“ SWIMMING HELPED ME CHANNELIZE MY ENERGY’’

Shubham Vanmali (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shubham Vanmali, 23, is a young swimmer from Navi Mumbai, currently attempting the Oceans Seven challenge in swimming. It consists of seven open water channel crossings worldwide. Shubham has done three, he has four to go. Earlier, he accomplished open water swimming’s Triple Crown – which involves crossing the English Channel, the Catalina Channel in California and completing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Mid-June, Shubham was at his home in Nerul (a suburb of Navi Mumbai), setting up a business and getting a book authored by his parents to the stands. He spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:

What brought you to swimming and how did swimming help you tackle the learning disability you faced as a child?

It started when I was seven years old or so and was diagnosed with asthma.

The doctor suggested that swimming may help deal with asthma; that was how I started swimming. The learning disability part came later. Nobody knew of it till I was in ninth standard at school. I was getting below-average scores. I was scraping through in exams. That was when the movie Taare Zamein Par released. It caught my parents’ attention; everything looked similar to my state – the spelling mistakes, I could answer the questions my mother asked me at home but I couldn’t write the same properly during an exam. She was like – this might be the case. We went to Sion Hospital and from there to Drishti Centre, where the results came positive. I had dysgraphia, dyslexia and from before, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  The diagnosis was an eye opener for everyone. My swimming was also getting affected by it. I wasn’t a good swimmer. I was quite average. My parents – my father played volleyball and my mother played kabaddi – had represented the state in their chosen sport. They were supportive. They never pushed me. They told me: keep swimming, you will eventually find your way. Even in studies, they didn’t push me.

For four to five years I meandered in swimming with no medals, not even a district level one. Then, I got a medal at the district level. That is considered late for a swimmer in India. Usually in swimming, if you don’t produce results in a couple of years, your parents change your sport. I don’t have a competitive nature. I used to enjoy water. I was a chubby kid. After I got that district level medal, my father started monitoring my diet and fitness.  In one month or so, I became really fit. I graduated from district to zonal level in swimming. Then they realized that as the distance to swim increased, the better I performed compared to others.  That was when we thought of open water swimming. It changed my life, providing me a huge amount of confidence. I had terrible stage fear. Now I have no problem talking to a crowd of people. Open water swimming changed my personality. If I had not come to swimming I would be still struggling with everything. That’s why I tell parents to get their children involved in sports. It will even help with academics because a child that is into sports is more alert.

Shubham with his coach, Gokul Kamat (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Could it have been any sport for you or was it the combination of swimming and water that worked well in your case?

It could have been any sport but I think swimming was perfect for me. It helped me channelize my energy. Plus swimming for ten hours plus is so challenging; it is very calming, quite like meditation – you are doing only one thing, you are not talking to anyone. That helped to calm me down.

Most people would consider swimming 10 or 20 laps in a pool as sign of endurance. You measure it in terms of kilometers and hours. Was there something about endurance which fascinated you, given as a swimmer you could have opted for the speed events if you wished to?

I used to wonder about that myself – I am not such a good pool swimmer but how come I became a good open water swimmer? Distance is not the difficult thing in this entire scenario. The ability to persist; sustain the pain for so long – that is the real challenge. There is a race in Bengal, which is a long one of 80 kilometers or so. But you swim with the current. As I see it, the real differentiator in open water swimming is not distance; it is the ability to sustain effort. The challenges you face in open water swimming range from current to sea creatures. There is jellyfish, there are sharks. A shark won’t do anything to you. But seeing a seven foot-shark below you in the water can mentally freak you out.

Cold water – that is another challenge. There is the issue of being in cold water for long. It is alright if you are in cold water for an hour. But maintaining body temperature for long and ensuring alongside that you don’t swim so fast as to tire and invite hypothermia – that is tricky. So distance is not the problem. Once you can swim at a stretch for six hours, your aerobic capacity is good enough to tackle long distances.  The game starts when it comes to sustaining this in open water, in the middle of the sea. The body has the ability to adapt. The game depends on where your head is in the equation.

You grew up in Navi Mumbai, a township that has at present, a small community of open water swimmers. The Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim is often featured in local media. Did the availability of this community help you in embracing open water swimming?

I did my first Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim in 2014. At that time, the community was not in place. I got into open water swimming because of my father. He had grown up reading about Mihir Sen and Taranath Shenoy. When he asked me whether I wanted to try it, I said yes. I was however imagining differently. When he mentioned English Channel, I said okay because I was thinking more of the chance to travel overseas. When I reached there, I understood what I was getting into! Besides my father who nudged me into open water swimming, what has helped me continue the sport is the global community of open water swimmers. It is so small and great at once; the people in it are amazing.

Young man and the sea (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Let me take you back to the boy with learning disability you once were. What sort of mind are we talking of here – is it a restless mind that requires a lot of stimuli like a sport perhaps, to calm down and focus or is there something in that state of mind which lends itself naturally to pursuits like long distance swimming?

It depends from person to person. In my particular case, I suspect I made my condition into an advantage. If I am doing something, I get easily distracted. My mind would be somewhere else. In open water swimming, an activity in which progress to destination is anyway time-consuming, if you sense every second go by – that can be crazy. I, on the other hand, was prone to being naturally distracted, thinking of other things in my head. That worked to my advantage.

Many open water swimmers from Mumbai begin with the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. You have done this a few times; you have also swum elsewhere in the world. How bad is the water quality here and how do you cope with it?

(Laughs) It is unfortunately something you have to put up with.

I look at it from a different point of view. Over here, swimming that distance is not a big deal at all. Believe me – it’s easy. I am the only swimmer as yet, who has done Dharamtar-Gateway in both directions. Somewhere in between, the tide helps you. I am not taking it away from anyone but Dharamtar-Gateway is kind of easy compared to other such swims. I had a hydrographer in my team; so I know what I am talking of. The tough portion of this swim is in the middle near an island, where the current changes. But you do it. The difficult thing is not the distance. The first time I did this swim, I told myself: I am not getting into that water ever again. The reason I swim it is for the mental part – the irritation of being in such water. The water is salty, conditions are humid and your throat feels nasty from the water going in. Your throat swells up and you have difficulty eating for a week after that. It hurts a lot. Mentally, the swim frustrates you. That training helps me in my swims elsewhere. Aside from the cold, waters elsewhere are a pleasure. The difference in pollution levels is huge. I swam around Manhattan in the US. The president of the local swimming association told me: let me warn you, one out of every six swimmers gets some bacterial infection because the city’s waste comes into these waters. I saw the water and I was like, this is nowhere near what I have swum in; so it’s not going to be a problem at all. So yeah, the difference is huge (laughs).

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

When did the Oceans Seven project start and what triggered it?

It started in 2014. Our first goal was the English Channel and later, the Strait of Gibraltar. We wanted to give these two a shot and then later, we got to know of the Oceans Seven. I wished to do all the seven. It isn’t for an award, it isn’t competition – it is just something I love to do. I love being out there and testing myself.  At some points of the journey, I have been close to the breaking point; even close to death. But the adrenalin rush keeps me going. So far I have done three of the swims involved. There are four more to go (for more on Shubham and the Oceans Seven, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/shubham-and-the-oceans-seven/).

Are you following a schedule?

We had a schedule for this year. But then, it has run into a problem because of my shoulder injury. We are currently in discussions with my doctors to find the best way ahead. We need to find out how long it will take to heal and then train my way back to the levels of before. Every time I return from a break, I have to work my way back up from zero. I have been in this situation multiple times. Swimming is a skill and you have to repeat a skill over and over again to drill it in. When you lose the feel of water, return to form is time-consuming. The time it takes to get back to where you were depends on your mental state. It is all in your head. If I am calm and focused, it takes me a month to reach the point where I can start working on my aerobic capacity again.

When you are on the verge of launching off into one of your long swims, what do you base your decision on – your physical fitness as ensured by the training you put in or how good you feel in the head?

It’s both. It’s both mind and body; I don’t attempt with a deficit in either. I don’t want to go in with the doubt: what if? I don’t go in half prepared and once I commit to a swim, I give it everything. Also remember – these channel crossings are a big deal for me. There is a lot of money involved in each of these attempts. My parents support me. I don’t have any sponsors.

What has been your experience with sponsors?

I understand the sponsor’s perspective of what I am doing – it is not a spectator sport. It is not entertainment. It is not something you would wish to watch on TV. However I am still trying to engage people.  For example, we have just launched a book in Marathi, to be soon followed by one in English. The sole purpose of the book is to help parents understand how to help their children should they be suffering from dyslexia. I hope that also puts the focus on what I have done so far, coming as I do from a childhood affected by dyslexia. With sponsors, you have to provide them a return on investment. Right now, if a sponsor invests in me, I have something to give back – I have my book, I have my YouTube videos, I have my Instagram account. Earlier, I had nothing to give back. But now, I do. Incidentally, India is known globally in open water swimming. People overseas know Indians as endurance swimmers.

The book in Marathi, written by Shubham’s parents, Deepika and Dhananjay Vanmali. Soon to be published in English as well, the book tells their journey with a child suffering from learning disability and at the same time, wishing to excel in sports. It also serves as a primer for those venturing into open water swimming, providing the contact details for relevant swimming associations here and overseas.

One of the things you notice nowadays is how Indians seem to fare better in endurance as opposed to disciplines demanding speed or qualities of that sort.  From where do you think is this fascination for endurance, coming?

