A WORKSHOP IN NAVI MUMBAI

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In the concluding months of 2020, an accomplished ultra-cyclist discovered the beauty in sharing his knowledge and skills through an extended workshop. Here’s an overview: 

Bala Sitaram Rokade bought her cycle about two years ago. She was into the active lifestyle. She had been running regularly since 2015, was training women interested in physical fitness and had become an ambassador for Pinkathon in the Seawoods area. At the time of purchasing the bicycle, she didn’t know how to cycle. “ I wanted to learn cycling,” she said. Having learnt it; prior to the pandemic-induced lockdown of March 2020, the maximum distance she cycled at one go was approximately 25 kilometers on that road much loved by runners and cyclists in Navi Mumbai – Palm Beach. In October 2020, as the relaxation of the lockdown progressed, Bala enrolled for a workshop on cycling that she came to hear of through the social media channels of Everest Cycling Culture (ECC). It spanned a few weeks. “ The workshop enhanced my confidence to cycle on the road and on Palm Beach. Within a fortnight of training at the workshop, I did my first ride of 100 kilometers,” she said.

The 100k ride was essayed as loops on Palm Beach, a pretty flat road. Bala covered the distance in around five hours. Following the workshop, Bala began attempting BRMs, which are self-supported long distance rides held with a cut-off time but no competition among participating cyclists. It is typically the first stepping stone for those aspiring to know the world of endurance cycling. Internationally, the tradition of brevets or BRMs is overseen by the Audax Club Parisien (ACP); each country has a local chapter that supervises rides within its domain. Bala did her first 100k (Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi) in 4:58 hours; the second 100k (Belapur-Khopoli-Belapur) in 5:18 hours and on January 30, 2021, a 200k BRM (NMMC building near Belapur-Dhapoli) in 12:58 hours. Officially, BRMs start from 200k; the 100k is classified as Brevet Populaire (BP). “ I wish to try becoming a Super Randonneur,” the 50 year-old said. To be a Super Randonneur or SR, a cyclist has to do BRMs of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometers in one SR season.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

February 2021. At a small cafe in the subway below the Seawoods  railway station, Kabir Rachure recalled his predicament in the second half of 2020. “ I was bored,” he said. Among leading endurance cyclists in western India, Navi Mumbai-based Kabir has been a podium finisher at domestic ultra-cycling events and a finisher in the 2019 edition of Race Across America (RAAM). Like others in the country, he had seen life in his neighborhood come to a halt with the pandemic and lockdown. Weird for ordinary human beings to behold, the specter of life brought to a standstill was weirder still for the cyclist used to training outdoors daily. In the initial phase, it was unsettling. Kabir trained indoors but the repetitive pattern of a bleak existence was boring. Past its strictest phase, as the lockdown started to relax and he recommenced his outdoor rides, Kabir thought of ways to overcome the ennui that still nagged him. Although there were virtual events organized by friends that he participated in and instances of Everesting (an activity in which, cyclists pedal up and down a hill multiple times till the cumulative elevation gain equals that of Everest – 8848 meters; it is done by runners too) he attended, he knew it would be some months before the old calendar of physical events in endurance cycling got restored. It left him with time on his hands and thoughts around how such time may be put to good use.

Everest Cycling Culture is a leading name in the bicycle retail business in Navi Mumbai. For some years now, it has functioned as a modern bicycle shop in the suburb of Seawoods. ECC anchors a community of cyclists replete with weekend rides covering modest distances. Kabir knew ECC well. Long before the lockdown  of 2020, he and the well known Nagpur-based ultra-cyclist Amit Samarth, had been speakers at a function organized by ECC. He had also given a talk at ECC after completing RAAM. In the period of the phased dismantling of the lockdown, Kabir realized that what would satisfy him is sharing and coaching. Thanks to his excursions in the field of ultra-cycling, he had built up a well of experience. Besides the grace in sharing, helping others improve their skills can be a sort of healing for the mind emerging from pandemic and lockdown. Not to mention – the timing seemed apt because in the wake of lockdown being relaxed, in India and elsewhere in the world, there had been a sharp surge in interest in cycling. The pandemic had highlighted the importance of physical fitness. Among avenues to stay fit, cycling ranked at the top because it mixed exercise with the joy of movement and at the same time ensured physical distancing, which had become an important aspect of pandemic-related safety protocols.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to AbdulRab Kazi, founder and admin of ECC, it’s online community of cycling enthusiasts is currently over 3000-strong and spread across 19 WhatsApp groups in Navi Mumbai. “Kabir has been associated with ECC since 2014-15. We were talking one day when Kabir broached the idea of a training workshop,” Kazi said. ECC quickly bought into the idea. Amateur cyclists typically need some guidance to gain confidence and give wing to their abilities. The workshop seemed ideal for that. “ We decided on a format that would have Kabir ride with the trainees at least three days a week and assign them homework for the remaining days,” Kazi said. ECC circulated the proposal on social media to their members. Alongside they also reactivated an old WhatsApp group they had. Called Wheelist, it was originally meant to address members nursing dreams of personal expeditions and projects. Those interested in the workshop were encouraged to come aboard Wheelist. The workshop was named: Train with Kabir. A fee of Rs 1000 was charged for the program to ensure that only those truly interested (and having suitable cycles) would participate. Around 17-18 applications were received. From that, 13 persons were selected to attend the workshop. It was a varied field ranging from abject recreational cyclists to those who had already done BRMs. It was also varied in terms of age. The diversity suited ECC because its aim is to get more people on the saddle and help them acquire the capability of riding 100 kilometers, comfortably and responsibly. As regards age, Kazi felt that in today’s times many people wake up to their capabilities late. Amateur running and cycling has plenty of people who picked up the sport in middle age. “ At ECC, we have a wide range of age groups, from 9-10 year-olds to those above 70,” Kazi said. Among those who applied and made it to the workshop was, Bala.

Another was fifty year-old Ajith B. Nair, who stays in Seawoods and works as a chief manager at State Bank of India. He had been living the regular working man-existence with physical fitness denied its due share of attention, when a physiotherapist he consulted for a knee problem, recommended cycling. Initially, he borrowed his son’s bicycle for the purpose. “ I liked the experience,” Ajith said. He joined the cycling community at ECC. About a year and a half ago, still unsure whether his new interest in cycling would become a serious engagement or not, the bank officer purchased an affordable hybrid bike – Riverside – from Decathlon. “ My goal on the days I cycled was to pedal for an hour or in terms of distance, about 20 kilometers. I hadn’t heard of BRMs and so knew nothing about them,” he said. However courtesy, the supported group rides offered by ECC, Ajith had to his credit a long bike ride of around 60 kilometers prior to reporting for the workshop. That was the longest distance he had covered. In the course of the workshop (it started on October 20), Ajith did a 70km-ride on Palm Beach. “ It was at the workshop that I got my first insight into what BRMs are,” he said. Ajith did his first BRM, a 200km-ride in November during the course of the workshop. In December, he did his second BRM, this time a 300km-ride. He plans to continue participating in BRMs. But the best thing that the combination of cycling, workshop and BRMs have done is that it has given him a hobby he can continue anywhere in India. “ BRMS are there in many cities now,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

