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

SCOTT Spark RC 900 (Photo: courtesy SCOTT India)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COACHES SPEAK / ONLINE TRAINING PROVES BENEFICIAL, TAKE THINGS SLOWLY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

With the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 lockdown easing, running outdoors has picked up. But the number of runners is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. The absence of running events and the continued ambiance of uncertainty are prompting many to stay away from road running. Coaches feel it is only a matter of time before the reluctant lot too returns to running.

The decision of coaching outfits to offer training online incorporating various workouts that aid general fitness has helped runners immensely. Most of the trainees are in fairly good shape. As they return to the outdoors, they are able to ease well into running primarily because of the extended home workouts popularized by online sessions.

Once running events make their appearance, runners are expected to be back on the road pursuing their passion, coaches said.

Daniel Vaz (Photo: courtesy Daniel)

Right through the lockdown, Mumbai-based coach, Daniel Vaz, evolved fitness plans that incorporated a mix of strength and endurance workouts, which he shared regularly through social media platforms.

“ I included a jump-rope workout,” he said. The aim of the jump-rope workout was to bring the sessions closer to running as it activates the Achilles tendon and also engages the cardiovascular system. He had an online following for his workout plans that exceeded his own circle of trainees.

His curated workouts helped runners retain their fitness; it also improved their strength. When they resumed running after a gap, the struggle was manageable. Daniel said that he nevertheless asked runners to exercise caution in terms of mileage and pace. According to him, they should begin with only 60 percent of the ‘run-time’ that they were doing before the lockdown. “ I speak about time because it is not right to recommend mileage,” he said. Focussing on time-based running helps a slow build-up of mileage and pace, he said.

“ Runners who are in touch with me have been told that this is the best time to work on the Maffetone method of training and run at low, comfortable heart rate. In my group I advise them on how to go about this kind of training,” Daniel said. Some who resumed running and gave up, have reverted to home workouts. Some others have decided to stay indoors amidst the continuing risk of pandemic. A number of virtual runs have come up. Not all runners are opting for this option, Daniel said.

Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Photo: courtesy Dnyaneshwar)

Amid the lockdown induced absence of running, most of the runners training under Dnyaneshwar Tidke at Life Pacers, diligently followed a training plan created by him. The result is that the overall fitness has gone up although endurance levels have dipped through depleted running.

After the initial round of relaxation in nationwide lockdown, Navi Mumbai, where Life Pacers is based, went through a second dose of stringent lockdown forcing runners to retreat indoors for another fortnight. Once restrictions eased, Dnyaneshwar asked them to assess their fitness levels before resuming outdoor activity. “ The prudent approach would be to build up mileage very slowly. In the continued absence of any running events on the horizon, runners can take their time to ramp up training mileage,” Dnyaneshwar said. Improving endurance fitness primarily entails slow and easy running.

Some of his wards brought to his attention the tiredness they felt during initial running sessions. “ It takes a lot of effort to come back to running. Therefore, the progress should be slow,” he emphasized. In the absence of races, the current period should be utilized to build endurance and work on weak areas. “ For those who have access to hills or trails this is the time to run and explore routes,” he said.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok)

Most runners training under Ashok Nath have resumed their running in a slow and sustained manner. What is unique in this phase is the dimension of gender sensitivity Ashok has brought in. He has decided to rework the training plan of his women trainees to align with their menstrual cycle.

Often, training programmes drawn up by coaches are not differentiated on the basis of gender. Women have traditionally followed a training program that applies to both men and women alike. During the menses period, which may last between three and seven days, the training should be light. This is followed by a follicular phase which lasts for 10 days. “ As oestrogen hormone is high during this period, hard training is possible,” Ashok said.

A woman’s body experiences changes through these phases – menses, follicular phase, ovulation, luteal phase and pre-menstrual syndrome. During the luteal phase, the progesterone hormone shoots up and it can be difficult to do workouts. Ashok has been redesigning his training for women athletes to bring it in sync with this cycle.

Overall, his athletes are in the process of building up the foundation for endurance incorporating long runs along with speed and tempo. Many of Ashok’s trainees have had access to running in some form or the other, through much of the lockdown. The lockdown period also helped runners to enhance their quota of strength training and core workout and improve flexibility.

He also devised training plans that helped runners to focus on issues otherwise shelved in preference of running such as functional strength and joint conditioning.

