“ IF YOU ARE MOVING, YOU ARE DOING IT’’

Arham Shaikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In June 2019, a young cyclist from Pune found himself unexpectedly on the saddle at the 3000 miles (4800 km) long-Race Across America (RAAM). He had sought to crew for a team but found himself accepted as a racer. It was an unbelievable opportunity; he hadn’t trained for it, he was a fan among some of the world’s best ultra-cyclists and he was pedaling the same route they were on. Arham Shaikh recalls his RAAM experience and his journey in cycling so far.

In 1990, Colin Needham, an engineer working for computer giant HP in Bristol, started the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It provides information on movies, TV programs, video games, home videos and content streamed online. Since 1998, IMDb has been owned by Amazon. The database has a page devoted to the top 25 Indian films based on sports. Placed eighth on the list as of August 2019, was the 1992 Hindi film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, the highlight of which was a bicycle race.

RAAM 2019; cycling through Arizona (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

The movie was a hit at the Indian box office. Arham Shaikh wasn’t yet born when the film released. But it was this movie and its bicycle race that got the young man, born 1993 in Pune, wanting to do something in cycling. Getting to focus on the sport took a while. Growing up, he was into several activities. “ I believe it is one life and I have to do everything. If I am not learning I am as good as dead,’’ Arham said. Thanks to his being in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), his childhood lived up to that credo. He got to train in mountaineering; yachting, shooting and diving. As university student, he also got into rowing and kayaking. He was in the naval wing of NCC. His desire was to join the Indian Navy. But the fact that he ended up graduating in computer science as opposed to being an engineer restricted his prospects for selection by the navy. It must have hurt for Arham had even been best NCC cadet at the all India level, once. However that cycling bug didn’t let go. It hung on.

RAAM’s route from the US west coast to the east ( Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Arham’s father initially worked in the hotel industry and later, with the Baba Kalyani group of companies. His mother worked for Tata Motors. When he was in seventh standard, they bought him his first road bike – a BSA Mach 1. He asked his school coach what he should do to train and become a good cyclist. It was an unusual request; school coaches in India are typically generalists. Coach and ward had to figure out their way. Sole phase of proper structured intervention in between was a month when Arham trained at Kreeda Prabodhini in Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex. They trained competitive cyclists. Then in tenth standard, Arham finished on the podium at a national level road race. He was promised a good road bike at home but funds crunch ensured it remained a mirage. A few years later his brother acquired a Hercules hybrid. Hitting the roads with that, Arham gradually got introduced to the culture of randonneuring, which had by then taken roots in Pune. Although he tagged along on his own with the riders, he didn’t do a BRM officially at this stage. He was a bit too casual and unorganized in his cycling gear to meet the safety standards demanded by the organizers. They recognized his earnestness but politely emphasized safety more.

Arham (left) at a pre-race interview for television, in San Jose (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Towards the closing stages of graduation, Arham worked with the sole intention of saving enough money to buy a good road bike. He worked for a Pune based-bicycle retail shop called Cymour. Around this time, Divya Tate of Inspire India – she also oversaw randonneuring in India – had commenced the annual 400 mile (646 km) bicycle race called Deccan Cliffhanger. At a ride to Lonavala (a hill station roughly 65 kilometers from Pune) organized by Cymour, Arham got to meet Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. The latter asked Arham to crew for him at the 2014 Deccan Cliffhanger. Arham assembled the crew. Cymour helped Srinivas procure a new road bike – a Merida Scultura 300. “ It was a good race,’’ Arham said of the experience. That year, Chaitanya Valhal finished first; Srinivas placed second. Arham was sure he would try Deccan Cliffhanger sometime. Four months after he started working for Cymour, he received a Scott Speedster 30 as payment. Working for Cymour meant more than just getting that cycle. He learnt how to service and repair bikes, not to mention, he got insight into online sales. In 2015 Chaitanya became Arham’s coach. Arham went on to race at Deccan Cliffhanger in 2015, 2016 and 2017 – on all three occasions as part of teams (twice 2-person; once 4-person) he christened Relay Spirit; on all three occasions his team finished on the podium. He also made sure that besides participating in Deccan Cliffhanger, he crewed at one another race. The mix he followed every year was several short distance races, one ultra-distance event and an instance of crewing.

From the pre-race briefing session; Arham with members of Team Serpentine Golden Girls, a 4 person-relay team from UK competing in the 70-74 years age category at RAAM 2019. They had completed RAAM in 2008 earning the distinction of being the oldest female team to finish the race then. Unfortunately, although they cycled for seven days, 16 hours and 15 minutes covering 2673 miles in that while, they could not finish the 2019 edition of the race (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Meanwhile the basket of races at Inspire India grew. In 2017, Arham thought of attempting Ultra Spice, at 1750 kilometers (it also has a 1000 km version), the longest race in their collection. But the dates clashed with a short distance race he had signed up for in Ahmedabad. There was also another event smoldering at the back of his mind; one he had heard spoken of a lot in the cycling circles around Inspire India – Race Across America (RAAM), the event entailing a ride, 4800 kilometers long, from the US west coast to the east. In 2017, Srinivas became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo; Amit Samarth became the first Indian to complete it solo on the very first attempt. At a subsequent party at Divya’s house, Srinivas shared his RAAM experience. Arham was in the audience. It added to the pull RAAM had on Arham. But embarking on a RAAM project was unthinkable for him just then; it cost a lot. A year later, in 2018, Amit successfully completed the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, a race over 9000 kilometers in length, almost twice as long as RAAM. Same year, Arham was asked if he would like to crew for Amit at Inspire India’s Great Himalayan Ultra. That good fortune of offers coming his way didn’t end there.

Arham with Pete Pensyres, winner of RAAM in 1984 and 1987. Pete held the record for being the fastest cyclist at the race for 27 years till in 2013, his record was broken by Christoph Strasser (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

In October 2018, Lt Col Bharat Pannu informed Arham that he was set to go for 2019 RAAM and as far as he was concerned, Arham was part of his core team for crewing. Arham likes everything at a race except driving the crew car, which he finds limiting as regards learning. Bharat assigned the responsibility of navigation and rider care to him. The team was well prepared. Bharat left a month ahead of everyone else for 2019 RAAM. He needed to train in the US, get used to cycling there and acclimatize. The first lot of the crew including Arham was scheduled to reach California ten days before the actual race, scheduled to start on June 11. Unfortunately Bharat had an accident while training. That ended his dream of participating in 2019 RAAM. It was a last minute setback bringing the curtains down on months of preparation. Tickets had been booked and all that was left for crew to do was, fly from India to the US. Instead of canceling his ticket, Arham decided to proceed to America. He planned to approach any other team requiring a hand in crewing. The logic was simple – crewing puts you in the front row to observe race and rider. It tells you how RAAM unravels, how the challenge impacts rider and crew. It is great experience to obtain especially if you have your own plans to attempt RAAM in the future.

Arham posted his offer and cycling resume on RAAM’s social media pages and community hang-outs. He even wrote to Christoph Strasser, among the world’s leading ultra-cyclists and winner of RAAM multiple times. Inspire India – connected as they are to the RAAM ecosystem – pitched in to help Arham secure an opportunity to crew with a team. Amit Samarth put in a word for Arham to one of RAAM’s all-time greats – Seana Hogan. Back in time, Amit had crewed for Seana. Around May 27-28, Seana called Arham. However Seana couldn’t confirm straight away. Then Dr Lam Do of Team SuperMarrow called. They were riding for a charitable cause. On their website, the team describes themselves thus: We are a team of relentless individuals, comprised of Leukemia patients, their families, and their physicians. Together we will race across America. We bike with the common mission to raise awareness for Leukemia, and to help diversify the Be The Match Registry by registering more potential donors. Team SuperMarrow supports Asian American Donor Program. All net proceeds will go to Asian American Donor Program to help support stem cell education and registration programs. Dr Lam Do asked if Arham was still available. Arham recalled what Dr Lam Do said, “ we will be honored if you come aboard and help our team to finish. Those were his words.’’ Team SuperMarrow was to be an eight person-relay team at RAAM. Arham’s role was to be assistant crew chief. SuperMarrow confirmed in five minutes.  RAAM was on, for Arham.

Arham on the De Rosa; near Wolf Creek Pass, RAAM 2019 (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Next day, Seana called to confirm but it was too late. Arham recommended Ajay K, a teammate from Bharat’s crew for the job; he got it. A day before Arham was to leave, Dr Lam Do called telling him to pack his biking gear as well. Reason – Arham may have to race. Unlike attempting RAAM in solo category which requires prior qualification for eligibility, relay teams can pick up any cyclist they perceive as competent to be a team member. Nevertheless, Dr Lam Do’s announcement was a bolt from the blue. RAAM is a major race and Arham hadn’t trained at all. To compound matters, it was the month of Ramzan and its accompanying tradition of fasting was on. It isn’t the best period for a Muslim sportsperson to exert himself / herself. “ It was a weird time for me to say yes to racing,’’ Arham said. Five days after reaching the US, he was in Oceanside, California, fitted out in cycling gear and training with Team SuperMarrow. The team gave him a bike; it was a 54 centimeter-frame as opposed to his regular 52 centimeters. “ Usually cyclists take around three months to get acquainted with a new bike. I had eight days,’’ Arham said. On the bright side, he was given whatever gear he wanted. Back in Pune, only his parents and Chaitanya knew that he was going to cycle at RAAM. Chaitanya sent him a crash course on training.