A structural engineer by profession, Parag Kulkarni, 48, used to be a recreational cyclist.Owner of a Giant road bike, he was a member of the ECC cycling community. The longest ride he had done ahead of the workshop was of 100 kilometers; it was a supported outing with ECC of 70 kilometers complemented by a 30km segment on his own. According to Parag, in the early stage of the workshop, the participants along with Kabir, did a slightly long ride covering Palm Beach and the nearby Parsik Hill. This gave Kabir an idea of where each trainee was in cycling; he was able to customize inputs for each in addition to the general sharing of knowledge, which every workshop entails. Parag participated in his first BRM roughly three months ago, a 200km-ride that he completed in approximately 13 hours. Going ahead, he wishes to attempt being a Super Randonneur. But for that, he feels an emergent problem in cycling has to sort itself out. One of his BRMs (a 400k one) had to be aborted because of a couple of punctures, including one that ripped the tyre. Parag managed to hire transport and get himself and cycle back to Navi Mumbai. Unfortunately in the months after lockdown’s relaxation, the sudden surge in cycling and bicycle purchases had created a shortage of bikes and spare parts. Good tyres have become difficult to procure. It took him a couple of weeks to find a replacement for the damaged tyre and that meant no cycling for the period. The difficulty in finding spares also means that amateur cyclists pushing their limits may have to do so conservatively, for damaged parts are currently tough to replace.

Anup T. V was among the more experienced of the trainees. The 41 year-old forex dealer working with Kotak Mahindra Bank and residing in Sanpada, is a triathlete with a few Ironman events under his belt. It was around three years ago that he bought his first bicycle – a Firefox Rapide hybrid. The decision to take up cycling was mainly to check weight gain. He also became a member of ECC. In the ensuing months, he was one of the attendees at the talk hosted by ECC featuring Amit Samarth and Kabir; the former had completed both RAAM and Trans Siberian Extreme while the latter was preparing for RAAM. “ A day after this talk, I signed up for my first triathlon – the Ironman 70.3 held in Dubai in 2019,” Anup said. The journey to that event saw him acquiring a second bicycle, a road bike – Scott Addict 30. Following the Dubai Ironman, Anup participated in the 2019 Ironman Goa and a triathlon of 70.3 dimensions in Kolhapur. The last Ironman event he competed in was in New Zealand. Held in March 2020, it was a case of leaving an India before lockdown, competing in New Zealand and then returning to an India and world altered by the pandemic-induced lockdown. With ECC, Anup had done rides of 100 kilometers and more. Back in 2018 he also did a 200km-BRM on his hybrid bike, covering the distance in roughly 13:15 hours. During the course of the workshop, Anup did two BRMs of 200km each – from Navi Mumbai towards the Pune side, up Bhor Ghat and back. The first one he completed in approximately 10 hours, the second in 11 hours. Later he did a 300km-BRM in roughly 15:10 hours and a 400km-BRM in 23:15 hours. In November 2021, he plans to participate in the 600km category of the Deccan Cliffhanger, an event used as a RAAM-qualifier by many. Interestingly, despite his ability in cycling, Anup’s focus is not ultra-cycling; it is the triathlon. He has set his eyes on an upcoming Ironman in Lanzarote, Spain, which is reputed for its tough cycling leg. “ I would like to keep doing an Ironman every one to one and a half years,” he said.

From the workshop (Photo: courtesy Kabir Rachure)

Seventeen year-old Lenin Kennedy was the youngest trainee at Kabir’s workshop. Until then, he had been the regular recreational cyclist-sort, taking his bike out once or twice a week for rides approximating 20 kilometers on Palm Beach. Owner of a Dodge hybrid cycle, he was also a member of ECC and with the group, had done rides that were 50-70 kilometers long. The workshop has taken his relationship with cycling to another level. While many of the other participants at the workshop proceeded to participate in BRMs, Lenin couldn’t as his age didn’t make him old enough to enroll for one. So the youngster had his own 200km-ride on Palm Beach, which he completed in roughly nine hours. “ I am now interested in getting into professional cycling. I wish to take part in road races,” he said.

Fifty two year-old Prabhat Paranjpe, a telecom professional working with Reliance, has been a recreational cyclist for the past six years or so. His bike is a Trek 3 series MTB, purchased in 2013-14. “ I used to be a weekend rider,” Prabhat said. His rides usually covered around 50 kilometers; “ 25 kilometers one way,” as he put it. From Navi Mumbai, he used to ride in the direction of South Mumbai, Thane and Kalyan. A member of ECC, on his rides with them he cycled a bit longer. “ I didn’t know much about BRMs,” he said. What drew him to the workshop was a simple instinct. During group rides with ECC he had noticed others who were better  than him at cycling longer and faster. He wished to improve. He also wanted to give himself adequate motivation to graduate from being merely a weekend rider to somebody who cycled more regularly. “ I was hoping to bring in some discipline and knowledge,” he said. That seemed possible with the workshop because it was scheduled to be at least a month long affair (it eventually lasted some more to accommodate Kabir’s commitments as a cyclist). During the course of the training program, Prabhat did two rides that were longer than any he had attempted before. He did his first 100k ride; Vashi-Khalapur-Vashi, which he completed in roughly five and a half hours. The next was supposed to be a 200k BRM but Prabhat required some customization. The route of the ride from Navi Mumbai included the Bhor Ghat, which lay on the approach to Lonavala. Given he was on a heavier MTB with 21 (7×3) gears to boot, Prabhat was doubtful of how he would fare within the paradigm of a BRM. So Kabir suggested an alternative – accumulate 200 kilometers by riding from Navi Mumbai to Kasara and back. This Prabhat did; he covered the distance of 205km in approximately 13 hours, stops included. Unfortunately after the workshop, there was a minor loss of momentum in Prabhat’s cycling as the months of January and February had to be surrendered to business travel and recovering from illness. Past mid-February 2021, he said, “ I have just got back to cycling. I did a 50k this weekend and should be doing a 100k next weekend.” Not one to chase timings and such, he seemed interested in solo, self supported tours on his bicycle. “ Maybe I will ride to Pune next,” he said. 

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From the conversation with Kabir, a visible streak in the training process appeared to be sharing of his personal experience and nudging people towards attempting BRMs. As he pointed out, the physical ability to cycle is there in most people; what varies is the personal experience gained from cycling long and hard. That is what ultra-cyclists like him bring to the table at a workshop. Years of training and pedaling long distances have given them insight into how to endure extended hours on the saddle and tackle various situations related to person and bike as they evolve. In the latter context, the encouragement to try BRMs makes sense because they are self-supported rides; the rider has to manage challenges en route himself / herself. But in addition to the above and the general satisfaction he got from helping fellow cyclists improve, there was probably another reason why Kabir elected to coach. Although he and others from his generation in cycling continue to dominate ultra-cycling events in India, the gap between them and the next wave of talent has been narrowing. Kabir thinks that in general, the basin for this talent currently runs through Mumbai-Navi Mumbai, Nashik, Pune and Bengaluru. These are regions that have produced prominent names in ultra-cycling (riders and coaches), around who, other cyclists have since clustered or grown. Each successive wave of talent rides in having benefited from more opportunities to cycle and improve, than the generation before it. So at some point, it is inevitable that new names will hog the podium. Nobody wins forever. What genuinely endures in such reality is one’s accumulated bank of experience as a cyclist. It makes sense to share it.