Samson Sequeira (Photo: courtesy Samson)

Some of Samson Sequeira’s trainees have returned to running. However several others have chosen to stay off the road because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

“ For most of the runners training under me, it is primarily fitness oriented running. I have started with mileage progression only for full marathon runners and those interested in the Comrades Marathon,” Samson said. Given the long absence of running that happened, upon resumption of training, some have been complaining of joint issues and muscular imbalance. “ Those who did indoor workouts diligently are in good shape. But some of those who resorted to running indoors have ended up with ITB and plantar issues,” he said.

According to him, cardio conditioning has to be built up slowly. As the lockdown norms ease, runners are slowly emerging from confined existence to road running. About 25-30 per cent of Samson’s trainees have returned to running. Others are likely to join when the running season picks up. “ Those choosing to run for fitness have come back. But those who look at running as racing will probably return only when running events start happening,’’ Samson said.

Praful Uchil (Photo: courtesy Praful)

Among marathon training outfits in Mumbai, Striders is one of the biggest. Their trainees have been venturing out for road running but the numbers are yet small, Praful Uchil, said.

“ Of our trainees, only about 20 percent have commenced running. But the number of runners venturing out is slowly increasing,” Praful, founder and director at Striders, said. Through the lockdown period – it started around March 20 – Striders organised online workout sessions to help its trainees focus on fitness while staying indoors. “ Runners are advised to run for half hour to 45 minutes when they commence running. Now some of our runners have ramped up to one and a half hours of running,” Praful said.

As traffic on the roads is low compared to normal times, it is comfortable to run during the early morning hours. “ But there is still uncertainty about going all out into road running. One does not know how the pandemic will pan out,” Praful said. The online sessions have helped runners stay fit. They are able to run with ease despite the break of over three months, Praful said.

Vijay Alva (Photo: courtesy Vijay)

Online sessions have really contributed to fitness. “ Runners have never been more fit,’’ Vijay Alva, coach, said. His training outfit, Vijay Alva’s Fitness Academy, designed and broadcast a home-based training program for its marathon runners. “ This training plan included a mix of cross functional, strength and cardiovascular workout. It has helped runners stay fit,” Vijay said.

Currently, his runners are not doing anything more than 10 kilometers. “ But they are able to run quite comfortably. Nobody is complaining of aches and injuries,” he said. The extended home-based workouts have proved to be beneficial for runners as they have learnt to concentrate on exercises other than just running, Vijay said.

A former national marathon champion, Savio D’Souza has his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to a primer for running in days of lockdown relaxed. He advises that runners take it easy and slow these days, for there are no events on the horizon. The important thing is to be fit, which itself is adequate work because the majority of runners would have experienced a drop in baseline fitness from the months of strict lockdown. “ Remember, you cannot store fitness,’’ he said. It is still not very long since lockdown commenced easing, including time allotted for daily exercise. “ I prefer playing it safe,’’ he said.

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The coach explained the situation with reference to his own trainees. “ Most of them have started coming out, which more than running, is what they wished for. Seeing others from the group after a long time made them feel good. For the first few weeks we encouraged them to do brisk walking. We wanted them to de-stress and feel mentally relaxed. Then we started a routine of walk-jog. Now we do 9-10 kilometers – sometimes less – of slow, easy running. Same time last year, people may have been doing weekend runs of up to 30 kilometers but there is no pressing need for that right now,’’ he said. Asked what the most heard complaints by way of pains and aches were, Savio said that his approach had been to avoid pushing anyone such that they feel those aches and pains in the first place. “ This is not the time to push. You don’t have to. What’s the hurry? There are no events. Instead you should slowly, without risking injury, improve your baseline fitness. When events are finalized they are bound to announce it with sufficient notice because we are all coming from lockdown and relaxed lockdown with no serious training done. Right now, with my group, I believe we may soon reach that point where we should be able to get ready for an event with two months lead time. If we can preserve that fitness doing whatever we are doing, then as and when the need arises, we can revive the old training and countdown to events,’’ he said.

He quantified that sweet spot for his group – the substratum that can be worked on later – as 50 per cent of the journey to good form plus some more. It would be sensible to linger around in that zone till clarity about the overall pandemic situation and races therein, improve. For the same reason, he wasn’t a fan of the virtual runs announced in the June-July period. He felt that was too close to the period when lockdown started relaxing and people were just beginning to train afresh. Juxtaposed on the Indian lockdown calendar, those runs risked injury for want of enough moving around already done.  “ Virtual runs in September-October or later are alright because people have put in some amount of movement and running. I couldn’t agree with the earlier ones,’’ Savio said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

RECORD HEAT IN DEATH VALLEY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Thanks to the famous Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley is known to running communities worldwide.