From RAAM 2019; halting at a time station en route, to check-in. At right is Dr Lam Do, the team leader of SuperMarrow (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

On race day, having obtained official permission, Arham rode first with Kabir Rachure (rider from Navi Mumbai, he was attempting RAAM solo / he completed it successfully), then for 12 miles he rode with Christoph Strasser, a champion looked up to by many endurance cyclists in India. Team SuperMarrow was divided into two groups of four riders with four crew members; that’s eight cyclists riding on shift basis. One group completes its rotation first, then, the other follows. Arham was initially part of Team B therein. One member of Team B fell sick. Arham volunteered to do double shift. He was the youngest at 25 years of age; the rest were older ranging from 45 years to 72. The team’s previous experience in ultra-cycling was limited. The first few days were taxing. Mistakes happened. Past Durango, a team meeting was held to remind everyone of the need to work in harmony. At Wolf Creek Pass (10,856 feet; it is on the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado), Arham’s exhaustion caught up with him. Some of his sessions on the saddle had been long. He was also doing night shifts. Amid this specter of inexperienced team whipping itself into shape, there was one positive. The team had provided Arham two bikes for the race. Both were top notch – a De Rosa and a Blue TT. “ They were the best bikes I had cycled in my life till then,’’ Arham said. Working diligently the team crossed all cut offs in time. RAAM spans the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland. Arham got the honor of leading the team into Maryland. In all, they took eight days, two hours and 19 minutes to complete RAAM. It was well within the nine days cut-off period allotted to relay teams at the event. Team SuperMarrow raised a good amount towards charity, Arham said.

Team SuperMarrow; soon after they successfully completed RAAM in relay format (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

2019 RAAM had been a learning experience for the Pune based-rider. It more than met his expectations. He anticipated crewing; instead, he got to race and finish as part of a relay team. At the time he spoke to this blog in July 2019, Arham was planning to attempt Dunes, a RAAM qualifier race scheduled for mid-September 2019. He was preparing to do that solo. Also in mind was a Half Ironman in 2020; maybe the one in Dubai. Plus, there was the idea of taking a shot at the Great Himalayan Ultra. Of Dunes and solo rides, he said, “ I don’t have the training yet to do a solo. I have to work on my patience. Ultras are not about going fast; it is about being consistent. That’s what I learnt from 2019 RAAM. If you are moving, you are doing it. Not to mention – stopping is also critical. RAAM shows you how small you are.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Arham Shaikh in Pune.)            

A CHILDHOOD DREAM AND THE LIFE IT GAVE

Catherine Stefanutti; occasion: completion of swim from Jersey to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

This is an article by invitation. Catherine Stefanutti is a South African swimmer based in England. An experienced Channel swimmer, she was a valuable late entrant to Team HOPE, the group of swimmers from Mumbai who successfully crossed the English Channel in relay format in July 2019. Here Catherine writes about how her love for open water swimming started, her journey to date in the field and suggestions she has for those planning to attempt the English Channel.

It was more than four decades ago that my coach in South Africa showed his squad of swimmers a newspaper article about somebody who had just swum the English Channel. I was then 12 years old. I instinctively told him that one day, I too would achieve the crossing. Growing up in South Africa, there was a lot of focus on sport within schools. There was a strong competitive environment between schools and good opportunities to participate at a reasonably high level. Born into a family of swimmers, I was a reasonably good swimmer and did swim competitively in my youth. I did well in competitions although not at the level of my siblings. My brother Andy for instance, swam for South Africa.

Andy was a really talented all round swimmer. He held South African national school records for several years in the 200m and 400m Individual medley and 100m and 200m butterfly.  He was selected for the South African team in the late seventies, a notorious time when South Africa was banned from the Olympics. Unfortunately  because of this Andy and other South African sportspersons never had the chance to participate in this great international arena. After school, Andy’s swimming talent took him to Indiana University in America, where he trained with coach Doc Counsilman (also coach to the US Olympic team, including Mark Spitz). He later moved to Louisiana University to complete his degree in Geology and continued to swim for the university squad until his final months of study, when he gave up swimming to focus on academics.

Notwithstanding my stated objective of crossing the English Channel, in my late teens, I gave up swimming. As I got older and moved on to university, the hours spent pounding up and down a pool lost appeal, and gradually fizzled out.

Andy, Christine and Catherine after their swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many years later, I moved to England. My sister Christine encouraged me to give open water swimming a shot. Christine had been participating in open water events in South Africa for a few years. It had rekindled her love for swimming and she was doing very well.  When she suggested that I join her for an event at London’s Docklands, I loved the idea.  I went for a few refresher sessions with my kids’ swimming teacher and took it from there.  I surprised myself by swimming the event in good time and so the journey began.That was the beginning of my journey to open water swimming. We – Christine and I – commenced by entering organized events like the Great London Swim, South Africa’s Midmar Mile and various Thames River swims. From that, we progressed to sea swims. Soon, we were looking for bigger challenges. The first of these was the Hellespont Europe to Asia swim in Turkey. A couple of years later, we swam the slightly easier Bosphorus (Asia to Europe). Then I swam the 17 km-length of Lake Windermere.

Meanwhile the old promise of crossing the English Channel resurfaced. Even with all the open water swimming I had done, this was an enormous challenge. What changed the equation was the realisation that the Channel could be swum in relay format. I felt sure that doing it this way was manageable and would ` tick the box,’ to fulfil my childhood dream. In 2014, Christine and I, along with a friend, joined a charity team to swim across the Channel as a six person-relay. Crossing done and that box in mind ticked, I was back in 2015, this time as part of a five person-relay team assembled by my coach Tracey Baumann. In 2016, I returned again for a third crossing. The occasion was special; it was a three person-relay team featuring my sister, my brother and I. Notwithstanding these three relay crossings there was still a niggle that I knew would go away only if I attempted a solo . The one thing that stood between me and the solo, was utter fear. I lacked confidence. Yet I knew alongside that I would nurse regret if I didn’t try.

Catherine; from her solo swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

I needed tiered progress to my objective. Emma France, a Channel swimmer who runs the Dover Channel Training group, suggested that I build up my confidence by first swimming from Jersey to France, a shorter, gentler crossing (approx. 26 km). Jersey is a British Crown dependency located near the coast of Normandy, France. Among islands in the Channel, it is second closet to France after Alderney. In August 2017 I successfully did this crossing in a time that surprised me and built my confidence. Still I was hesitant to book a slot for an English Channel crossing. So instead, I booked to swim around Jersey in July 2018.  This is an iconic 65 km swim; it is very tough but aided by the fast-moving tides around the island. No sooner had I booked this swim than Emma France approached me to say that somebody had cancelled their slot with Channel Pilot Neil Streeter and she was offering first option to take the place.  That was an offer I couldn’t refuse (English Channel swims are heavily booked, and one normally has to book with a pilot at least two years in advance). I was now faced with the challenge of two major swims booked within two weeks of each other – the enormity of this task was just the push I needed to focus and prepare.

The bulk of my training was on weekends, with the Dover Channel Training Group in Dover. They offer endurance training and full support for aspiring Channel swimmers. The training was complemented by a few sessions with their sister group, Durley Sea Swims, set on the South Coast in Bournemouth. The support given by these groups was invaluable. On 13 July 2018 I successfully swam around Jersey. Exactly three weeks later, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of swimming from England to France, crossing the English Channel solo.

All sports come with associated community of aficionados. It is no different in open water swimming. You meet people sharing the same interest in swimming and wishing to tackle objectives therein. In 2019, Team HOPE from India due for an attempted crossing of the Channel in July confronted an unexpected development. Theirs was a four person-relay. One of their swimmers – Samiir Wheaton – had to withdraw leaving them a swimmer short. Mere weeks remained to allotted time frame for the crossing. Given the limited time it seemed wise to scout for a replacement in the UK. A swimmer from there would be already used to the cold Channel waters. If someone was recruited in India then that person would have to go through the whole process of training in cold water; he / she would also have to do the obligatory two hour-qualifying swim in 16 degrees Celsius water. Against this backdrop, my friend Deepthi Indukuri, who is a Total Immersion swim coach in Mumbai, asked me if I would be interested to join Team HOPE as Samiir’s replacement. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get back into the English Channel.

Catherine after her solo swim to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many people think that if you have swum the Channel solo then a four person-relay should be easy. This is certainly not the case. A Channel relay comes with different challenges to a solo and one should never underestimate how tough it is. I met my team (Team HOPE) – the others were Zarir Baliwalla, Moiz Rajkotwala and Sudarshan Chari – a few times in the days before the crossing. The weather was unstable that week and the swim kept getting postponed or called off. Such uncertainty causes a lot of angst for swimmers; they are forced to wait. Finally, on the evening of July 11, our pilot Reg Brickell gave the go-ahead to attempt the crossing early next morning. On July 12, the swim started just after sunrise in reasonable conditions, which gradually worsened as the day progressed. By the time the team reached the French shipping lane, the weather had changed dramatically.  A strong wind working against a strong tide created large waves causing boat and swimmers to be tossed around in the cold water. The team did what they had to – dig deep and push hard through the tides. Fifteen hours after we started from England, we eventually landed on a sandy beach in France.