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

2021 CHENNAI MARATHON HELD AS SCHEDULED

Finisher’s medal from the 2021 Chennai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anil Sharma)

After months of no mass participation events and amateur running in general weighed down by the restrictions of lockdown, the New Year kicked off with a scaled down version of the 2021 Chennai Marathon held as scheduled early today morning (January 3).

“ The event went off quite well under the watchful eyes of officials,” V. P. Senthil Kumar, Race Director, Skechers Performance Chennai Marathon 2021, said. When asked about the number of runners who actually participated in the event, he said tallying that number would take a few days. Following the onset of lockdown in India in March 2020 and its subsequent phased relaxation, the 2021 Chennai marathon was the second major running event to put feet on the ground after the 2020 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) of November. However while ADHM’s physical race was a competitive elites-only affair held in the safety of a protective bubble, the Chennai Marathon was non-competitive, open to amateurs, conducted on a motorsports racetrack away from the city with COVID-19 safety protocols in place and capped to a maximum participation of 1000-1500 runners.

Among those who ran in Chennai was Bengaluru-based amateur runner, Thomas Bobby Philip. A regular podium finisher at the annual Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), he currently runs in the race’s 50-54 years age category. “ I didn’t find any of the safety measures in place intrusive,’’ he said when asked how the Chennai Marathon experience felt, compared to those from pre-pandemic days. He said that when he first heard of the event in Chennai and the return to some form of event-based running it promised, he was certain that he wanted to participate. “ It was a relief,’’ he said of event savored after months with none on runner’s plate. Bobby finished the full marathon in 2:57:12, which was better than his previous best timing at TMM – 2:57:40, registered in 2018. “ I don’t compare these timings as the conditions and circumstances are different,’’ Bobby said.

The Chennai Marathon followed the 3.4 kilometer-loop of a race track and atop the benefit of that contained environment, was also utterly pleasant for a barefoot runner like Bobby. “ The track served up one of the best barefoot running experiences I have had so far,’’ Bobby said. The course was fairly flat. According to him, the others from Bengaluru who got sub-three hour finishes were “ Tilak, Devi Shetty and Vinuth.’’ All of them belong to Pacemakers, the training group anchored by Coach K. C. Kothandapani. “ There were around 150 runners for the marathon, which started at 4.30 AM. You had to report to the venue 15 minutes ahead. Safety protocols were followed well and in the holding area we had circles marked on the ground for each runner to stand with adequate physical distancing from the other.  Government officials were present to make sure that protocols were followed,’’ Bobby said.

According to Anil Sharma, member of Chennai Runners, the organizers of the event, the idea of holding the 2021 Chennai Marathon began getting discussed – including with the authorities who would be granting the required permissions – around October 2020. The proposal was to hold an event with all COVID-19 protocols in place. The race track at Irungattukottai also offered a location outside city limits. “ The authorities were supportive,’’ he said.  Anil, who participated in the half marathon, provided an overview of the approach to the event. The first priority, given the times and conditions in which the event would be held, was to get a grip on the potential number of participants. It had to be manageable so that chances of infection may be limited. “ We introduced some restrictions including timing-based eligibility to participate. It ensured that those who registered were keen on running,’’ Anil said. Additionally participation was capped at a maximum of 1000-1500 runners. Bib collection was set for the day before the event and prior to collecting the bib, those registered and turning up had to get their temperature checked and provide a declaration that satisfied a checklist related to COVID-19.

On event day, upon reporting 15 minutes prior to the start time, there was another round of temperature check to secure entry. Masks were to be worn till the commencement of running. “ We had people on loudhailers frequently reminding participants to maintain physical distancing in the holding area,’’ he said. Volunteers also checked the same. Government officials were present to monitor the proceedings. On the 3.4 kilometer-race track two aid stations were made available for the runners. Post run refreshments were served in packets that the runners could pick up themselves; the same went for medals, which were hung on stands and could be picked up. There was a medical team and ambulance available for any health emergencies. “ We were a bit concerned about the race track ambiance because it offers no shade. The full marathon takes some time to complete and the half marathon was starting roughly two hours after the marathon had commenced. There was a chance of running in bright sunshine towards the concluding stages. Luckily, the day stayed cloudy,” Anil said. 

It is understood that at least one other major race organizer had a representative at the venue to observe the Chennai event, widely seen as an icebreaker for the slow return of road races. In December 2020, industry officials had mentioned that besides the 2021 Chennai Marathon there was an event in Hyderabad too slated for January.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This report is based on telephone conversations with the people spoken to.)     

2020 / LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Long read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Srinu Bugatha at 2020 TMM (Photo: Chetan Gusani)

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

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

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

Thomas Bobby Philip (Photo: courtesy Chetan Gusani)

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

Naveen John (Photo: courtesy Naveen)

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

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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

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

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

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

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

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: Bounty Narula)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal (Photo: courtesy Vijay)

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

Gerald Pde (Photo: courtesy Gerald)

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

Karthik Anand (Photo: courtesy Karthik)

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

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

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

Shilpi Sahu (Photo: courtesy Shilpi)

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

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

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

Venkatesh Shivarama (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

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

Zarir Balliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

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

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

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

Sharath Kumar Adanur (Photo: courtesy Sharath)

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

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar)

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

Seema Yadav (Photo: courtesy Seema)

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

Girish Bindra (Photo: courtesy Girish)

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

Abbas Shaikh (Photo: by arrangement)

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

Pranali Patil (Photo: courtesy Pranali)

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

Kavitha Reddy (Photo: courtesy Kavitha)

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

Himanshu Sareen (Photo: Shweta Sareen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS PREMIUM BICYCLE SALES GAIN, SCOTT LAUNCHES NEW MODELS IN INDIA

SCOTT Spark RC 900 (Photo: courtesy SCOTT India)

SCOTT Sports India has launched the SCOTT Spark series of mountain bikes in India.

According to an official press release made available on September 16, 2020, the launch includes the SCOTT Spark RC 900 Team, one of the most decorated full-suspension bikes, ridden by the likes of Nino Schurter, a winner at the Olympics, and Kate Courtney, a World Cup champion. “ The bike is a super light, super-aggressive steed that pedals with incredible efficiency and is priced at INR 369,900,’’ the statement said.

The launch follows an increase in demand for performance-oriented premium bikes in the price range of two to ten lakh rupees. When contacted, an official spokesperson informed that while the Spark RC 900 Team is currently available in India, the rest of the models in the range are available on request.

“ We’ve seen unprecedented demand in premium bicycles over the last few months. While fitness is the key driver, a lot of demand is specific to performance and high-quality components, and these bikes cost anywhere between 2 lakhs to 10 lakhs. At SCOTT, we always believe in bringing the best in innovation, technology, and design to someone equally passionate. And that’s why we are planning to introduce a higher number of performance-oriented bikes in India over the next few months,” Jaymin Shah, Country Manager, SCOTT Sports India, was quoted as saying in the press release.

“ We’ve seen an increase in demand for performance-oriented cycles, not only in the mountain bike category but also for road and gravel bike category. For instance, we received multiple orders for the SCOTT Addict RC series that are priced between 5 lakhs to 6 lakhs,” he added.

