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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jigmet Dolma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In seven years of participating at the annual Mumbai Marathon, Rimo Expeditions’ team of runners from Ladakh, have made it to the podium for elite Indian women, twice. The time taken by these women runners in the full marathon – they represent the new generation of runners from Ladakh – is yet to dip below three hours. But they are within striking distance despite the limitations in which they train back home. There is a sense of what’s next opening up in the program. Key to it is Indian sports authorities taking note of the improvements in performance made. Question is: will they?

Jigmet Dolma remembered the first time she ran in the elite category at the Mumbai Marathon.

She and fellow runner from Ladakh, Tsetan Dolkar, reported to the start line of the 2017 edition of India’s biggest marathon. It was a year when the field in Indian women didn’t have some of the prominent elite runners. But elite is nevertheless elite; the atmosphere is more purposeful, a sense of aim prevails. At such levels of competition, even relaxation is ingredient for enhanced performance. As runners warmed up ahead of battle, the duo from Ladakh felt nervous. “ I was a bit scared,’’ Jigmet said. But being underdog helps. Many runners who secured podium finishes in their career would recall the buoyancy afforded by that predicament. There are no expectations. You run free. That year Jigmet finished third in the elite category for Indian women. Tsetan completed the race in fourth position, the two separated at finish by a mere four seconds. Then, the uphill began. You have podium position to live up to.

At a café in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, some days after the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Chewang Motup put his project in perspective. Motup owns Leh based-Rimo Expeditions, among the best known adventure travel companies in India and organizers of the Ladakh Marathon. He started the Ladakh Marathon with a simple goal in mind. In distance running which counts on endurance, training at altitude is recognized as helpful. As location, Ladakh enjoys high average elevation; much of it is over 9800 feet high. Born to altitude, people from here should have a bank of endurance. Rigzen Angmo is good example. In the 1990s, she ran sub-three marathons, was podium finisher at national and international marathons. But that was years ago and a case, not repeated since in Ladakh. Motup wished to unlock the potential for endurance running in Ladakh by encouraging a culture of running. He also wanted to see local runners representing India at the Olympic Games. Hence the choice of the marathon for unlike the ultramarathon more easily associated with Ladakh’s mountainous landscape, the 42.195 kilometer-distance is firmly recognized as Olympic sport.

Chewang Motup (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hailing from Igoo village, Jigmet was into running while still at school. But it was the Ladakh Marathon staged in Leh at an elevation of over 11,000 feet that brought her (she used to run the half marathon) and Tsetan to local prominence. Although their early timings are quite slow compared to the pace at which marathons and half marathons are run in India’s cities, they were consistent podium finishers in Leh. Rimo Expeditions pioneered an annual program for Ladakhi runners – selected on the strength of their performance at the Ladakh Marathon – to travel to races at Indian cities with the Mumbai Marathon as main focus. “ My first visit to the Mumbai Marathon was in 2013,’’ Jigmet said. After a couple of years spent participating in the half marathon at the event, in 2015 (so she recalls), she ran the first full marathon of her life in Mumbai. “ I ran it at half marathon pace and ended up walking the last three kilometers to the finish,’’ she said outlining the lack of experience she had in races and race strategy then.

In the period that followed, Savio D’Souza – former national champion in the marathon and well known coach in Mumbai – was brought in to train the team. A structured approach was introduced. Given Ladakh’s cold winter with sub-zero temperatures, runners like Jigmet and Tsetan, begin their training in April. Around July, Savio visits them in Leh, gauges their standing, imparts tips and before returning to Mumbai, gives them a training schedule. “ We then keep in touch on the phone. They call me and tell me what they have been doing. The thing about them is – they are utterly dedicated. If it is too cold and they haven’t managed to run in the morning, they will run in the afternoon. I give them a training schedule, they follow it to the T,’’ Savio said. The intervention paid off. Between Tsetan and Jigmet, the latter was always the faster runner. Tsetan had completed the 2013 Ladakh Marathon in 4:54:05. By 2017, she was completing TMM in 3:14:42, four seconds behind Jigmet; both runners in the elite category for Indian women to boot. That was the year Jigmet finished on the podium for the first time in Mumbai.