What an adventure we had, what a team we made. We started as strangers and now have a lifelong bond through achieving this great challenge together. Indeed, one of the things I love most about the open water swimming community is how swimmers from around the world are brought together by circumstance.  For some reason, I have repeatedly found a connection with swimmers from India. Some years ago, I met Deepthi Indukuri in a Masters swimming group, while she was training to become a Total Immersion Coach.  Deepthi was in the UK at the time, completing her Master’s degree. When she returned to India, she retained her strong connection with the group.

Catherine with members of Team HOPE. From left: Moiz Rajkotwala, Zarir Baliwalla, Catherine and Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

In 2017, I spent most weekends of the summer training with the Dover Channel Training community, training for my Jersey to France solo swim.  Here I met Sameer Patil who had taken a three month sabbatical to come and train in the UK, in preparation for his English Channel solo that September. Sameer and I regularly swam together, we were a similar pace and I enjoyed training with him. My approach to training can be rather casual but Sameer was extremely driven and focussed. This pushed me to work harder and I really benefitted from that. During the season, Sameer often encouraged me to think about swimming the English Channel solo, something I was still afraid to commit to.

On 16 September 2017 Sameer Patil successfully swam the English Channel. As is tradition, a Channel swimmer picks up a pebble on the beach where he or she lands and takes it home as a well-earned trophy.  However, Sameer landed on a sandy beach in the middle of the night; he could not find a pebble in the dark.  Before he returned to India, I told him that I would plan a day trip to France and find him a pebble on the beach where he landed. His answer to me was very clear: No Catherine, I want you to swim to France to get my pebble.  I can honestly say that his words stuck in my head and played a big role in my decision to go for it (I did swim to France and got us both a pebble).

I have had the pleasure of meeting several Indian swimmers who have come to train in Dover, including amazing swimmers like Vandita Dhariyal. I never expected to become part of an Indian team swimming the English Channel. It was a great honour for me when this opportunity arose. I became a proud member of Team HOPE.

Catherine swimming for Team HOPE (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Suggestions for those aspiring to swim the English Channel

If you are interested in swimming the English Channel as a team or individual, the first step is to book a pilot and boat. There are two official Channel Swimming Organisations and each has a list of registered pilots.  Pilot information and contact details can be found on the websites of these organisations, either the Channel Swimming Association (www.channelswimmingassociation.com) or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (www.cspf.co.uk).  Channel crossings are done from mid-June to end September so there are only a limited number of places.  People book their slots up to three years in advance, although if you want to go sooner it is worth contacting the pilots as they do sometimes have cancellations.  Both websites contain lots of vital and useful information about Channel swimming.

Once you have booked your swim, it is time to start with the preparation and training. Cold water acclimatisation is a big factor and it is advisable to start with short swims in very cold water, gradually building up to longer swims as the water warms up.  In India the biggest challenge is finding cold water.  Some Indian swimmers have attended cold water swim camps around the world whilst others will plan to spend time before their swim in the UK to swim with the Dover Channel Training group.  In order to swim the Channel, it is obligatory to complete a qualifying swim in water temperature below 16 degrees Celsius.  Relay swimmers need to complete a two hour-qualifying swim, whilst solo swimmers need to complete six hours.  Training should be a combination of long swims as well as regular pool training and general fitness.

Channel swimmers’ tradition – signing on the wall of Fleurs pub in Dover (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Swimming in a relay is great preparation for a solo swim as you will experience the conditions and challenges of the English Channel first hand. Obviously a solo swim is more demanding than a relay, both physically and mentally. However, both have unique challenges and a relay should never be underestimated.  A relay requires team members to swim in rotation till reaching France.  This means doing an hour of swimming, getting out, warming up and preparing to enter the cold water again for the next hour swim; repeating this until you reach France.  There are stringent rules to adhere to in order for the swim to be recognised.  Each time you return to the water, you need to prepare mentally for the hour ahead.  Whilst on the boat a big challenge is seasickness.  Pilot boats are small vessels travelling at a swimmer’s pace, which means a lot of rocking motion and many relays have been aborted due to swimmers being too ill to carry on. Preparing for this is essential and there are various medications available. These need to be tested for side effects beforehand.  Most crossings will involve swimming in the night and swimmers will need to prepare mentally for this.

It is beneficial to train in conditions similar to the Channel but it is not always practical to do so. It is a good idea to join open water swimming groups and take every opportunity to swim in open water.  It is also useful to become part of a Channel swimming community through social media as you can always draw on other people’s experiences and expertise.  Dover Channel Training is a good example of such a group, as is the Outdoor Swimming Society.

(The author, Catherine Stefanutti, is a Channel swimmer based in England. She is “ a full time mum (two teenagers), part time swimming teacher and company director for our family construction business.’’ For more on Team HOPE please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/29/a-relay-swim-across-the-english-channel/)

MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH SPORTS

Corina Van Dam (Photo: courtesy Corina)

Trained to be a football coach, Corina Van Dam, opted to use sport as means to heal and empower. Currently living in Mumbai, she has been running for several years and is now figuring out which distance suits her best.

During a recent six-hour night run in Thane near Mumbai, many runners ran determinedly through the heavy, sometimes lashing rain.

One among them was Corina (aka Cocky) Van Dam, a Dutch runner, living and working in Mumbai for the past three years. She surprised herself by covering a distance of 50.7 kilometers during those six hours.

Two weeks later, she ran a 50k race at the Igatpuri Mountain Challenge. She finished the race in six hours, 26 minutes and 23 seconds securing top position among women aged 46 and above. A week must have gone by. Then she wound up on the podium yet again in her age category, at the BNP Endurathon in Mumbai. She covered the 25k distance in 2:28:14 hours.

Corina grew up in Alkmaar, a town 40 kilometers north of Amsterdam in Netherlands. The local topography was largely flat; there was much water around and as is characteristic of Netherlands, a lot of wind. It is a town well known in the cheese business and home to a velodrome hosting the annual Dutch national track cycling championships (the European Cycling Championships is scheduled to take place in Alkmaar from August 7 to 11, 2019). Not to mention, it is the birthplace of Harm Ottenbros, unexpected winner of the 1969 world cycling championship; he came in from nowhere to win that title but earned the ire of fellow cyclists and fans for just that – being the nobody who snatched the title from under the nose of more fancied heavyweights. Alkmaar also has a private museum dedicated to the British band, Beatles.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Growing up, sport was an integral part of Corina’s education. At the age of 12, she began playing football at a local club. She commenced playing at a still younger age but there were no girls’ teams around. The Dutch are passionate about football. Alkmaar and Corina’s family therein were no different. The town is home to the football club Alkmaar Zaanstreek (AZ), winners of the Dutch football league (Eredivisie), in 1980-81 and 2008-09. Corina was good at football. The game gave her the nickname she goes by – Cocky. She trained to be a sports coach. But she soon discovered that it was “ boring to teach people sports.’’ It was rather limited in scope. She sought something more engaging; something that would touch people’s lives in a more fundamental way.

So she opted for an internship with a mental health institute. The institute used sports as medium to help mentally ill people. For 20 years, she worked at the clinic employing sports as a means to assist patients in their treatment and recovery. “ People are depressed, sometimes so depressed that they don’t want to move. As part of psychomotor therapy, I used football to treat patients suffering from depression. There is evidence that running works well to treat patients,’’ Corina said. Psychomotor therapy uses physical activity and body awareness to help in the healing process.

After two decades spent working in the Netherlands, in 2005, Corina decided to move to Kenya to work with a community-based organisation called Moving the Goalposts (MTG) in Kilifi. She was placed as a volunteer through Voluntary Service Overseas, an international NGO.  A sport for development outfit, MTG harnesses the power of football to overcome social obstacles girls and young women face in coastal Kenya. Teenage pregnancy was (and still is) a very big issue in the country. That was among topics Corina required working with. Central to MTG’s strategy was football. Located on the east coast of Africa, Kenya has varied topography that includes an Indian Ocean seaboard, the Great Rift Valley and the Kenyan Highlands famous for tea and running. Corina worked at Kilifi near Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city situated on the coast. Roughly 4400 kilometers north east from Mombasa, across the sea, lay Mumbai, India’s financial capital. After working in Kenya for 11 years, Corina moved to Mumbai to work with Naz Foundation (India) Trust.

Corina Van Dam at the Mumbai office of Naz Foundation (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Naz India is an NGO working in the field of HIV / AIDS and sexual health. Corina works as Impact Manager at Naz Foundation. She is focussed on Young People’s Initiative (YPI), a program to empower girls by using sports and life skills education. It seeks to provide opportunities for adolescent girls. “ Many NGOs now leverage sport as tool to empower girls with reference to their body and emotions,’’ she said.

Naz India’s YPI project uses netball as sport for team building and empowering activities. “ Group sport or team sports helps tackle peer pressure, instil team work and develop leadership skills as opposed to individual sport,’’ Corina said. The choice of netball was because it is less of a contact sport compared to football and such a game appeared to suit the girls joining the program. Some other NGOs use sports such as football, basketball and kabaddi for similar work. For Naz India, the choice of sport is based on the needs and issues at hand in each of the projects that the foundation takes up. Naz India primarily works in schools, mostly trust-run schools. “ We are constantly negotiating with schools and designing our projects based on the feedback,’’ Corina said.