In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic there has been an increase in bicycle sales globally. Cycling is environment friendly personal transport; it is also an exercise contributing to good health.  Many cities overseas have actively encouraged citizens to cycle and walk instead of taking out motor vehicles.

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

PSYNYDE BIKES / IT’S TIME TO CYCLETOWORK

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes and is being used here with prior permission.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered the case of cycling, worldwide. Amidst the requirement to stay healthy and also keep adequate physical distance, the good old bicycle has emerged a fine combination of encouraging fitness and observing pandemic related protocols. News reports in the recent past cited bicycle sales spiking in several countries. The bulk of the new interest was in practical bicycles for commuting purposes.

Pune based boutique manufacturer of bicycles, Psynyde Bikes, plans to introduce a model that packs into this slot. Aptly named “ cycletowork,’’ the commuter bicycle had been in the pipeline for the past one to one and a half years, Praveen Prabhakaran, founder of the company, said. The pandemic and the relevance of cycling it highlighted, has authored an opportunity to formally bring the model to the market. True to Psynyde’s value-for-money positioning, the commuter bicycle is slightly high end in components and looks but affordably priced for those specifications. “ We are hoping to price it at around Rs 25,000-26,000,’’ Praveen said.

The bike, which has been designed by Psynyde in India, has an aluminum frame and steel fork. The frame is a completely new design with geometry meant for commuting. “ Its new from ground up,’’ Praveen said. The bike employs Shimano Tourney derailleurs at the front and back. It has altogether 24 gears (8×3 set up). Where it makes a departure from other similar models in the Indian market is with regard to its crank. “ It has a hollow spindle crank,’’ Praveen said. The hollow spindle crank is a bit fatter in build than its brethren. This makes it stiff and thereby capable of better response when it comes to translating effort to movement. At the same time, because the component is hollow inside, it is light and does not affect the overall weight of the bicycle, Praveen said.

The company has around 100 numbers of the commuter model in stock. “ We have been getting enquiries,’’ Praveen said.

Psynyde is a home-grown company, founded by cycling enthusiasts. Its earlier models – Psynyde Furan (MTB) and Psynyde Oxygen (hybrid) – are known well in the Indian market. The company started as an outfit making custom-built bicycles and performance oriented bicycle components. It is now a young, small enterprise that sells a limited number of bicycles designed by it. For more on Psynyde please try these links:    https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/, https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/, https://shyamgopan.com/2019/08/03/psynyde-bikes-weathering-tough-chemistry/

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

SWIMMING’S PHASE OF WOES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The closure of swimming pools has meant tough times for swimmers, coaches and support staff

While COVID-19 has been a setback for sports at large, it has been particularly harsh on swimming.  And within that the impact has been hardest on competition swimmers.  “ Pools have been shut since around March 19. In competition swimming, there is no real replacement for the swimming pool. Dryland work outs cannot fully substitute training in the pool. It will be difficult for swimmers to get back to earlier performance levels,’’ Zarir Balliwala, President, Greater Mumbai Amateur Aquatics Association (GMAAA) said. The prolonged closure of pools has derailed this year’s district and state level competitions. Question mark graces the nationals too.

According to Zarir, the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) is seized of the matter and it has spoken to the government. But with no response that can be acted upon available yet, the closure continues. With it, elite swimmers training for events like the Olympic Games, endurance swimmers who have crossed channels and straits worldwide as well as recreational swimmers – all have been left high and dry. The tough situation was brought to focus when ace Indian swimmer Virdhawal Khade tweeted mid-June that he may have to consider retiring from the sport if pools stayed shut. Virdhawal is the current national record holder in 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle events and the 50m butterfly. He represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. “ Regaining form will be an uphill task if elite swimmers don’t have access to the pool for long,’’ Sebastian Xavier, former national record holder in swimming who represented the country at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, said. On June 30, 2020, espn.in carried a report by Jonathan Selvaraj on swimmer Sajan Prakash, the only Indian elite swimmer who is currently training, thanks to him being in Thailand. Sajan who is still recovering from injury described his return to the pool after the virus triggered-lockdown. “ Going back to the water, I felt as if my body was made out of stone,” he was quoted as saying in the report.

Most people linked to swimming realize that with the virus sparing little room to argue their case, one has to simply hope for the best amid existing challenges. “ You have to look at the positive side,’’ Kaustubh Radkar, former national level swimmer and now a well-known triathlete and coach, said when asked how swimmers may tackle the predicament. He suggested that the best option would be to treat lockdown with its lack of access to pools, like a period of injury. “ Take it as if you are addressing injury. If I dip into personal experience, I had shoulder surgery in 2009 and was out of action for three months. You have to make the most of what is available. What you can do right now is indulge in shore based exercises and keep a positive attitude,’’ he said. With shoulder injury, Radkar estimates the dip in fitness levels he experienced over those three months at about 50 per cent. Without injury – which would be the apt way to estimate for the current situation – he felt the dip in swimmers’ fitness levels should be 25 per cent.

The above encapsulates only the physical aspect of how swimming is missed. Most people see the pool as a fun environment. That is typical landlubber perspective, one in which swimming is the exception and activity on land is the norm. This isn’t necessarily the perspective when you are a committed swimmer who is very comfortable in water. In that predicament, the way you miss swimming is more visceral. Asked how a dedicated swimmer may miss water, Radkar said that the question cannot be answered generically as the nature and extent of impact varies from person to person. Speaking for himself, he said, “ for me, water is very calming. When I am in the water, it is a perfect state of existence. There is no distraction. It is meditative and positive,’’ he said.  Zarir too recalled tranquility as the essential quality of water. This should give an idea of what exactly those embracing water as preferred medium of sport must be missing in these times of pools shut due to pandemic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Swimming pools have been studied in the past for how they spread disease. The National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is part of the United States National Library of Medicine. There is a study titled “ A Review and Update on Waterborne Viral Diseases Associated with Swimming Pools’’ by Lucia Bonadonna and Giuseppina La Rosa, published January 9, 2019, available on its database. The introduction to its abstract says:  Infectious agents, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and molds, may threaten the health of swimming pool bathers. Viruses are a major cause of recreationally-associated waterborne diseases linked to pools, lakes, ponds, thermal pools/spas, rivers, and hot springs. They can make their way into waters through the accidental release of fecal matter, body fluids (saliva, mucus), or skin flakes by symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. In its concluding remarks, the study noted: In light of the health hazards posed by swimming pools, it is essential to constantly monitor water quality in swimming pools and to assess the effectiveness of treatment and disinfection processes and compliance with standards. Specifically, appropriate chemical and microbial evaluation of water quality should be carried out, especially when large numbers of bathers are expected to use the pools. Overcrowding should in any case be prevented. Since the behavior of swimmers may affect water quality, strict rules of behavior in the pool should be followed and enforced, including shower before entering the water, wash hands after using the toilet, take children to bathroom before swimming, and, importantly, avoid swimming while sick. This study provides an overview of the health risks associated with swimming pools. In other words, you can’t pretend risks don’t exist. However the study precedes the COVID-19 pandemic by almost a whole year.

