotics as a precautionary measure by his doctor. Rahul has been running for the past six years; he has participated in a few half marathons and full marathons. This year, he also ran 50 kilometers at Tata Ultra, as a means to prepare for Comrades, the ultra-marathon held every year in South Africa. The 2020 Comrades was cancelled but stayed alive in the form of a virtual run.

In India, barring a few fortunate to be in the hills (or some such location away from cities) and those determined to run no matter what, most runners were housebound during the pandemic. The initial phase of the lockdown was strict and major sporting events were cancelled. Stuck at home, many introspected. “ The lockdown helped me acquire a clean diet. My job entails a lot of travel. In the days before the pandemic my food intake used to be improper due to the frequent traveling. During lockdown my diet improved. I also did workouts for six days a week,” Rahul said. In the process, he managed to knock off eight kilograms from his body weight.

Doctors Bindu and Vivek Nair have been dentists in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) for a long time. Bindu got into running about two years ago thanks to Trivandrum Runners Club (TRaCs). A resident of Vazhuthacaud in the city, her first run was approximately five kilometers long, from Kowdiar to LMS Junction and back. Three months later, she did a run of ten kilometers. Since then, Bindu has been running four days a week; she leaves home at 4.30AM and returns by around 5.30AM having covered the distance from home to Kowdiar to the local museum, botanical garden and zoo (a popular haunt for those into morning walks and jogs) and back.

Dr Bindu Nair (Photo: courtesy Bindu)

When COVID-19 reached India and the lockdown of March commenced, Bindu who wished to be utterly careful, stopped her running. She followed a routine of online exercises and Zumba, which she stuck to even after the lockdown eased. The regimen helped her shed 12 kilos from her body weight during the lockdown period. On September 22, a friend who wished to speak to her in person, visited briefly. Unknown to Bindu, the visitor had been experiencing mild symptoms. By evening, the friend came down with fever and chills. Three days later, on September 25, Bindu – she is normally healthy and free of ailments – experienced a mild headache. On September 26, she got a mild fever (below 100 degrees Fahrenheit) along with the chills. Realizing that it was perhaps time for comprehensive precaution, she took paracetamol and consulted her daughter Ambica, also a doctor. Bindu isolated herself. She had her rapid antigen test on September 28; it showed up positive for COVID-19 and she was admitted to the Medical College Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram.

The doctors advised complete rest. “ The first two days were okay,’’ Bindu said. She was administered hydroxychloroquine. The medicine can cause gastritis as side effect in some patients; Bindu had her share of it. Probably due to COVID-19, she also had lower back pain, fever and a clouded mind. This was a tough phase, lasting three days. “ Given we are both doctors, my husband used to send me reading material on the disease. But I couldn’t read it. My brain felt clouded,’’ Bindu said. The doctors treating her told her not to worry. They knew there would be such a phase. On the fifth day of her hospitalization, she had fever touching 101 degrees Fahrenheit. She was given paracetamol. That night she slept well. The next morning, she woke up drenched in sweat but feeling well otherwise and with the distinct feeling that the infection had been overcome. Subsequent tests for the virus proved negative. On October 7, roughly ten days after she was admitted to hospital, Bindu was discharged. She was told not to venture outside her house for the next seven days.

“ I didn’t have any lingering sense of fatigue,’’ Bindu said. The day after she got home, she commenced mild activity; cooking and cleaning in small doses. Pretty soon, a doctor also called recommending mild exercise to prevent clotting of blood. Clot formation has occurred in some individuals after COVID-19 infection. Taking that into consideration, the doctor wanted her to do mild exercise.“ I feel perfectly normal now,’’ Bindu said mid-October. In the recovery plan, she has been advised mild to moderate physical activity for the first month, more intense activity for the second and a return to running and whatever else she likes to do, by the third.    