As an Impact Manager, Corina’s role is to make constant assessment of the teams working in schools; whether they are achieving their objectives or not. Outside of work, she continues to play football, mostly in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. She plays for Wolfpack FC. She got to participate in local league matches.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Many football players, according to her, do not like running as a specific sport. It’s one thing to run playing football; it’s another running a marathon focused solely on movement with no paradigm of game, team or score enveloping it. However, she took to running during her teens and continued to do so through her years in the Netherlands. In Kenya, living in Kilifi a rural area near Mombasa, Corina resorted to running in the nearby farmlands. She ran three times a week covering a distance of 7-10 kilometers on each of those practice sessions. She also recalled making a brief visit to Iten in the highlands of Kenya, home to the country’s best runners. “ I visited Lornah Kiplagat and her husband Pieter Langerhorsts’ high altitude training center. That was a fleeting visit,’’ Corina said. Olympian Lornah Kiplagat, a Dutch cross country and long-distance runner, is of Kenyan origin. She is a four time-world champion and has held world records over 5 km, 10 miles, 20 km and the half marathon. The training center in Iten was founded in 1999.

Arriving in Mumbai in 2016, Corina decided to look for a house at Tilak Nagar primarily because of its proximity to her place of work at Vidyavihar, just a kilometer away. At Tilak Nagar, the well-known Sahyadri Ground became venue for her daily practice runs. She runs several rounds of the ground in 500 meter-loops. “ Many women came and asked me how I got into running. They also expressed a desire to take up running,” Corina said. Hailing from Netherlands, she beheld the scene with curiosity. “ At the Tilak Nagar ground, a lot of people were involved in various activities. But you rarely found women at the centre of the ground. It is now slowly changing,’’ she said at the small Mumbai office of Naz Foundation tucked away on the ground floor of an apartment complex. It was July 2019. Just days earlier the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup had concluded with USA defeating Netherlands 2-0 in the final. It was the first time the Dutch national women’s team played in the final – a point Corina recalled with pride and a feeling of much changed since she started playing football when the sport was considered a game for men.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Corina’s first stint at a running event in India was the Dream Run segment of the 2017 Mumbai Marathon, something that happened because Naz India was a recipient of free slots to the run. For someone used to regular running like Corina, the Dream Run and its wall of people ambling along was a disappointment. In 2018, at the same event, she chose to run the newly introduced 10k segment and finished on the podium in her age group of 50-54 years.

In the 2019 edition, she ran the full marathon finishing the distance in 5:15:06 hours securing eighth position among women in her age group. This was her background prior to that rain soaked six hour-run in Thane, the 50k and the 25k, which followed. She was recently appointed Pinkathon Ambassador. Through this, her responsibilities now include empowering women through running. “ I am still figuring out which distance is best suited for me. I also plan to participate in the Goa Ironman later this year,’’ she said.

Goa Ironman 70.3 or Half Ironman is slated to be held on October 20, 2019. Corina, now 54, has invested in a road bike. She cycles regularly and for swimming she visits the pool at Dharavi. She hasn’t yet done any open water swimming in India but given she grew up in Alkmaar with its share of open water and winter temperatures, hopes she should be able to tackle it.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

PSYNYDE BIKES: WEATHERING TOUGH CHEMISTRY

Psynyde Dioxide (Photo: Vinay Menon)

In 2016, when Psynyde Bikes launched the Furan MTB, it was for India, a rare instance of cycling enthusiasts designing bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest numbers in the domestic market. After a promising start, the company is now in a phase of struggle. If it persists, it may be able to look back and say of now: that was a learning experience.

Roughly three years after introducing their first factory built-models capable of selling in modest numbers, brand Psynyde continues to retain the cultish feel that accompanies performance. In that time, it also experienced reversals on the business front not for want of product acceptance but things gone wrong internally in the fledgling company. The core team is back to two – MTB enthusiast turned bicycle designer and builder, Praveen Prabhakaran, and Vinay Menon who still rides hard and oversees marketing for the brand.

On the bright side, the initial 100 units-strong consignment of the trail bike they designed – Psynyde Furan – sold out in a year; as did an initial lot of 100 of the hybrid – Oxygen. Feedback was encouraging. There have been no complaints except for small issues with a plastic cap, Praveen said. However, the Chinese factory, which manufactured the bike frames he designed, fell into hard times. Praveen said he has identified alternative factories, capable of similar quality.

Vinay Menon riding at Flow Show, Canada (Photo: Vinay Menon)

According to Vinay, Psynyde’s bikes as well as the bicycle components it made featured at domestic and international competitions. The Furan was chosen steed for Psynyde sponsored-riders and some of the company’s customers, who took part in these events. There have also been a couple of podium finishes. Brand Psynyde – as component or whole bicycle – was seen at events including the 2012 FLOW Show demos in Canada, the 2013 and 2014 Asia Pacific Downhill Championships, multiple editions of the Himalayan Downhill Mountain Bike Trophy, 2016 and 2017 Bangalore Mountain Festival Downhill Race, TDRY Gui’de International Downhill Cycling Race in China, 2018 Mechuka Downhill Championship, 2018 National BMX Flatland Championship and the 2019 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (downhill race). But there was tragedy too, one that was felt deeply at Psynyde.

In July 2017, Ajay Padval, a talented mountain biker from Pune, died in an accident while biking down from Khardung La near Leh. This downhill ride, done on the road connecting Leh to Nubra valley via Khardung La, is a popular supported trip availed by many visitors to Ladakh. Ajay was no different; he wanted to taste the experience. He was driven up to Khardung La along with others set to ride down from the high pass to Leh. That day, unfortunately for Ajay, something went wrong resulting in serious injury. Found fallen on the road, he was rushed to the local hospital but passed away the next day. “ Ajay was a very important member of the Psynyde team in the little time he spent with us. Right from being a dedicated team athlete – not just mountain biking, he was excellent at slacklining too – to giving important inputs in operations and matters related to product design. Ajay’s unfortunate demise affected us a lot,’’ Vinay said. Ajay had grown up watching older cycling enthusiasts; among them Praveen and Vinay. They were all part of the same MTB ecosystem in Pune. Not long after Psynyde got into bicycle manufacturing, he joined the company. His untimely passing was therefore personal loss for Praveen and Vinay.

Ajay Padval (Photo: Veloscope)

On the product front, both the Furan and Oxygen were perceived in the market as versatile bicycles. The Furan was designed to be a hard tail MTB capable of tackling a variety of terrain and riding styles; the Oxygen known to be light weight and having geometry partial to speed has been used by customers for purposes ranging from regular commute and weekend rides to bicycle touring. In 2018, Pune-based Abhishek Iyer toured across Norway on a Psynyde Oxygen. From a second lot of Oxygen, at the time of writing, about 90 units remained in stock in Pune. The company needed to invest afresh in components if it was to assemble and sell all of them. As of July, Praveen and Vinay were looking for investors who understood Psynyde’s line of business as well as the performance image, brand Psynyde had created for itself.

Psynyde’s capital requirements are of modest dimension. But the challenge is procuring financial support without the associated baggage of altered direction for the company. Having created its narrative to date by aligning with the performance segment, Psynyde does not want to trade that image for recovery plans advising dilution of its profile. “ One potential investor asked us to change the brand name and make it more mainstream. That was unacceptable,’’ Praveen said.  At the same time, he was aware of the fact that a bicycle business can’t be founded wholly on presence in niche, performance segments. “ There is so much I wanted to do. Instead I have all this to sort out now,’’ Praveen said at his house on the outskirts of Pune. It was July 2019; annual season of rain.

Abhishek Iyer with the Psynyde Oxygen (This photo of Abhishek was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes)

Praveen is happiest discussing bicycle technology and design. He took out his cellphone to show photos of a beautiful road bike with carbon fiber-frame mated to steel joints and wireless, electronic shifters that he had built for a client. It was part of the original custom built-bicycles business that was Psynyde; the seed which eventually spawned a company selling modest volumes of cycles designed by it and factory-built in China. Psynyde’s logo sat prominently on the road bike’s head tube.

Before us in the room, was the prototype of a new Furan. In a major departure from previous models of the Furan and Oxygen, the prototype sported only one chain ring at the front. There was a nine speed-cassette at the rear. The combination changed the traditional MTB gear ratios seen in India but made the bike simpler. It also had front suspension capable of greater travel and a hydraulic seat post that adjusted remotely allowing rider to sit low on downhills and revert to regular height once such sections were tackled. Should this model proceed beyond prototype and witness production, Praveen hoped to have a more aggressive angle for the front suspension. He was also considering steel as metal to build with; potential fallout of that being frame composed of absolutely straight lines unlike the prototype with down tube slightly curved towards its junction with the head tube.

Psynyde Psymptom prototype (Photo: Vinay Menon)

Also available to see as photographs were prototypes of two downhill bikes from Psynyde – the Psymptom and Dioxide. Both sported four bar design for rear suspension set up. The Psymptom had this set up essayed in CNC machine cut-aluminum (rest of the frame was chromoly steel) while the Dioxide was wholly 4130 chromoly steel. As with the Psymptom and Dioxide, a Furan 2 made of steel was not concept, suddenly conceived. Praveen had been toying with the idea of getting back to steel tubing for a while. In the story of bicycles, steel disliked for its weight had given way to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.  All these materials have their merits and demerits.  For instance, even as aluminum is lighter, points of welding are usually invitation to lose strength. As lighter materials gained currency in cycling, steel alloys evolved further. Today, very thin steel tubing that does not weigh a lot, is available. The return of steel is particularly visible in the MTB segment overseas, Praveen and Vinay said.