Similar studies specific to our COVID-19 times, were hard to locate. On May 15, 2020, www.covid19facts.com, a website hosted by Reckitt Benckiser (in India, their best-known brand is Dettol) posted an analysis by EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) Healthcare on the risk of contracting COVID-19 from swimming in the pool or the sea. According to it, the biggest risk with swimming is likely getting too close to other people, for example in enclosed pools, changing rooms or on beaches, rather than infection from the water itself. Citing a report from the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Higher Council for Scientific Research), the analysis said that its authors concluded: it was “highly unlikely” that people would be infected from contact with water. However, they warned, leisure swimming tends to involve a loss of social distancing, which is the major risk from using pools or beaches. In swimming pools, the authors say, “the use of disinfecting agents is widely implemented in order to avoid microbial contamination of the waters” by users. They say that “the residual concentration of the disinfecting agent present in the water should be sufficient for virus inactivation.” They admit there is “currently no data” on what happens to SARS-CoV-2 in seawater, but say that “the dilution effect, as well as the presence of salt, are factors that are likely to contribute to a decrease in viral load and its inactivation.” They say this is based on what happens to other, similar viruses. Rivers, lakes, and untreated pools are riskier, they say, and are “ the most inadvisable aquatic environments” for swimming. The report authors stress that the most likely way people could get infected while swimming “ is through respiratory secretions that are generated by coughing, sneezing and person-to-person contact” in busy spaces. The analysis also cited what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to say on the subject. It quoted CDC: “ There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas. Proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) of these facilities should inactivate the virus in the water.” They also advise that the salt in the sea and dilution effects make it unlikely the virus would survive. CDC’s recommendations in full may be viewed on this link:  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/parks-rec/aquatic-venues.html

In March, when nationwide lockdown was announced in India, the total number of COVID-19 cases was around 500. By July 6, that had changed to a total count (since the disease appeared in India) of almost 700,000 cases; third highest in the world. The original lockdown had relaxed but with relaxation of norms leading to further spread of infection in some places, stringent lockdowns were happening at local level. Such imagery stacks the cards against adopting a kinder view towards swimming pools. The people this blog spoke to agreed that the reopening of pools would have to be a well thought through decision; one that authorities may take only when they are absolutely sure of allowing it. At least one senior coach this blog spoke to said he was anticipating another couple of months of closure. He explained the reason. “ At the complex where I work, during busy hours, we may have around 100 people in the water and almost double that number on land. You can’t have that in a situation like the present. Only when infection numbers have dropped significantly, can we examine possibilities of return to swimming with new protocols in place,’’ he said. Pools have opened in some countries and the general practice seen there is not allowing use of shower rooms, changing rooms and locker rooms. You come ready to swim and once you finish your session, you put your clothes on top of wet swimsuit and go. Asked if it would be possible to open pools just for elite swimmers (so that their training isn’t damaged beyond repair), they felt it should be possible to do that with above said restrictions and strict lane discipline in place. The report on espn.in provided insight on how Sajan Prakash is training at Phuket’s Thanyapura Aquatic Centre. “ Among the rules we have to follow since the opening of swimming pools has been to train in separate lanes. In the past, because we had to share the pool with other members of the centre, we would all have to swim in a single file in the same lane. Very often you’d find someone’s hands touching your toes. It’s much less distracting to have your own lane,” Sajan, who represented India at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, was quoted as saying, in the report.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Athletes are only one aspect of sport. When sport is an industry, there are many others dependent on it. Their livelihood is hit when pandemic strikes and sports goes for a toss. With pools shut, there are swimming coaches and support staff finding it difficult to make ends meet. As with any industry, vulnerability depends on how secure your employment was. “ Those working for big institutions that run swimming pools and those located in major metros, may not be affected severely. But freelancers and the employment ecosystem around pools in smaller cities and towns would have been affected,’’ the head coach at a school in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, reputed for its strength in swimming, said. Sebastian Xavier is among those trying to raise resources to help. He forwarded to this blog information on the fundraiser Lets Pool In, which seeks to support 100 persons from the affected category with a one-time financial grant of Rs 10,000. “ It is a good move,’’ the earlier mentioned coach also said, adding he wished the amount per capita was more. Resident in the emergent livelihood problem around shut swimming pools is a little remembered detail. India’s lockdown started in March, just as summer vacation was approaching. The warm months of summer are when pools are at their busiest; Lets Pool In estimates that the summer months contribute as much as 60 per cent of annual revenues for this industry. So in 2020, the business of swimming pools and coaching therein has already lost its best earnings season. Not to mention – the coaching camps of summer play a role in scouting the next generation of the talented young.

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

SPORT AND THE SHADOW OF RULE 50

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On January 14, 2020, the website of Time magazine carried an article by Melissa Godin listing the instances when athletes brought political protest to the Olympic Games.  The incidents range from support for Irish independence to fists raised in Black Power salute, protest against the erstwhile Soviet Union and declining to compete against Israel as means to highlight the plight of Palestinians. What prompted the compilation was – earlier that month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) disclosed new guidelines regulating protest by athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which guards the political neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games already deals with this subject.  But it was vague about what constitutes protest. Time magazine noted that the new guidelines, which mention examples of what count as protest, coincide with rising activism among athletes, especially those from the US. In August 2019 two US athletes had been placed under probation for a year after one knelt and the other raised a fist during medal ceremonies at the Pan American Games (they were protesting against gun violence, racial injustice and the recent acts of their country’s president). The report cited the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, saying that the Olympic Games must never be a platform to advance political or any other divisive ends. He maintained that the political neutrality of the Games is undermined when the occasion is used by organizations and individuals “ as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.’’

At the same time as the magazine article appeared, COVID-19, which would characterize 2020 in a defining way, was only weeks into being reported. It would be another two months before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic and the question of whether the 2020 Olympic Games would be held or not would haunt the IOC. On March 24, the Games were eventually shifted to 2021. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died as a result of police excess in Minneapolis, USA. It was a horrific incident, one that sparked a wave of protests in the US with reverberations elsewhere. In the mood of protest following Floyd’s death, Bach’s observation from January and Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter attracted attention afresh. Early June, the IOC confirmed to the Daily Telegraph that it stood by Rule 50. Days later, Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics told the Independent, that he wouldn’t discourage athletes from expressing their views as he felt the current generation is more willing to speak out than previous generations were. “ There is nothing in World Athletics’ Integrity Code of Conduct to prevent athletes from protesting as long as it is done in a respectful manner, considers other athletes and does not damage our sport,’’ Coe was quoted as saying in the report by Lawrence Ostlere. For proper perspective, it must be mentioned here that Coe, a former world record holder and Olympic champion, who also anchored the organization of the 2012 London Olympic Games, has been nominated to the IOC. World Athletics hasn’t had a member on the IOC since 2015. To be admitted, Coe needs to first step down from other private business responsibilities he holds which constitute potential conflict of interest.