Indians are good at enduring suffering.  We can endure a lot. We have been brought up that way. We know what struggle and pain is. That gives us raw material to work with when it comes to endurance sports. But having said that, I must add – we are making good progress in other attributes like speed.  There are good sports training facilities – a couple of them in Bengaluru for instance – which have come up. So I think the game is going to change.

What is the ideal sponsorship that works for you? Is it one entailing return on investment or is it something cast on the lines of a grant, wherein the burden of investment return isn’t there?

I would say I prefer a company that is looking for a return on investment. That gives structure to the whole deal. It makes it sensible for others also to get involved.

In the swimming you did so far, which was the most challenging stretch?

The swim around Angel Island, off San Francisco was quite tough.  The current here is so powerful that at some points I made no progress. I was swimming but not covering any distance. There was also the issue of being thrown off course and on one occasion I found myself being borne by the strong current towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  There were times when the team contemplated calling off the swim because I was well past the longest time taken for the swim. That is unusual for me as I am a fast swimmer – I hold the fastest time among Asians swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar; 16 kilometers in three hours, 16 minutes. The Angel Island swim was roughly the same distance but I had been more than seven hours in the water. Luckily I had trained earlier in these waters and knew when the current would change. I just had to hold out. Slowly the current changed and I ended up finishing the swim.

During all this I had no idea how much time I had taken. I would have my feed (nutrition offered from support boat, which must be had without touching the boat) but there wasn’t much conversation. There is no point asking for the time because if there is bad news in it, you end up getting very disappointed. It can shatter your morale.

Do you ever inquire about the time while you swim?

I generally don’t. I prefer not knowing what’s going on. You are sustaining so much pain and then suddenly you get some bad news, in an instant you will drop off.

From the Angel Island swim, off San Francisco (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In the case of a marathon, it is very common to find runners looking at their watches to know the time while running. Why is it so difficult in the case of a marathon swim? How is exhaustion in long distance swimming, which engages the whole body, different from how you feel exhausted while running?

It is way beyond the conventional description of exhaustion.

After swimming long distance, you can feel every single muscle in your body hurting. While swimming, the water is so cold that you don’t get as much inflammation in the body as you would in warm temperatures.  You also don’t get the palpitation that runners do. We don’t end up breathing heavily as in running. What we feel is pain. It is an experience of pain because all the joints and muscles have been continuously working. Pain is what we cope with.

Have you tried to transfer the endurance you gained from swimming to any other sport within the family of endurance sports?

No. I am a bad runner. Anything other than swimming – I really suck at it.

Because you are a good swimmer, a triathlon wouldn’t attract you?

No, because the swimming part in a triathlon is very small. I may be able to do cycling. But running is a big no for me. I have my thoughts of doing something very extreme and pushing my body to the point where I wonder whether I can sustain it or not. There is much for me to explore in swimming. The number of swims I have done so far is a decent number as regards open water swimming projects. But in places like the US, there is a lot more to do. There are swims, which people have tried and failed. I want to try those swims; swims of the Angel Island sort.

Shubham; from the Catalina Channel swim. Swimmer can be seen in the water, kayaker keeps watch (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

You spoke of your shoulder injury. How did you get that?

The shoulder injury goes back to the Catalina swim in California. While training for that a tendon got pinched. I still managed the swim – it took me 10 hours, 42 minutes to do it. This was in 2015. After that I took a break for a year. I then went to attempt swimming across the North Channel in Ireland but that didn’t go as expected. After 13 hours in the water, I became hypothermic. My body grew bloated. We had a swimmer – he was a good friend – overseeing my safety in the water. I lifted my head to see ahead and noticed that only 3-4 kilometers remained to complete the crossing of the North Channel. But no sooner than I looked up, I blacked out. If you lose a body in the open sea, it is next to impossible to get it back. I started to sink. Luckily, my friend pulled me out in the nick of time. It was tough for him to do that because I had bloated up in the water due to excessive work and become heavy. I wasn’t in my senses for 30-40 minutes.  North Channel is the coldest of the channel crossings constituting Oceans Seven.

I took a break after this swim. I tried to attempt it again but the weather was bad and there was no good window of opportunity available. Once the break following the North Channel attempt got over, I resumed my swimming. But the shoulder injury came back. I swam Gateway-Dharamtar. I was doing well. There comes a time towards the end of this swim when the water becomes really calm. I swam fast at this stage. Then at a certain point, my shoulder made a cracking sound and thereafter it began hurting. I was now struggling to swim. I stopped using my right arm. I was set to finish that swim in five to six hours, which is a really good time for a distance of 35 kilometers. But I ended up taking seven hours. I was very disappointed. We consulted doctors. There were two tendons involved in the damage. To reduce the pain, I had to take an injection to the shoulder joint. That was the state in which I proceeded to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim.

At Cabrillo Beach, California (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

You mentioned how supportive the open water swimming community has been. What would you tell a fellow open water swimmer stepping out from India to try big projects like you did; is the presence of this community of fellow enthusiasts comforting?

It is comforting, very comforting.

When I went to swim the North Channel in Ireland, I was all by myself. The crew for my swim, who I had assembled myself, backed out at the last moment. So, there was this lady swimmer – her name was Ruth McGuigan, she was captain of the Irish water polo team – she agreed to be my crew. After I was pulled out of the water following that incident of hypothermia during the North Channel attempt, she took me home. She told her husband that I would be staying with them for a while till I recovered; they even told me to stay there in case I wished to explore the possibilities of a second attempt. I stayed with them for almost a month. They helped me a lot. They treated me like their own son. The water polo team she was part of, they were open water swimmers too. They went on to set a new record for crossing the North Channel in the relay format. Ruth helped me cope with my failed attempt at the North Channel. She told me that the next time I come to Ireland to try the North Channel, I should stay with her. The other incident was – there was this American swimmer who completed North Channel a couple of days after my attempt. He became a good friend. He told me that when I come to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim, I should stay with him. He took me in just like that.

We are tutored to define our world in terms of the coordinates of our origin; the language we speak, the place we hail from, the culture we belong to etc. How does it feel to have your world mapped in terms of a shared craziness, a shared passion?

It feels amazing. It is liberating (laughs).

I am really fortunate to have such a thing in my life.

I don’t take it for granted at all.

There are so many things I learnt doing this, than just swimming. For example, Steve Walker – the person I stayed with in San Francisco – is not just a successful swimmer; he is successful in life too. Steve has done six of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. He runs a few IT companies.  He used to drop me every morning to the beach. San Francisco is an expensive city to stay in. I would have gone bankrupt had I footed the bill myself. I used to travel to Steve’s office. It was an amazing place where people actually liked to work; they were willing to help. That is not the case over here in India. I learnt much from these visits. There was this club called South End Rowing Club in San Francisco; I was a guest there. There are not many Indian open water swimmers in San Francisco. The club was quite helpful.  There are very few instances in open water swimming when I found people being terribly competitive. There is competition but it does not get carried around everywhere.

I think part of the reason for this is that it is a community with a lot of grown-ups and consequently an element of maturity.  In the world of running, the ultramarathon crowd typically tends to be older than those running the regular marathon. It is the same in the case of endurance swimming. Looking back, maybe that’s also why a youngster like me got treated so well! You feel welcomed. It is a chilled community that does not tend to judge. Had it been composed of only young people, I suspect it would have been very competitive.

Shubham (far right) with his family; (from left) his sister Siddhi, who used to be a competitive swimmer in her school days, Dhananjay and Deepika (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page).

In India, swimming is still a niche sport. What do you think can change the trend and bring more people into swimming?

First of all – more swimming pools.

Second, it is not just enough to have swimming pools; you must have pools that you can train in.

At many of the pools we have, access is only for the members of that given club and the swimming is chaotic with people going up-down, left-right.  In contrast, a pool like the one at Fr Agnels in Navi Mumbai, where I train – that pool is meant for training. The swimmers swim in a circular pattern with each lane segregated on the basis of swimmer’s speed. It is not a pool to goof around in. It is one of the rare pools in India. We need more such pools to train in. Once that training environment sets in, the sport will pick up and we will begin producing better swimmers in the lower age groups. Right now what you are seeing is that a lot of swimmers come into the lower age groups but only very few sustain the effort to reach open category. Many fade away due to personal disinterest and disinterest caused by the environment in which they swim. We also need more experienced, educated coaches.  Further, openness to try counselors and psychologists will help. I have been going to a sports psychologist for years. She has helped me change.

Finally, we need more patience at the parents’ end. That can make a big impact. Indian parents lack patience. When you reach the tenth standard you are forced to focus completely on academics, you give up other interests. The thing is – once you take a break at that stage, it is difficult to regain the momentum. People try to get back after tenth standard, they find it mentally tough. And even if you succeed, you hit another wall in the twelfth standard, which is the next point of reckoning in academic terms.  I would prefer a flexible education pattern. I wish we could borrow from how schools and colleges overseas manage talent in sports. If you don’t start seriously at the college level in sports, it is difficult to build it up later.

Indians – parents included – are prone to ask: what will you get out of this? You have gone into open water swimming in a committed way. How will you answer the classic Indian question?

I know I will not get my bread and butter out of swimming. I am working on something else, which will address my need for income.  I swim because I love to swim, because I am passionate about it. Swimming has helped me be a person who can have a perspective in life.

Your personal preference is to keep your sport as your bread and butter or avoid doing so?