The tubes used are butted steel tubes, which have varying wall thickness. Such fabrication isn’t yet a strong point with Indian manufacturing, particularly at the dimensions (wall thickness) needed for contemporary performance bicycles. Further when it comes to modest volumes of raw materials, like that needed by Psynyde, any Indian supplier capable of making butted tubes in steel finds it unviable scale. Result – the tubes have to be imported from British, Italian, American and Japanese suppliers; often at high import duty for no better reason than that its eventual application is in cycling. The Dioxide was featured on VitalMTB, a major online portal for MTB news. “ There will be downhill riders in India appreciative of the Psymptom and the Dioxide,’’ Vinay said. Problem is – downhill is a smaller world within India’s small world of MTB. That relapse to niche category brings us back to a familiar predicament.

Psynyde Dioxide, rider: Hrishi Mandke (Photo: Vinay Menon)

If its products are meant for niche within niche, where will Psynyde’s main revenues come from to sustain its avatar of company designing own bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest volumes in India? For sustenance, versatile products like the Furan and Oxygen matter. That’s why the current capital crunch has to be somehow overcome, stocks reached to a market, which anyway liked Psynyde’s products and the momentum carried on. An additional option is to create a set of affordable products closer to mainstream interests in cycling. If so, that would probably have to be done at arm’s length making sure brand Psynyde is not diluted in the process. But there is a deeper question lurking in the backdrop.

The talent required to manage a company is very different from the creativity that goes into bicycle designing or the kick one gets from riding and testing bicycles. Praveen’s house used to be Psynyde’s old factory floor; that was when all Psynyde did was design and custom build bicycles and machine specific components. At that size, the business was easier to manage. Praveen could stay creative and Vinay could continue riding. If they can’t get Psynyde’s current avatar moving at least partly on autopilot mode with good managers in place, then at some point, after cleaning up their liabilities, there will be a question awaiting the duo’s attention: is volume manufacturing their cup of tea? Or are they more comfortable with a boutique operation similar to old, designing and custom-building bicycles?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Praveen Prabhakaran and Vinay Menon. For more on Psynyde Bikes, please try the following two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/)

“ I JUST SAY TO MYSELF IT’S OKAY. YOU’RE OKAY’’ / ABDULLAH ZEINAB, WINNER, TRANS AM 2019

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah / this photo was sourced from the website of Trans Am Bike Race)

The Trans Am Bike Race is an unsupported cycle race from one side of the United States to the other. The 2019 edition of the event was won by Abdullah Zeinab from Australia; he reached the finish line in record time. This is his story.

Melbourne is where Abdullah Zeinab’s story in cycling begins.

He grew up in Adelaide with his mother and grandmother but moved to Melbourne after finishing school, to attend university. In Melbourne, he started cycling to work; he rode a single speed and his commute was around five to six kilometers. “ I really began to enjoy it and started riding the bike on the weekends,’’ Abdullah said. Before this phase of cycling he had tried out several different sports, growing up. He didn’t really pursue any of them longer than a few months. One choice however, was to leave a lasting impact. When he was sixteen he started going to the gym with his friends. That was the first thing he became consistent with. Strength training provided him a foundation to attempt other pursuits from.

“ Eventually I bought a road bike and the same weekend I decided to ride to Adelaide where my mother lived. It was about 1000 kilometers away. I didn’t know what I was in for and the reality of the situation was a big shock. I had no long distance gear, no lights and nothing to charge my electronics, with. The ride really broke me and I remember crying every day for no particular reason. After six days I made it to Adelaide and strangely as I pulled into my house I thought to myself: I want to try it again and see if I can do it better. This was probably in the middle of 2015. Since than I have followed a pattern of cycling consistently for a few months, then taking a few months off; continuing like that,’’ Abdullah said. Back in those early stages of his interest in cycling, he figured things out on his own. He has never been part of a cycling club or group. He wasn’t into brevets. “ I just started riding by myself and slowly began to meet other cyclists,’’ he said.

Roughly three years before Abdullah got into cycling regularly, in February 2012, a race to circumnavigate the globe on bicycle, was kicked off from near the Greenwich royal observatory in south east London. There were nine participants. The event was called Quick Energy World Cycle Racing Grand Tour. The riders were free to choose their own route. But according to media reports, they had to satisfy one condition – they had to cover a minimum of 18,000 miles in the same direction with GPS tracking throughout. Ninety two days after they set out, the race produced a winner – Mike Hall, an engineer from Harrogate, North Yorkshire. It was a new world record. Reporting the win, The Guardian wrote: a cyclist has triple cause for celebration after he won a round-the-world race on his birthday and broke the world record in the process. Hall would go on to become an iconic figure in unsupported (or self-supported) ultra-cycling. In 2013, the year after that round-the-world race, he won Tour Divide, a 2745 mile (4418 kilometers) annual race traversing the length of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to the Mexico border. That year on, he was principal organizer of the Transcontinental Race, an ultra-cycling event in Europe. In 2014, he won the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race, a 4200 mile (6800 kilometers) race spanning the breadth of the United States.

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah / this photo was sourced from the website of Trans Am Bike Race)

As you look at the world map, some countries give you a distinct sense of space as matrix of land area and population (overall numbers and dispersion). Australia with its great outback is one of them. The above said matrix, is often sought by adventurers and endurance athletes; it is aesthetic they dig. Fremantle is a port city at the mouth of the Swan River in south west Australia. It is a place familiar to those into sailing or tracking the sport. It is a halt on the world’s regular circumnavigation route. The closest major city is Perth. The annual Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IndiPac) starts from Fremantle. Its course extends 5500 kilometers – a line across the belly of the continent – to finish at the famous Sydney Opera House on Australia’s south east. Among participants in the 2017 inaugural edition of IndiPac, was Mike Hall. Unfortunately, it was his last bike race. Hall was in the final phase of the race and placed second overall, when he was hit by a car on the Monaro Highway, south of Canberra in the early hours of March 31. He died at the scene. It was a big blow for the race and for the world of ultra-cycling. Following the accident, all racers were pulled off the course. Its impact was felt the next year for although riders registered to participate, the race couldn’t be officially held due to concerns ranging from ongoing inquiry into the accident to road safety. However participants decided to cycle all the same. The 2018 edition of IndiPac was therefore unofficial and it produced an unexpected winner (in this case, given unofficial race; person finishing first).

A year earlier, in 2017, Abdullah had been among those involved with filming IndiPac. It gave him a ringside view of elite ultra-cyclists. The experience was a game changer. “ Filming 2017 IndiPac and being able to witness the extraordinary capabilities of the riders doing the event from such close quarters – that really captivated me. I was following Mike Hall and Kristof Allegaert very closely during that race. Just the way both those guys carried themselves under extreme fatigue was fascinating. It looked like they were on a casual Sunday ride. I told my girlfriend halfway through that I had to try this race one day. After that I couldn’t back out on my word,’’ Abdullah said. He got back from a holiday at the end of November and began training for the event’s 2018 edition. “ I gave myself approximately 12 weeks to really train for it,’’ he said. As mentioned, IndiPac 2018 – happening as it did in the shadow of Mike Hall’s demise the previous year – was unofficial. It was a case of cyclists registered to participate, deciding to proceed despite event being cancelled. Several days and 5500 kilometers later, the first finisher of that year’s unofficial IndiPac reached Sydney’s Opera House. It was Abdullah on his Trek Emonda.

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah)

“ IndiPac 2018 went really well for me. I ended up reaching the finish first out of all the riders who started. Filming and driving the whole route the year before gave me a massive advantage. Also being able to witness two of the best unsupported ultra-endurance cyclists in the world in 2017 was the ultimate classroom. I guess what worked well for me was creating an ambitious plan. I didn’t really know what my potential was and I didn’t really want to limit it by creating a safe schedule to follow. Instead I just roughly set out to do what the leaders from the year before did and stuck to that. To my surprise I was able to stick to it. That race really showed me just a small taste of what the human body is capable of. I was under-trained and didn’t have the conditioning on paper to back it up day in, day out. But I just rode every kilometer as if it was my first and last,’’ he said. Winning the unofficial IndiPac of 2018 called for an altered approach to what he was doing. “ Given the race ended up well for me, I thought I should try and pursue this type of riding a bit further by being more consistent with training and set a target for a new race,’’ he said.

According to Abdullah, at the finish of IndiPac, somebody came up to him and asked if he could imagine a race with double the elevation and another 1300 kilometers thrown in. “ He said that’s what Trans Am is. I guess at that moment the seed was planted in my head,’’ Abdullah said. He went home and rested well for about three months. Then he commenced training with some structure. Although the distance of Trans Am was intimidating, especially once he began to reflect on how hard some moments were during IndiPac, he decided to give it a go.“ So basically, three months after I finished IndiPac, I decided that I would do Trans Am,’’ Abdullah said.

Over the next eleven months, he did triple the training he had done for IndiPac. “ I had never really been consistent with training before. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to see what would happen if I was consistent. I focused on getting out at least five times per week on the bike which was a lot different to my IndiPac preparation wherein at times, I rode only thrice a week. I knew I could ride long hours so I focused on quality rather than quantity and gave myself more time to rest throughout the training. This was possible because I gave myself more time to prepare. All in all it was approximately 750 hours on the bike from start to finish,’’ Abdullah said.  As with IndiPac, he researched Trans Am, essentially figuring out how much he wished to travel per day and checking what services were available along the way – till he was comfortable enough to ride it. “ In terms of details of the research, it’s just knowing the opening hours of gas stations, supermarkets and if there is a hotel nearby,’’ Abdullah said.