Over the last decade or so, the factors that contribute to social justice have taken a beating in many parts of the world. Governments have veered to authoritarianism, there is a general feeling that justice is partial to capital, inequality in wealth distribution has grown and those left out feel marginalized. Simply put – topics for protest are many. So are governments with trumped up public image and skeletons in the cupboard, who will be sensitive to protest. Amid this, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the virus. As COVID-19 swept across a planet devoid of vaccine to combat it, the best solution we had was to break the chain of transmission. Hygiene protocols and physical distancing became primary defence. Above all, it demanded that we accept a cardinal truth – the virus exists. If you don’t accept that it exists then all the hygiene protocols, physical distancing; even the frantic search for a vaccine – they lose relevance. The protests over George Floyd’s death happened because people acknowledged that the problem at its core – the virus causing it – exists. Compared to that, Rule 50 sanitizing Olympic venues of protest is the equivalent of pretending that the world’s problems don’t exist in the first place. Athletes may be elite by virtue of being at the Olympics. But they hail from mainstream society and many of them have experienced firsthand, discrimination based on race, gender, economic and social inequality. How can you pretend that society beyond the stadium doesn’t exist? It is what you come from; it is what you go back to.

To its credit, Rule 50 does not altogether ban protest. A document called Rule 50 Guidelines Developed by the IOC Athletes’ Commission, available on the IOC website, explains the details. According to it, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter provides a framework to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games. It states that no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas. “ It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.  Specifically,  the  focus  for  the  field  of  play  and  related  ceremonies  must  be  on  celebrating athletes’ performance and showcasing sport and its values,’’ the document said. For emphasis, it pointed out that even the head of state of the host country gets to utter only a preset sentence declaring the Games open. Neither they nor any government official is allowed any further comment on any occasion during the Games. Besides no government official can appear in a medal ceremony. “ While respecting local laws, athletes have the opportunity to express their opinions, including:

  • During press conferences and interviews, i.e. in the mixed zones, in the International Broadcasting Centre (IBC) or the Main Media Centre (MMC)
  • At team meetings
  • On digital or traditional media, or on other platforms.

It should be noted that expressing views is different from protests and demonstrations. It should be noted, too, that these guidelines are also applicable to any other accredited person (trainers, coaches, officials, etc.)’’ the document said, adding, “ Here are some examples of what would constitute a protest, as opposed to expressing views (non-exhaustive list):

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.’’

The problem here – it would seem – is one of comparative mileage. Since protests seek public attention, the proverbial valve on the pressure cooker that Rule 50 provides is only worth its weight in visibility and media coverage. At any Olympic Games, the most watched footage probably relates to the opening and closing ceremonies, the competition at various sport venues and the medal ceremonies. Who watches press conferences and interviews? Only journalists go there and reports filed subsequently are allotted due significance by editors depending on the overall news flow from the larger sport event. Consequently, someone could ask this question and it would seem relevant: what matters more in a stadium – the advertisements of sponsors selling this and that or a black band on an athlete’s arm reminding us of social injustice the world is yet to comprehensively address? It goes to the heart of human existence: what are we alive for? Having said that; it must be mentioned, protesters too need to keep a few things in mind. Just as advertisements become irritating through excess, an overdose of protest can progressively leave us indifferent to calls for social justice. That’s the danger in world by trend and perception management, which is what our times have become. So perhaps there is relevance in leaving sport alone?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Although rarely said as such, one strong motive for keeping sport free of controversy is that it helps sport events happen by making available a sanitized platform sponsors can support. To be precise, it isn’t total no-no to controversy; it is opportunistic leverage with partiality to clean slate as best bet for sustaining long term. On the other hand, money’s aversion for conscience and its appetite for opportunism catches the goat of anyone with a conscience. Notwithstanding this tussle, fact is, political neutrality has its benefits. Cast so, sport becomes an avenue for engagement among people when other options more easily lost to politics, are exhausted. Neutral sport is an important instrument in humanity’s tool box. It brings us to the question: what if you have a grievance but don’t protest? What if you let your performance in sport, do the talking instead?

Jesse Owens is among the biggest icons of the Olympic Games. He came up the hard way. Although a successful university athlete, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. He enjoyed no scholarship and worked part time jobs to pay for his education. On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten meet in Michigan, he rewrote three world records and equaled another in a span of 45 minutes. Next year he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. The world sat up and took note. However on return home, his life continued to be a struggle. He had difficulty finding work given the social environment of that period. He filed for bankruptcy in 1966, hitting rock bottom before his predicament improved. Despite his personal struggles, he didn’t initially support the protest on the podium at the 1968 Olympics (according to Wikipedia’s page on Jesse Owens, he became more sympathetic of the incident, later); he tried to convince President Jimmy Carter that the US shouldn’t boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics as sport is politically neutral. Yet eighty four years after the Berlin Olympics, with more sterling performances by athletes to show and more social fissures and inequalities added worldwide, we are left wondering: will Olympic triumph alone suffice to focus the world’s attention on social justice delayed or do we need to sport a black band on prime time as well? How different is 2020 from 1936? Or is it not different at all? If things haven’t changed significantly, what kept it so? Those are the questions. The answers won’t be easy for IOC or anyone, to handle.

On June 14, 2020, Global Athlete – it calls itself “ an athlete-led movement that will inspire and lead positive change in world sport, and collectively address the balance of power between athletes and administrators” – put out a statement claiming that recent statements of the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) proposing banning of athletes who take a knee in solidarity with the anti-racism movement, constitutes “ a clear breach of human rights.” The statement which said that the “ collective voice” of athletes had “ pressured the IOC to pivot on its position and now consult with athletes on Rule 50,” also called upon the IOC and IPC to abolish the rule.

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

CYCLING / VIRTUAL REALITY: IS IT THE PROVERBIAL TIP OF THE ICEBERG?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Within the classic trinity of endurance sports – swimming, cycling and running – cycling has been early candidate for creativity by technology.

As life slipped indoors due to COVID-19 and lockdown, swimming pools shut and running got severely curtailed. But cycling stayed partly afloat thanks to the home trainer.

The concept of trainer is not recent by any yardstick. According to Wikipedia, the “ dandy horse,’’ also called Draisienne or Laufmaschine was the first human means of transport to use only two wheels in tandem. Invented by Baron Karl von Drais, it lacked pedals but is regarded as the first bicycle. He introduced it to the public in 1817-18. In the early 1860s, the Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement, in their design, added a mechanical crank with pedals on an enlarged front wheel – this was the velocipede; the first bicycle to enter mass production. Look up the history of the bicycle trainer and you will usually find a photo of a velocipede trainer from 1884. So it would seem: as of 2020, the bicycle is roughly 203 years old and the trainer, 136 years old at least.

The velocipede trainer resembles an early form of the stationary bike or exercise bike. It makes no effort to hide its immobility. What we today recognize as the home trainer, packages that trait into a piece of specialized equipment or accessory – it is an adjunct converting regular bicycle into a stationary bike.  This home trainer now comes in various finishes, the most advanced of which is the smart trainer. The latter category allows you to experience a ride in virtual reality (akin to gaming environment). Using specialized software you can link a responsive trainer to a digitally mapped cycling route. You see yourself on computer screen as an avatar responding to the physical effort you put on trainer. In high end programs, you can compete with others in the digital ecosystem of a race of your choice. Needless to say, in these months of pandemic, technology platforms promoting virtual cycling have gained popularity while the home trainer has sold well with select models out of stock on some websites.