A week had elapsed since 2019 TMM. It was late evening. At the Mumbai University’s athletic track, the hours of training had just concluded. “ Let me explain what happened in 2018,’’ Savio said. That year, the Ladakhi runners had failed to repeat their podium finish in the Indian women’s elite segment. “ The podium finish of 2017 was unexpected. Next year, it became a burden. Ahead of race their discussion was about who had turned up to compete in the elite category. If you run to defeat others, you end up running someone else’s race. You have to stick to your plan. But the whole thing was new for them. They were under pressure. When you run under stress, you commit mistakes; your race plan goes haywire. That’s what happened in 2018. Last year they got distracted by the elite runners. This year was different. They ran their own race. The attitude was – whoever comes, we are not bothered. Now we will do better,’’ Savio said. At 2019 TMM, Jigmet was back on the podium in the Indian women’s category; she placed third with a timing of 3:10:43, Tsetan finished fifth clocking 3:13:05. With podium finish secured for the second time, it appears both Motup and Savio have to contemplate: what next?

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr Aashish Contractor was Medical Director of the Mumbai Marathon from 2004 to 2014. Now Head of the Department of Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine at Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, he produced a photo on his computer showing the Ladakhi runners from a 2018 visit to the hospital to assess their VO2 max level. “ VO2 stands for volume of oxygen – it basically tells you how much oxygen your body can consume while doing exercise. It is considered to be a gold standard of one’s cardiovascular fitness. For someone to do well on the world stage in long distance running, cycling, swimming, rowing or skiing – they must have a very good VO2 max. We tested six Ladakhi athletes. All of them had phenomenally high numbers, definitely world class,’’ Dr Contractor said. But it has to be seen in proper perspective. As the doctor put it, you can’t be a world class athlete without good VO2 max but high VO2 max does not automatically guarantee that you will be world class athlete. Between the two – potential and performance – lay other factors like circumstances; training, mental strength, diet, experience and strategy. VO2 max is therefore an indication of potential, especially endurance. “ That’s the most important attribute you can measure in a distance runner,’’ Dr Contractor said. At the apartment near Mumbai’s Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), where the runners from Ladakh stay, Jigmet reflected on what she required to improve. “ My weaknesses are two. First, I am still slow compared to other elite runners. Second, I tend to run a marathon like a half marathon. My pace progressively drops,’’ she said. Figures prove her correct on the first and marginally correct on the second. At 2019 TMM, both Jigmet and Tsetan had pace across splits ranging from 13.1 to 13.5 kilometers per hour. This compares with Sudha Singh (winner among elite Indian women) who straddled 16-16.3 and Jyoti Gawate (second among elite Indian women) who ranged from 15.3 to 16. As regards splits, Jigmet was fairly consistent barring minor variations, which is actually good. Both Sudha and Jyoti had pacers. “ My goal now is to run a marathon in three hours,’’ Jigmet said. Savio wants her to get there on her own steam, without pacer.

“ Using the word speed can be misleading,’’ Dr Contractor said. All running involves speed. In a marathon you have to sustain decent pace for the two and half to three hours that the run lasts. This can be viewed as a case of endurance. But can high VO2 max – often cited to highlight endurance – be construed to also imply promise of maintaining good pace for the duration of a marathon? “ It is hard to answer it directly. Let’s put it this way – if you took a roomful of 50 people and you tested all for VO2 max and you made them all run five kilometers, it is likely that their performance would be in the order of their VO2 max roughly. If you train them all equally, they have the same circumstances in life – then again, the result would be the same. But if you take away those variables and everybody eats differently; lives differently – then there is the possibility that somebody with low VO2 max may beat somebody with a high VO2 max. Mental strength, how badly they want it – so much goes into it,’’ Dr Contractor said. In a competitive marathon, there are several elements at play – among them: endurance, race strategy and pace. Motup’s ongoing project is founded on the premise that Ladakhis have good endurance. Rimo’s team of runners brings that to the table. Not just that; team members couldn’t recall an instance of Did Not Finish (DNF) from their ranks, ever since they started traveling out to races in the plains. Both Motup and Savio said that no matter what difficulties they faced, the runners typically finished a given race. Between the two critical attributes – endurance and pace – pace would also seem an animal inspired in part by ecosystem. Endurance grows in you as part of location and lifestyle; probably why residents of hills and mountains end up with superior endurance compared to plains dwellers. Pace on the other hand – one can legitimately suspect – feeds off competitive circumstances too.