I would like to avoid having the sport I love as my livelihood. That would make it a job. I don’t want it to be a job.

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

THE UNUSUAL TUITION

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tuition classes are common throughout India. For many, they provide the bridge to decent scores in academics, which are in turn crucial for professionally secure future in society valuing `well settled’ life. As common as tuition, is the practice of cycling to tuition. That ritual religiously done and exams passed, student on bicycle goes on to enjoy successful career in one of the lucrative professions. Its role in transport completed, bicycle fades from memory. Steed is mere extra in life’s cast. Academics is star. As a school student, Sreenath Lakshmikanth too cycled to attend tuition. In the years that followed, he became one of Kerala’s most promising bicycle racers. This is his story:

April, 2018.

The view from the promenade along Kochi’s Marine Drive has always been intimate. Willingdon Island and Bolghatty appear closer from here. The ship at the berth meant for oil tankers, bang in the middle of the backwaters, estuary for backdrop, loomed big like a truck parked in one’s driveway. We were an hour or so from sunset; the promise of its approach already embedded in the quality of light and the ambience caused by evening sky and water. The young man seated next to me on the park bench was built lean. Two hours earlier, we had begun the appointment looking for a café to sit and chat. With one of the fancy cafes he knew closed, he decided to dispense with embellishment and cut to the chase: what do we need? We need a place to sit and talk; period. There seemed no doubt in his head of the eventual, functional choice – park bench by the backwaters. There was the ship, the port, the calmness of water and if freelance journalist still sought stimulation for grey cells, a vendor or two always in the neighborhood, selling tea. I guess if you want to do something in life – much as, all that good conversation needs is a quiet place and occasional stimulant for wakefulness -you have to weed away the distraction and focus on that which matters. Sreenath Lakshmikanth knows it. Among attributes that strike you about Kochi is lack of space and heavy traffic. Sreenath is cyclist despite that.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

Born in May 1996, Sreenath hails from a Konkani speaking-family settled in Cherthala, a town some 30 kilometers south of Kochi. His father is an astrologer; his mother, a housewife. His brother works as a chef. Although keen on sports at school, his progression was hampered by his size – he was small. “ I used to play games. But when it came to being selected to play for the school or go for tournaments, emphasis was always on size. I never figured in selectors’ imagination,’’ Sreenath said. There was however a quirk in Sreenath’s geographical location. Cherthala was part of Alappuzha district; therein Cherthala lay to the north, bordering the adjacent district of Ernakulam. According to Sreenath, Alappuzha is popularly reckoned as the district with most cyclists in Kerala. He doesn’t know the reason for this belief but it is apparently there in background chatter in the state’s cycling circles. Cycling is human powered transport. From cycling’s perspective, there is one aspect that engages about Alappuzha. Its natural beauty as a district of rivers and lagoons also makes it a geographical oddity in Kerala. According to Wikipedia, except for some scattered hillocks to the east, the district has no mountains or hills. The terrain is largely flat. For Sreenath, life changed when he moved to eleventh and twelfth standards. He joined TD School at Thurvaoor; the place was 12-15 kilometers away from home.

For many years in South India, BSA SLR – a model of bicycle made by Chennai based-TI Cycles – had been popular. Sreenath’s father owned one. When Sreenath commenced attending school at Thuravoor, he began using the cycle for commute. Like in the case of many students, the commute by cycle was triggered by the need to attend tuition classes; he had classes in the morning and evening. That was how cycling crept into Sreenath’s life. It was collateral experience to the more important task of attending tuition. For Sreenath, sidelined at sport and needing an activity to call his own; cycling engaged. More than classes, it was the means of getting there that grew on him. As his interest in cycling evolved, the first graduation up the product chain happened. At a cousin’s house in Kayamkulam, he came across a road bike – a BSA Mach 1. Originally owned by the cousin’s neighbor who shifted to riding a motorcycle and later parked with cousin who didn’t use it, the cycle was idling. Already a tinkerer adept at dismantling and reassembling his bicycle, Sreenath packed up the road bike and shifted it to his house in Cherthala. It took him about a week to get used to the Mach 1 and its capacity to be ridden more aggressively compared to the SLR. By now Sreenath was also working at a coaching center that trained students appearing for entrance exams. The Mach 1 became his ride for trips to both school and coaching center.

Riding a fixed wheel bike (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

Kerala’s highways are a natural extension of the state’s overall layout, complicated however by explosive growth in automobiles. Roughly 600 kilometers long, Kerala is a narrow state with sea to one side and a spine of hills to the other. Save a few districts like Alappuzha, it is a land of ups and downs. In geographically narrow state with high density of population, roads are starved for space. The highway linking Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi (NH-47) is narrower than similar roads elsewhere. It hums with ever growing traffic. It was on this highway that Sreenath rode his Mach 1 daily. His morning session started at 5.30 AM; evening session was at around 8.30 PM. Regular cycling seems to have stretched his limbs in the growing up years. “ I put on some height. That was my first incentive to continue cycling,’’ he said.   The sessions at the coaching center were on Saturday and Sunday. It meant he was occupied through the week. The rigor was stepping stone to evolving a work culture, something that would come handy as the cyclist in him grew to proportions he couldn’t ignore anymore.

Following school, Sreenath joined Maharaja’s College in Ernakulam (Ernakulam refers to the eastern mainland portion of the city of Kochi) to do his BSc (Physics). He was determined to participate in sports. Still unsure of what to do in cycling, he tried his hand at running instead. For this, he and his runner friend George frequented the college’s well known ground in the city. One day, when he went to meet the physical education teacher, he noticed some bicycles kept in the room. They were track cycles sporting fixed wheel. The teacher was hesitant to let Sreenath use them. However during this phase, Sreenath was already cycling twice or thrice a week from Cherthala to college in Ernakulam and back. That’s a distance of 60-70 kilometers. His friends mentioned this to the teacher who relented and allowed Sreenath to have the bike. But on his first trip with the new bike, there was a chain-slip and Sreenath crashed injuring himself badly. Luckily the teacher didn’t see the mishap as reason to demand the cycle back. Instead, he gave Sreenath the name of a local coach in cycling – Louis Thomas.

Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth

Kerala’s potential in industry was for long stunted by its brand of politics. With the advent of new sectors like information technology, the trend is now changing. But for years, what industry survived lay clustered around Ernakulam (including the borderlands shared with Alappuzha and Thrissur), the bulk of it near Kalamassery.  The Kalamassery area was synonymous with factories like Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) and Premier Tyres (now part of Apollo Tyres). Unlike its attitude to industry, Kerala has always been sports-crazy. Some of Kerala’s companies were known names in sport. Premier Tyres and the Thiruvananthapuram-based Travancore Titanium for instance, were known all over India as good at football. Sreenath started training with Louis at the ground belonging to FACT. His companions during training were Louis’s daughters. Faster than Sreenath on the bicycle, they had represented their university and state. Louis advised Sreenath to stay in Ernakulam so that he would have more time to train. To set him up so, they needed to get the cyclist from Cherthala, a job in the city.

Pai Dosa in Ernakulam. This photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

There is only so long freelance journalist can stay without tea or coffee. Our conversation on the park bench at Marine Drive had progressed nonstop. Additionally when the tea vendors came, it had been at moments when the train of thought couldn’t be broken. When the chat ended, we went hunting for tea and snacks. As before Sreenath knew where to go. We crossed the road before the GCDA shopping complex, got onto Broadway, navigated the lanes between it and MG Road and eventually crossed MG Road. “ Here, this road,’’ Sreenath said leading me to a modestly big restaurant tucked inside. In Ernakulam, Pai Dosa is a well-known eatery. Much mentioned in local media, it offers several dozen varieties of the South Indian delicacy – dosa. We placed our orders and when I offered to pay, it was roundly refused. The eatery did not let Sreenath pay either; the meal was on the house. Back when he was looking for a job in Ernakulam so that he could train properly in cycling, it was at Pai Dosa that Sreenath found work. Over time, he served at tables, managed raw material supply and handled billing. Initially he stayed at the Maharaja’s College hostel. Work hours at Pai Dosa spanned 6 PM to 1 AM. Louis’s training started at 6 AM. Given the late hours he put in at Pai Dosa, Sreenath could report for training only by 7 AM. Training happened at the FACT ground and on Willingdon Island, home to Kochi’s port. Automobile traffic was less on Willingdon Island compared to bustling Ernakulam.

Following a district level camp in cycling, Sreenath headed for his first university meet held at S.D. College, Kanjirappally. According to him, M.G. University, to which Maharaja’s College belonged, didn’t have a robust cycling scene. The goal therefore was to somehow form a college team and take a shot at finishing well. As it turned out, Sreenath secured podium finishes in both the one kilometer and four kilometer-mass start disciplines. It was his first time on the podium in cycling. Finishing after Sreenath in the four kilometer-mass start was a cyclist from Aquinas College, Kochi. Milan Josy and Arun Baby, top cyclists from the region, belonged to Aquinas. Their coach, Jaison Jacob, took note of Sreenath and offered him a chance to train with Milan and Arun. In 2014, ahead of the state road cycling championships due in Thiruvananthapuram, an event called Tour de Kerala was held around Sabarimala. The circuit was approximately 80 kilometers long. Sreenath’s friend, Mario participated in it; Sreenath tagged along to support. It was Sreenath’s first exposure to a proper road biking event replete with the support infrastructure that goes with it.