Samson Sequeira (Photo: courtesy Samson)

Coaches speak

` Asymptomatic’ has been around in medical parlance for long. But it was COVID-19 that made it a household term. Samson Sequeira, coach at Run India Run, a Mumbai-based marathon training group, contracted the infection but showed no symptoms at all. He was asymptomatic. “ After our neighbor tested positive for COVID-19, we decided to test for coronavirus,” he said. That was how he learnt of being positive.

Although he confined himself indoors, Samson did not stop doing his workouts. As a coach, he has been advising his wards to be cautious in stepping up mileage as the threat of the virus is far from over. “ There should be no high intensity workout. I have been pushing for low intensity workout. Walk, talk, jog, run is my mantra,” he said. According to him, in these times, it is essential to keep fit, eat well and sleep well.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Don)

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Ashok Nath, Bengaluru-based coach and mentor, highlighted the importance of apprising the affected amateur athletes of what they are dealing with. As a disease with no vaccine yet, it is only natural for people to be scared of COVID-19. What they must be reassured of is that serious cases are a small percentage of the total number of people infected. The vast majority recovers. For the duration of full recovery, runners should assign top priority to their health and keep their competitive mindset parked at a safe distance. Once they get the green signal to resume training, they should ease into it with full awareness and respect for feedback from the body. He felt that in the interest of timely withdrawal should there be any discomfort, it would be best to avoid rigidly structured training programs. Be mindful. Only after a fortnight of such cautious approach and assessment thereon, should you think of resuming training. Even then, Ashok’s emphasis is on proceeding with “ feel’’ as opposed to “ paces,’’ till such time as the disease becomes a memory.

Caution was the watchword for Dnyaneshwar (Don) Tidke too; he is coach at LifePacers, Navi Mumbai. He felt that after adequate rest (two to four weeks) as required by the severity of infection, small modules of walk-jog for a couple of weeks followed by the same in slightly longer duration maybe the right way to revive one’s association with running. Further progress should depend on the runner’s fitness levels and response to recovery, he said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For the article by doctors Arati and Pravin Gaikwad, please click on this link:  https://shyamgopan.com/2020/10/09/recovered-from-covid-19-and-planning-to-restart-running-keep-this-in-mind/)

RECOVERED FROM COVID-19 AND PLANNING TO RESTART RUNNING? KEEP THIS IN MIND

Pravin and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

This is an article by invitation. Doctors Arati and Pravin Gaikwad are experienced pediatricians who have also been endurance athletes for a long time. In Navi Mumbai, they are co-founders of the runners group, LifePacers. This blog contacted them for inputs on how best a runner recovered from COVID-19 may handle his / her return to the sport. They paraphrased their response to questions sent, by first pointing out that COVID-19 is a new disease and since guidelines are still evolving, they should not be considered as mandates. The guidelines are based on expert opinion and available data.

In general, the quest for every runner when it comes to injury (an illness is similar to it) is to stay within the repairable realm and not provoke irreparable damage.  So, to begin with, even if used to an active lifestyle, asymptomatic patients should stop exercising for at least two weeks. This would anyway coincide with the isolation and quarantine period they are advised once they test positive. Mild activity to keep a sense of movement going is alright. Anything vigorous, which puts strain on the body or elevates heart rate needlessly, should be avoided. Exercising intensely may increase the risk of viral replication along with increased risk of myocardial involvement. Also, deep inhalation during exercise may help the virus to settle in the lower lobes of the lungs causing respiratory compromise.

Most active people turn to physical activity to boost circulation and feel better when they are feeling a bit low. But with COVID-19 in the equation, the results may not play out as hoped for. Being healthy, fit and strong may help you avoid some of the more severe symptoms of COVID-19 like Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), but it doesn’t make you immune to some of the more insidious effects of the disease like myocarditis. A German study published in JAMA Cardiology, dealing with a sample of people who had formerly come down with COVID-19, showed 60 per cent of individuals to have myocarditis after two to three months of recovery. Eighteen per cent of these had been asymptomatic individuals.