In Ladakh, there is only one marathon – the Ladakh Marathon. In a region with few popular initiatives in athletics, the Ladakh Marathon has been consistently topped by the likes of Jigmet and Tsetan. Given it is one of India’s most expensive marathons (acclimatization schedule forces long stay in Leh for participants) elite runners from the plains don’t turn up to participate even as a matter of curiosity to pitch their ability against high altitude. The event’s USP revolves around running in Ladakh, the adventure tourism destination. It has come to enjoy a high level of attraction among foreign runners with travel companies marketing packages around the annual marathon. It has also extended the local tourist season with hotels booked and high spending visitors – Indian and foreign – in town. Simply put – although local runners win the race comfortably, beyond a point neither the event nor the local ecosystem in running can serve as robust proving ground for the events of the plains because the required level of competition is absent. And without runners as good as you or better than you around, local runners needn’t feel compelled to push themselves. The ecosystem contrasts the circumstances runners from the plains hail from. But that is where Ladakh’s runners are for most part of the year; they come out to compete in city marathons for only around four months every year.

2015; Savio on a training run with Ladakhi runners during a visit to Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When they leave Ladakh for the plains in November, Rimo’s team of Ladakh runners – especially those running in elite category – make a jump to truly competitive environment instead of gradual transition. This was particularly felt in the run up to 2019 TMM because Delhi’s prestigious half marathon, which the team likes to run for accumulating race experience, got shifted to October. According to Savio, the team needs to participate in more races; there is also the need to have more races happening in Ladakh as that is runners’ home ecosystem. More local races contribute to bigger pool of local runners and hopefully thereby, greater competition for existing top notch runners in Ladakh. The breeding ground of most Indian marathoners is the middle distance categories (reference here being to 3000 meters to 10,000 meters) including the steeplechase. Indian elites like Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi, O.P. Jaisha, Sudha Singh and Lalita Babbar – all spent time in middle distance disciplines before coming to the marathon. It was true of the late Shivnath Singh too whose national record in the men’s marathon, set in 1978, was still standing at the time of writing. The great Emil Zatopek’s competence spanned 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. Ladakh’s running calendar lacks a basket of middle distance races. Competitive ecosystem and middle distance – isn’t that where speed is picked up and ingested into potential marathon runner’s system? Both Sudha Singh and Jyoti Gawate (Jyoti who finished the full marathon at 2019 TMM in 2:45:48 hails from challenged circumstances) have more race experience than Jigmet. Sudha who has won medals for India internationally, has the ecosystem of the national camp – an assembly of India’s best – to train in. Further, both Sudha and Jyoti don’t have to worry about weather while training. “ When I go to Ladakh we do some speed training on the road. But road is not ideal surface as it can cause injury. Ladakh does not have an athletic track and so far, we haven’t been able to locate a good mud track. Further once the runners leave Ladakh for the plains, given races they are scheduled to participate in, we have to train conservatively making sure to avoid injury,’’ Savio said. Motup hopes he can pitch in to bridge the deficit with an array of treadmills to keep the momentum of training going on in Leh even in times of inclement weather. But the gap in infrastructure is clear.

A bit of a mystery in the story of Ladakh runners is the relation between altitude and distance running. Most people seem agreed on the link between altitude and endurance. But on the other hand, marathons have been increasingly won by those hailing from or training in mid-altitudes, not high altitude. India’s high altitude sports training facilities are also at these mid-altitudes as are the hills and mountains the elite runners of Kenya and Ethiopia belong to. Iten, the famous home of distance runners in Kenya, has an elevation of 7874 feet. Having said that, it must be pointed out that the Internet (to the extent this writer looked it up) did not specify a clear reason why training is set at this belt of elevation, apart from mention that it corresponds to where the best athletes currently hail from and also, where some of the high profile competitions are held, the latter likely in terms of threshold of elevation (for instance – Mexico City, location for the highest altitude at which the Summer Olympics have been staged so far, is at 7350 feet).

Rigzen Angmo with trophy after her win at the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

For runners from Ladakh, the question is how to leverage their natural strengths, train and perform well at altitudes lower than where they come from. They need to marry endurance and pace. For this, do they train high (as in Leh) or train low? Can you simplistically conclude that if the middle altitudes are good for training in long distance running, then still higher altitudes would be better? “ No. Not necessary. You go very high, the air gets rarified; it is difficult to train. Living at altitude is beneficial. Everybody living at altitude will have those beneficial changes compared to you and me. But to be able to train – sometimes the altitude is so high that you get tired. Then training itself becomes difficult. How do you do your sprint workout and your long distance workout and all of that? I think there is a sweet spot as to what altitude is good to live and train at,’’ Dr Contractor said. The story of Rigzen Angmo is characterized by training stints outside Ladakh at gentler altitudes (please visit this link for Rigzen’s story: Her personal best of 2:45:42 set in 1996, is looked up to by the runners from Ladakh. For dwellers of altitude, long stay away from elevation is a tricky quantum. One sensed unease in the runners when the question of extended stay in the plains was discussed. Apparently, such extended stay temporarily saps high altitude residents of some of their strengths at elevation. On return to Ladakh, they find themselves needing to adapt afresh. It isn’t a development the young runners seemed comfortable with.