Among the hottest places on the planet, it is a desert valley in eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert. The Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the point of lowest elevation in North America; it is 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley is roughly 136 kilometers east-south east of Mt Whitney, which at 14,505 feet is the point of highest elevation in the contiguous United States (the US excluding Alaska, Hawaii and other offshore territories). The Badwater Ultramarathon commences in Badwater Basin and proceeds to Whitney Portal, the trail head for Mt Whitney at 8360 feet. Several runners from India have participated in the 217 kilometer-ultramarathon, considered one of the toughest events in its genre.

On August 17, 2020, the BBC reported that temperature in Death Valley hit a scorching 54.4 degrees centigrade. Subject to verification, this may be the highest reliably recorded temperature on Earth. It has happened amid a heat wave on the US west coast. There is mention on the Internet of a still higher temperature – 56.6 degrees centigrade – recorded in Death Valley in 1913. The BBC report says, some experts consider that to be unreliable data.

Death Valley is the dry desert it is because it lay in the rain shadow region of four major mountain ranges. This forces moisture laden air coming in the from the Pacific, to shed its water content as rain or snow on the western slopes of the ranges. By the time these air masses reach Death Valley there is little moisture left to grace the region as precipitation. Other factors also contribute to the dryness. They include the valley’s surface experiencing intense solar heating, the area trapping warm air, warm air from nearby regions moving in and the phenomenon of warm foehn winds. According to Wikipedia, the period from 1931-1934 was the driest on record with only 16 millimeters of rain received.

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

TWO REALITIES: KHARGHAR AND KAUSANI

Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Located in Bageshwar district, Kausani is popular for its tea gardens.

Although tea plantation was introduced many decades ago in Uttarakhand, it didn’t catch on. According to a September 2014 article in the Hindustan Times about the erstwhile standing of teas from Uttarakhand and how they languished later, tea cultivation was introduced in these parts by the British in 1835. They chose the hills of Kausani, Dehradun and Berinag to start the process. Initially, the teas of Uttarakhand did well. Subsequently, even as plantations became big business in North East India and South India, tea production in Uttarakhand plummeted. In recent times, according to media reports, efforts have been made to encourage tea growing and restore the market profile of teas from the state.

Kausani remains a small hub of tea gardens. As you come in from the Ranikhet side, the road ascends to the town, runs a bit on the ridge of the hill and then descends to the other side, which is when the tea gardens and their adjoining clutch of restaurants emerge to view. It is a popular halt for tourists, rewarding anyone making it to the spot at the right time on a clear day with great pictures of select Himalayan peaks. Kumaon is known for its panoramic view of the Himalaya. From the cafes near Kausani’s tea gardens, you see the peaks of western Kumaon. Late July, 2020 it was the season of rain in Kausani. It rained intermittently. The weather was pleasant; perfect for running. Some kilometers away from Kausani, is the village of Shauli. Early mornings and sometimes in the evening, a runner from here would take a route not normally taken by others around. While the general grain of economic development in the hills has been the tendency to trade walking trails for roads, this person – recently returned from big city – did the opposite. He traded Kausani’s roads for its quiet, forgotten trails. They wind their way along hill slopes sporting pine trees.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Until some months ago, Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Chan) was among those running regularly at Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. Navi Mumbai is a satellite city of Mumbai; it along with Thane is part of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). MMR is one of the biggest urban agglomerations on the planet. An important node of Navi Mumbai, Kharghar evolved on flat land set against a backdrop of hills. The flats, roads therein and connections thereof to more roads in nearby Belapur offer adequate mileage for daily running. A five kilometer-long road leading up into the hills serves as additional tool for training. Every year as the annual Mumbai Marathon approaches, this hill road sees local runners and those from other parts of MMR, come to train. Indeed Navi Mumbai is one of the better places in MMR for a runner to be in. However, it is a bustling urban center and has been gaining vehicles and traffic by the day. The overall ambiance of your daily run is thus very much that of city.