Individuals who had been COVID-19-positive with any degree of symptoms should seek a physician’s opinion before resuming physical activity. Symptomatic athletes – recreational to professional – have been surprised by the potency of the disease. They have struggled to reestablish old workout regimens; some have had a lingering battle with lung issues, muscle weakness and unsettling anxiety about whether they would be able to match their old physical peaks.  The physician will decide depending upon the severity of infection endured, the treatment availed and the accompanying ailments the individual has. Herein, the biggest concern at present seems to be myocarditis (seven to twenty three per cent as per various studies).  Therefore, in symptomatic COVID-19 patients, the recommended tests before a return to active lifestyle may include Cardiac MRI, 2D Echo, ECG and Serum Troponin plus lung function tests in individuals who underwent extended ventilation support. As many recreational runners are above 40 years of age and a lot of them have obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and even asthma, it’s advisable to get at least a 2D Echo done and get a cardiologist’s opinion before the workout regimen is restarted.

During this period, as the return to workout is planned, some form of movement, even fast paced walking – if the physician permits – will help to prevent the possibility of blood clots in the legs. Endurance runners tend to have lower heart rate. This makes pooling of blood in the legs easier; the tendency increases with COVID-19 infection. Further, individuals placed on ventilators and confined to bed, often lose between two and ten per cent of their muscle mass per day. Resorting to resistance training as the runner returns to his regular regimen would be a prudent step in this regard.

A general consensus seems to be the 50/30/20/10 rule as per the Joint Committee of the National Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. This is a four week-plan. After recovering from infection and ensuring that one is up to resuming physical activity, upon return to running, it is recommended that in the first week only 50 per cent of the previously followed peak mileage and pace be pursued. In the following week, depending on how the runner is feeling, the load may be raised to 30 per cent less from peak level; over the two weeks thereafter the gap with peak level may be further reduced to 20-10 per cent. All this, provided there is no adverse feedback from the body to the phased increase of workout.  In general, pay attention to how you feel. You need to be good at listening to your body. Chest pain and dizziness are the two symptoms where one should stop immediately and take a physician’s opinion. Shortness of breath and palpitations can also be due to the erosion of physical fitness caused by muscle loss and lack of training. Persistent muscle pain, unexplained fatigue, hitting peak heart rate unusually early in your run or having a hard time bringing the heart rate down – these must be evaluated by a physician.

(The authors, doctors Arati and Pravin Gaikwad, are experienced pediatricians who have also been endurance athletes for a long time. They have their own clinic and are co-founders of the Navi Mumbai-based runners group, LifePacers.) 

FREEDOM

Photo: Shyam G Menon

I don’t know about you, but the one thing I cannot live without is music.

It has been my constant companion through ups and downs in life.

Music complements the other thing I value greatly – freedom.  Increasingly humanity has shrinking respect for freedom. It is being swept aside by the march of money. There have been many songs about freedom. No I am not talking of patriotic songs. I am talking of songs that celebrate freedom as an attribute to be cherished without need for any cause. Freedom does not require a reason to be important; it is important as it is. Why else would the physical universe be so immense? Why else, when we are in chains, do we have the ability to close our eyes and find that same universe within?

Everybody has their favorite song evoking freedom. I don’t dig lyrics much. I am more somebody who identifies with songs because they attract aurally. You find release. For a long time – practically since the first time I heard it in the late 1980s when the album The Joshua Tree was released, U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For stayed with me, an anthem for existence. In later years, Traffic’s Dear Mr Fantasy became a favorite, especially the live version by Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton from their concert at Madison Square Garden with its soaring lead guitar. Amidst pandemic and lockdown, Chris Rea’s Set Me Free emerged another favorite. Hope you like it.

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

WFH DAYS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Among major shifts accompanying COVID-19 and lockdown was Work from Home (WFH). Initially it was heralded as the digital future. Now, we are worried if it may end up an annoying blend of neither the best of office nor the best of home.