Savio feels it is time the national authorities took note of this project, which has systematically dispatched runners to Mumbai since 2013 and secured podium finish in the elite category, twice. If they make it to the national camp or at the very least its proximity, the top Ladakhi runners will get the ecosystem to improve their performance further. They will have good facilities and most important, the good fortune of running with those currently better than them in the marathon. “ I wish the authorities took note of how far we progressed despite the challenges faced,’’ Savio said. Motup is acutely aware of the stage the project finds itself in. Rimo Expeditions has funded this journey as well as the Ladakh Marathon, from its own resources. As someone who wishes to see a Ladakhi at the Olympics, he wants more races in Ladakh – a sort of feeder system into the Ladakh Marathon, much the same way the best performers from the Ladakh Marathon find their way to TMM. But that deepening of running culture can’t be done by him alone. Ideally it should be a broader campaign involving local government. At a more immediate level, as a matter of strategizing next stage for the current team of Ladakh runners (including more time spent away from Ladakh if that is the need), one avenue open to him is to get aboard a strategic partner or sponsor for the Ladakh Marathon. Either such move frees up Rimo’s resources to invest more in the running team or whoever decides to partner the Ladakh Marathon, buys into the idea of sustaining and growing the running team as well. In today’s world of sports those willing to associate for visibility or gains in marketing are easily found. What’s tough is finding someone for the long haul of investing in a running team or a project to grow running and see it through. “ So far I haven’t met anyone convincing in this regard,’’ Motup said.

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


Kieren D’Souza (This photo was downloaded from Kieren’s Facebook page.)

Kieren D’Souza is among India’s promising, young ultra-runners. He has consciously chosen to make a livelihood from running; he does it as a full time job much the same way many of us go to office. Increasingly partial to trail running, he lives and trains in Manali, where the Himalaya provides the sort of landscape and environment for running, he identifies with. Kieren has been to ultramarathon races abroad, including the world championships. A regular visitor to the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) as part of his association with the pain relief gel-brand Volini, he spared time at the 2019 TMM expo to talk to this blog about his experience, living off running. Excerpts:

It was in 2012 that you ran your first ultramarathon in Bengaluru. Roughly four years later in Leh, by the time you won the 111 kilometer-category of La Ultra The High in 2016, you had begun setting yourself up as a full time runner; someone hoping to provide for oneself through running. How has the journey been so far at a personal level and in terms of supporting yourself financially?

As a journey it has been perfect. I don’t wish I was doing anything else. I resolved to run full time in 2014; I got around to doing so in 2015. Every day has been a blast. I don’t remember having so much fun. That way it has been brilliant. As regards the goals I had set for myself – it has been slow but consistent progress. I am not where I want to be yet, but I am climbing up the ladder. I wish it were faster, though. On a financial level – a life of this sort has meant a lot of work. There is a lot of running around, a lot of approaching people and a lot of disappointments. You have to work with people, companies and brands. I understand that I have to work with them and I was mentally prepared for it when I started this journey. It has been a lot of hard work and definitely not the easiest thing.

Did you have a full understanding of what making a career of running entails, when you embarked on this journey in 2014-15?

Did I know that it would be hard to make money? Yes, I knew that. Did I know it would be so hard? I did not know that. It’s been a lot harder than what I thought, I guess. There are some similarities in what companies are looking for, but essentially every company looks for something different. Even people within companies look for different things. It is not the easiest to reach out to people. Finding the right contact is tough. Everything has been a process – from learning who to reach out to and having them respond to you. If I get a reply from some of the people I got in touch with, I am most excited. It may not even materialize into anything but just getting response; sometimes those are the most exciting things. Most of these exchanges – 99 per cent of it – don’t convert into an association. But having said that, the fact is – I need to do this. Nobody else is going to do this for me.

We are right now at the expo preceding the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). If you keep aside the elite foreign athletes attending the race and you look at the Indian elite – most of them; are gainfully employed with one organization or another. Then there are some from the amateur category who race because prize money complements earnings from other sources or in some cases, is the only source of livelihood they have. In India, you don’t yet come across athletes who consciously run full time for livelihood or support themselves completely through running’s ecosystem.