The best known of cycling’s emergent technology platforms is Zwift; it is described on Wikipedia as “ a massively multiplayer online cycling and running physical training program that enables users to interact, train and compete in a virtual world.’’ It is made by a California-based company called Zwift Inc, cofounded by Jon Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barger and Alarik Myrin. As of 2018, Zwift had 550,000 user accounts, that page said. But this number is from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown accompanying the pandemic is known to have hugely increased the traction for programs like Zwift (some media reports have estimated user base at a million plus). “ The companies creating these platforms were investing in technology and marketing earlier itself. The pandemic and the lockdown that followed grew their user base exponentially,’’ Nigel Smith, Head Coach, Kanakia Scott Racing Development, a road racing team based in India, said. It wasn’t possible for this blog to get an idea of the scale and value of the relevant potential market. What we do know is that cycling is one of the world’s biggest sports and among humanity’s popular forms of physical activity; there is separately a rising army of gamers and programs like Zwift appeal to both dedicated cyclists and those in the overlapping borderlands of cycling and gaming. According to crunchbase.com, Zwift – it was founded in 2014 – has so far raised $ 164.5 million including a December 2018 instalment of $ 120 million. A podcast by Rouleur magazine also cited similar figures. Additionally, the Crunchbase page said that as per Privco, Zwift had a post-money valuation in the range of $ 500 million to $ 1 billion as of December 19, 2018. A December 2018 report on sportsbusinessdaily.com regarding the $ 120 million raised, mentioned that according to its co-founder and CEO, Eric Min, the startup was “ approaching unicorn status.’’

Screenshot of FulGaz’s version of the UCI 2020 World Championships ITT course in Aigle, Switzerland. The home trainer adjusts resistance based on the actual course elevation profile (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

There is a December 2014 interview with Eric Min by Kelli Samuelson, available on the Zwift website. Two paragraphs therein provide an overview of the company’s inception. Min and his partner Alarik Myrin had co-founded Sakonnet Technology. It worked out well and the duo thought: why don’t they start the next venture together? “ We were looking at different industries, but it seemed all the great ideas were already taken! The turning point was when my older brother Ji, a private equity professional, advised me to stick to what I know best. Alarik had been encouraging me to take a hard look at cycling since I was so passionate about the sport. But whatever we decided to start together, it had to be consumer focused with the technology at the core of it and the business had to scale,’’ Min has been quoted as saying. At this point in time, due to family commitments and work, he was doing most of his cycling indoors. “ It had dawned on me that the indoor cyclist was being underserved and that the indoor experience hadn’t really changed all these years. It still wasn’t fun or social! Then I had a moment of eureka. What if we could take something that was historically mind numbing and turn it into entertainment? What if we could take advantage of video game technology, social networks, and friendly competition, and package that experience for the indoor cyclist?’’ Min explains in the interview.

Late April 2020, as news appeared of the push to host a virtual reality version of Race Across America (RAAM), the program involved was FulGaz. There are differences between the nature and texture of these programs. “ Zwift appears more interested in the blend of cycling and gaming. It is not above creating a make believe gaming world around cycling. There are already elements of equipment upgrade and trade using points earned, built into the format. It is also more social. That seems to be their preferred trajectory. On the other hand, FulGaz – it is an Australian company – appears focused on making their version of virtual reality as close to real life as possible. They offer some iconic cycling routes in digital format, which your avatar cycles through. The first type of product should appeal to the larger crowd combining cycling and gaming; the second should appeal to the more serious cyclist. That is what I would think,’’ Naveen John, among India’s leading bicycle racers, said, when asked about how the market was getting split between the various programs on offer. Are these technology platforms indicative of a whole new world of obsession opening up within cycling?

There are aspects of cycling outdoors that may not be acquired if your interest is restricted to excelling only in virtual reality. Aside from software, the core of this new paradigm is built of home trainer and bicycle. Once a bicycle is mounted on a trainer, its feel and behavior is different from riding outdoors. “ You pick up bike handling skills and bunch riding skills by cycling outdoors,’’ Nigel said. However there are critical variables in the equation – technology and the push of virtual reality to progressively become as close to reality as possible. Already high end trainers exist that can simulate the feel of terrain and permit a degree of flexion for bike mounted on it. But if you push gaming further, then what you wish for in the realm of fantasy may exceed what you normally need in the real world of cycling. Not surprisingly, there have been moves by companies currently in the programming sphere to get into related physical hardware. This is why the simple and tempting question of whether performances in virtual reality will outdo performances returned in the real world (example: which will be faster, RAAM or VRAAM?), doesn’t make complete sense. The two are not exactly comparable; it is not apples to apples.

The two worlds – their nature, their potential and their challenges – are mutually different. However, at some levels, there would be benefits transferable to each other’s distinct universe. Nigel did not think that there could be coaching totally focused on excelling for home trainer-based virtual reality. He feels the general push is still to cycle outdoors and excel there. “ There is a way to race and excel on these technology platforms and it is not necessarily the same as riding outside. I think what a coach would look for is a well-rounded athlete and not merely an efficient cardiovascular system on a pair of strong legs. However, training on the home trainer lets you focus on specifics,’’ he said. Another example of potential synergy was reported by Cycling News – a story from the Zwift Academy program begun in 2016, in partnership with Canyon-SRAM.  The article quoted Eric Min describing Zwift Academy as “ an entirely new means of identifying talent.’’ The 2019 Zwift Academy had nearly 9000 woman participants, a growth of 80 per cent compared to the previous year. Jessica Pratt of Australia who topped the program secured a one year contract and the final spot on Canyon-SRAM’s roster for 2020, the article said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Further, between June 2020 (time of writing) and same time a year ago, there is a palpable difference as regards general interest in cycling’s virtual reality avatar. “ About a year ago, I recall there was a debate comparing cycling in the real world and the same in virtual reality. At that time, sentiment was definitely favorable to the outdoors,’’ Nigel said. The divide isn’t that sharp now. What the pandemic unleashed in home trainer-based cycling, may well be a genre that becomes a world by itself. There are reasons why this line of thought merits attention.

For some time now the Olympic movement has been studying the world of gaming. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had said that competitive gaming could be considered as a sporting activity. There have been reports since indicating that the 2024 Paris Olympics may have e-sports in the list of sports for demonstration. The earlier mentioned December 2018 report on sportsbusinessdaily.com quoted Min as saying, “ our goal is to bring Zwift to the Olympics.’’ In September 2019, NBC Sports reported that IOC and Intel have partnered for the Intel World Open, an e-sports competition to be held before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (the 2020 Olympics have since been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In December 2019, an article in Business Insider said that in recent clarifications (following the 8th Olympic Summit held earlier that month) the IOC has said its interest is confined to games based on real sports. According to it, “ the committee floated the possibility of embracing video games that make use of virtual or augmented reality to add a physical component to gameplay.’’ In other words, the IOC wants you to move, be physically active; plonked down on a chair and pushing buttons won’t do. In this new matrix, cycling sits pretty. Programs like Zwift and FulGaz require you to be actively pedaling on home trainer. “ From the ranks of established sports, I think cycling has a good chance of making that cut as regards e-sports at the Olympics,’’ Naveen said. That is of course, assuming the Olympic movement is still interested in e-sports and the programs currently fascinating cyclists continue to be partial to physical activity.

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

INDIA WATCHES FROM THE SIDELINES AS PANDEMIC FUELS BICYCLE SALES OVERSEAS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

COVID-19 and its accompanying need for physical distancing and maintaining good health, has caused bicycle sales to zoom in some countries. Any chance the trend may offer cycling in India, fresh impetus? Unlikely – that is the feedback from the cycling community. But there is hope.

