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.)  

A CONFERENCE ON RUNNING AND A STUDY ON RECREATIONAL RUNNERS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The study based on results from 72 marathons overseas and focused on recreational runners “ is the largest of its kind ever produced.’’

The IAAF Global Running Conference scheduled over May 31-June 1 at Lanzhou in China will have among key themes for discussion: the economic, social and environmental impact of road races.

More than 600 attendees representing much of the international road race industry are expected to take part. China is the world’s fastest growing market for recreational running. Against 22 sanctioned road races in China in 2011, there were 1100 in 2017. During the same period, participation grew from 400,000 to more than five million, a statement on the conference available on the website of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), said.

According to it, the conference will discuss subjects including the growth of the marathon tourism industry, creation of running cultures in cities, economic benefits of organizing events and best practices for organizing them in environmentally sustainable ways. Jen Jakob Andersen, founder and CEO of RunRepeat.com, will deliver the opening address at the conference. He will present a report on the current state of running drawn largely from a research comparing marathon performances across nations. “ The study by Andersen and his team is the largest of its kind ever produced,’’ the IAAF noted, providing alongside a link to RunRepeat.com and abstracts from the study.

The study centered on recreational runners’ performance from 72 marathons over 2009-2014 – basically six editions of 12 events. The data base analyzed spanned 2,195,588 results; the study had Andersen as lead researcher and was funded by RunRepeat.com. “ On average marathon runners are being slower,’’ RunRepeat noted on its page hosting this study focused on recreational runners and restricted to multiple editions of a pool of select races.

The project looked into results from six editions of the following marathons: Chicago, Marine, Boston, London, Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, Athens, Amsterdam, Budapest, Warszawa and Madrid. Results of elite athletes were not studied; the focus was on recreational runners. Results of nations with less than 100 results were not considered. Also omitted were results from countries having less than 10 men and 10 women in each of the years studied. Only events with results for all the six years and mention of athletes’ gender alongside were accepted for study.

Over 2009-2014, within the database analyzed, the average time taken to complete a full marathon was four hours, 22 minutes and five seconds. For 2014 alone, the figure was four hours, 21 minutes and 21 seconds. Over the six years (2009-2014), the average time for men was 4:13:23 and that for women, 4:42:33 (29.10 minutes slower), RunRepeat said on its website. At 3:55:35, Spain had the fastest average time. Looked annually, Spain was fastest in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2014, runners from Iceland topped. Out of 47 countries listed so India was ranked 46 with average time at 5:03:41. Interestingly at number 45 was Japan (4:40:14), a country strongly associated with the marathon and ultramarathon. The US (4:29:31) was placed 30, while the UK (4:32:24) was ranked 41.

Among men, the fastest average time was from Iceland (3:52:01); the slowest was from India (5:00:34). At 5:27:04, Indian women were slowest in their gender category topped again by Iceland (4:18:29). Over the six years studied Iceland, Philippines and Singapore showed the greatest improvement in average finish time in the men’s category. In the women’s category, India, Germany and Finland were the nations improving the most. With an improvement of two minutes 39 seconds overall, India was ranked 18 in the improvement list topped by Iceland (23 minutes 47 seconds). The country registering least improvement was China; the average time of recreational runners from China at these events got slower by 33 minutes 38 seconds. On the other hand, if you judge growth in popularity of marathon running from the database studied, then China was placed second with a growth of 259.47 per cent; it followed Russia at 300 per cent. Corresponding growth from India was 154.78 per cent. Participation from Asia grew by 92.43 per cent; that of men therein at 90.40 per cent and women, 97.80 per cent. Europe grew slower than the rest of the world with a growth of only 10.30 per cent.

In the database studied, it was observed that participation overall had increased by 13.25 per cent with enrollment of women up by 26.90 per cent compared to 7.8 per cent for men. The average distribution of women marathon runners in the numbers was 29.76 per cent; North America had the highest representation of women in running at 44.67 per cent followed by Asia (27.86 per cent), South America (26.26 per cent) and Europe (21.99 per cent). USA was the most gender equal marathon nation. Of 47 countries featured in the study, India ranked 43 as regards gender parity with its women participants at the races studied estimated at 11.76 per cent.