That’s one thing I tell others – I can think of very few people who are living off only running. I mean there are the elite athletes but they are usually working with the armed forces, railways or the state-owned oil companies. They are supported by these organizations. That makes the choice I made tough, but I am okay with it.

There is the conventional logic that if you have a hobby you like, then you support it with earnings from some other source. There is also the argument that if your hobby – or an activity you genuinely like – becomes your source of livelihood, then it starts losing the fun originally associated with it. Have you ever felt so?

No. Like I said – last four years of doing this, I never thought on any day that I should be doing something else. I can’t think of sitting at a desk right now. I live in Manali and I love getting out every single day. I was talking to a friend a little earlier and he was saying that when I get back, it may be snowing and there won’t be much running I can do. It does not deter me. I will probably pack a bag; wear my boots and hike six hours every day. I don’t care. I love to get out. At the heart of it what I enjoy is – getting out and moving. Running is the simplest way of supporting it; it is accessible to me everywhere.

To labor the point a bit more in the interest of clarity – conventional Indian logic encourages you to secure yourself first and then take your chances. Are you the sort who believes that the chances must be availed first, security will follow?

I guess I was born with the spirit of adventure and running is taking me there. Back in 2013 -14, the running circle I was in had a lot of people who were in their thirties, forties and fifties. Even today many of my friends are much older than me. From their ranks, there were those quitting jobs – good corporate jobs – and getting into other things that interested them. When I thought of taking on running full time, I was at a cross road – either do it now when I am 21–22 (his age then), when I have fewer responsibilities and can take such risk or wait till I reached 45–50, which was 25–30 years away. I was not very keen to wait till 50. Maybe I would have got married, had children and got everything sorted out; but by the time everything gets sorted out, I would have also been way older. I had worked for a year before I made my decision and I knew I wouldn’t last at a desk job. I also did not want to become old and then look back and regret not having done what I wanted to. The assurance of security was not there when I made up my mind, but then I had to take the plunge – it was not a blind one, the future looked blurred, but I knew where I wanted to go, so I took the plunge.

The ultramarathon used to be associated with the older lot of runners. Now you have a lot of young runners entering the sport and they are setting new standards of performance. In your travels overseas you would have met some of these young runners, who like you, are into the sport full time. When you compare the ecosystem of support they enjoy and what you have here, what are the elements missing?

There isn’t a clear, black and white answer for this. In places where the sport and sporting culture is more established, there are a lot of other things – there are running stores, cycling stores; people can work in these kind of stores, you can avail coaching at colleges, schools etc. So there are ways to make money off the sport. If you are really good there are people who get sponsorship. I think we lack this ecosystem here. We have few running stores still in India. There is a big difference between how stores here and overseas work; there is difference in the operational style of running communities too. I don’t think a runner here goes to a running store to pick up a shoe. They will probably ask another runner. Slowly all that is changing; the opportunities are opening up. At the same time, it would be incorrect to assume that the going is easy for runners overseas. It is hard work for them too.

Kieren D’Souza (this photo was downloaded from Kieren’s Facebook page.)

Within the world of running would you say the ultramarathon is among disciplines that are hard to find sponsorships in?

It is a much smaller sport than road running. However, there is more sponsorship available now than before. The sport is growing.

At the end of the day, people are going to notice only the performance – typically the time a runner took to cover given distance. How you got there, whether you ran full time or part time, recedes in relevance. How does your choice of running full time then justify itself?

Because I am running full time, I have lot more at stake. I approach every race, very seriously. I don’t take any race for granted. You won’t see me going and doing a fun run or racing just for the heck of it. I plan things out because every race matters for me. Every race counts. In the grand scheme of things, when you are looking at performance, every race counts. When I am running I think about all this. When I fare badly, it definitely goes through my head. When I do well, it goes through my head. When you are not doing well and you have all this at stake, you have to control your thoughts and be in the moment. When you are doing well you can’t be just flying as well. You got to be in the moment. The things at stake prompt me to work hard. Still, I also slack off. But I don’t like it; I hate slacking off. The structure I work in adds a lot of pressure, most of it – me putting it on myself. None of this is however a burden on me. I enjoy getting out and doing it.

You have participated in ultramarathons overseas; you have also been to the world championships. How do Indian runners compare with talent overseas? What are the specific ingredients missing when training here?

I won’t be able to talk about specific ingredients because as runners, we are all different. But in general, in the sport we are way behind where the rest of the world is. For me personally, every race has been an opportunity to learn.

Specifically about you: what is the catching up you require to do?

I am still behind the winners, right? So – what is it that I must do to get faster? Getting faster – that is the basic thing.