Chan hails from Kausani. After a few years of growing up there, his family moved out to ensure better education for the children. Besides, his father worked in the Indian Navy and with any job in the defence sector, transfer is an integral part of life. Eventually, Chan found himself in MMR (at Kharghar), where as an employed adult, he worked with Star Sports. As of 2020, it was around seven years since Chan took up running. The bug got to him in Mumbai. In the initial years, he did what he could, sensing his way around in the sport and keeping an annual appointment with the Mumbai Marathon. By 2015, he was training seriously and by the following year, had graduated to attempting the ultramarathon. In 2016, he won a 50 kilometer-night run, a 75 kilometer ultramarathon in Pune and covered 96 kilometers at the annual 12-hour Mumbai Ultra. In 2017, he won the 101 kilometers category at Run the Rann, an ultramarathon organized in the Rann of Kutch in western India. That year he also won the IDBI Federal Life Insurance 12hrs stadium run in Mumbai covering a distance of 105.2 kilometers in the stipulated time; he also participated in and finished the 111 kilometer-segment of La Ultra The High in Ladakh. In 2018, he won the 50 kilometers category at BNP Ultra in Mumbai but later suffered injury while training for the Annapurna 100 in Nepal. “ As a comeback run in 2020, I bettered my course record at BNP 50 by two minutes, finishing the race with a PB of 3:56:01,’’ Chan said.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

After his father retired, Chan’s parents shifted back to Kausani. The move isn’t permanent for them yet; at the time of writing his father was still undecided on whether it should be a shift for good or not. In March 2020, Chan was due to attend his Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarkashi. By then he had also put in his papers at Star Sports and was looking forward to commencing something on his own in sports nutrition.  Against this backdrop, it made sense to blend his NIM trip with a visit home after the mountaineering course. After all, Uttarkashi is in Uttarakhand and Garhwal (where NIM is) and Kumaon (where Kausani is) are adjacent regions. However, the entire plan had to be cancelled following the outbreak of COVID-19 and onset of nationwide lockdown. Chan spent the first two and a half months of lockdown in Kharghar. Then, as the strict lockdown gave way to a slightly relaxed version, in mid-June, he traveled to Kausani to be with his parents.  With lockdown continuing and working remotely now an accepted way of life, he plans to make Kausani his new base.

Plains or hills, a runner cannot stay away from running. For Chan, Kausani situated at an elevation of 6200 feet, presented fresh options, especially on the trail front. He has plans to try some of the well-known trail running events of Himachal Pradesh and South India. It wasn’t long before he started exploring the trails around Kausani as potential training routes. Every day, he picks one of two windows or sometimes both; the first is in the morning around 7 AM, the other is around 4-4.30 PM. “ There has to be natural light. That is one problem in the hills. You don’t have street lights here as in the cities. But otherwise it is a vast difference between what I do here and the running I used to do in Kharghar. The weather in Navi Mumbai was always hot and humid and capable of exhausting you fast. The air was also polluted, which is the case in most urban areas. There was traffic. Here road traffic is less but then, I am not on the roads at all. I am on trails, which are frequented by very few people. It is peaceful. Yes the elevation makes you strain more than in the plains but the air is clean; you can feel good quality air in your lungs,’’ he said. As for inclines he has tonnes of it strewn around in hill country. According to him, the trails he found are a healthy mix of enjoyable running and steep, technical slopes. Incidentally, Chan is not the only one utilizing the value of Kumaon’s trails. Around the time the nationwide lockdown started, Nitendra Singh Rawat, one of India’s top marathon runners, had shifted from Ranikhet (where the Kumaon Regiment to which he belongs is headquartered) to his village in Garur. When contacted in early April, he was training on isolated trails near his village, away from people and the hustle and bustle of life. Garur is around 15 kilometers from Kausani.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

As he continues his running in Kausani, Chan admitted to nursing a wish. Places like Garhwal and Kumaon have known running for long, possibly longer than it has been viewed as fitness movement or sport in the plains. The driving force for this widespread engagement with running was military recruitment. The Himalayan foothills have a tradition of sending people to the armed forces. Both Kumaon and Garhwal have regiments bearing their name. In the run up to every recruitment season (locally called bharti), the roads of Kumaon feature young men putting in the miles to stay fit. Same is the case in Kausani. “ The people here are good runners. They have the ability to do well. But they don’t have a year-round culture of running that is independent from military recruitment. They run to be recruited and when that reason isn’t there, they don’t have any incentive to continue running. I would like to do what I can to change that. I hope I am able to contribute in some way to creating a running culture here,’’ Chan said on the phone from Kausani.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Podium finishes and timings at races are as stated by interviewee.)