Soon after this event, the state MTB championships happened at Malankara in Thodupuzha. Riding a rented Mongoose, Sreenath finished sixth in the under-18 category. However what he relished here was that he finished ahead of those dispatched by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training wing in Thiruvananthapuram. It was window to a small contest, one that is probably still on. You glean it in Sreenath’s conversation – an underlying tenor of competition with cyclists from Thiruvananthapuram, perceived as the lucky lot with training infrastructure provided by the state. In his mind, Kochi’s cyclists are underdogs doing well for exactly that – they are better at exploiting what they have and are fueled by the need to go out and discover what is missing. In the state road biking championships that followed the MTB event, Sreenath finished outside the podium, in seventh or eighth place. Jaison was watching from the sidelines. By now Louis had retired from coaching. Sreenath joined Jaison’s group; the coach there was Chrisfin Vincent, working with State Bank of India (SBI) and hailing from Thiruvananthapuram. Sreenath was now at that stage wherein he required a good road bike to practise seriously. Towards this end, he had been saving the money he was getting at Pai Dosa. It wasn’t enough. Jaison, some teachers from Sreenath’s college and a few well-wishers also contributed additionally. What they needed now was a bicycle retailer who would understand Sreenath’s requirement and budget.

The Bike Store; this photo was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

In 2009, Shuhaib Abdul Rehman – he was businessman, cyclist and founder of Cochin Bikers Club (which brought together cycling enthusiasts) – started a shop retailing high end bicycles. It was called The Bike Store and was located at Palarivattom in Ernakulam. It also had presence in Chennai. While Cochin Bikers Club still exists, by 2013, Shuhaib was close to shutting down the bicycle store. The Chennai outlet was eventually closed. The one in Ernakulam had by then become a hangout for the city’s cyclists. It had grown to something more than just shop; it was community. The Bike Store received a fresh lease of life when Paul Mathew, Vinshad Aziz, Pradeep Kumar Menon, Shagzil Khan and Abraham Clancy Ross  – all members of Cochin Bikers Club, came together as Velocity Ventures to keep the shop afloat. In 2015 Velocity Ventures was transferred to Verdant Outdoor Sports World. In due course The Bike Store moved to larger premises near Ernakulam’s Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium. Also coming aboard as investors at the store were Abhishek Das, Yakkub Shabeer, Dinesh Rajendra Pai, Ajith Varma and Abhishek Kashyap. Currently, The Bike Store is among leading retailers of high end bicycles in Ernakulam. “ Interest in cycling has picked up. When we started we had about 30 bicycles. Now we stock between 60 to 100 cycles,’’ Paul Mathew said. Jason used to get his gear from The Bike Store. Mario had also bought his bicycle from there. When Sreenath wanted to buy a road bike, it was to The Bike Store that he headed. “ That was the first time I met him,’’ Paul said. According to him, the shop helped the young cyclist identify the right model for his needs. They provided Sreenath a Lapierre road bike at a discount. “ It felt good. For the first time I had a proper road bike,’’ Sreenath said. It was the beginning of a meaningful association with The Bike Store.

Training with Jaison brought a twist; it was unavoidable. Because the training commenced at 6 AM and he had to present himself adequately rested and fresh for it, Sreenath was forced to quit Pai Dosa. He also shifted to staying in a house where some of the employees from Paul’s main business – he is a distributor for Godrej heavy equipment – lived. In 2015, Sreenath started training systematically. The training was on NH-47, to be specific, the stretch of highway between Ernakulam and Cherthala. Around this time, Sreenath, Milan and Mario went for a “cyclothon’’ in Chandigarh.  They packed their bikes and set off for Chandigarh completely overlooking the fact that it was January and North India lay bathed in winter’s cold. The trio from Kochi had no jackets, warmers or gloves. In Chandigarh they bought a pair of gloves and gave it to Milan, who was the best rider. The pace at the event was fast. Sreenath and Mario retired early. Milan hung on for most part of the race before suffering a crash. The trio returned to Kerala realizing the gap that existed between what was happening elsewhere and the level of cycling they had at home. Chandigarh was reality-check. Two things happened following this visit. They started participating in more competitions; they began attempting to complete all the races they participated in. It yielded result. At a competition in Coimbatore, Sreenath ended up fourth in the elite category. At the same event, one of his friends – Faizal P.J, finished third in the under-18 segment and was picked up by Scott Bikes for their team in India.

Sreenath (second from right) with other members of Scott’s cycling team in India. At extreme right is Nigel Smith, their coach. This photo was downloaded from the webpage of Scott Owners Club and is being used here with the company’s permission.

Towards the end of 2015, the state championship was held in Kozhikode. There, Sreenath secured a third place in mass start road race, in the under-23 category. It was the first time in several years that somebody from Ernakulam was getting a medal. Mario also gained selection in the under-23 category. The two of them proceeded to Thiruvananthapuram for a 20 day-training camp ahead of the nationals. Given their selection to camp, The Bike Store also pitched in – they were given carbon frame Carrera road bikes. The training at Thiruvananthapuram was held on NH-47 and MC Road; the latter proceeds from Kerala’s capital city to Kottayam. Beginning of 2016, the nationals was held at Nilakkal in Pathanamthitta district. In team time trial, Kerala finished fifth. In mass start, Sreenath unfortunately suffered a puncture and couldn’t complete the race. His first nationals; like that trip to Chandigarh earlier, was occasion to introspect and focus afresh. At a race in Lucknow which followed, he finished with the group – in top 15 – in the mass start. He was beginning to get a hang of things. He commenced training with the nationals of 2017 in mind. At the state championships held in the beginning of 2017, Sreenath secured first place in road race mass start, in the under-25 category. In January 2017, he also secured podium finish at two privately organized events in Gujarat and Chennai. At the MTB state championship, he finished third. Between MTB and road racing, Sreenath’s preference is the latter. But the 2017 road biking nationals was yet again a disappointment; he couldn’t complete the race with the group. Things changed however with a race in Coimbatore. At the MVS Criterium held there, he secured first place. Following this, in April 2017, Sreenath signed up with Scott Bikes to be part of their team in India.

Cycling in the hills of Kerala (Photo: courtesy Sreenath Lakshmikanth)

His first race for Scott was the Trivandrum Cyclothon, where he placed first. He secured podium finish at a competition in Bengaluru; he was also part of Scott’s winning team in time trial. At the nationals, which took place towards the end of 2017 he managed to finish with the group in the mass start road race. Following the nationals he went for an inter-university road cycling meet in Rajasthan, where he finished fifth. “ That gave me a lot of confidence,’’ Sreenath said. Then in December 2017, a setback occurred. At a MTB race in Ernakulam, he had an accident and fractured his arm. He was out of action for about six weeks. “ Nigel was great support then,’’ he said of Nigel Smith, who coaches the racing team at Scott. Until Nigel came along, Sreenath’s go-to person for information on how to train had been Chrisfin. In that stage, the focus had been on distance and speed. Nigel introduced the upcoming cyclist to several new things – among them, heart rate-based training, which showed Sreenath how to sustain an effort. He was also introduced to power training. During the phase of recovering from the fracture he suffered, all his training was done on a stationary bike. Emerging from injury, Sreenath’s first race was a time trial up the Thamarassery Churam (mountain pass) in Kerala’s Wayanad district. He finished first, representing Scott. That win was also Sreenath’s last outing with Scott. He shifted to Ciclo Team Racing, the bicycle racing team backed by TI Cycles and anchored by Bengaluru-based cyclist, Naveen John. Sreenath now rides a Ridley Fenix SL road bike. According to Paul, the initiative for Sreenath’s move to Ciclo came from Rajith Rathiappan, who runs a Track and Trail showroom (retail outlet for TI Cycles) in Ernakulam. Having cut his teeth cycling overseas including in Belgium, Naveen had told this blog earlier of how he thinks the road to Indian cycling’s future lay through racing in Europe (for more on Naveen John please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/23/the-electrical-engineer/). April 2018, seated on the park bench by Kochi’s backwaters and beholding an estuary traversed by ships sailing the world’s oceans, Sreenath was looking forward to his first trip to Europe with Ciclo.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: courtesy Sreenath)

“ My wish is to be a professional cyclist. In India, it is difficult to earn a livelihood from that,’’ he said thoughtfully. Attempting to be a professional cyclist is a courageous move. Those who know Sreenath well said that he does not hail from strong financial background. He also has a long way to go in cycling; for instance, he hasn’t yet had a podium finish at the nationals. The fifth position he secured at the inter-university meet in Rajasthan is the highest Sreenath has placed yet at the national level. Immediate focus therefore, is on improving his performance at the nationals. His heart seems to be in the right place. “ He is committed. If he has to train for certain duration on a given day, he makes sure he does that. I also remember him mailing leading cycling outfits overseas – all by himself and despite the challenges he faced in language – telling them of his interest in the sport and seeking advice on what to do,’’ Paul said. The Bike Store has been integral to Sreenath’s journey so far. Their technician Murukan T. R, is the one who tunes Sreenath’s bike. He accompanies Sreenath to all his races. The two are close. Given shortage of funds, Sreenath was requiring assistance for his planned trip to Europe. It is understood that help has begun coming in. In Ernakulam, Sreenath trains every week for 15-20 hours, of which 15 hours is the real training duration. From June 2018, he planned to ramp it up to a proper 20 hours. His weekly mileage in training averages 350-400 kilometers. My mind was still on how he trains, given Kerala’s roads and traffic. “ You can’t complain about it. There is no other way,’’ he said, adding that cyclist chooses the best available option and goes with it. According to him, Ernakulam’s traffic starts building up from around 7.30 AM. By then, a committed cyclist should have wrapped up his training for the morning. The bulk of Sreenath’s training now happens on the city’s Container Road, a long and fairly wide road used by trucks headed to the port’s Vallarpadam Container Transhipment Terminal.