Are you your own coach?

I have always been my own coach. I did train with Pace Makers for a year or so. But other than that I have been on my own. Probably that is also one reason why my progress has been slow. Maybe it would have been faster if I worked with a coach. But I don’t think we have a coach in India who can help me with trail running or ultra-running. The people you could work with are online. I am not excited to work with someone online. I interact with a lot of runners and discuss my training with them. If I feel I need to, I then make adjustments to the training plan accordingly. I was also working a lot with Henrik Westerlin, discussing my training plan and following some things he had shared with me last year.

We have the problem of the urban paradigm with its traffic, pollution, people and congestion, sparing no part of this country for long. Even Manali has changed over the years. Do you think you may have to shift elsewhere to train; maybe even move out of India?

I lived in Europe for a few months last year. The thing I miss the most in India is the company and the quality of athletes I got to train with overseas. The congestion aspect – I can work around it. Particularly because I am in Manali; if I was in the cities it would have been a different case. In Manali, I stay clear of the town. If I ever move out of Manali it will be to avoid the growing congestion but that thing about company – that will still be missing.

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


Jovica Spajic (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Serbian ultra-runner, Jovica Spajic was among winners at the 2019 edition of Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, noted for the very low temperatures in which the race happened, this January end.

As per results available on the race website, he was joint winner along with Scott Hoberg of the US. They finished the 135 mile race in 36 hours, nine minutes. The winner among women was Faye Norby of the US with a timing of 48:34:00. Jovica, Scott and Faye were listed in the supported category of runners. Jeff Leuwerke of the US, finished first in the unsupported category of runners. He too completed in 48:34:00.

Readers in India may recall Jovica from the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, the ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. In 2016, Jovica had been joint winner with Grant Maughan in the 333 kilometer-category of the event (for more on that race please click here: Finishing eighth overall among runners (as Faye and Jeff were joint sixth) was Ray Sanchez with timing of 49:33:00. Back in 2011 he had finished second in La Ultra The High, at that time 222 kilometers at its longest. Grant Maughan commenced 2019 Arrowhead in the unsupported category but pulled out later.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Arrowhead 135 and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

Arrowhead 135 is among the toughest endurance races. “ It is a human powered ultramarathon taking place in the coldest part of winter in the coldest city in the lower 48 states. Our average finish rate is less than 50 per cent; the finish rate for new racers is much lower. 2014 finish rate was 35 per cent,’’ the race website said. The 2019 race categories included bicycle, ski, foot and kick-sledding. Runners may be supported or unsupported.

Late January 2019 the media had reported of very cold conditions in the US caused by the polar vortex. Its impact was felt at Arrowhead 135 too. According to Runners World, temperatures this year at Arrowhead were as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 34.44 degrees Celsius). It said that this year 146 participants started the race. USA Today, which pegged wind chill during the race at “minus-68’’ reported that only 52 of the 146 participants finished the race, a completion rate of 36 per cent.

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


Jean-Luc Van Den Heede (This photo has been downloaded from the Facebook page of the French skipper and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede of France has won the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) entailing solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat.

According to news reports on January 29, 2019, the 73 year-old who spent close to 212 days (211 days, 23 hours, 12 minutes and 19 seconds to be exact) alone at sea in his boat – Matmut, was welcomed back at Les Sables d’Olonne in western France by Sir Robin  Knox-Johnston, the winner and sole finisher of the original 1968 edition of the race. Besides winning 2018 GGR, Van Den Heede is also now the oldest sailor to complete solo nonstop circumnavigation, reports said.

The French skipper had built up a formidable lead in the race since August 2018. However following a storm in the Pacific Ocean with damage to his mast, he had been forced to sail more cautiously, a move that affected his speed.  At one point he reportedly thought of halting in Chile for repairs, which would have taken him out of the main race and shifted him to the Chichester class reserved for those making one stop. But he avoided doing so, electing instead to continue the voyage with adjustments to his rigging. Later he also served a time penalty at sea for improper use of his satellite phone.

These developments allowed second placed Mark Slats of the Netherlands to gain on him narrowing the gap between their two boats – both Rustler 36 yachts – considerably.

News reports indicate that it may now be the turn of Slats to serve out a time penalty after his expedition manager contacted him directly about an approaching storm in the Atlantic. Such direct contact is not permitted under race regulations. As of late evening January 29 in India, the live tracker available on the GGR website showed Slats close to the Spanish coast and approximately 358 nautical miles away from the finish line in France.