For those into cycling and reading, a series of recent articles in The Guardian, would have been particularly heart-warming.

On May 15, 2020, Matthew Taylor reported in The Guardian that the city’s mayor proposed to close large areas of London to cars so that people can walk and cycle freely when the COVID-19-induced lockdown is eased. It would be one of the biggest car-free initiatives by any city worldwide. The reasons for encouraging walking and cycling: physical distancing would be tough to observe in public transport while the return of cars could precipitate traffic jams and increase air pollution.

Earlier, on May 10, 2020, Sean Ingle wrote in The Guardian about the growing relevance of cycling as mode of transport in a world where COVID-19 is forecast to linger. The resultant need to maintain physical distancing directs us to measured use of mass transport systems. We also seek avenues to stay healthy. It is in this matrix that cycling merits attention. It is viable non-polluting personal transport for short to medium distances. Further, as done by normal cyclists, it is a mild form of exercise satisfying the type of physical activity recommended by researchers as ideal to stay healthy. Ingle’s article mentioned a study by scientist David C. Nieman which helped establish that regular exercise assists in lowering upper respiratory infection rates while at the same time improving immunosurveillance. Also mentioned was a report by the US Surgeon General in the 1990s, recommending exercise as a vital component of preventive medicine. According to the article, Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary of the UK, has promised two billion pounds “ towards plans to double the number of cyclists and walkers by 2025.’’

The next day, May 11, 2020, Miles Brignall writing in the same publication reported that bicycle sales have been booming in the UK. Shares of listed companies in the segment had risen in value and the country’s biggest bicycle retailer had informed that sale of some equipment was up 500 per cent with bike sales itself prevailing at double the normal level. At smaller shops, stocks were running out and some had a waiting period. The article noted that cities around the world were rushing to improve their cycling infrastructure. In Germany, cycle lanes were being expanded and Paris was installing 650 kilometers of cycleways.

A couple of weeks earlier, on April 22, 2020, Justin Landis-Hanley reported in The Guardian that Australian bike retailers were struggling to keep up with booming sales following imposition of restrictions on general life due to COVID-19. The reasons cited ranged from people wanting to avoid infection and therefore staying off public transport, to regular avenues for exercise like gyms and pools being shut and the bicycle suddenly seeming attractive, to the aptness of the bicycle as a combination of exercise and transport in troubled times to simply having more time on one’s hands and therefore taking up a new hobby. The underlying instincts were visible in the sales mix; a considerable portion of bikes being sold belonged to the entry level segment.  The report said that a major worry among retailers in Australia was about exhausting stocks. Replenishing it would be tough as manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and China haven’t yet recovered from operations ceased due to pandemic. Further both the above mentioned articles pointed out that it wasn’t just sale of new bikes that was picking up; business in a range of services associated with cycling – including servicing of old bikes – had gone up.

When India slid into lockdown on March 24, 2020, all forms of transport – save those used for essential services – ground to a halt. There were even reports of people out for a morning walk, penalized by authorities. Flights and trains ceased to operate and automobile sales declined sharply. Yet even as air quality improved thanks to less vehicles being out, one of the early news reports based on equity analysts’ views cited potential recovery in car sales post lockdown, on the basis that the car offered an insulated cocoon for mobility amid contagion. Bizarre as this reasoning is in times of respiratory diseases growing, it is a fine portrait of the Indian approach to life. Needless to say, while the government has recommended specific protocols for using four-wheelers and two-wheelers (all motorized), there hasn’t been any utterance yet on cycling, forget its emergent virtues. In the absence of that and given how lockdown-rules are interpreted at ground level, you hesitate to take your cycle out for shopping and errands. India is among the world’s biggest producers of bicycles but the manufacturers’ lobby too has been strangely quiet. One can’t recall a single public service advertisement taken out amid COVID-19, reminding people of the bicycle’s ability to contribute to health; health of user through exercise and health of others by not polluting.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This blog spoke to the country head of a leading international bicycle brand to gauge whether anything similar to what has been reported from UK and Australia, could be expected in India. He confirmed the developments overseas; it featured in business conversations with colleagues abroad. But hoping for the same in India would be premature because the overall matrix governing cycling here remains bicycle-unfriendly. While there was the pet peeve of high duties imposed on imported bicycles, there was also the undeniable fact that India’s crowded, congested ambiance and lack of consideration by motorists for cyclists, continue to make cycling unenjoyable. Sample the following: on May 15, 2020, Times of India reported that despite lockdown (it started on March 24; at the time of writing it was still on) an estimated 321 lives had been lost in 1176 road accidents in India according to data compiled by Save LIFE Foundation, a NGO. When general lack of road safety hits home, it fuels the argument that only cars and similar steel cages on wheels are viable option for transport. Given personal safety trumps concerns for environment and climate change, nobody then has the patience to sample cycling’s virtues. It is a vicious cycle. There is also another angle, which neither the bicycle industry nor cyclists, openly agree to, although in private, they concur. It has to do with the ink of Indian imagination these days – GDP. Viewed through GDP’s prism, the automobile industry’s voice dominates like a foghorn. That of bicycles is a squeak you strain to hear.

According to one senior cyclist, notwithstanding the above mentioned handicaps, the last decade or so has laid the foundation for a cycling movement in India. The choice won’t be driven by supportive cycling infrastructure – that is a role the government may or may not perform. It will be based on informed choice. As paradigm shifts like work from home set in, more of us may consciously choose a healthy, non-polluting form of transport that is light on planet, maintains the physical distancing mandated by COVID-19 and is also more connected to world as compared to the steel cocoon and quick passage of a car. In fact, if life is going to be in and around the house for the near future, why would you congest your neighborhood bringing out your car all the time? So far climate change was a debate. But the days of pandemic, which saw humanity locked up indoors, proved that human activity restrained has the ability to revive nature, restore air quality. There is thus palpable evidence to base your questions to old world on. However the key to promoting cycling – those from this school of thought argue – may not lay in petitioning the central government. “ Local governments will probably understand better,’’ the senior cyclist said emphasizing the need to go local when it comes to promoting cycling. Reportedly, such lobbying has yielded results in the past. Closer to the present, local also makes sense because the relaxation of lockdown will be in line with what zone (based on severity of infection) your area falls into. The seed for change exists in the evidence we experienced due to COVID-19. Question is – will we plant that seed and let it grow?

Update: On April 25, 2020, authorities in Bengaluru formally permitted the use of bicycles during lockdown. In its order dated May 31, 2020, concerning guidelines for easing restrictions and phased opening of lockdown, the Maharashtra government has permitted the return of outdoor physical activities like cycling, jogging and running in non-containment zones from June 3 onward. No group activity is allowed; only open spaces nearby or in the neighborhood may be used and the activity will have to be between 5AM-7PM. “ People are actively encouraged to use cycling as a form of physical exercise as it automatically ensures social distancing,’’ the order said. All physical exercise and activities must be done with social distancing norms in place. The order said that people are advised to walk or use bicycles when going out for shopping. The above is a condensed version; for a complete overview please refer the actual government order. 

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

NO COUNTRY FOR CHILDREN?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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