STRAY DOTS CONNECTED BY NELSON’S EYE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From high mountains to vehicle sales and jobs with fat salaries, the industrial paradigm is blinding us to the obvious.

2019 was not the first climbing season on Everest hosting queue of climbers.

One recalls photos shown by those who climbed Everest in the past decade. Lines have happened before; maybe not this bad on the final stretch of the ascent. A line is a potential queue; a queue is potential congestion. In other words, 2019 was in the works.

All that was needed was favorable circumstances converging. A slightly higher number of permits doled out, fickle weather of climate-change, a cyclone big enough to have distant impact in the Himalaya and climbers rushing to take advantage of a narrow window – that appears to have tipped what was potential into reality. In the days following the tragic deaths of May 2019 official explanation puzzled. A memorable line of reasoning was that people had died of altitude sickness, poor fitness and lack of experience, not traffic congestion on the peak. That is probably true.

Traffic jam at altitude

Consider the following. Altitude sickness is checked through acclimatization. But there is no certainty that it won’t strike. When it hits, the best remedy is losing elevation. Poor fitness can spell trouble when climbing a mountain entailing physical strain and the challenges of altitude. Experience counts. The more you have been to the high mountains and endured different scenarios, the better your understanding of self (and its limits) and greater your bandwidth to cope with nature.

In the event of altitude sickness, how easy will it be to turn around and lose elevation if the climbing route has too many people, at least some of them slowed by strain of altitude? If your fitness is poor and experience limited, how well will you cope with extended exposure to harsh nature, which is what happens when caught in a queue? Point is – long lines on any high mountain is unsafe. That raises the question: why do we ignore signs of potential accident? Why do we defend after tragedy?

One reason (certainly not the only one) would be the difference between mountaineering as activity and the same as industry. Across sectors, industry has typically showed reluctance to acknowledge its faults. There are investments, businesses and livelihood at stake. Viewed through such prism, old lines from old photos may not have seemed early indicator of what could potentially be. The other thing you notice in activity cast as industry is how notion of dynamic nature recedes and predictability becomes prized. Approached as industry, a high mountain becomes branded objective bought off a shop shelf. As with any other product, expectations rule the transaction and those expectations have to be met. The tragedy and defence from Everest spanned May-June 2019.

Traffic jam at sea level

On June 19, a leading daily reported that Mumbai had some of the worst traffic jams in the world. The report was notable for pinning blame almost wholly on civic authorities responsible for roads and the traffic police, responsible for issues like parking. There are two actors overlooked in the story of traffic jams – vehicle manufacturers and consumers.

Vehicles are manufactured, marketed with high voltage campaigns, sold at attractive prices and backed with consumer finance – all by the automobile industry. The ones willfully spending, congesting the roads with their purchase and often prone to driving rashly are the customers. Yet no solid blame reaches these two segments. Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally kept big advertisement budgets; something media seeks. About two decades ago, officials at Indian auto companies used to argue that they are above spoiling the market with aggressive pricing, low interest loans and product discounts. Growing competition among auto companies, the pressures of surviving market cycles, the technological challenges facing the global auto industry, the rising relevance of public transport and ethical preference for less polluting means of mobility – all these changed industry. There is desperation to sell before product relevance dries up. Now the Indian market also hosts freebies, discounts and cheap loans. Sellers are targeting pockets where the consumerist dream still attracts and tales of urban congestion are distant.

Questioning the habits of readers / viewers (who are also vehicle customers) to the point of irritating them is not affordable to media. Editors have limits decided by business model. As people spend on vehicles in age of high salary and more disposable income, both customer and industry are spared acute scrutiny by media. Civic authorities and traffic police take the blame instead. Like the mountaineering industry’s inability to visualize potential danger in a long line at altitude, vehicle manufacturers and customers reserve a Nelson’s Eye for their role in traffic congestion. They see their combined activity as feeding GDP (even if time wasted in traffic jam is productivity lost). GDP is currently unquestionable; it is a nice place for big fish to hide.

There is a cost for our collective existence – growing and burgeoning – that nobody wants to acknowledge. Like Mumbai’s traffic jams and May 2019 on Everest, all costs eventually come home. Yet the architecture of potential mess appears lost on even the educated.

Traffic jam in the head

The new rain; rain of vehicles (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

And so in June 2019, it was Nelson’s Eye again, as a former senior official of the Indian IT industry argued that what stifled employment in the country was not lack of jobs but lack of well paid jobs. It harked of an older fantasy sold (much successful like vehicle sales measured in numbers) – that of celebrating exploded population as demographic dividend. Doesn’t demographic dividend / workforce have the propensity to be consumerist with consequences thereof? If you are not blinded by GDP, you will notice that more money does not reduce the carrying cost of our bloated existence and its equally bloated aftermath ranging from stress to congestion to trash. Instead, allowing ourselves to see without tainted spectacles would be a good starting point.

One example for how money solves nothing is government finances creaking under the load of rising wage and pension bill. Transplant the habit to private sector, you will simply spread the disease. In the urge to appease constituencies monetarily, inequality grows and the economy is stalked by inflation. What we need is reasonable hours of work, reasonable salary and most importantly – affordable cost of living that stretches currency’s mileage. This demands a very fundamental reinterpretation of life away from mono-cropped imagination. After all, the best way to enjoy Everest without damaging it, is not to have everyone aiming for the top but respect even those content to watch it from far. In other words, spread earnings and opportunities around. Unfortunately, our educational system (that’s where we gain perspective of life) has been surrendered to GDP. It is the stuff of rat race; it even advocates it. We have few original characters born from it. There is no contrarian thought. To the extent it is all driven by money, alternative incentives like social acceptance and support, relevant to sustain non-mainstream imagination, have shriveled up. Your intuition warns that the overall accounts of existence are not balanced. Money tells you: don’t listen to that internal auditor, just keep minting money. What would you call such book keeping if it was a company, bank, airline or housing finance outfit, you were auditing?

In June again, there was a news report which said, some youngsters were living frugally and saving as much as they could to retire earlier than usual. It smacked of industrial superstructure tapped solely for income with an acknowledged lack of soul-connect to it. Unlike before, meaning it seemed, lay in retirement. There were others stepping out to see the world on small budgets; hope in their hearts to compensate for lack of cash. Now, that’s a different approach. At least, it’s no Nelson’s Eye.

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

THE MAHAJAN BROTHERS AND MAY 22 ON EVEREST

Everest (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Mahajan Brothers and is being used here for representation purpose.)