Over the past few months, periodic interactions with friends and relatives threw up concerns about WFH; especially long hours of work given employee is anyway at home and available on call. The boundary between home and office has increasingly blurred. With time we may retract to a more enlightened form of WFH. However, there are challenges. Currently, there is more money in an inch of technology than a mile of human life. In world by money, we just can’t be sure what will eventually triumph. In the meantime, as with many things beyond our control, the best option we have is to laugh at our predicament.

The recent past has for some reason drawn me closer to the music of Chris Rea, the British rock and blues artiste. His debut album was in 1978. In the late 1980s, somebody gifted me his album: Dancing with Strangers. It had the hit song Let’s Dance. From then on, I have listened to his work on and off. But of late, I have grown to genuinely appreciate his style. A talented guitarist, he keeps his music simple. His compositions often evoke a sense of space and momentum (a good example being that beautiful song: Set Me Free). I like this idiom of peaceful, spatial and moving in a world becoming more and more complicated and congested.

Working on It was a song he released in 1989.

Here are the lyrics:

Oh how I’d love it girl, just you and me

Take the day and fly

But oh this job, it’s got the best of me

Tell you why, tell you why

Somebody above is in a desperate state

Some kind of urgency, the kind that won’t wait

I say tomorrow, he say today

And the man in my head well he tell me no way

Keep working

I got eight little fingers and only two thumbs

Will you leave me in peace while I get the job done

Can’t you see I’m working

Oh, oh I’m working on it

Oh, oh I’m working on it

Well they’re coming from above me

And they’re coming from below

Yea they’re in there right behind me

Everywhere that I go

And my buddy, he’s screaming down the telephone line

He say gimme, gimme, gimme

I say I ain’t got the time

Oh, oh can’t you see I’m working on it

Oh, oh I’m working on it…

A few days ago as I revisited this old song, I felt it could be an anthem for our WFH days.

Use good headphones, speakers.

Turn up the volume.

Bass matters.

Amidst WFH, shake a leg.

Enjoy.

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

RECORD HEAT IN DEATH VALLEY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Thanks to the famous Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley is known to running communities worldwide.

Among the hottest places on the planet, it is a desert valley in eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert. The Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the point of lowest elevation in North America; it is 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley is roughly 136 kilometers east-south east of Mt Whitney, which at 14,505 feet is the point of highest elevation in the contiguous United States (the US excluding Alaska, Hawaii and other offshore territories). The Badwater Ultramarathon commences in Badwater Basin and proceeds to Whitney Portal, the trail head for Mt Whitney at 8360 feet. Several runners from India have participated in the 217 kilometer-ultramarathon, considered one of the toughest events in its genre.

On August 17, 2020, the BBC reported that temperature in Death Valley hit a scorching 54.4 degrees centigrade. Subject to verification, this may be the highest reliably recorded temperature on Earth. It has happened amid a heat wave on the US west coast. There is mention on the Internet of a still higher temperature – 56.6 degrees centigrade – recorded in Death Valley in 1913. The BBC report says, some experts consider that to be unreliable data.

Death Valley is the dry desert it is because it lay in the rain shadow region of four major mountain ranges. This forces moisture laden air coming in the from the Pacific, to shed its water content as rain or snow on the western slopes of the ranges. By the time these air masses reach Death Valley there is little moisture left to grace the region as precipitation. Other factors also contribute to the dryness. They include the valley’s surface experiencing intense solar heating, the area trapping warm air, warm air from nearby regions moving in and the phenomenon of warm foehn winds. According to Wikipedia, the period from 1931-1934 was the driest on record with only 16 millimeters of rain received.

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

TOKYO OLYMPICS: INDIA’S MARATHON ELITE AND THE SEARCH FOR VIABLE OPPORTUNITIES TO QUALIFY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

It is only a handful of athletes. But what they have to attempt is a challenging task; match a longstanding national record and then improve it by another 30 seconds. All this must be accomplished in one or two races during the winter of 2020-2021. Will we set them up for it?