Unsupported racing (or self-supported as some call it) requires cyclist to carry all that he / she may need. There is no support crew trailing cyclist in a car. You can eat and avail shelter and repair from outside sources but on courses like the long ones ultra-cycling courts, there are intervening spaces with no human habitation and those with facilities too frugal for the sort of support you seek. An element of self-reliance is therefore important. At the same time, if all that you elect to carry becomes too much, then the weight is bound to slow down progress. What to take becomes a product of research, self-awareness, experience and appetite for the unknown. Given he had done IndiPac, Abdullah had a gear list for such racing. What he needed to do was – research and work out how far he could carry the same stuff for Trans Am too. “ The only difference was I took a few extra pieces of clothing to keep me warm; like an extra set of gloves. Everything I had was distributed between the frame bag and the top tube bag with some spare tubes in a small saddle bag on the seat post. I had spoken with a few friends online who had done the race previously and they helped me understand the type of conditions we would be going through and the necessary clothing required,’’ Abdullah said. Here’s what he finally carried: rain jacket, wind jacket, base layer, gloves (two pairs), beanie and glasses; multi tool, tubes (five), patch kit, spare tyre, zip ties, electrical tape, 10,000 Ma battery pack, wall charger to plug USB ports into, charging cables, Etrex 30x and Wahoo Bolt for navigation. As for bicycle, he used a 2019 Specialized S Works Tarmac.

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah / this photo was sourced from the website of Trans Am Bike Race)

What did he have on his mind, going into Trans Am 2019?

“ First and foremost I wanted to improve on my previous performance at IndiPac. The Trans Am course has a lot more elevation gain. So I thought that if I could get close to the same average distance per day, I would have improved. Goals before the race and during it are different. I wanted to set a new record at Trans Am and do it the fastest anyone had done before. But once I was a few days deep, I really just wanted to make sure I got to the end in one piece,’’ Abdullah said. According to him, the Trans Am experience was great. “ For crossing a whole country I would say it worked out very well. I had some bad patches of weather but it was mostly just rain and some severe head winds. I was fortunate because some of the racers behind me had to go through snow. There is really no other option than to keep going. I wish I had rain pants and some other things to keep me warm but in the moment the only way out is to continue. From what I experienced so far with this type of riding it rarely goes 100 percent as you expect but you become better at accepting the situation for how it is. The moment you don’t is the moment it becomes harder than it needs to be,’’ Abdullah said.

At both Trans Am and IndiPac, which preceded it, there were several moments when Abdullah was unsure if he would make it; mainly due to physical pain. “ Especially with Trans Am I had some moments of excruciating physical pain and I was unsure if I would make the next town without injury,’’ he said. In such circumstances and generally in ultra-long endurance races, how you think matters. What does Abdullah tell himself through such races?

“ For me, I got nothing to lose. Winning or losing the race isn’t going to define who I am. Cycling is something I do but it’s not who I am. Success for me is giving 100 percent effort. I have achieved enough of the goals I have set out to accomplish to realize that the moment you achieve them is never what you think it will be. It is really the process that is special. Being able to enjoy the process to the highest degree possible is something I continually strive for. In a race like this I tell myself all sorts of things. It depends on the situation and what I am dealing with. To me there is no suffering in a race. It’s not a word I say to myself. If am finding it overwhelmingly difficult and I am struggling to deal with it; well cool… that’s just how it is. Specifically for races like Trans Am or IndiPac, the moment I identify with suffering or something being extremely difficult as a bad or good thing it becomes my slow downfall. You submit yourself emotionally to the ups and downs of good and bad, hard and easy or sad and happy. In my mind moments are just moments. Weather they are good or bad is dependent on your perception of them. I just say to myself it’s okay. You’re okay. Such a simple statement; but it offers me a path that kind of transcends the ups and downs and offers a more stable experience, which allows me to enjoy the whole ride versus being a mess for 50 percent of it and being ‘happy’ for the other 50 percent,’’ Abdullah said.

Abdullah Zeinab in Yorktown, after completing Trans Am 2019 (Photo: Chip Coutts / this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Trans Am Bike Race public group)

At Trans Am 2019, the cyclist from Melbourne, Australia, completed the course in 16 days, nine hours, 56 minutes. He not only won the race; he set a new course record. For Abdullah, who has so far banked on his resources and support from his family, to fund his participation at major races this was the second big win of his fledgling career in cycling. “ I hope now that I may be able to get help from sponsors. We will see,’’ he said. In photos and videos showing his finish at IndiPac 2018 and Trans Am 2019 – they are available on the Internet – one person you notice is his mother. She is there at the finish line. “ My mother has always supported me in anything I do, whether it be playing table tennis or riding a bike. She really is my biggest supporter and I wouldn’t be the person I am without her,’’ Abdullah said.

After Trans Am 2019, what’s next for Abdullah Zeinab? “ Honestly right now I am just enjoying the time off and relaxing as much as possible. I am trying not to think about what’s next too much because I know it will ruin my relaxation and reflection time. In a month or so I will begin to see what excites me,’’ he said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The interview with Abdullah Zeinab was done via email. Trans Am Bike Race website: https://transambikerace.com/)

“ IT’S THE CAPTAIN AFTER ALL’’

El Capitan, Yosemite Valley (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

This is an article by invitation. Delhi based-climbers Mohit Oberoi and Kumar Gaurav were in California’s Yosemite Valley over April 24-May 19, 2019, to attempt The Nose route on El Capitan. In all, The Nose is 3000 feet (5.9 C1) and 32 pitches of climbing. Due to a combination of factors, after about 800 feet climbed, the Indian duo had to bail out. For Mohit, a pioneer in the field of rock climbing in India and now into his fifth decade of life on planet, El Capitan has been a longstanding dream. This is his account:   

“ So, how many more pitches to the Dolt Tower?’’

I posed the question to the figure laden with gear, extra rope and pack, coming down towards my right.

What started as a small dot had become a figure.

“ I think you have a few more to go,’’ came the reply, most words getting lost in the high wind.

My mind woke up to a shout from above: Taakkeeeee…..

I pulled in the rope hard and held on; Kumar on the sharp end.

Things were looking bleak.

The wind was blowing hard…the windbreaker fluttered hard. It felt like I was sitting on a motorcycle. It was 6.30 PM. It will be pitch dark in another 90 minutes. A 35 kilo-haul bag aka ` pig’ was hanging heavy on the rope. What the hell should we do?  The only way now seemed to be down. The wind had picked up, left us cold; climbing further appeared hard. We would need headlamps to climb in the dark. Not to mention, blood sugar was hitting super low levels. The valley floor was 800 feet below.

Okay Kumar let’s head down: I shout up to him. A reluctant Kumar started lowering himself down on the slope. The look said it all. But we have to `bail out’ in our best interest.

On El Capitan (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

It had been a dream since teenage years. Persistent dreams become itches. The itch started 35 years ago with articles from Mountain magazine, UK showing stunning  photos of El Capitan (El Cap) and the Mecca of rock climbing – Yosemite valley. Names like Jim Bridwell, Randy Leavitt, John Bachar, Ron Kauk, Mark Hudon and Max Jones – they were my childhood super heroes possessing the power to ascend blank cliffs 3000 feet high. The seed was born and I knew which side to face for my Mecca. Much Time passed. Fiftieth birthdays are magical; the number can turn a few screws around for a lot of people. I was looking at a postcard from Kiran (nine years) and Sachin (six years) – they were the children of my friends, Luca and Priya. The postcard with a photo of El Cap sent from Yosemite a few years ago and stuck on the fridge was daily reminder that El Cap was waiting. I needed to make my pilgrimage before I died. A date was set and a partnership deal sealed with Kumar Gaurav.

“ Hey do you want to go America?’’

I am not sure what Kumar, a 24 year-old Delhi based-climber thought about the offer from the blue. A shrug of the shoulder and a smile said it all. Few weeks later, we were in the queue in front of the American Embassy for our visa interview. We are climbers and we want to climb in the Yosemite Valley – that was what we told the young visa officer, who thought this was certainly a very valid reason to go to USA. A 10 year multiple entry-visa approved, we walked out.

I had to lose the many rolls of fat accumulated around the waist. The training to climb again the last few decades was spent running, swimming, doing triathlons and hiking. There hadn’t been much climbing. It was going to take some effort getting back into shape for climbing. I would have to do regular laps on the climbing wall / running, to build general strength plus trips to the rocks. Amid this, one thing was clear – it had to be a month-long visit. We had to give proper time for this climb; taking four weeks off felt very intimidating, both from the perspective of work and family.

Delhi-Singapore-San Francisco flight followed by a pick-up from dear friend Ishu and we landed in `Camp 4’ in Yosemite Valley. The idea was to spend maximum time in the valley. We had no other agenda. I was very clear about the objective of this trip: spend time in the valley…climb; run, hike, bike, dream, drink beer all, of it in the valley only.

At the campsite in Yosemite (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

The valley granite was very unique and for sure it was unforgiving. As mentioned in every guide book, article and blog, if you think you can come and crush at the same grades as your home crag you would be surprised, true to every word written. The first week was spent on climbing classics around Camp 4, reaching crags wherever we could on cycle; climbing routes ranging from single pitch to 5 pitches. I struggled on the 5.6-5.8s and Kumar on 5.9 /10 (he being a 5.14 sport climber I am sure this must have come as a surprise..!) Valley granite is mainly crack climbs of varying sizes, fingers to wide chimneys  – a lot of it is very slick due to ancient glacier polish or just because some routes were climbed so many times that they became really slick. Trusting the feet on such rock was a whole new dimension. I took a fall of 15 feet and realized that for this type of climbing we needed more time to get used to.