The Sea to Sky Expedition by the Nashik based-Mahajan brothers concluded as planned with a successful ascent of Everest. But it came at a cost. This is their story:

Early morning May 22, 2019, Dr Mahendra Mahajan reached the summit of Everest.

“ I was among those arriving there early in the day. So I was spared much of what unfolded on the peak this season,’’ he said. But he committed a mistake; a small one in anyone’s eyes, except that at high altitude, consequences – especially handling them – can be challenging. When taking photos at the planet’s highest point, he briefly pushed his glacier goggles on to his forehead. It wasn’t for long as in the extreme cold of the summit, his cell phone as well as a small digital camera he carried, clicked only a few pictures before their battery died. When he returned the goggles to his eyes he found that the glass surface was coated in ice, too tough to remove by rubbing. Goggles on, he couldn’t see a thing. So he switched to a pair of ski glasses that he had carried as spare. They were not the ideal replacement. They were not designed for the glare of punishing altitudes; their bulky construction was also such that climbers who value being able to see their feet were denied that by intervening frame. He had to be careful. By the time he set out for Camp 4 from the summit, Mahendra could see the first signs of what had been generally apprehended – a traffic jam of climbers close to the summit of Everest.

When Nashik-based Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – aka Mahajan brothers – announced their Sea to Sky expedition, it was regular adventure engagingly packaged. They were accomplished cyclists; they were the first Indians to complete Race Across America (RAAM), they had cycled the full length of India’s highway system called Golden Quadrilateral. More recently, Mahendra had set a record for the fastest passage by a cyclist on the Kashmir to Kanyakumari route. Sea to Sky had shades of Goran Kropp to it. In 1996, the Swedish adventurer and mountaineer had cycled alone from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest without oxygen and cycled back part of the way. The Mahajan brothers (among the two, Hitendra is a trained mountaineer) planned a bicycle trip from Mumbai to Kathmandu and then, a guided ascent of Everest.

Dr Hitendra Mahajan on the summit of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

They commenced their bicycle ride from Mumbai on March 31, 2019. They cycled in relay pattern, taking turns to be on the road. A reason for this was that their expedition also included work towards spreading awareness about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The brothers covered the distance from Mumbai to Kathmandu in about a week. They reached the Nepali capital on April 7. A day after reaching Kathmandu, the brothers took the flight to Lukla.  The Everest attempt was as part of a team managed by Kathmandu-based Pioneer Adventure. The team included Everest aspirants from India, Pakistan, USA and Singapore. They commenced their walk-in to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Lukla. Along the way, they climbed Island Peak (20,305 feet). After the walk-in and the trips up Everest (highest point reached doing so being Camp 3) they descended to Debouche set amid green surroundings at lower altitude to rest and recover.

According to Mahendra, the brothers stayed in Debouche for 4-5 nights following which, they trekked back slowly to EBC. Another 4-5 days were spent at EBC. A concern during this entire period was when the summit window would be. You need clear days with manageable wind speed. In 2018, there had been a week or so of such weather. This time, the weather seemed fickle. To complicate matters, from April 26 to May 5, Cyclone Fani, the first severe cyclonic storm of the year was detected and tracked en route to India. It had its landfall in Odisha and after visiting Bangladesh, saw its remnants dissipate over Bhutan. All this was away from Nepal but in the world of weather, enough to call neighborhood. For the 2019 climbing season, Nepal had issued around 381 permits. A few hundred climbers, guides and support staff were due to ascend Everest. At EBC, people tuned in to multiple weather forecasts. Eventually, Mahendra said, the period around May 22-23 was decided as summit window. He recalled May 24 being cited as not good. Everyone jumped on to the May 22 / 23 bandwagon. That, he said, is how the bunching of climbers witnessed in 2019 commenced. The climbs by various teams couldn’t be spread out. The team the Mahajan brothers were on commenced its trip from EBC to higher camps around 2 AM on May 18. “ Our first taste of what could potentially happen came at the Khumbu Icefall, where the glacier is heavily crevassed. At sections where ladders were few, queues occurred. If it was a single file it would have been alright. Problem was – it was managed a bit badly. So at times, there was more than one line and resultant delay. At one big ladder there was a line of 50-100 climbers,’’ Mahendra said.

Dr Mahendra Mahajan on the summit of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

The night of May 18 and 19, they spent at Camp 2. From there it was six to eight hours to Camp 3. “ Half of this section is a gradual climb, the rest is fairly steep,’’ Mahendra said. At Camp 3, oxygen bottles were used while sleeping at night. The regulator was set to a gentle flow. From Camp 3 it was an eight hour-climb to Camp 4 at around 8000 meters. “ We reached it on the afternoon of May 21. Same night at around 7 PM we set off for the summit,’’ Mahendra said. The brothers started out together but on a mountain, everyone drifts to their respective pace. Mahendra, who is the younger of the Mahajan brothers, went ahead with his guide. Hitendra and his guide followed, the gap between the two brothers slowly growing. After about four to five hours of ascending the peak, Mahendra reached the area called Balcony. There was slow moving traffic here. “ It was just slow, that’s all; people were beginning to tire. Else there was nothing complicated. Most people were glad to continue so. A handful of climbers, who still had much energy in them, would overtake and go ahead,’’ Mahendra said.

Everything was fine till South Summit. Past this point, the nature of the route changed. It became significantly narrow. Up to South Summit, although climbers were many, a sense of bunching wasn’t felt except at occasional bottlenecks. From South Summit onward, through Hilary Step and on to the actual summit of Everest, the narrow ridge was invitation for bunching. The horizon was just warming up to light as Mahendra approached the summit. “ I had to pause due to clustering of climbers only at Hillary Step. Otherwise everything was under control,’’ Mahendra said of his passage to the summit. But photos taken, as he began his descent to Camp 4, a line of climbers was clearly manifesting.