On August 12, 2020, the Paris Marathon became the latest mass participation event in running, to embrace cancellation for the year. It was initially postponed. In August, the organizers disclosed they had decided to cancel.

Earlier on July 28, World Athletics informed that the Virgin Money London Marathon, due to take place on October 4, is committed to working with World Athletics to promote the opportunity to athletes around the world and assist with their travel challenges so they can participate in London and achieve their Olympic qualifying time. It was also mentioned that World Athletics will try something similar with the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon. The move followed concerns over the lack of qualifying opportunities that may be available for road athletes before the qualifying period for the rescheduled Olympics, finishes on May 31, 2021. On August 6, the organizers of the London Marathon informed that the 2020 edition of the race will be held as an elites-only affair; there will be no amateur runners participating.

The cancellation of races worldwide, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has become a problem for marathon runners wishing to qualify for the Olympics. While the decision of World Athletics to work with the London Marathon and the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon is related to this issue, two events don’t satisfy the need of all athletes. The London Marathon is scheduled for early October while the one in Abu Dhabi is normally held in December. To utilize these events properly, you have to be in good form by then.

The qualifying time for the men’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics is 2:11:30. This means that any Indian male marathoner seeking qualification has to smash the longstanding national record of 2:12.00. On March 17, 2019, T. Gopi had completed the Seoul Marathon and qualified for the 2019 World Championships (Doha, Qatar) in 2:13:39. That is the closest anyone has come to the 1978 national record set by the late Shivnath Singh in Jalandhar. As of August 2020, some of the country’s top marathoners were at various stages of recovery from injury. This blog spoke to Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi and Srinu Bugatha – all of them elite marathoners; two of them have represented India at the Olympics, all three have been podium finishers in the Indian elite category at some of the country’s best marathons including the Mumbai Marathon. They felt that targeting the London Marathon of October 2020, as opportunity to qualify, wouldn’t be the best option.

Recovering from injury and regaining the old tempo in training takes some time. Additionally, under normal circumstances an endurance athlete shifts between races in the plains, training center and locations for special training like those at high altitude, seamlessly. With pandemic protocols, these inter-state movements risk quarantine. The current period is thus far from perfect environment. Given the training regimen they have been traditionally used to, two to three months of diligent preparation suffices to get back to shape. But it is already past mid-August. October is too close for them to return to form, especially for a national record-breaking effort. Going by the options World Athletics presented in their July statement, this shrinks window of opportunity to the ADNOC Abu Dhabi Marathon, which has the advantage of being in India’s neighborhood. The problem then is – if you fail there, you are out; unless, more windows of opportunity open up, ideally in the first quarter of 2021.

The general tenor one could glean in race organizing circles in India was that by the last quarter of 2020, some level of activity should return to sports. Even if India chooses to be conservative in recommencing sporting activity (at the time of writing, the country had cumulatively recorded the third highest number of COVID-19 cases worldwide), for needs like top talent wishing to qualify for the Olympics, opportunities to run may open up in the Middle East. As one race organizer said, “ If ADNOC Abu Dhabi is held as scheduled, it may encourage the Dubai Marathon of January to examine its options.’’ But there is a catch. Nobody is saying yet that when events revive it will be in the mass participation format. The London Marathon – like the 2020 Tokyo Marathon of March – will be an elites-only affair. Asked if the elites-only model may work with events in India, the race organizer admitted it will be tough because sponsors may not be interested during financially difficult periods like the present. Same could hold true elsewhere in the world. If you want to help athletes qualify for the Olympics, then either a sponsor has to be sufficiently supportive or a national federation – like World Athletics did – must notice the situation, go the extra mile and make those opportunities happen. “ An additional window will be helpful,’’ K.C. Ramu, former elite marathoner and now Srinu Bugatha’s coach, said.