In 2016, Sreenath completed his graduation. He majored in physics. Science courses require students to attend classes at the lab. Popularly called “ practicals,’’ they are unavoidable. On the other hand, spending more time in class is difficult if you are athlete devotedly training for sport. For his next step – post graduation – Sreenath thought with cycling in the frame. He decided to enroll for MA in Hindi; the choice was deliberate: a course in Hindi has no sessions in the lab. It means more time to train. “ Cycling is not just physical, it is also mental. It is among very few sports where a certain level of performance has to be maintained for a long period of time. That is what attracts me to it,’’ Sreenath said explaining why he continues to court the challenge and sweat for it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Positions secured at competitions are as mentioned by the interviewee.)        

SLOW TRAIN TO PONMUDI

View from the top of Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tucked away in the deep south of Kerala is a delightful little run; from Thiruvananthapuram to Ponmudi. I am an amateur runner. This article is a personal account. Treat it as such. For more on Ponmudi and its neighborhood please try this link to a three part series published earlier on this blog: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/08/09/a-trek-and-a-tea-story-part-1/)

I have a strange relation with Kerala.

Decades ago, when I was in school, the state’s language – Malayalam – was taught with a vengeance. Born Malayali, I was expected to be a master of Malayalam, including Malayalam literature, pretty early in life. I dislike anything shoved down my throat. Consequently, I grew up hailing from the state but with no identity founded in mother tongue. Instead, I rediscovered Kerala on my own terms, loving it in adulthood for its natural beauty; the sheer magic of being a land where you can travel from 600 km-long coastline to an equally long spine of high hills in three to four hours or less. Few places have such diversity, so easily accessed. For bonus, it was all green although a green battling to hold its beauty amid the state’s emergent bane – the garbage of its rampant consumerism ranging from an explosion of automobiles to trash piled at every turn. As for Malayalam, I won’t say I rediscovered it with the same fervor as bonding with the state’s geography. I am told I speak and write it better than before. The improvement amazes others; the effort I make to articulate well amazes me. Maybe back at school, the curriculum should have set aside linguistic chauvinism and let me explore geography first, as reason to know land and language.

As part of rediscovering Kerala, most trips home include a visit to the seashore, hills, backwaters or forests. At the very least, an extended ride stitching together a clutch of state transport bus routes. On such trips along state highways or between towns, from my bus window I watch mansions and properties priced beyond my wallet, pass by. That has been another route to banishment from home state – I can’t afford a place there. Elsewhere in the state, I soak in the greenery knowing well that its ownership is domain of wealthy agriculturists and where it isn’t, belonging to government. I am therefore visitor; sometimes I think, visitor everywhere. Even visitor in life, for as we are prone to say in our wakeful moments: who is going to haul all these assets along, when they die? But humans are empire builders. Try preaching the virtues of living light to emperors! Life is as you choose to live it.

From the last uphill stretch to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

One trip I often make from Thiruvananthapuram is to Ponmudi, a 3600 ft-high hill approximately 60 km away from the city. Positioned as a resort, it was once home to a healthy tea industry; the southernmost tea plantations of India. Now there are portions of neglected tea estate and an industry that is a ghost of its former self for a variety of reasons. What continues to attract people like me to Ponmudi, is the prospect of getting away from city, even getting away from ourselves. You take a bus from the Thampanoor bus stand, reach Ponmudi in two to two and half hours, spend some time on top and then take another bus back. Years ago, it was a quiet place. It is still relatively quiet on weekdays but with Thiruvananthapuram’s growing army of cars and bands of youngsters on motorcycles, the peace has begun crumbling.

On April 14, 2018 – the day before Vishu, the Malayali New Year – I ran to Ponmudi from my home in the city. I am sure there are many who did this before me; many who continue to do it. I did so for a few reasons. First, all my previous trips to Ponmudi had been in a bus or a car. I had long wanted to do the journey on foot. Second, I know my limitations as a runner. I am not cut out to compete or chase podium positions. I like the act of moving. I like running as a means of moving. I am also ready to mix running with walking when required; even walk if that be all I can do. A journey – as opposed to a race – appealed. Third, I find it increasingly difficult to make sense of the world I live in. I like it when I can shut out thoughts in the head. A long run helps you do that. I had imagined doing this run in advance. So before I left Mumbai for Kerala, as part of my regular running, I ensured that I did a few modestly long runs. Frequently prone to injury, this trip happened luckily in a phase wherein I kept injury at bay.

On April 14, I left my home in Thiruvananthapuram at 3 AM with just one goal in mind – don’t injure yourself. I promised myself to run slowly, be gentle – maybe even walk – on uphill and downhill sections and I pinched myself to remember well, the care to avoid injury my friend, Ramachandran of Coimbatore had described in his article about running 80km in Kodaikanal (please click on this link for that story: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/29/kodaikanal-by-trail/). I had a hydration pack with one liter of water, a few bars of chocolates, phone, wallet and a change of clothes. The pack had reflector strips; roads in Kerala are narrow and people tend to drive fast. I wore a bright red T-shirt and until the sun showed up, used a headlamp. As much as the run was self-supported, I was also determined to pause at roadside tea stalls for fuel and conversation. I wanted to get a sense of local life. The first such pause was on the outskirts of Nedumangad, where a tea shop that was just opening for business gave me a big glass of water to drink (the water in the hydration pack, I reserved it for use on the final ascent to Ponmudi). Twenty minutes later at another tea shop, I had a quick glass of tea. At Tholicode, roughly 30 km from Thiruvananthapuram, I bought a bottle of ice cold water to drink and wash my head and neck with, for the April heat had set in early and strong. I reached Vithura, about 37 km from Thiruvananthapuram, by 7.15 AM. There I took a half hour-break. The tea shop I went to was already bustling with customers digging into their breakfast and it took fifteen minutes for my tea to manifest. Leaving Vithura around 7.50 AM, I again halted some distance away at a fruit shop. Its owner, who had just opened the shop for the day, said he would give me an orange. Thus fueled, I headed for Kallar at the foot of Ponmudi.

Road to Ponmudi. This picture is from near the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By now I was a little tired and needing effort to produce good running form. I must have been a sight, for one person from a group of laborers gearing up for their day’s work, trotted towards me imitating the hunched shoulders and slouch of an old man. It triggered laughter. I am happy I provided them reason for mirth although right then, I chose to ignore the group. About five to six kilometers before Kallar, a woman looked up from what she was doing and said loudly for all to hear, “ look, there is somebody running in from some far off place.’’ Her brief broadcast made me feel important and happy. I put on my best running form, jogged past the settlement and out of sight, relapsed to journalist’s slouch born from too many hours before the computer. In general, all through the run people left me alone. But deep down, knowing how much well-settled life and its frills count for social standing in Kerala, I suspected my running self was an oddity. Middle aged and pointlessly sweating it out on foot to Ponmudi; one man I checked with for road directions asked: why don’t you take the bus?

I reached Kallar by 9 AM. The sun was now out in full force and it was blazing hot. Kallar is approximately 45 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. The road from the capital city till Vithura is mildly hilly, from Vithura to Kallar it gets hillier, and from Kallar to Ponmudi, it is completely uphill for 15km. I had been mixing running and walking from just ahead of Vithura. From Kallar, given the heat, I decided to walk the uphill portion and not run. For the first eight kilometers or so of this final stretch, there are no small shops you can visit for a drink of water. I sipped from the hydration pack. Past this portion, you have small stalls opened by tea estate workers. At one of those shops, I met Muniyandi who busied himself making two glasses of lemonade for me while his friend, Appukkuttan, regaled me with great conversation. I love these small shops filled with produce from the local tea estate and the land these people live on. They sold tea, guava, rose apples (locally called chambakka) and, my favorite – sliced green mangoes served with salt and chili powder. I paid twenty rupees for the two big glasses of lemonade Muniyandi gave me. According to Appukkuttan, neither he nor Muniyandi had received salary for their work at the tea estate for the past several months. I remain utterly grateful for the lemonade they generously gave me notwithstanding their own troubles. It was a very warm morning.  These two men – the lemonade and conversation they provided – made my day. A little ahead, I met a group that had stopped to have tea. They said they had seen the running group I belonged to – Soles of Cochin. I was aware of Thiruvananthapuram based-Iten (another group of runners), who run up Ponmudi on a regular basis. I wasn’t aware of Soles of Cochin joining in. I told them that I didn’t belong to any of these groups and had come alone. We had another nice chat.