Tired and coping with altitude, the climbers moved slowly. Complicated tasks are challenging in this state. So, few tried to get past others. Doing so requires clipping in and out from fixed ropes. The queue moved slowly. Then it ground to a halt. “ At this stage there was no co-ordination. The whole line came to a standstill,’’ Mahendra said. A climber who was behind him in the queue asked if he could move past Mahendra and go ahead. Doing so, he negotiated his way across a patch of terrain Mahendra evaluated as unsafe. Seeing this, others started pressuring Mahendra too to proceed and cross the risky patch; it would be a move executed without proper anchors and safety. “ I too tackled that portion and became free of the bottleneck,’’ Mahendra said. But fresh trouble was setting in. Exposed to the environment on the summit when he removed his goggles and inadequately protected from the glare later because he was wearing ski glasses, his eyes were becoming painful. At about 1.30 PM in the afternoon, Mahendra reached Camp 4. His guide wanted him to carry on further down but he was tired. More important he wanted to wait for Hitendra, who he had last seen going up, while Mahendra was already descending. Hitendra had asked him if he was faring alright with his glasses. About an hour into his stay at Camp 4, Mahendra developed severe burning sensation in his eyes. “ My eyes were very painful and watery. I almost cried from the discomfort. It was the most painful night of my life. Adding to the stress was – I had no idea what happened to Hitendra,’’ he said.

Dr Hitendra Mahajan (left) and Dr Mahendra Mahajan. This photo is from days prior to the summit push (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

Hitendra was in the thick of the traffic jam and the impact it wrought. His case too was a series of cascading events commencing in a minor detail. When he started out for the summit, he gave his spare goggles to a Sherpa having none. Moving at a gentler pace than Mahendra, by the time Hitendra got to the upper parts of the summit push, traffic jam had set in. It meant slow progress and that much more time spent in conditions hostile to the human body. While he was otherwise alright, the longer time spent so meant his goggles started to ice up. He must have removed them and tried to rub off the ice. “ By the time he reached the summit, Hitendra was totally snow-blind. He couldn’t see a thing,’’ Mahendra said. Then their colleague on the same team, Don Cash, a client from the US, collapsed and died. (On May 24, Time magazine reported: While Sherpa guides with the company tried to keep him alive through CPR and by raising his oxygen pressure, Cash was unable to stand up or walk. As they tried to drag Cash down to a camp near Hillary Step, he fainted again and could not be revived; Pioneer Adventures said in a statement.) Hitendra’s guide asked him if he would be able to descend with assistance. He said yes. “ That was how he began coming down from the summit. He couldn’t see anything but the Sherpa told him where to keep his feet and helped him climb down. Noticing the situation, Don Cash’s guide also pitched in to assist. Despite all this, there were instances when Hitendra, unable to see, slipped and fell. His down-suit got torn. Mahendra took approximately seven hours to reach Camp 4 from the summit. Hitendra took 19 hours. From Camp 4 to Camp 4, Hitendra’s summit day spanned roughly 29 hours, Mahendra said.

View from the summit. The glowing white ridge in front is that of Nuptse; the dark triangular shadow to its right is the shadow of Everest (Photo: courtesy Dr Mahendra Mahajan)

At Camp 4, the tired climbers were lucky in one aspect – they had adequate bottled oxygen. In situations like this that is a life saver. Next morning by around 6-7 AM, they started the descent to lower camps. “ By now I was a bit rested and my eye pain was 50 per cent gone. But Hitendra, having arrived late, hadn’t had much rest. He was still blind seeing people as only blurred spots,’’ Mahendra said. Twelve hours later, the brothers reached Camp 2. They stayed the night there. By next morning, more damage was becoming visible – all ten fingers on Hitendra’s hands were shades of blue from frostbite. On the bright side, his vision was beginning to improve slowly. The brothers took a chopper from Camp 2 to EBC and another from there to Lukla, where they visited the local primary health center. Then they flew to Kathmandu and onward to Delhi. May 26, late night, they reached Nashik. At the time of writing, Hitendra was recuperating in hospital. In varying degrees both brothers have suffered minor injuries on their retina. “ We are hopeful everything will heal,’’ Mahendra said.

Did they anticipate any of this when Sea to Sky kicked off from Mumbai?  “ We knew the climb wouldn’t be easy. But I wish I was warned about smaller details – like not removing one’s goggles. There were guides around who weren’t wearing goggles or kept taking them off. You see that and think you also can do it. In retrospect, if there is one advice I will give anyone venturing to climb Everest, it will be: don’t take off your glasses. I would also add that people should be flexible and not be insistent or egoistic about gaining the summit. Beyond South Summit – that is where I found the problems to be. If the situation is bad and it seems wise to turn back from there, you should,’’ Mahendra said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dr Mahendra Mahajan.)           

THE WORLD’S HIGHEST MIRROR

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to media reports, as of May 28, eleven people had died in the 2019 climbing season on Everest. It is time to rethink Everest in the head. For one’s own head – that’s where it all begins.

Long before the ultra-fast fuel refills of today, gas stations were a much slower affair.

Where digits flash by at present, technology then was a lazy roll of printed numbers on the counter. Every liter which typically took several seconds to be reached was marked by the sound of a metallic chime. The chime wasn’t the only sound characterizing gas station. The pump was sometimes noisy; it’s whirring sound harking of cogs and wheels within. A few chimes later, you knew the quantity of fuel you had sought for daily commute was close to being met. If it was full tank you sought, the concert lasted longer. Everest in May 2019 reminded of that old fuel dispenser. As several hundred people converged to climb the peak amid inconsistent weather conditions, every other day a chime sounded marking somebody’s demise.

The deaths were mainly on the Nepal side, along the normal climbing route on Everest. Photos from the mountain showed a long queue of climbers waiting at high altitude to access the summit and get back. The situation has been compared to a traffic jam. On May 28, it was reported that officialdom saw the traffic jam as a product of other factors. To be blamed, according to them, was adverse weather, insufficient oxygen supplies and equipment. The number of climbing permits issued, they said, was only slightly more than in the previous years. The photos made an impression stronger than the officials. They aren’t the first such pictures. There have been similar ones before. You know something is deeply wrong in those images.

Left to market forces and state revenue from permits doled out, I doubt if anything will change. They may choose to refine the scenario by hiking permit fee to limit traffic or for the heck of seeming just, along with hiked fee include a portion decided by lottery. Either way, unless an element of common sense (essentially questions like: what are you on Everest’s slopes for; is the summit worth dying for, that too, death for all the wrong reasons?) and plain and simple aesthetics (questions like: what is an enjoyable climb?) prevail, meaningful correction is unlikely. What is happening on Everest has nothing to do with mountaineering. It has everything to do with the industry mountaineering spawned and is therefore, a mirror to what became of our lives.

Among discerning mountaineers, Everest by normal route is no longer a prized ascent. If you climb it by other routes, the fraternity takes note. It would therefore appear, an ascent of Everest by normal route is not meant for accolades from this fraternity. For the trained and untrained, Everest by normal route is to either satisfy one’s personal urge or harvest applause from the larger, less discerning arena. One of the causes highlighted for the deaths of 2019, was that of inexperienced climbers attempting Everest. There are those who say only trained mountaineers must be on such peaks. It has also been reported that Nepal, which has so far not sought proof of climbing experience from those arriving to attempt Everest, may now alter the rules. The emphasis on training is partly correct as required approach but it is not entirely convincing as panacea for Everest’s problems.