As with most climbers, we spent beautiful sunny days climbing the classics. The normal routine was to start at 9 AM and end at 7 PM every day. But The Nose route of El Cap, sometimes referred to as the “ greatest rock climb on Earth’’ was always at the back of our mind. We had to get on the Captain. If Yosemite Valley was the Mecca of rock climbing, then Camp 4 was the center of it all; it has been there as climbers’ campground since the 1950’s. Camp 4 has hosted the who’s who of the climbing world. At six dollars a night per person this was the cheapest place to be in the valley. However one could spend only 30 days in a year there and out of it only seven days could be had in the period from 1st May to 30th September, that being peak season. We got a permit for 14 days since we arrived on the 24th of April.

It was great to meet climbers from all over the world. A big Spanish team was in camp. We started to get information about The Nose route on El Cap from two young Americans, Kip and Joe who had bailed out from the “sickle ledge’’ just two days ago. They said they were too slow and carried too much weight, a phrase we heard a lot in the next couple of weeks. After a week of climbing, our thoughts moved to giving The Nose (it is 3000 feet high, 32 pitches) a go. Ideally everyone first climbs the first four pitches to Sickle Ledge, fixes a few ropes down to the ground for hauling the `pig’ up to the ledge and then carry on in a single push with an average time of three days to the top.

On El Capitan (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

We followed the same strategy. We decided to climb the first four pitches to the Sickle and then fix three 60 meter-ropes down to the ground. The German duo, Peter and Mark, start before us. There were also other parties at various stages on the route. Kumar led the first pitch and I was surprised to find him struggling. They say that the climbing on the Nose can be unique, weird and hard to describe. One has to experience it to understand what it is like. The plan was to “ French free’’ – it means to climb whatever can be freed and otherwise pull on fixed gear or fix own gear and pull on it. The idea being to maintain a quick pace, get to the belay stance and fix the rope for the second to “ jug up’’ (jumar) the rope. The leader can then haul the bag up or in our case the bag was very heavy for a very light Kumar to haul alone; either we would haul it together or I would use my body weight to haul. Hauling involved fixing a system on the anchors with a pulley / grab device, through which the rope passed and then, hand over hand, the climbers pulled the bag. The traversing nature of the first four pitches needed short pendulums on fixed gear, tension traverses and very interesting climbing on pin scars. While Kumar led I carried the pack with the spare rope and a haul line trailing from the harness. It was a beautiful sunny day with great views across the valley.

The wind generally picks up around 11 AM. It can be very unnerving as the gusts can take you unawares. The rope starts to go all over the place. We reached Sickle Ledge to find that the Germans had fixed ropes to descend to the ground, haul their bag up and sleep the night on the ledge. Kumar and I planned to fix ropes and descend to the ground. We didn’t have a haul bag, we needed to acquire / buy one. Satisfied with the day’s target achieved, we headed back to Camp 4. Our bicycles were locked near the base of El Cap. While most drive up to near the base we didn’t have a car. So we biked everywhere.

On El Capitan (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

We bought the haul bag from the mountain shop in the valley. It looked huge. It will contain eventually 22 liters of water in duct taped bottles and jerry cans, food for four days, sleeping bags, mats, stove and cookware, poop bags (it is mandatory to collect poop in poop bags and then carry them out in a poop tube back to the camp); this was apart from the climbing gear and ropes which would be easily another 20 kilos. The `pig’ once packed, weighed around 35 kilos, the majority of the weight being water as there was no water on the wall.  We planned to jug our fixed ropes to the Sickle and also haul the bag to it and leave it there. All this movement was to get our systems in place. I hadn’t really jugged ropes before. A quick reference to a how-to guide got me going. It actually felt easy and fun after a while.

The exposure on the wall can be debilitating. The more we moved up and down, the more we got used to it. We met Alex and Nani the two strong, ever smiling Spaniards who had climbed the rest of the Nose except the first four pitches. They had jugged up someone else’s rope to the Sickle and done the rest of the climb. They were now down to climb the first four pitches; not the most conventional way to climb the route. Our haul bag was eventually anchored to the fixed bolts on Sickle Ledge. Three bolt anchors generally marked the end of every pitch on the Nose. It saved climbers the trouble of making anchors and rigging a complicated haul system.

It was now a rest day. Moving camp from Camp 4 as our 14 day-permit got over, we shifted to another place in the valley. Thanks to the generosity of a valley local, we managed to camp in his backyard for the rest of the trip. This was divine intervention saving us the hassle of getting a car and driving out of the park every day or getting an expensive campground which was no less than 100 dollars a night.

At 7 AM we pedaled fast to get to the base to start our climb. We were already late as organizing the gear and breakfast took more time than usual. We reached the base to where our ropes were hanging to find two Spanish teams ready to climb and haul on our ropes! We were disappointed to see this. We told them that we planned to climb our ropes and then drop one of the ropes to the ground (a normal practice; the rope stays at the base till the team comes back to retrieve it).  Seeing the disappointment on their faces, Kumar asked one of them to climb our ropes fast and fix theirs. As we got ready, they finally fixed their ropes and we ascended ours to Sickle Ledge. It was already 9 AM and we are at least two hours behind schedule (this delay proved to be very expensive). The pitch above Sickle looked very broken up and hard to haul. Kumar climbed the initial easy section and then a hard move round the corner took him to a fixed bolt station. Advice from a fast and experienced party which overtook us suggested that we push the haul bag off the side and haul from the start of the next pitch. That turned out to be good advice. The Nose was certainly a very complex route. The first four to five pitches were not straightforward and knowledge of what to do and where played a critical role in efficiency and speed. This is a major factor to make quick progress on the route.

Kumar Gaurav (left) with two of the Spanish climbers – Alex and Nani – on Sickle Ledge (Photo: courtesy Mohit Oberoi)

A short pendulum and tension traverse took us to a three bolt-belay station. Now the exposure seemed significant. The initial forays on the rock had made us immune to the exposure at least up to this height. Kumar led a pitch and we had now got into the start of the “ stove legs’’ which is a significant land mark on the climb. The stove legs are hand / fist / off width size-cracks which go up four pitches to the ` Dolt Tower.’ Our aim was to get to Dolt Tower as, after Sickle Ledge, this was the only ledge we could sleep on. Since we did not have a portaledge (portable foldable ledge made of aluminum tubes and nylon fabric to sleep on, which can be set up almost anywhere as long as anchors are available), we had to try and hit the Dolt or we had to hang all night on the bolt anchors as last option.

The stove legs can slow down parties like us who don’t have very good crack climbing experience. The cracks were the same size all through and needed a lot of cams and wires of the same size. Thus double and triple of each size required to be carried or have to be “ back cleaned” by the leader. Even the 5.8 pitches seemed hard with the added weight of gear (5-7 kilos); two ropes (lead rope and haul line), wind gusting away, fatigue from hauling, slick rock and exposure. The 5.8 started feeling like 5.10/11. We met many climbers blasting away to Dolt Tower 10 pitches up, without any haul bags and then coming down the same day; a good way to get used to climbing on the route and get familiar with climbing / route complication.  NIAD (Nose in a Day) climbers find themselves climbing with first timers like us who take 3-5 days and then slowly work on the route to eventually do it in 24 hours. Or like Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, climbing it in two hours (!!) which is crazy (!!!) and totally insane.

It was now 6.30 PM and Kumar was leading on pitch eight. We were still two pitches away from the Dolt. Maybe an early start and not losing time to the Spanish team (who climbed behind us and slept on Sickle Ledge) would have helped. It seemed best to bail out as most parties do at the stove legs; a series of 60 meter-rappel anchors straight down lead to the ground. We started to head down, first lowering the haul bag to the anchor and then I lowering off. This took a lot of time. Then I took the haul bag on my tie-in loop of the harness, crushing my hips. But then it was better than the haul bag being lowered off. Tempers ran high as the low sugar level and dehydration hit us. We had not eaten anything and had less than two liters of water between the two of us the whole day. In such conditions, it’s easy to make a mistake. We started descending on head lamp lights with no ledges and finding the bolt anchors on a blank granite wall at night. One error could be fatal. We managed three rappels and then one error – the 70 meter-rope got jammed in the anchor above us. We couldn’t retrieve it. We continued with one 60 meter-rope, unsure if the rappel anchors were also at 30 meter-intervals. A guessing game began and we started to head down on a single 60 meter-rope. Luckily or perhaps I must say, sensibly, the climbers had equipped this route also for a 60 meter-rope (for idiots like us who managed to snag our rope!). We reached the ground at 11.30 PM, safe at last.

Mohit Oberoi (Photo: courtesy Mohit)

We opened the haul bag. While Kumar gorged on bars and trail mix and basically anything he could lay his hands on, I pulled out the sleeping bags and put some food in the stomach after nearly 16 hours. Then we both lay down under the tree at the base for a good night’s sleep. We woke up next morning and couldn’t see the rope which had got stuck; it must have been 400 feet up. We have to see if someone coming down is able to retrieve it.