The overview of the study can be accessed on this link: https://runrepeat.com/research-marathon-performance-across-nations

This blog would like to point out that 2014 is now almost five years in the past. Additionally, while one definitely needs to qualify for some of the marathons overseas, participation is dependent on ability to fund and in developing economies like India, talent for sports and deep pockets (to travel and run) don’t always manifest in the same individual. Not all recreational runners who make the cut in terms of performance reach the start line abroad. On the other hand, those who can afford will, including by means other than qualifying like availing charity bibs.

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

ADVENTURE COUNCIL PROPOSED

Panel discussion at the 2019 Himalayan Club annual seminar. From left: Steve Swenson, Vasant Vasant Limaye, Peter Van Geit, Shantanu Pandit, Amod Khopkar and Mrudul Mody (Photo: courtesy Ashok Kalamkar)

Moves are afoot to set up a state level adventure council in Maharashtra.

The yet to be named body aspires to bring together stakeholders in the field of outdoors and adventure sports; stakeholders broadly meaning service providers, persons / organizations availing service and the government.

Following Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a bereaved parent some years ago, the Maharashtra government had issued a set of guidelines for adventure sports.  The original set of guidelines was subsequently replaced by a second lot. At the time of writing, the second version was in force. Over the past year or two, several Indian states have pushed to frame guidelines for adventure activity. Concerns fueling the trend span guidelines for safety and risk management to impact on environment from too many visitors to sensitive wilderness locations, not to mention poor understanding of best practices to follow in the outdoors.

It is understood that the proposed council, besides bringing together the aforementioned stakeholders and contributing to guidelines, seeks to serve the community associated with outdoors and adventure sport, engage in advocacy and be able to facilitate required processes through a multi-pronged approach.

The adventure council found mention in a panel discussion on risk management in adventure sport, done as part of the annual seminar of the Himalayan Club, in Mumbai on Sunday (February 17, 2019). Panelists included Vasant Vasant Limaye, senior mountaineer and founder of High Places, Shantanu Pandit, senior outdoor educator; consultant and safety expert, Amod Khopkar, management systems consultant and trainer with longstanding association with the outdoors and Mrudul Mody, senior management team member at Pugmarks. Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club and winner of the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award and Peter Van Geit, Chennai based ultra-runner who delivered the club’s annual Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture also participated in the discussion.

Samgyal Sherpa (right) after receiving the Garud Gold Medal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Among points debated were the relevance of standardized guidelines nationwide as opposed to each state having its own with consequent questions over mutual compatibility and the prospect of grading service providers (example: adventure tour operators) on the basis of track record and safety standards so that clients have a truer picture of who they are dealing with.  Also mentioned was the need to support the adventure council with adequate resources for effectively implementing its work.

Earlier at the day long-proceedings, Peter Van Geit spoke at length about his 75 day-trail run, spanning some 1500 kilometers and covering 40 high, mountain passes essayed last year in Himachal Pradesh.  Steve Swenson spoke of the Khumbu Climbing Center established in Nepal by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. Later, as part of receiving the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award, he also spoke about his book Karakoram – Climbing through the Kashmir Conflict and his climbs in the region. While the Jagdish Nanawati Award for Mountaineering Excellence was not given this year, the Garud Gold Medal for excellent support staff was presented to Samgyal Sherpa.

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

SCOTT 60 YEAR RIDE

Cyclists assembled for the Scott 60 Year Ride at Seawoods, Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Scott Sports India hosted the Scott 60 Year Ride at multiple locations in India on Sunday, January 6, 2019.

According to an email from the company, received a couple of days ahead of the event, the ride was planned to be held at 30 locations simultaneously.

In the Mumbai region, the ride was scheduled at four locations – Kalyan, Thane, Andheri and Navi Mumbai.

An estimated 278 participants had signed up for the ride in Mumbai while the total number of participants across locations was 1200, the email said.

After the ride at Seawoods (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The ride commenced at 7 AM on Sunday and lasted for an hour.

Company officials confirmed that the ride was held at all locations as planned, sole exception being Delhi where the duration of the ride had to be kept short due to unexpected showers.

The event in Navi Mumbai featured the Scott Technology Center at Everest Cycling Culture, Seawoods, as assembly point. The ride was on the adjacent Palm Beach Road. Jaymin Shah, Country Head, Scott Sports India attended the event.

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