As is evident from the published news reports of May 2019, there are trained people too in the Everest queue, both as clients and guides. One thing I keep asking myself all the time is – which trained mountaineer in the best sense of the term would support, leave alone endure a mile long queue in the Death Zone to reach a summit? Everything about that predicament points to delay and extended stay in environment hostile to human physiology. Not to mention, even at low altitude, such spectacle filled with people challenges the very aesthetic behind courting wilderness. The saddest part of above said queue and its consequences at elevation like exhaustion, frostbite and high altitude illness is that you endanger yourself and others. Inefficient progress by one person has cascading impact down the order. It is difficult to imagine that these dangers escape the attention of the trained lot, who too are there on the peak. Why then, does the traffic jam repeat? Where is the voice of the trained lot in this regard? The media reports of May 28 said that authorities have presented double rope in the area below the summit for improved management of the flow of climbers, as solution. Like many contemporary solutions, it is a specific, technical quick-fix that spares the market larger questions.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Hence the submission, Everest is a mirror to what became of us. It reflects a host of human compulsions – from the pure mountain lover wishing to be on the world’s highest peak, to the naturally curious, to the deliberately ambitious, to those that availed loans to fund climbs and can’t turn back for fear of losing face, to those racing against their biological clock for a piece of immortality to remember life by, to those ticking off goals from a bucket list, to those seeking glory by all 8000m peaks climbed, to those chasing Seven Summits, to those seeking multiple Everest ascents, to those seeking promotion in employment through Everest summit gained, to those fearing disappearance if their CV in life does not have Everest stamped on it, to those whose livelihoods are dependent on everyone seeking Everest turning up on the mountain, to an entire industry surviving on Everest’s magnetic attraction; the list of compulsions converging on the peak every climbing season, is long.

In times by money, media and marketing each of these urges attracts exploitation. Catalyzing the process is the pressure population exerts on human activity. For sure the number of people on Everest can be capped. That is doable. What can’t be capped is the number of people dreaming Everest, which on planet hosting exploded human numbers and rat race alongside, is high. If it wasn’t for this rat race and pursuit of distinction by any means, would climbing Everest as client via normal route, be construed as extraordinary? Distinction has become highly prized and standing on a high point is among the oldest distinctions in humanity’s guide book for life.

Perhaps, journeys must become more important than goals. If you did a life time of climbing at lower altitude does that make you less than a couple of million rupees spent and foot placed on Everest’s head? The repeated tragedies on Everest are reminders in that direction. It is built into the paradigm that the quest to access a tiny piece of inhospitable real estate at 29,029 feet should reveal what is wrong with us. Wrong in this case of crowding, has come with a price: several dead.

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

50 MILES: JIM WALMSLEY SETS A NEW MARK

Jim Walmsley (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Hoka One One and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

In a race in northern California on May 4 2019, the longstanding world record for running 50 miles was improved albeit unofficially.

The new timing – 4:50:08 – credited to Jim Walmsley of USA compares to the 4:50:21 set by South Africa’s Bruce Fordyce at the London to Brighton ultramarathon in 1983. The improved timing was reported from the Hoka One One Project Carbon X 100km race, organized by running shoe manufacturer Hoka. The attempt entailed challenging the existing records over 100km and 50 miles; the latter tackled in the course of running 100km. According to a report ahead of race on letsrun.com, eight athletes were scheduled to participate: Jim Walmsley; Hideaki Yamauchi, Patrick Reagan, Tyler Andrews, Sabrina Little, Mike Wardian, Yoshiki Takada and Aiko Kanematsu. Walmsley is one of the most accomplished ultra-runners today with seven course records at ultramarathons worldwide to his name, Yamauchi is two-time defending world champion in 100km and Little is the former American record holder for the 24 hour-run. The world record over 100km (6:09:14) is held by Japan’s Nao Kazami.

In its pre-race report, letsrun.com said that Fordyce sent the runners texts of encouragement. The South African great is best known for winning the Comrades Marathon nine times, eight of that in a row.

Hideaki Yamauchi (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Hoka One One and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Race day in California was quite warm. The course started in Folsom and went down to Sacramento where the runners then ran five loops. While Walmsley shaved off several seconds from Fordyce’s 36 year-old 50 mile-record, Yamauchi covered the 100km distance in 6:19:54, tad outside his personal best (PB) from 2016. Patrick Raegan was second across the whole 100km distance and Yoshiki Takada third; Walmsley having crossed the 50 mile-mark ahead of the rest, finished fourth overall. The video of the race, available on Hoka’s website, qualified the final timings as ` unofficial.’

Readers may notice the similarity this event has with Nike’s Breaking 2, the 2016-2017 project that sought to break the two hour-barrier in the marathon. It was held at a Formula One race track in Italy and featured three elite athletes and pacers to keep them on track for targeted timing. Although Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge won the race with a timing of 2:00:25, a significant improvement on the then prevailing world record, it did not count as a new world record under the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The current official world record held by Kipchoge is a slower 2:01:39 set at the Berlin Marathon of September 2018.

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

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE USHA SCHOOL OF ATHLETICS

The lobby of Usha School of Athletics (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Almost seventeen years old now, Usha School of Athletics has come a long way. Yet challenges remain. A report, based on a visit to the school:

A Friday morning

Kinalur was some ways off from Kozhikode.

You turn towards Kinalur Industrial Estate from Balussery on the road leading to Wayanad. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Kinalur, next to small hills, was the Usha School of Athletics. It was set on land of varying elevation. At a lower level from the road leading to the school was a small circular ground with mud track. Just above it was a building under construction meant to house facilities, including the school’s gym. At near similar elevation as this building yet tad lower than the road, was the office and hostel complex. The school’s gym also currently resided there. The highest elevation, bordering one side of the road, was reserved for the emergent heart of the school’s infrastructure – a fenced, well laid out ground with 400 meter-synthetic track.  It was past 7 AM. The school’s trainees were already out on the track, training. They were dressed in blue colored shorts and T-shirt with USHA printed on the back.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

P. T. Usha was in the middle of the ground. Stopwatch in hand, she gave instructions to start training runs. At the end of each run by her wards, she shouted the time each one took. Her husband V. Sreenivasan, treasurer and one of the directors of the school sat on a bench to one side noting down the figures Usha was saying aloud. He diligently wrote it down against a list of athletes’ names. “ Don’t miss anything. These figures matter to me,’’ Usha, who was chief coach and mentor, reminded. The students did their training runs, taking turns batch by batch. Those coming off the track or waiting to get on to it encouraged those running.