Back at Camp 4 we met Peter and Mark (the German team which was ahead of us by a few days). They had exhausted themselves and bailed just above Sickle Ledge. Mark said he got really exhausted and did not find himself comfortable, climbing on such ground. His words resounded in my years:  it’s the Captain after all; it doesn’t go down easily. He laughed. The bail out rate is 50 per cent on The Nose; 500-600 parties attempt it every year, out of which 50 per cent bail out.

I was happy that we had got on to The Nose / EL Cap. Maybe I was under-prepared, not skilled enough or fit. But I think it was important for me personally to attempt to climb, instead of dreaming of it, endlessly and forever.

A VERY BIG THANKS TO: Annie; the ‘ROCK’ in my life. Abhi and Ikki, guys we have to climb this together one day. Thanks to Kush / Ishu Khandelwal; brother in San Francisco, who hosted us, climbed with us and inspires me to push myself out of the comfort zone. Sanjay Suri (brother from another mother!!) man you make it look so easy; you drove in this huge SUV from San Francisco and just drove us out of the valley…a VERY BIG THANK YOU. Curtis thanks for seeing us in Camp 4 and the hot shower and BBQ after two weeks was very welcome. Alisha, thanks for the logistics. Singapore Airlines was the way to go. Alex Cox dude thanks for hosting us and I hope you are using those bikes.

(The author, Mohit Oberoi, is a longstanding climber and businessman based in Delhi. He owns gear retailer, Adventure 18. For more on Kumar Gaurav please try these two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/01/31/the-kumar-gaurav-story/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2017/11/24/samsara-is-nirvana-the-many-sides-of-a-climb/ For further insight into some of the workings of Yosemite National Park, please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/04/04/regulation-should-make-adventure-safe-not-restrict-it-talking-to-steve-swenson/)

A RELAY SWIM ACROSS THE ENGLISH CHANNEL

Zarir Baliwalla (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Please scroll down to the end of this article for update.

Three men from Mumbai gear up to attempt a relay swim across the English Channel in July 2019. Completing the quartet will be a South African lady, an experienced swimmer who has crossed the channel before.

For 35 years Zarir Baliwalla was a smoker. He led a quiet life, managing his business, Baliwalla & Homi Private Ltd.

“ When I hit 50 years of age, I wanted a healthy lifestyle and started running,’’ Zarir, now 58, said. Years ago while at school – Cathedral School in South Mumbai – young Zarir was involved in a number of sports; running, swimming and hockey. None of that was at serious competitive level.

The years of running helped him pick up the recreational activity well. “ I used to run on my own on Marine Drive. I would see a lot of runners; they would wish me during the run. One of them, Pervin Batliwala, asked me to join her group, Savio’s Stars built around Coach Savio D’Souza,’’ he said.

Zarir ran with the group whenever possible. He got into the emergent trend of running half marathons and 10 kilometre-races at events. He participated in the Mumbai Marathon, Goa River Marathon and Delhi Half Marathon, besides others.

In due course, running became mundane. Some of the group members moved to triathlons to escape boredom.

“ I heard about triathlon from some of the members of the group. I resumed swimming to balance my physical activity across disciplines,’’ he said. He also bought his first bicycle, a Trek mountain bike. “ Those days, everybody used a MTB but I realised soon that I needed a road bike for triathlons. I bought a road bike later,’’ he said.

Zarir and a few of his friends used to organize triathlons in Mumbai periodically as practice sessions. In 2017, he enrolled for the Goa Triathlon, an Olympic distance-event. “ One week before the event I crashed my bike,’’ he said.

The diversification in sport, he commenced, continued. From running, he had shifted focus to triathlons; pretty soon he was enrolling for swimming events.

During his school years and later as an adult, Zarir’s experience in swimming was confined to pools. “ It was when I got into open water swimming that I realized, I enjoyed swimming in the sea,’’ he said.

In December 2017, triathlete and national level swimmer, Samiir Wheaton, proposed the idea of swimming the English channel as a four-member relay team to Zarir Baliwalla and a couple of other friends.

The idea seemed preposterous to Zarir. “ After all, I am not such a strong swimmer as Samiir,’’ Zarir said from his desk at the office of Baliwalla & Homi Private Ltd in Marine Lines, South Mumbai.

Samiir was keen to swim the English Channel solo. But instead of plunging into it directly he had chosen the more prudent option of doing a relay swim ahead of attempting a solo swim, Zarir said.

“ The English Channel is a coveted objective for open water swimmers. The shortest distance across the Channel as the bird flies is 32 kilometers but when you swim, the distance can stretch to 38-40 kilometers depending on currents, wind and the tide,’’ he said.

Moiz Rajkotwala, Zarir Baliwalla and Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Zarir)

Apart from Samiir and Zarir, two others were roped in to complete a relay quartet – Moiz Rajkotwala and Anirban Mukherji. Moiz is a marathon, ultra-marathon runner and triathlete. Anirban is also runner and a triathlete.

They set out to study the process involved in attempting the English Channel. Swimmers have to register with either of the two international bodies associated with the English Channel – Channel Swimming Association and Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation.

For the relay swim, the participants are required to have a qualifying swim of two hours non-stop in the sea with water temperature below 16 degrees. Swimmers are not allowed a wet suit. They have to enter the water in swimming trunks, goggles and cap.

In January this year, Anirban had to drop out due to medical issues. Sudarshan Chari, a swimmer and triathlete, replaced him in the team to maintain the quartet.

Sudarshan has been swimming from his school days; he has participated in school level competitions. “ Swimming was always part of my life. But it was mostly confined to swimming in the pool. About three years ago, I got into open water swimming,’’ Sudarshan said. He became part of the Goa Open Water Swimming Club.

The club started organising swimming competitions, known as Swimathon. Triathletes and swimmers have been enrolling for the event since it commenced. Over the last three years, Sudarshan has enrolled for various distances – three, five and ten kilometers. At this year’s Swimathon in February 2019, Sudarshan completed the 10 kilometer swim in four hours, 24 minutes, 47 seconds.

In March 2019, Sudarshan enrolled for the Ocean Walker Swimming Camp held at Malta. The coach at the camp was Adam Walker, endurance swimmer and first Englishman to complete the Seven Oceans swim.

“ Adam Walker trained us how to reduce hand movements and use our body instead during long endurance swims,’’ Sudarshan said. Also, the camp ended with a qualifying swim for solo as well as relay swim for the English Channel. Given his aspiration to do the English Channel swim, the qualifying swim was useful.

While Samiir, Moiz and Sudarshan were already qualified for the swim, Zarir had to travel to England for a qualifying swim in May. His guide for the qualifying swim was Loretta Cox, a long-distance swimmer and coach, who has completed the English Channel swim multiple times.

“ She did not allow me to do my qualifying swim on the first day. She said I needed to get used to the cold waters before attempting the swim. On the first day I swam for 15 minutes, on the second day I did two swims – one for 20 minutes and another for 30 minutes and on the third day I did two sessions of one hour each,’’ he said. On the fourth day, he did his qualifying swim.

With his qualifying swim in place, the team was all set for the relay swim across English Channel.

The team secured a third position for the July 7-19 (2019) window for the relay swim across the Channel.

Then another setback occurred.

“ Unfortunately, Samiir had to opt out of the proposed swim for personal reasons. We then had to look out for another swimmer to take his place. And that swimmer had to have completed a qualifying swim as there is not enough time to go through preparation and qualifying,’’ Zarir said. He approached various open water swimming forums seeking a swimmer to join the trio for the relay.

“ Catherine Stefanutti, a South African swimmer based in the UK, agreed to join us. She has already done the English Channel solo and as part of relay teams couple of times. Her experience should augur well for our team,’’ he said.

Channel Swimming Association (CSA) rules are stringent about how the relay swim has to be carried out. Of the four members of the team, one person starts swimming and has to swim exactly for one hour before the next swimmer takes over. A boat with the pilot, remaining three participants and one observer aboard, accompanies the swimmer.

Swimmers are not allowed to touch the boat during the swim. Stroke rates are also measured. A substantial drop in stroke rates of the swimmer can lead to disqualification, Sudarshan said.

Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Sudarshan)

According to Zarir, adapting to swimming in cold waters is a challenge for those from India, especially people from Mumbai. “ I have switched from shower to bucket bath. I fill my bucket with ice and ensure that the temperature is below 16 degrees for my bath. I am now used to that cold temperature,’’ he said.

The ice water baths do help swimmers to adapt to the cold waters of the English Channel. Nevertheless, challenges of cold water remain. “ Every time you enter the cold water, the body takes time to adjust. In a solo swim the challenge is at the start but in a relay swim you have to adjust to the cold water as many times as you may require to enter the waters to complete the distance,’’ Sudarshan said. Apart from ice baths, the trio also ramped up their swimming mileage to prepare for the long haul.

Through the relay swim, the team is raising funds for Impact Foundation of Tata Memorial Hospital.

“ The idea of raising funds for paediatric oncology came about during my visits to the hospital. As part of the medical equipment business, I had to visit the hospital, where I saw several children in very critical condition. The hospital is doing a lot voluntarily work but funds are never enough. We would like to contribute some funds to the hospital,’’ Zarir said.

Update / July 14: The quartet comprising Sudarshan Chari, Zarir Baliwala, Moiz Rajkotwala and Catherine Stefanuti completed the relay swim across the English Channel on July 12, 2019 in 14 hours and 59 minutes. In a message after completing the swim, Zarir informed that since 1875, an estimated 817 teams have successfully done this swim ratified by CSA (Channel Swimming Association).

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)