Amid times of international travel deemed risky and need for athlete to preserve health as best as possible, domestic opportunities to qualify for the Olympics attract. Unfortunately, the Mumbai Marathon (January) and the New Delhi Marathon (National Marathon / February) which have traditionally served as qualifying grounds for various events, are not perceived as well-suited for the purpose. Mumbai’s weather conditions have rarely been ideal for top notch running. The city marathon’s course has a hill; it is not the flat, fast type that runners seek when chasing a qualifying mark. Delhi has better weather conditions than Mumbai in the winter months (keeping aside the problem of air pollution) and a flatter course. But there is a portion of the course having too many twists and turns. This assessment won’t sit well with some observers. And there is a valid reason for it – every male winner (overall winner) of the Mumbai Marathon since 2011, has timing below 2:11:30. The latest course record, set in January 2020, is 2:08:09. What are Indian athletes complaining of then? All one can say in defence, is that as a country we are not yet in the same league as those churning out such timings although Shivnath Singh touched 2:12:00 once. Additionally, Singh’s record, unbroken since 1978, makes breaking it a project of sorts. “ How many Indian athletes are we talking of as those eligible to try qualifying for the Olympics; four or five at best? It makes better sense to have them fly overseas and qualify,’’ the race organizer said. He clearly has a point, if decision is left to economics and scale.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

However, a race to qualify for the Olympics doesn’t have to be as elaborate as your regular road race. The upcoming London Marathon for instance, has an altered blueprint for 2020.  According to the statement of August 6, put out by the event’s organizers, “ elite races for men, women and wheelchair athletes will take place on an enclosed looped course in St James’s Park in a secure biosphere (a contained safe environment like that of Formula 1 and England cricket) with times being eligible for Olympic qualification.’’ This means the course can be smaller than usual and repeated as a loop to meet the distance required; something similar to Eliud Kipchoge’s iconic run in Vienna last year, when he dipped below the two hour-barrier. A well-organized race, oriented towards qualifying with pacers to ensure required momentum – this was the wish list. “ Even a good five kilometer-course that can be repeated as a loop will do. February-March should be the cut-off period, not beyond that,’’ Nitendra said. Depending on whether you can locate a good enough course, how motivated a national federation is and how supportive sponsors can be, this should be feasible in India.

Amid pandemic will we go the extra mile for the marathon and a handful of our elite athletes?

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

SPORTS GETS A MENTION

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

After raising hopes in June ahead of its release, the National Educational Policy 2020 as currently available on the website of the Ministry for Human Resource Development, restricts mention of sports to little over a paragraph.

On Pages 12 and 13, under the sub-section titled Experiential Learning, the policy says, “ sports-integration is another cross-curricular pedagogical approach that utilizes physical activities including indigenous sports in pedagogical practices to help in developing skills such as collaboration, self-initiative, self-direction, self-discipline, teamwork, responsibility, citizenship etc. Sports-integrated learning will be undertaken in classroom transactions to help students adopt fitness as a lifelong attitude and to achieve the related life skills along with the levels of fitness as envisaged in the Fit India Movement. The need to integrate sports in education is well recognized as it serves to foster holistic development by promoting physical and psychological well-being while also enhancing cognitive abilities.’’

A quick perusal of the document did not reveal any reference to sports more prominent than this, elsewhere in the text. The Fit India Movement referred to in the policy was launched on August 29, 2019 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a nation-wide campaign aimed at encouraging people to include physical activities and sports in their everyday lives. The educational policy document (as available on the Internet) is divided into four parts – school education, higher education, other key areas of focus and making it happen. The reference to experiential learning including the paragraph on sports-integration is under school education. The part titled other key areas of focus, has sub sections devoted to professional education, adult education and lifelong learning, promotion of Indian language, arts and culture, technology use and integration and online and digital education: ensuring equitable use of technology. It had no sub-section on sports.

The National Education Policy 2020 received cabinet approval on July 29. On June 11, 2020 media reports had quoted the Union Minister for Sports, Kiren Rijiju, saying that sports is set to become part of educational curriculum.

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