It depends on how you look at it. If you are the sort that wants city and urban commotion at hand, then this corner of Kinalur is arguably far off; too quiet. But if you are the sort seeking something in life, wishes to train for it and desires no distraction – then, this is it. In the more than three hours I was at Usha School of Athletics, nothing from outside interfered in its ecosystem, except freelance journalist’s presence. It was as secluded as an end of Kozhikode could get. At the same time it was self-contained facility. Around 9 AM, the students – having completed their morning session of training; had breakfast at the hostel mess and changed into the uniforms of their respective schools – left for studies.

Training on Payyoli beach (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

The beginning

P. T. Usha is India’s most famous woman athlete yet. She is best remembered for her fourth place finish in the final of the 400m hurdles competition at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. She missed getting the bronze medal by wafer thin margin. A whole nation had hoped, sighed and then applauded her. “ In 1985, I happened to be at the Crystal Palace National Sports Center in London. They had good training facilities there. That was when I began thinking of an athletics school,’’ Usha said. The thought stayed in her mind. In July 2000, the media reported that Usha had announced her retirement. It was the second time she was saying so; the first had been after the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. But this time it appeared final. “ Athletics has been my life and it will continue to be so in the years to come in some form or the other,’’ The Hindu quoted her as saying at the meeting. Roughly two years before this press conference, in 1998, she had attended a civic reception in Koyilandy where people suggested that she train their children. She took it up. “ It was strenuous balancing that assignment with my regular work at Southern Railways,’’ Usha said. In conversations that followed with Sreenivasan and others, the contours of the school project started taking shape. The news report on her retirement decision mentions her hope that the proposed school would serve as launch pad for Indian athletes to get that Olympic medal, which she had come so close to getting but eventually lost.

Of help in furthering plans for the school was an opportunity to interact with Mohandas Pai, former director of Infosys and currently chairman of Manipal Global Education, at an event in Mangalore. In 2000, the school was registered as a charitable trust. In 2002, the school was inaugurated; it operated from make shift premises in Koyilandy, had a spruced up sports ground in town to train at and the beach at Payyoli to additionally run on. The local Rotary Club contributed to setting up a gym for the school. After screening 40 children, 12 were selected for the school’s training camp. Within a year, some of them were competing at the national level. In three years Tintu Luka – she was part of the first batch enrolled at Usha School – was a silver medalist at the Asian Junior Championships.

The synthetic track at Usha School of Athletics (Photo: Shyam G. Menon)

The new school

In 2006, the Kerala government allotted over 30 acres of land in Kinalur, to build proper facilities for Usha School. The land was provided on long term lease spanning three decades. NRI businessman P. N. C. Menon helped construct the school’s office and hostel complex. Besides Mohandas Pai, others from the Infosys family – Kumari Shibulal and Sudha Murthy – also helped. In April 2008, the school shifted to its current location. In due course, the synthetic track was added. Construction commenced on a new building for facilities including a proper location for the school’s gym. By next year, the school should also have a recovery pool. At the time of writing, only ten acres or one third of the allotted land had been developed. The rest was available for future development. The school can train students in track events ranging from 100m to 3000m steeplechase. Its hostel can totally accommodate 40 students. As of end-March 2019, it had 19 trainees including names like Jisna Mathew (she was part of the Indian athletics squad for 2016 Rio Olympics), Abitha Mary Manuel, Pratibha Varghese, Elga Thomas, Angel Sylvia, Sharika and Jessy Joseph. At the same time, in March 2019, news reports appeared that Tintu Luka (she holds the national record in 800m), after an illustrious career featuring many wins at the national and international level besides participation in two Olympics, may be planning to retire. For fans of athletics, that’s a measure of the distance traveled by Usha School and its students. Almost 17 years had gone by. By March 2019, the school’s training staff included two assistant coaches, two physiotherapists, a team doctor, a strength trainer, a group of masseurs and personnel experienced in Ayurveda.

Students having breakfast at the school canteen (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The school accepts girl students. They are recruited at age 11-14 years. The core quality looked for is speed. “ What defines athletic performance is speed. From that fundamental ability, we develop strength and endurance.  That is how athlete grows,’’ Usha said. Selection trials for admission to Usha School of Athletics are held every year in the first week of February. Admissions to the school are finalized by May. The trainees, in addition to training for their chosen discipline in athletics at the school, receive regular academic education at schools and colleges in the region. They also participate in cleaning and maintaining the community space they share. One of the biggest differences about Usha School is the seamless access to a range of athletic talent / experience under one roof.  Usha is chief coach and mentor. The opportunity to train under her is what draws students to the school. On her part, she tries to know each of her trainees well. “ Every Christmas I make it a point to visit the home of any one of my students to know her and her circumstances better,’’ Usha said.  Besides such access to Usha, the students – they range from inexperienced newcomer to somebody like Jisna who has been to the Olympics – live and train together at the school. This means, theoretically, a newcomer gets to be around elite athletes on a regular basis. There are no walls separating elite and upcoming. There is scope for mutual interaction. In as much as there is scope for interaction within the school, care is taken to keep distractions from the outside at bay. Mobile phones on campus are discouraged. Students talk to their parents once a week or as needed.

The building housing the school’s office and hostel (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As regards school fees, only a nominal fee is collected from parents. The rest of the expenses are borne by the school. However there is regular sieving of students in terms of athletic performance. There are goals corresponding to athlete’s potential assigned and if trainees fail to live up to those expectations, they have to move on. The athlete is groomed slowly and steadily. The school makes them ready to take the training load. They work on a cycle of 52 weeks of training, divided into eight distinct sessions. The training spans both volume and intensity. At the end of each session, there is an assessment. By the end of the sixth assessment, the student should have achieved the target she set for herself. The rate of elimination is high. The school works with the expectation that in four years’ time, it should see the athlete capable of participating at the international level. Besides this filtering, there are also instances of trainees quitting and going because their priorities in life changed. Indeed one of the big problems in Indian athletics – if grooming cutting edge competence is what you are after – is finding talent that is also dedicated to improving itself in the sport. That was main reason for the school having 19 trainees (at the time this blog visited) against carrying capacity of 40. Since 2002, an estimated 91 students have passed through Usha School. Besides the athletes of national and international caliber it produced, at least nine of its alumni are working as sports teachers and coaches. Approximately 23 are in government service, working with state and central institutions.