Ponmudi, view from the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

I was on top of Ponmudi, at the restaurant operated by Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), by 11.53 AM.  Technically they call this the lower portion of the apex of Ponmudi. But having witnessed the traffic congestion that sometimes happens in the upper half on previous visits, the KTDC restaurant had been my destination right from start. I sat down, took my shoes off and nursed my left sole, where a large blister was beginning to form. It woke me to a mistake in preparations – I should have packed in an extra pair of dry socks. Two youngsters who were speaking to the restaurant’s security guard (he knew all the running that had happened that day; he asked me for my account too) came to speak to me; the mother of one of them had been part of that day’s team run from Kallar to Ponmudi. The view from the top was an eye opener. My ever distracted brain held no memory of rolling hills from past visits to Ponmudi and I was staring exactly at that. Water, coffee and lunch later, I caught the 2PM bus back to Nedumangad and from there another bus to Thiruvananthapuram. With last fifteen kilometers walked, would I call my outing a run? Years ago one of the gifts Thiruvananthapuram gave me was introduction to blues music. Trains found mention in some of these songs – from just “ train” to “ lonesome train” and “ slow train.” With my huffing and puffing, I have always felt like a train engine on my runs. On the road to Ponmudi with people on cars and bikes whizzing past, I think I was slow train. One day, I will sing the blues.

Then, I committed a blunder.

After two days of rest, I returned to my daily running. Happy with my outing to Ponmudi and enjoying the roads of Thiruvananthapuram, quite empty early in the morning, I ran at a pace faster than sensible. Vanity got the better of me. I forgot that what had worked for me on the trip to Ponmudi, was being slow train. I forgot the caution Ramachandran had wisely shown. One hour later, I was home nursing a very familiar shin pain from the past. I knew I would be grounded for a month, at least.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All distance and elevation mentioned herein are from the Internet. All the photos used with the article were clicked a few days after the run, when I returned to Ponmudi for some solo time.)

ROHIT YADAV: NEW JAVELIN, NEW PHASE

Rohit Yadav training with the new javelin at his village (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet Yadav)

March 14, 2018.

“ Rohit is very happy,’’ Sabhajeet Yadav said about his son who has commenced training with a brand new javelin.

According to him, Bhasker Desai sponsored the Nemeth javelin; their friend Melvin made the necessary arrangements for sourcing the javelin and dispatching it. “ We collected it from Meerut yesterday,’’ Sabhajeet said.

Sabhajeet Yadav, a farmer from Dabhiya, Uttar Pradesh, is a well-known amateur runner with several podium finishes in his age category.

Rohit in action (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet Yadav)

Rohit is a former gold medalist in javelin-throw at the World School Games.

Asked about the new javelin and how it felt in training sessions, Rohit said that it made a lot of difference.

For more on Rohit and his journey so far, please scroll down to the article immediately preceding this report or click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/09/a-javelin-for-rohit/

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

A JAVELIN FOR ROHIT

In Dabhiya, Rohit Yadav with the homemade javelin he started out with (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet Yadav)

A promising young athlete, returning to sport after failing an anti-doping test, wants to procure a good javelin. This is an article on amateur runner Sabhajeet Yadav and his son Rohit, who was gold medalist in javelin-throw at the 2016 World School Games.  

March 1, 2018. Tucked away in the sports section of the morning newspaper was a report about a 29 year-old Indian athlete returned positive under anti-doping tests conducted by the newly set up Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU). The sport in question – yet again javelin-throw – reminded of another incident less than a year ago.

A farmer from Dabhiya in Uttar Pradesh, Sabhajeet Yadav, 62, is known in the world of Indian amateur running as a consistent podium finisher in his age category. He counts on the prize money he gets from running as additional income stream. One of his personal projects has been training his son, Rohit, to become an athlete of repute in the javelin-throw. Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Terminus is where this blog catches up with Sabhajeet. Having come for a marathon in town, secured a podium finish and with an hour to spare before train to UP departs, he would sit down for a chat and cup of tea. On some of these occasions, he had mentioned his desire to see Rohit participate in the Olympic Games.

Javelin-throw is one of the oldest disciplines at the Olympics. According to Wikipedia, it was part of the pentathlon at the ancient Olympic Games. In those days, it was judged for distance and target. Javelin-throw became part of the modern Olympics at the 1906 Intercalated Games held in Athens, an event that has stopped being counted as an official Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While we are used to seeing the javelin thrown with one hand, in the late nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, there was a phase when judging at competitions was based on the aggregate best a person could achieve throwing separately with the right and left arms. This practice featured at the Olympics just once, in 1912. After that, it faded. Three countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland – have dominated javelin-throw in the men’s category. They account for almost 50 per cent of the Olympic medals given out so far in the discipline, for men. Women’s javelin-throw was added to the Olympic program in 1932.

As interesting as the sport’s history, is the evolution of the javelin. For a long time, javelins were made of wood with a steel tip. In the 1950s, pole vaulter-turned javelin thrower, Budd Held of the US, introduced the `Held Javelin,’ which was hollow and aerodynamic. Its later models were made entirely of metal. These new javelins flew farther but they also tended to land flat, making for some landings that were difficult to measure accurately, Wikipedia says. Experiments to redesign started in the early 1980s. They were fueled by one more concern – the javelin was now being thrown by athletes so far that it threatened to exceed the dimensions of a normal stadium infield. In 1984, Uwe Hohn of East Germany (since unified with West Germany to become Germany) had set a record of 104.80 meters. The redesigned javelin, approved in 1986, saw its center of gravity moved forward marginally, the surface area in front of the center of gravity reduced and the same behind, increased. These innovations helped contain the distance traveled and ensure that the projectile landed stuck in the ground. Interestingly this design was also tinkered with in the competition to achieve longer throws. In 1991, the authorities outlawed javelins with serrated tails and reset records with retrospective effect.

According to his profile, available on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Rohit Yadav was born in 2001. News of him training in his village appeared in the media some years ago in a report following Sabhajeet’s podium finish at the Mumbai Marathon. The report engaged as window to the family’s drive and ingenuity. Unable to afford a modern javelin, Rohit trained with a homemade one. In times when the javelin’s design and engineering are as important as athlete’s ability to extract a world class throw, a homemade javelin is inadequate means to train. “ I made that javelin from bamboo. I had a photo of a javelin to guide me. I did not follow any established specifications about size, weight or anything like that. The crudely made javelin was not good for the hands. Rohit used it for two years,’’ Sabhajeet said. The path Sabhajeet and Rohit took, of making their own javelin, would be what India calls jugaad. Happening in underprivileged circumstances, jugaad addresses a need with none of the finesse or elegance that marks well made, well designed products.  What shows through is refusal to be stopped. The underlying curiosity shouldn’t be dismissed. It was the same curiosity – albeit in a different, more sophisticated environment – that yielded the Held Javelin.

Sabhajeet Yadav (left) and Rohit; the javelin in Sabhajeet’s hands is the one bought from Patiala (Photo: courtesy Sabhajeet)

Prior to the 1950s, nearly all the best throws in the world had been with javelins made in Finland, using northern birch. Budd Held, who was studying engineering at Stanford University, observed one day that one of his Finnish javelins traveled farther than the rest. As per a detailed account available on the Internet, Held studied that javelin closely, took accurate measurements and discovered that the front section of the javelin was slightly larger in diameter than the tail section. The wood in the front section was also bit softer. All this was probably an oversight in manufacture but the improved travel resident in that single specimen and subsequent analysis of it, was what led Held to come up with his own design – the Held Javelin. Training with homemade javelin didn’t stop Rohit from graduating through the ranks. It helped him reach state level-events, where better javelins were available for athlete. “ We then bought a javelin for Rs 12,000 from Patiala,’’ Sabhajeet said. By July 2016, Rohit had secured a gold medal at the World School Games with a throw of 72.57 meters. In May 2017, he got silver at the second Asian Youth Athletics Championship held in Bangkok.

Then disaster struck.

In May 2017, the media reported that Rohit had failed a dope test conducted by the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA); he had tested positive for the banned substance stanozolol and was set to be stripped of the silver medal he won in Bangkok. The news shocked Sabhajeet; it was keenly tracked by those in the amateur running community, many of who knew Sabhajeet. Eventually, Rohit was given a one year-ban. According to Sabhajeet, the ban is from May 21, 2017 to May 21, 2018. At the time of writing, Rohit’s best throw on record – as available on his IAAF profile – was 76.11 meters (for comparison, the national record is 86.48 meters set by Neeraj Chopra while the world record is 98.48 meters held by Czech athlete, Jan Zelezny). When we brought up the subject of Rohit a few months after he was banned from competing for a year, Sabhajeet was in tears, unable to handle the topic. He claimed his son was innocent and the family had no idea how stanozolol had got into him. Over time the setback appears to have got processed in the head. By the time we met him for a chat after the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (where he earned a podium finish for the seventh time), Sabhajeet was more hopeful and imagining the way ahead once Rohit recommenced competing at events (he would have to work his way up all over again). The father-son duo’s plan is to attempt the qualifying round for the 2018 Youth Olympics scheduled to be held in October in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “ The qualifying round will be held two months ahead of the Games. If he qualifies he will be sent for the Games by the government. As of now, he will continue to train here in the village. If he does well and we get a reliable coach, then he will be sent for training,’’ Sabhajeet said.