Estonian skipper Uku Randmaa is in third position in the race while Istvan Kopar of USA is running fourth. Tapio Lehtinan of Finland is in fifth place. There is considerable distance between Slats and Randmaa; at the time of writing, the latter was 3520 nautical miles from the finish line on the French coast.

Matmut and her skipper (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of GGR. No copyright infringement intended.)

The 2018 GGR commenced from Les Sables d’Olonne on July 1, last year. The race was unique for pegging technology levels aboard participating boats at the same level as that prevailed in 1968. It was widely perceived as a return to purity in sailing. Of 18 skippers who commenced the race, only five remain in the main race at present. The rest have either retired from the race or shifted to the Chichester class.

Well known Indian skipper Commander Abhilash Tomy KC was among participants in the 2018 GGR. However he had to retire from the race following a severe storm in the southern Indian Ocean that dismasted his sailboat, the Thuriya, and left him injured. He was later rescued and upon return to India underwent surgery for the back injury. At the time of storm and accident, Abhilash was placed fourth in the race.

Update: News reports said that Mark Slats completed his solo non-stop circumnavigation on January 31, 2019 to finish second in 2018 GGR. He spent 214 days alone at sea. However a 36 hour-penalty incurred for direct communication with his team manager will have to be additionally factored in, bringing the total number of days to 216, the reports said. According to it, among those who received him at Les Sables d’Olonne was Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, the winner of 2018 GGR.

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



Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This study posted on the IAAF website required little effort to catch one’s attention, especially after a Mumbai Marathon in warm conditions. It speaks of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but essentially sensitizes all to the importance of choosing carefully the time frame of an event in times of climate change and where stress by weather is expected, how it may be managed.

On January 21, coincidentally a day after many sweated it out at the annual Mumbai Marathon in warm conditions, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) hosted on its website the summary of an engaging study meant to be a tool in managing thermal stress at sport events.

The study titled Quantifying Thermal Stress for Sport Events – The Case of the Olympic Games 2020 in Tokyo, pointed out that the upcoming  Olympics sits bang in that period of the year when hot weather prevails strongest in the Japanese capital. The researchers who include Paolo Emilio Adami, manager of IAAF’s Health & Science Department, has emphasized that the intention of the authors is “ not to prove a specific location unsuitable to host a sport event but rather to provide decision makers with a useful methodology to assess the prevailing conditions and take timely action in order to allow for a safe participation for athletes as well as spectators.’’

To put things in perspective, this blog elects to highlight a point the study’s authors have mentioned – large sport events like the Olympics typically happen in the summer months, the reason for which maybe their origin in Europe. In Europe, the summer season affords the largest share of thermally comfortable hours. But then, the whole world is not Europe and the Olympics moves from one location to another.

In the paper’s abstract, the authors have said that it is important for event organizers and medical staff to know whether a competition is happening at a time and place with extreme weather, or in general not appropriate weather and climatic conditions. To determine this, two factors have to be included when establishing the effect of atmospheric conditions on visitors and athletes – climatic conditions based on long term data and quantification of extreme events, like heat waves. The impact of environment on human thermal comfort includes meteorological and non-meteorological factors. Some of the meteorological measures are severely impacted by local environment; within this, the study mentions the capacity of urban environments to generate modifications “ by morphology and the surface properties of various specific elements and their configurations.’’ The latter refers to micro climatic variations urban landscapes can prompt. However the micro climate can also be modified by planning solutions that reduce heat load on humans attending the event.

The study is anchored around a couple of relevant indices. The first – Physiological Equivalent Temperature (PET) is one of the most commonly used indices in the field of human thermal comfort. It is defined as “ the air temperature at which, in a typical indoor setting (without wind and solar radiation), the energy balance of the human body is balanced with the same core and skin temperature as under the complex conditions to be assessed.’’ Like most complex thermal indices, PET is dependent on meteorological input parameters like air temperature, vapor pressure and wind speed as well as information about local radiation fluxes, the paper said. The second index anchoring the research is Modified Physiological Equivalent Temperature (mPET). It is based on classic PET but comprises a multi-mode heat transport model and a self-adapting clothing model. It also contains improved consideration of humidity. For the specific case of Tokyo as venue for 2020 Olympics, the study used meteorological data spanning August 1966 to June 2018 in 3h resolution provided by a meteorological station in the center of Tokyo.

According to the study, the very time of the 2020 Olympics from July 24 to August 9 can be deemed the hottest throughout the year. “ Both PET and mPET indicate increasingly warmer conditions for the time from 24th of July to the 6th of August and slightly cooler conditions on average for the 8th and 9th of August,’’ it said. Hours with PET of 35 degrees Centigrade and above are most frequent in July and August, where they are found between 9 AM and 3 PM. However on the average, even at nighttime, conditions in Tokyo may be perceived as warm in August.