Regular training at the school (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

The challenges

Training in athletics is training to achieve a goal. The goal has no appetite for excuses. You have to do what the goal demands making as few compromises in training, diet, equipment and exposure to major events as possible. A good school must operate so. The needs of athletes – like gear and equipment – are quickly attended to at Usha School. An example cited was this – at the school you don’t wear out a shoe and then stay grounded for days while you wait for a new one to be procured. There is no intervening bureaucracy. A new pair is procured as fast as possible and the momentum in training is maintained. Most of the trainees joining Usha School hail from tough financial circumstances. A nominal fee is charged from the parents because what is offered totally free of cost may not be valued. When they perform well and win competitions, it is common for athletes to get monetary awards. A small share of this goes as contribution to the school’s funding. The rest is promptly deposited in each student’s bank account (every student has to compulsorily open a bank account in her name). The school used to incur an expense of Rs 96,000 per annum on each student in 2002. Now that has risen to Rs 2.75-2.9 lakh (one lakh = 100,000). It goes up to Rs 6-7 lakh depending on the potential of the student and her stage of evolution in chosen discipline. If it is someone competing at the national or international level, expenses incurred are commensurately higher.

The school’s gym (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A typical training cycle has three elements – talent identification, nurture and exposure to events. The first two are handled by Usha and her staff. The third is dependent on sports federations who manage the passage to major championships.  Nurture and exposure are also arguably, capital intensive. One is composed of such ingredients like cost of training (including cost of sports infrastructure), food, hostel facilities, apparel and gear etc. The other entails expenses like registration fee for events, travel and boarding etc. For any institution the fundamental challenge is financial sustenance. There must be sufficient income to meet expenses ranging from cost of building infrastructure to meeting the school’s need for working capital. Usha School gets some funds from the state. Private sponsors of the institutional type have been few. As mentioned, P. N. C. Menon and his company, Sobha Developers, pitched in to support in the early stage by constructing the school’s main building. More recently, the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board has offered assistance. But long term institutional support from the private sector, has been absent. In terms of support from the outside, what has been relatively consistent is the support of well-wishers who pitch in because they have faith in Usha and wish to see Indian athletics grow. Senior corporate executives like Mohandas Pai feature among them, Usha said. There has also been crowd funding. Last year, the school raised Rs 27 lakh through crowd funding. It is still going on.

Usha receiving the Malaysian team that visited the school (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

Well-wishers may be open to being approached every time a school they trust needs assistance. But ideally, the school should sustain by itself without having to bother supporters every now and then. “ Our biggest challenge is working capital,’’ Sreenivasan, who was previously an officer with the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and took voluntary retirement to help with the school project, said. The general practice at the school is to spend 85 per cent of whatever funds it receives and retain 15 per cent as deposit. It is now eating into the deposits, this blog was told. On her part, Usha channelizes her appearance fee for public functions and all other recognition she gets, back into the school. There are also other potential avenues of income opening up. For example, you can train those who can afford to spend and use the receipts to fund the school’s main work. Late March 2019, a development in this regard was the arrival of a team of students from Malaysia’s Putra University to train under Usha. It was a ten day-program.  There have been similar enquiries from Sri Lanka and the Middle East. Being an independent entity, Usha School is able to process such requests pretty fast. From enquiry to actual visit, it must have taken the Malaysian team two months.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

Of school and sponsors

Athletics is a strange animal. You are picked up for training on the strength of promise. There is no guarantee that years of training will make you a fantastic athlete of international caliber. For all you know, the training and progressive exposure to competitions, may merely show you limits you can’t breach. Even if you cleared all that and broke into the higher echelons of competition, in athletics, you are in an individual versus individual situation with the promised battle on track sometimes over in seconds. There is none of the hype, glamor and extended air time of team sports. Yet nothing symbolizes personal and national glory as much as triumphing in athletics does.  Given this matrix, it is difficult finding long term sponsors for athletics.

What makes it particularly difficult for institutions like Usha School is that even though it has the required approvals for receiving funds domestically and from overseas, its position as an independent academy does not make it a natural destination for funds from government (which has its own training institutes) or CSR funds from corporates. One of the first corporates the school approached for funding wanted the school to sport its name and not Usha’s, in return for financial assistance. That’s a bit like saying: the money we give you is more important than your experience in athletics, fourth place at Olympics and all. Another company gifted the struggling school, a bus. It certainly helped move people around but it also incurred fuel and maintenance cost, which were taxing on a small institution desperate for working capital. The bus was eventually given away. There is mismatch between how corporates imagine athletics and athletics schools, and how the same are seen by senior athletes / mentors like Usha. Having come up through the ranks, the latter knows what training ecosystem works for athlete. Usha School for instance, is now an accepted venue for national camp. Corporates on the other hand, are usually motivated by bang for the buck; return on investment. Patience – critical to growing athlete slowly, steadily – may be in shortage, in such environment. In the past, sports agents have offered to handhold the school into the world of corporate funding and branding.  The problem there is, the agents not only seek a percentage of the funds raised but they also expect the school to support them in the interim. That is not possible when the effort is to secure funds because the school is short of working capital in the first place. Sport seeks understanding for just what it is without having to pose as things it is not. Unfortunately, that is elusive.

Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics

Sample a suggestion the school received: why not project Usha School as women’s development and women empowerment? Usha couldn’t digest the idea of athletics packaged as something else. “ This is an athletics school. When a woman becomes an athlete is that not automatically empowerment? These girls are confident and know how to take care of themselves,’’ she said pointing to her students.

So what qualities should a potential long term sponsor for the school have? The response received highlighted the following: such a sponsor must (a) not tamper with the school’s work culture (b) not alter the school’s public image founded around P. T. Usha and her contribution to athletics (c) be somebody that understands the gestation period for high level athletic performance and (d) be somebody that understands the nature of sports. “ This is not a game of instant results,’’ Usha said. The promoters wish the school to survive after them as a beacon in Indian athletics. Finally, there is a very peculiar issue for independent school to tackle in the ecosystem it functions in. Independent schools founded by experienced athletes like Usha are relative newcomers in an athletics ecosystem traditionally dominated by large state owned establishments. Irrespective of parentage they all work in the same field, wishing their wards to make it to the same events, through the same selection route. In practice, it is not always level playing field. Will the existing big institutions allow independent schools to grow and produce good results?