One of the things Sabhajeet would like to have for his son’s journey ahead, is a modern, competition-standard javelin to train with. The best javelins are manufactured overseas. According to data on the Internet, leading names in the business include Nemeth Javelins (company founded by Miklos Nemeth, Hungarian athlete who was gold medalist in javelin-throw at the Montreal Olympics), Nordic Sport and OTE javelins. The javelin will have to be imported and Sabhajeet believes that the cost could be anywhere between Rs 80,000 to 100,000. Mumbai based-businessman and amateur runner, Bhasker Desai, has been Sabhajeet’s benefactor for several years. He has stepped in to do the needful. But the intervention, while addressing an immediate need, will have limited relevance because Rohit will move into the senior category in a couple of years’ time. There is disparity in specifications (mainly, weight) between competition javelins used in the senior category and the one, Rohit can use now.  A mechanism to support his journey in a more sustained fashion will need to be looked into.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are freelance journalists based in Mumbai. For more on Sabhajeet Yadav please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/11/28/a-farmers-dream/)

 

LADAKH RUNNERS: THE STORY IS IN THE DETAILS

Some of the runners from Ladakh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Park is an oasis in concrete jungle. The composite of park and sports complex includes among other facilities, a 400 m-running track. The place is right next to the sea. Its three days after the 2018 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM); over five years since `jhuley’ became part of the city’s marathon season-vocabulary. The runners from Ladakh – the team that visits Mumbai every year to run TMM – kept jogging on the track. They had one more event to participate in – the Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon – before returning to Leh and winter. Savio D’Souza, leading city based-coach sat by the track observing the runners. “ Their progress must be seen in the right perspective,’’ he said.

Cut back to four hours earlier, same day afternoon, when this blog caught up with the team at their apartment near Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT). In total, the 2018 team from Ladakh featured 10 people, nine of them designated runners. Four of the lot, two men and two women – among them, Jigmet Dolma and Tsetan Dolkar scheduled to be in the Indian elite category at TMM – had left Leh on November 13 for the annual pilgrimage to run at various marathons in India. Their first halt was the 2017 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM), which Jigmet completed in 1:26; Tsetan in 1:29. They then moved to Darjeeling, where they trained for a few weeks before traveling to Kolkata to run the Tata Steel 25K. At this event, Jigmet finished in 1:46; Tsetan in 1:49. From Kolkata, they reached Mumbai on December 21, exactly a month before the 2018 TMM. Meanwhile another group of six athletes left Leh on December 19. They joined the four already in Mumbai, on December 22. The team trained with Savio. At the apartment, Jigmet, Tsetan, Sonam Chuskit and Tashi Lodol put their heads together to estimate how many podium finishes the team must have earned at the various races they participated in, since the annual trip to Mumbai’s marathon commenced in 2013. They could recollect 9-10 podium finishes. 2018 has proved to be a reality check; a year of learning. Although their performance has been improving with experience, as of late January with the Thane race alone remaining, there had been only one podium finish – Sonam Chuskit placing third in her age category in the full marathon at TMM. Last year they had two podium finishes at TMM. At 2018 TMM, the team suffered an unexpected setback.

Jigmet and Tsetan run together. “ We are always alongside for much of a race, breaking free and going for the finish only in the concluding portion,’’ Tsetan said. Their timings betray the strategy. They are usually separated by a minute or two, sometimes seconds. On January 21, 2018 while running TMM’s full marathon, Tsetan had a packaged drink from one of the aid stations at the 21 km-mark. Five minutes later, she threw up. Although she footed it to the finish, she was not feeling good at all. Past the finish line, she threw up again. Needless to say her timing went for a toss; she finished in 4:21. Used to running with Tsetan, Jigmet’s progress was also disturbed. She had targeted hitting the half way-mark in 1:30 but found herself four minutes slower. “ I became tense,’’ she said. She finished in 3:13, placing ninth among Indian elite women. At the 2017 edition of the Mumbai marathon, she had placed third in the same category. “ Don’t go by the position she got. Jigmet’s timing has improved year on year; her timing at 2018 TMM was better than in 2017. The difference is in 2018, we had a much more competitive field,’’ Savio said. 2018 will witness two major international events in sport (relevant to Indian athletics) – the Commonwealth Games due in Australia and the Asian Games scheduled in Indonesia. Given this, the elite field in the Indian category at TMM, was quite competitive this year. For the Ladakhis, this is a reality check five years into their commencement of running TMM. “ For the first two years in that we had no training. We were merely running at events. Less than three years ago, we started training with Savio sir. It is only from then that we have had the benefit of structured training, including an idea of how to train in the months we are in Ladakh,’’ Tsetan said. Savio expects the field to be competitive for the 2019 TMM too, as by then Indian athletics would be in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  What makes Savio happy is the story in the details. First, ever since he stepped in to coach, the timings of his Ladakhi trainees have vastly improved. Second, a runner like Jigmet may have missed the podium at 2018 TMM but she improved upon her timing from 2017 and is within striking distance of runners ranked above her up to fourth and fifth positions. The gap in timings in this bunch is narrow. Savio maintained that his consistent instruction to trainees is to focus on one’s own performance. “ We wish to run again at TMM,’’ Jigmet said.

The Ladakhi team’s annual trip to run at events like ADHM and TMM has been put together by Rimo Expeditions, organizers of the Ladakh Marathon. According to Savio, there are valid reasons for the runners from Ladakh seeking to showcase their performance at TMM. Usually the progression of an athlete to national camp happens through a circuit that starts with selection at district level and then graduates to representing the state. When I asked the Ladakhi runners about this pattern of progression, they said that district level selection has either been erratic or when it happened, the graduation to representing the state wasn’t there. Ladakh is the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), a state troubled by militancy in its western half. The state is administered from the west; the bulk of its political imagination resides there. One of the runners I spoke to recalled that when he secured district level selection in Leh “ even officials from the Sports Authority of India were present.’’ Sports Authority of India (SAI) is known to do talent scouting. However beyond that selection, nothing happened. With that regular route of progression – district level-state level-national camp – blocked, sole option for Ladakhi runners is to vindicate themselves at the major marathon events of the plains. “ This is the avenue they have,’’ Savio said. He hopes the national camp selectors are watching these events. “ Hope’’ – that is the word he used. He saw the tough field his trainees faced at 2018 TMM as a necessary learning; part of the journey.

The team at Priyadarshini Park, with other runners (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

According to Savio, as dwellers of altitude, athletes from Ladakh have endurance. What they lack are two things. First, they need to get used to competition and competition in the elite category can be quite tough. “ There can be no comparison between how well I can train them using whatever I have at my disposal and how well an athlete in the national camp is trained, given the superior coaches and facilities they have,’’ Savio, a former national marathon champion himself, said. Second, the Ladakhi runners have to improve their speed. A significant drawback here is that Leh does not have a running track. “ Speed training on roads is not good for the legs. Roads are hard surfaces. If you don’t have a proper running track, you need at least a mud track. That’s what we are trying to locate in Leh so that once they go back to Ladakh these runners can continue their speed work-out. On my last visit to Leh, we shortlisted a couple of locations,’’ Savio said. For the interim, there is Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Park.

As marathon coach, Savio perceived other limitations too restricting runners’ progress. “ We need a few more races in Ladakh spanning a mix of distances from 10K and up. This will get more young Ladakhis interested in running,’’ Savio said. But even if you do that, it addresses only part of the issue. Once they finish their twelfth standard, most Ladakhi youngsters shift to Jammu, Chandigarh or Delhi – all at lower altitude – for university education. Ladakh does not have good education infrastructure. Although born to the mountains, a mountain dweller, if he / she stays away from the mountains for long, takes a while on return to altitude, to acclimatize and regain peak performance. Savio believes that if you are a competitive runner, one targeting national camp and so on, it makes sense to be in Ladakh, studying and training; not away from Ladakh losing a vitality the region gifts you. Most of the runners reaching Mumbai from Leh have been podium finishers at the Ladakh Marathon. “ If he goes back right now and runs the Ladakh Marathon, he may not get a podium finish. He has been away from Ladakh for a long time,’’ Savio said pointing to one of the trainees and highlighting in the process, the two distinct environments that need to be managed for Ladakhi runners to succeed.

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

DEFINING 50

Sundaresan Renganathan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Lieutenant Colonel Sundaresan Renganathan (Retd) set out to make his fiftieth birthday different and meaningful. This is his story.

Towards the finish line of the Western Naval Command Navy Half Marathon on November 19, 2017, two siblings ran side by side the last kilometer of their respective runs.

Saroja Narasimhan was completing her 10 km-race while her brother Sundaresan Renganathan, a retired army officer, was finishing his fiftieth marathon in fifty weeks with just that day between him and his fiftieth birthday.

Age is usually treated as just another number. But fifty has a special ring to it. For Sundaresan, 50 was sufficient reason to do something. “The thought that came to my mind was – why not run 50 marathons in 50 weeks and conclude it just before I turn 50?” he said.

On November 19, 2017, Sundaresan was up by 1 AM at his house in Kharghar, one of the prominent townships of Navi Mumbai.  Given the event he was running was a half marathon organized by the Western Naval Command, it became essential  that he run a half marathon in advance so that his day’s run would measure up to a full. Sundaresan’s run therefore started at 3 AM. He had the company of a few runners, who volunteered to run the distance from Navi Mumbai’s Vashi to Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, the starting point of the navy half marathon.

Sundaresan with his sister and brother in law, at a pre-race day function in Kargil (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Apart from Saroja, many of his family members, friends and batch mates from the army turned up to cheer him at the finish line.

“What can I say? He is my mentor. It’s great to run with your guru. He is my baby brother but in running he is my motivator and my guru,” Saroja said. Now 61 years old, she was nudged into running at the age of 58, by Sundaresan.

The idea of being a runner, reached Sundaresan late. While in the army, for 13 years he was posted to Jammu & Kashmir with stints in Siachen, Poonch, Doda and Srinagar. There was adequate trudging up and down the mountains that served him as endurance training. Amid this, over 1500 kilometres away in Mumbai, in 2004, the Mumbai Marathon, sponsored by Standard Chartered bank, made its debut. Sundaresan was posted at Pathankot then. His sister-in-law called him to tell him about Mumbai Marathon. “The idea got into my head,” Sundaresan said of how his running started.