The researchers conclude (based on results) that determining the right period for hosting sport events requires meteorological input data covering a long period of time, “ at least 30 years (as recommended by WMO), in high temporal resolution.’’ Analysis that is based on monthly resolution and average values cannot provide appropriate information.

“ In times of global climate change and urban areas being affected the most, it should be stated that most recent data should be used in order to account for changing frequency and intensity of heat waves and the recent development of the urban canopy influencing the urban heat island effect,’’ the paper said. Thermal stress in terms of heat stress can be reduced by either moving the date of an event or carefully setting the time of day an activity is slated for. The study was focused on visitors originating from Europe. It works for people from other regions with similar thermal climatic conditions. It can be adapted for people from still other regions by using a different assessment scale representative of corresponding climatic conditions.

The study made two other interesting observations:

Readings from a single meteorological station – as in the Tokyo case study – cannot be deemed representative of a whole city or urban area like Japan’s capital. Input parameters for thermal indices as well as the indices themselves are modified significantly by the urban environment and show “ strong variation in short distances of few meters.’’ Provided know-how as well as input data is available, the results can be further improved by considering actual local conditions using a “ building-resolving urban climate model.’’ Second, in terms of vulnerability to thermal stress, the study pointed out that visitors and tourists are more vulnerable than athletes. This is due to the shorter time for acclimatization they typically go with and lack of information on how to counter the effects of heat. Athletes on the other hand, tend to arrive a few days prior to competition allowing for progressive acclimatization with slow increase of exercise load up to the day of competition.

“ To allow for a safe participation in sport events, it is recommended that athletes arrive at the competition at least two weeks prior to the event. When arriving on the site of the event in advance is not possible, acclimatization should take place in an environment with similar climatic conditions to the final destination,’’ the study said.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) has entered its final phase.

It is poised to see its first finisher in the next couple of weeks.

By the second week of January 2019, of 18 skippers at the start of the race, only five remained in the main race. Of them, four – Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, Mark Slats, Uku Randmaa and Istvan Kopar – were back in the Atlantic having sailed that much around the world.

As per updates on the race website, 73 year old-French skipper Jean-Luc Van Den Heede sailing Matmut, a Rustler 36 Masthead sloop, was in the lead. He was followed by Dutch skipper Mark Slats with Uku Randmaa (Estonia) and Istvan Kopar (USA) trailing him in that order.

Both Van Den Heede and Slats – the two are incidentally sailing identical Rustler 36 yachts; Slat’s boat is called The Ohpen Maverick – were at latitudes corresponding to North Africa on the map. At one point in the race, the French skipper held a massive lead of more than 2000 nautical miles over his nearest competitor. That has since declined. Media reports said that Van Den Heede damaged his mast in a storm; the boat got tilted badly and in the process the mast took a beating resulting in slackened rigging. Although he made temporary repairs at sea and avoided diverting to Valparaiso in Chile for repairs ashore (which would have shifted him from the main race to the Chichester class assigned for those availing one stop), he has had to subsequently proceed in a more measured fashion. Later, he served an 18 hour-penalty for improper use of satellite phone and has also had to put up with a windless, calm sea in the North Atlantic. Thanks to all this, Slats has been closing the gap.  Checked on January 11, 2019, distance to finish (DTF), for Van Den Heede was 1943.5 nautical miles. For Slats, it was 2133.9 nautical miles.

The 2018 GGR began July 1 from Les Sables-d’Olonne, a seaside town in western France. The race involves solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat with technology aboard participating vessels pegged at levels which prevailed in the first GGR of 1968.

The 1968 GGR had only one finisher – Sir Robin Knox Johnston of UK in the India-built Suhaili. It was the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat. Sir Robin completed his journey in 312 days. Compared to this, Van Den Heede and Slats were at their earlier mentioned positions in the North Atlantic by the 194th day (as per GGR website) of the race. Van Den Heede holds the current world record for single-handed westabout circumnavigation. According to information on Wikipedia, the westward route for circumnavigation is harder as it faces the dominant winds and currents. There are fewer attempts in this direction. In 2004, Van Den Heede completed this route in 122 days, 14 hours and three minutes.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on 2018 GGR please go through the blog’s list of recent posts, explore Sagar Parikrama in the categories section, visit the blog’s archives or simply scroll down to see earlier posts.)