P. T. Usha with her collection of medals (Photo: courtesy Usha School of Athletics)

Promise begins in person

The quest for an Olympic medal is among reasons why Usha School exists. In the years since Usha missed that bronze medal at Los Angeles by a whisker, a lot has changed in Indian athletics in terms of sports infrastructure, opportunities and overall funding. Given sports – like all sectors – requires investment, this overall view of economy is useful to illustrate the change: according to Wikipedia, India’s GDP (measured in terms of PPP) in 1984 was $ 583.3 billion. By 2017, this had grown to $ 9.4 trillion. Amid this, that fourth place in Los Angeles in 1984, is the closest the country got to, to a medal at the Olympics in track athletics. Asked if she has as yet come across anyone from her trainees who reminds of the commitment and drive she showed years ago, Usha said “ no.’’ As India changes, human generations are also becoming different from one another. “ If my teachers pointed out mistakes in how I was doing something, I would work diligently to correct it. Previously, it was 75 per cent athlete’s work and 25 per cent that of the coach. With the current generation it is reverse. It is 25 per cent athlete and 75 per cent coach. You have to be after them to do things. You have to remind them to do the corrections; you have to remind them to hydrate well, so on. They have many distractions and they always want others around. In contrast, I used to train alone. I competed against my own timing. I proceed with the school in the hope that someday I will find someone who is very focused,’’ Usha said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with P. T. Usha and V. Sreenivasan. Except for the photos taken by the author, the rest were provided by Usha School of Athletics and have been credited so.)

AN ONLINE SPORTS APPAREL BUSINESS, MANAGED FROM THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Rakesh Rajeev (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In Kerala, being successful matters. Students are encouraged to excel at studies. Having done so, they are expected to do well in a professional career of their choice, typically one picked off the existing list. Entrepreneurship does not command premium. It is risky. Where is the guarantee that you will succeed? Rakesh Rajeev had the desire to do something on his own.

Thiruvananthapuram’s emergent growth engine is in its northern suburbs. This is where Technopark – India’s largest IT Park in terms of developed area – is. April 2019; a late evening: the bypass leading from Kazhakoottam to Kovalam was filled with traffic. By the side of the road; crowds of people leaving work for home, waited for buses. Rakesh Rajeev drove carefully. In that IT environment, he was odd man out. Things were common to the point that all companies – including the majors at Technopark – owed their origin to entrepreneurs. Rakesh was one. But the field he elected to be in wasn’t IT although he was once located in Technopark and now worked nearby.

Rakesh grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. Upon completing his B. Tech from College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET), he and two others commenced a partnership – Cares Renewables – in the field of renewable energy. The company functioned from Coimbatore. A year down the line, Rakesh, having cleared the Common Admission Test (CAT), was accepted to do his Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. He turned over his shareholding in the newly floated company to his partners and proceeded to do his MBA. Following his first year of studies at IIM, he was selected to do an internship with Johnson & Johnson, partly in Japan, partly in Mumbai. Once he finished this assignment and completed his MBA, he decided to set up his own enterprise. It had to be in the field of sports or education and it had to do with products. That was his resolve. “ I was always a product person,’’ Rakesh said. He was born 1989. His father, Rajeev Madhavan, used to work with the Harbor Engineering Department of the Government of Kerala. His mother, Latha P. K, was once a national level track athlete. She had been part of Kerala’s 4×100 relay team; this was in times when P. T. Usha was also part of the quartet.

One of the modules Rakesh did, while at IIM Ahmedabad, dealt with sports marketing. He did a study on the market for sports apparel. He also looked into the intriguing aspect of most major home grown sports apparel brands being from North India. There were very few in the South. A technical reason for this was the concentration of synthetic textile-processing facilities in the north. A secondary reason could be – a lot of India’s sports venues and sports administration is based there. It was these brands from the north that sold around the country. Later, Rakesh also spent time working in Tiruppur, the leading hub for apparel manufacturing in South India. He used the opportunity to study the apparel manufacturing business and explore the place. “ I decided to create an apparel brand, hopefully one with potential for international presence at some stage,’’ he said. That aim is easily articulated. The bigger question is – how do you navigate your way to getting there? The immediate challenge therein was finding unique relevance for his product to gain toehold in a market with hundreds of brands; big MNC brands on top. Rakesh zeroed in on customization as his chosen niche. The underlying logic for this was the rising interest in sports in India and the proliferation of teams, right down to teams representing schools, colleges, housing societies, clubs, companies and workplaces. People were organizing events. Nothing identified a group of people as team, as much as identical attire replete with same logo and artwork did. But Rakesh was neither first in the space nor the only one around. Although gaining momentum, customization had been around for long.

Given customization was already market-play featuring several entrants Rakesh delineated three specific traits to characterize his enterprise. First, he decided to make customization available online. Anybody from anywhere can place an order. Second, he would have no minimum order size; he would cater to any size of order. In fact, he decided to give ten per cent discount to orders that were less than Rs 1000 in size. Third, he allowed “ 360 degrees customization,’’ which meant the customer had freedom to choose everything from collar of T-shirt to logo and artwork. Two categories of fabric finish were offered – standard and premium. For any relentless devil’s advocate, this business outline may not seem safe enough for success. Rakesh explained his approach, “ the business idea is secondary. The primary concern is how you go about doing it. The idea is itself not as important as execution.’’

Rakesh’s project for a sports apparel company was among five ideas selected by IIM Ahmedabad to incubate at their Center for Innovation, Incubation & Entrepreneurship. Although he was allotted funds he didn’t take it; he wanted to set up his company in Kerala. “ I always wanted to do something back home,’’ he said. It was both unusual and apt. Unusual because most Indians excel academically as means to escape the Indian environment and in Kerala, escaping the Kerala environment has been fashion for long. On the other hand, Rakesh’s decision was apt because if not to apply what you learnt in challenging circumstance, what else did you study for?