Born 1967 in a family of six siblings, Sundaresan was not actively involved in competitive sports in his schooling days at AFAC School in Chembur, a suburb of Mumbai. Following school, he joined SIES College to secure a degree in chemistry. He was into sports including some bit of running in a rather informal way, nothing competitive ever.

From a stadium run in Delhi, the seventh marathon from his planned 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

While many of his classmates were making furious attempts at going overseas, mainly the U.S., to pursue further studies, Sundaresan, readied himself to join the armed forces. “During my college years I was active in NCC and I was sure that I wanted to join the army,” he said. He was commissioned into the Rajput Regiment, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army. There, he stayed for 23 years, before seeking voluntary retirement as Lieutenant Colonel.

For much of his years in service, active participation in any official sport was not possible but the accent on fitness was strong. In 2008, he got posted to Mumbai. Given residence in South Mumbai’s Colaba there could not have been more appropriate moment and location to start running. Sundaresan registered for the 2009 Mumbai Marathon to run his first timed half marathon. That trend continued into 2010’s Mumbai Marathon as well. Soon after that he wanted to move into the full marathon and was aiming to run the full marathon at the 2011 edition of Mumbai Marathon. But his initiation into the full happened in 2010 September when he ran the Kaveri Trail Marathon. This was followed by another full marathon in December, the Sabarmati Marathon.

In Mysuru with Ajit Thandur and other runner; Mysuru was was host for the twenty second run (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

In 2010, he chanced upon Amit Sheth’s book, Dare to Run, on running the Comrades in South Africa and immediately decided to attempt this iconic ultramarathon.  Comrades is the world’s oldest ultramarathon and now it’s biggest. At present, nearly 20,000 people run this ultramarathon every year. They come from different countries. The race alternates every year between uphill and downhill with the former measuring 87 km and the latter, 89 km. Founded as a war memorial, over time Comrades has acquired the reputation of being a fantastic event, remembered for the bonhomie, crowd support and cheering.

In 2012, Sundaresan retired from the army. Jobs in the private sector that came his way were primarily for heading security. He worked for ITC Grand Central Hotel, Panoramic Group and had a short but tight stint at the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) in connection with the T 20 World Cup and IPL 2016. During these years, he never let go of his desire to run Comrades and registered for the 2016 edition of the run. This edition was the downhill version.

To get the final confirmation for the run he had to secure sub-five hour timing in the marathon. For someone who was running the marathon in excess of five hours, he had to first focus on sub-five hour timing. He eventually achieved it at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon where he finished 42.2 kilometers in 4:36:49.

“I took tips from many of the runners who had attempted Comrades. Satish Gujaran was one of them. But I did not have a structured training program,” he said. Satish, an ultrarunner will be attempting his ninth consecutive Comrades in June of 2018.

With Major D.P. Singh from the run in Sikkim, Sundaresan’s favorite from the 50 marathons he ran (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Some amount of training was already behind Sundaresan by the time he finished the 2016 Mumbai Marathon. From February to April of 2016, he was tied up with work, as part of his assignment for BCCI, for T20 cricket World Cup followed by IPL 2016 season which runs through April and May of every year.

Heading security, he was required to travel to various destinations where the teams were playing. “I used to get up at 2 AM to do my running,” he said. During his hotel stays he did something unusual. He would enter the hotel’s swimming pool not to swim but to run the length of the pool. “I did all of two long runs. One of 54 km and the other of 56 km in February and March,” he said.

Sundaresan says he enjoyed Comrades thoroughly. According to him, it is a “should go” event for ultramarathoners. “It’s a fun event but yes one should go prepared,” he said. He completed the run with a timing of 11:52:54 hours, within the final cut-off of 12 hours.

Five months before his Comrades attempt, Sundaresan had already discussed the idea of running 50 marathons in 50 weeks with a couple of runner friends.

Once back from South Africa, he started developing his plan, which included listing out all running events through the year across the country and accounting for the weeks when there would be no marathon events especially during the summer months.

With Colonel Sandeep Madan at the marathon in Nainital, the thirty eighth from the planned 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

With Dipak Suryavanshi, runner from Nashik, at the Shimla Tuffman run, the twenty seventh marathon for Sundaresan from his planned 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Funding was a major requirement and Sundaresan realized that he would have to dip into his earnings. Once family (wife and daughter) and siblings’ approval was sought he went about diligently writing to companies including sporting entities to seek funds. “I wrote to many companies and also to some sports companies. Nobody responded positively,” he said. After six marathons, Global Group of Companies agreed to pick up his air fare for travel to marathons across the country.

Alongside, he also thought of running for a cause – raising funds for the families of martyred soldiers. His endeavor got a name thereby – Run with a Soldier, Run for a Soldier. The cause of his run brought in some incentives. At some running events, organizers waived off his registration fee and also offered accommodation.

He embarked upon his run on December 11, 2016 with the Vasai-Virar Mayor’s Marathon. For the next 49 weeks, Sundaresan was crisscrossing the country to run marathons where marathons were available or running two half marathons where the event was a half marathon.

Sundaresan traveled to various destinations to run his marathons – Kargil, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai, Guwahati, Dehradun, Sikkim, Manipur, Rookee, Raipur, Matheran, Kochi, Saputara and Shimla among others. The aim was to cover as many states as possible.

“Fifty weeks is a huge time period. Anything could have gone wrong during this period. Thankfully, family support was superb,” says Sundaresan, who often left on Friday for his outstation marathons and returned on Monday, missing weekend with family.

Paying respects to his late father with a sign of `20′ after the run in Guwahati, the twentieth run from the planned series of 50. Sundaresan lost his father just days before the event (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

During these weeks of running, Sundaresan experienced two setbacks. On April 20, 2017, he lost his father. “It was a Thursday and on Friday I was scheduled to leave for Guwahati for the twentieth marathon on Sunday, April 23. That evening after the cremation was completed, the extended family came together to goad him to go for his run and his mother was duly informed. “She told me, go and run. Your father’s blessings will be with you,” Sundaresan said.

The second setback came during the 44th week when he woke up with viral fever. Slated to leave for Pune, he had to cancel his run and also had to skip the next week’s marathon at Surat. Over the next two weeks he decided to run four marathons to cover up the loss of the previous two weeks.

He rates his best marathon to be the one in Sikkim in May, when the army went all out to make arrangements for the run from Changu Lake to Gangtok. “There was no organized run in Sikkim. But I chose to run here to get a break from running in in the May heat,” he said. India’s first blade runner Major D.P. Singh, retired army officer, ran with him a distance of about 25 km.

With wife and daughter after SCMM, typically a family outing. For Sundaresan, this was his sixth marathon from the 50 (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

Among the running events he went to, he rates the Dream Runners’ Half Marathon of 2017 held in Chennai as the best half marathon event. Of course, he had to run a half marathon before the event to make it a full marathon. “I started running from Valsaravakkam at 2:30 AM and then joined the starting line of the half marathon,” he said. The distance from Valsaravakkam to the starting line is 18 km and he covered the balance 3 km running around at the start point. The toughest marathon was the Tuffman Shimla Trail Marathon where the entire route was trail with good amount of elevation. One of those who had a ringside view of Sundaresan’s project was Dhaval Ajmera, Executive Sous Chef at ITC Grand Central. “When I met Lt Col Sundaresan, who was the head of security at ITC Grand Central, I realized that he was into running. I was already into running. We started running together. I was quite comfortable and it was great fun running together. Even after he quit his job at ITC and moved out to another job, we continued running together. He told me about his plan to run 50 marathons in 50 weeks.  I have been able to help him to some extent. I ran with him some distances in couple of his marathons, including the final one at Navy Half Marathon. He was quite dedicated to the cause of his run,’’ Dhaval said.

With family and course mates after the fiftieth run, which was melded into the Western Naval Command Navy Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Sundaresan)

In the initial weeks of the 50 marathons in 50 weeks-challenge, Sundaresan added a couple of short practice runs in between his marathons. But as the weeks went by he dropped it to a single run and finally gave up running for practice. Instead he focused on strengthening and stretching, which, he believes, stood him in good stead over the 50 weeks. He did not sustain any injury. Averting injury was high on his priorities. He made sure he ran slowly and at events, never more than the marathon distance he was required to meet. He was assailed by cramps only in two of his marathons – one at Matheran, the other was the navy half marathon.

Sundaresan was able to raise Rs 27 lakh for martyred soldiers. Twenty seven families were chosen to be given one lakh rupees (Rs 100,000) each. “ The money is in the process of being disbursed,” he said. The pattern used for raising funds and disbursing them was simple. Given Global Group of Companies was the main sponsor, Global Foundation became the temporary repository of funds raised. They would then make out the payment as required to Sundaresan, for onward disbursement. The beneficiaries – families of martyred soldiers – were identified with the help of the army; Sundaresan contacted the commanders of the units he had served with for the same. Most of the 27 families identified had members – since martyred – serving with the Rajput Regiment. A few are connected to Rashtriya Rifles.

At the finish line of the final marathon at Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex, Sundaresan felt happy that the project had ended smoothly. “The credit for this goes to my army training,” he said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Sundaresan Renganathan. Except for the first photo, all the other photos used herein were downloaded from Sundaresan’s Facebook page and used with his permission.)