In 2016, Rakesh’s company made its debut operating from a garage at his home near Kumarapuram in Thiruvananthapuram. It promoted Elk as brand name for the apparels it made. For initial investment, he had some money from his savings plus capital contributed by his brother and parents. The whole family pitched in to help. Very simply put, the process entailed the following – the basic raw material was white fabric (it had to be shipped to Thiruvananthapuram); the images required by customization were transferred to it using machines, the fabric was then cut to dimension and finally, stitched. During his days in Tiruppur, Rakesh had learnt techniques related to image transfer and fabric cutting. Once he set up his own enterprise in Thiruvananthapuram, he procured and installed the required machines in the garage at his house. He taught his parents and brother the relevant techniques. The family did image transfer and cutting. For stitching, which requires more skill, Rakesh took the cut fabric to Tiruppur. This was the initial pattern. It wasn’t long before he realized the merit in being able to do everything under one roof. The reason was simple – a lot of the customization centered on sports events and was therefore time sensitive. You had to be able to turn around orders fast. But to invest and get everything under one roof a business had to first show promise and acquire some scale.

Rakesh with his team (Photo: courtesy Rakesh Rajeev)

The early days were a struggle. “ In the first six months, we had less than six orders,’’ Rakesh said. But the online model showed him interesting things about the market. One of his first orders was from Jammu & Kashmir, for customized cricket apparel. A football team from Bengaluru placed orders; a women’s volleyball team from Goa placed orders. Slowly the business picked up. The Internet linked orders to garage in Thiruvananthapuram and in a few days shipment – after processing in Kerala and Tiruppur – commenced journey to customer. In Thiruvananthapuram, even as it operated from the garage, Rakesh’s project was selected for support by the Kerala Startup Mission. It was a bit unexpected because the Mission’s tastes are generally associated with products related to sectors like IT, automation and robotics. The Mission gave him office space at the city’s Technopark, one of India’s biggest IT parks. He now had small office space with desk and couple of chairs for address, the garage for one half of manufacturing and contract work in Tiruppur to finish orders. Meanwhile there were angles pertaining to business economics to address. The fast drying white fabric, which was the fundamental raw material for Elk apparels, was reaching Kerala from outside. Image-transferred and fabric cut in Thiruvananthapuram, it traveled to Tiruppur for stitching. That wasn’t efficient logistics, cost-wise.

In 2017-2018, Elk was reserved for use as the company’s retail brand. The growing customization business was promoted under a new brand name: Hyve Sports. Two more developments happened. A small design and manufacturing unit was set up at the KINFRA International Apparel Park in Thiruvananthapuram. Another manufacturing unit was commenced in Tiruppur. All processes owned by the company meant, faster turnaround time for orders.  “ We now ship in seven days. We have dispatched to all states and take orders from all over the country,’’ Rakesh said. He also looked into the economics and nature of his manufacturing locations. Although the three primary steps – image transfer, fabric cutting and stitching – are available at both units, the Thiruvananthapuram unit is progressively becoming more partial to tasks requiring creativity and design.  Tiruppur is being positioned to take on more of the manufacturing load. Viewed so, that may also be where the business around Elk could get centered as the branded retail business is very much about manufacturing; its efficiency and cost. “ It isn’t as simple. There are other angles to study as well. So we have kept all options open,’’ Rakesh said. In 2018, his company was selected to supply apparel that year for all Kerala state teams, spanning track and field disciplines to games. Elk is planned to debut in the retail market around end-2019. Before that Rakesh hopes to test the waters, selling it through online portals like Amazon and Myntra.

It was April 2019; a late evening. As we negotiated the traffic on the road back to Thiruvananthapuram city from the apparel park in Kazhakkoottam, Rakesh’s phone rang. It was his mother. The erstwhile sprinter, now actively helping her son with his sports apparel enterprise, had called to discuss business details.

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

LADAKH MARATHON: EXPECT SOME CHANGES

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Ladakh Marathon.

The 2019 edition of the Ladakh Marathon will feature changes with regard to hydration.

The annual marathon straddles two sub events: a marathon including the half marathon and races of shorter distances; and the Khardung La Challenge, which is an ultramarathon. The event is a full member of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) since 2015.

Ladakh is an environmentally sensitive destination. Organizers feel that the routine practice at marathons of runners helping themselves to bottled water – which the Ladakh Marathon too followed till now – is not sustainable. So far, they have shipped out discarded bottles. “ This year for the Khardung La Challenge we are definitely not going to provide bottled water along the route,’’ Chewang Motup, owner of Rimo Expeditions, organizers of the Ladakh Marathon, told this blog recently.

According to him, the paradigm of hydration for the full marathon and other shorter distances are being studied with a view to make the event environment friendly. He indicated that runners may be asked to bring their own bottles or hydration gear of choice. Instead of the traditional practice of handing out bottled water at aid stations, race organizers may provide facilities to refill. “ We may be able to give a hint of what to expect by the time registration for the event opens this year. The practical details could take a little longer to work out because the act of refilling must also be as efficient as possible,’’ Motup said. He added that organizers were however already resolved that hydration for Khardung La Challenge should shift from bottled water to refilling.

Motup hopes that runners will understand the larger need for this shift and accommodate any impact on timing the new practice may cause. As it is, thanks to challenges posed by altitude, timing at the Ladakh Marathon is rarely a personal best (PB) for those coming from outside. The event’s USP is opportunity to run a marathon in Ladakh, a high altitude destination characterized by unique landscape. That being so, pausing to refill water in one’s personal bottle should sit well with runners, the organizers reason. Incidentally, their attention is not merely on hydration. There is also the issue of food packaging and wrappers discarded by participants. “ We are looking into that. It too needs to be addressed,’’ Motup said.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Ladakh Marathon.

The Ladakh Marathon started in 2012. The event’s first edition attracted some 1500 participants. In 2018, the figure was 6000. The event calls itself the world’s highest marathon; between the main marathon and ultramarathon over Khardung La, altitude on the course ranges from 11,500 feet to 17,618 feet. Runners arriving from outside Ladakh are told to reach Leh a week to 10 days before the marathon so that they get properly acclimatized. Ladakh is beyond the main axis of the Himalaya. Although climate change and its associated vagaries in weather have impacted Ladakh too, traditionally the Himalaya cuts off monsoon clouds from the south rendering much of Ladakh a rain-shadow region. The region’s landscape is that of a high altitude cold desert.

Organizing the annual marathon is not an easy job, Motup said. The organizers have to make sure that participants take acclimatization and acclimatization schedules seriously. Many of the materials required for conducting the event have to be brought in from the outside world. In the case of stuff that is discarded after use – packaged water being an example – it has to be trucked out for proper disposal and recycling. These tasks are easily done in big cities which have resident facilities for recycling. Ladakh in comparison is not only environmentally sensitive, its location, distance from the plains and mountainous access can complicate logistics. Further, unlike in the cities, where event-related services are easily outsourced, in Ladakh, the organizers and their team of volunteers have to do the bulk of the work themselves.

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