PSYNYDE BIKES / IT’S TIME TO CYCLETOWORK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / F.K.T IN INDIA GETS A BOOST, COURTESY KIEREN D’SOUZA

Kieren D’Souza; from the run up Friendship Peak. He is seen here a few hundred meters below the summit (Photo: 4Play / provided to this blog by Kieren)

It was in early June 2020 that Kieren D’Souza approached the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Manali with a request, strange for the times in which it was being tabled.

An ultra-runner with affinity for the mountains, it is now some years since Kieren made the tourist town in Himachal Pradesh, his base to train and live. The local mountaineering institute had been where he did his Basic Mountaineering Course years ago; the course had proceeded for training in the direction of Friendship Peak (17,352 feet). A non-technical peak, it is generally recognized as an easy climb. However a mountaineering course unfolds accommodating the wishes and abilities of a large number of students. Kieren’s batch completed their training successfully but did not climb Friendship. The desire to summit it, stayed in his head.

In the years that followed, the young man was acknowledged as a promising ultra-runner. A lover of the outdoors, it wasn’t long before he veered off the distance runs of the cities and embraced trail running and the ultramarathons of altitude. Besides polishing off a clutch of such runs in India, he completed Spartathlon and races within the UTMB fold. All this exposed him to emerging trends in the sport, one of which was the gradual but steady ascent of the mountain athlete – an athlete at the confluence of diverse disciplines like running, hiking and mountaineering.  It was this fancy that Kieren indulged, training and living in Manali, a town at 6725 feet offering quick access to several peaks of modestly high elevation in the neighborhood. He didn’t want to climb them in the regular expedition way or the comparatively lighter alpine style. Instead what fascinated him was the paradigm of fast ascents where the skills of running, hiking and mountaineering blended.  Plus, he wondered about the possibility of commencing the walk or run, right from Manali and ending it there with no car or hired transport in between. Away from the minimalist format, he also thought of attempting peaks in winter.

Challenging as these parameters may seem, fact is – dedication to the task at hand can prepare a person for the demands of aforesaid light, quick raids at altitude. A midnight in August  2016, this writer had seen Kieren running up Khardung La (17,582 feet) in shorts and T-shirt as part of the 111km-race of La Ultra The High. It was quite cold but he managed well. Roughly three years later, Peter Van Geit, hailing from Belgium and based in Chennai, would run across many passes in the Himalaya of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, often clad in nothing but shorts and T-shirt; a small daypack bearing essentials slung from his shoulders. Manali afforded views of several peaks ideal for the minimalist style. None attracted Kieren as much as Friendship, playground of the local mountaineering institute and climbed by many during tourist season. The peak located close to Beas Kund is part of a handful of peaks in the area regularly visited by climbers; other prominent ones in the vicinity of Friendship include Shitidhar (17,224 feet), Ladakhi (17,536 feet) and across the valley – Hanuman Tibba (19,625 feet). Kieren’s first attempt on Friendship was a winter climb. In January 2018, he and Aditya Pandey tried a fast ascent seeking to polish off the peak in under-two days. “ We failed, we didn’t reach the summit. We didn’t have the right gear for climbing in winter,’’ Kieren said over the telephone from Manali. A winter ascent is still on the agenda. It’s a different ball game entailing not just physical fitness but also investment in right gear.

Kieren D’Souza; from the acclimatization run of June 4, ahead of attempting the FKT on Friendship Peak (Photo: 4Play . provided to this blog by Kieren)

Two years later, by February 2020, Kieren was resolved that a run to the summit of Friendship and back should be attempted. Then COVID-19 brought everything to a grinding halt. By late March, all of India had slipped into a nationwide lockdown to check the spread of infection. Sporting activity came to a halt; even the morning jog disappeared as people withdrew indoors. In Manali, Kieren was reduced to working out at home and cycling on his home trainer. This he did, diligently. From late April, the town started allowing two and a half hours of morning exercise. “ I ran as much as I could in that duration,’’ Kieren said. Friendship Peak returned to focus. A young man trying to make ends meet through career in sports, Kieren’s fast ascent project was cast as a mix of athletic performance and media; there would be a film crew to document his journey.

Given lockdown, he needed permission from the authorities. That was how in early June, amid lockdown now relaxed a bit, he ended up at the SDM’s office talking about trail running and a shot at Friendship. He was asked to provide a window of choice for the attempt. It wasn’t hard to zero in on one. The effects of the approaching monsoon would begin to manifest in the region by around June 20. It would be best to wrap up the attempt before that. “ We asked for June 14, 15, 16 and 17,’’ Kieren said. While the process of obtaining approval was underway, on June 4, he essayed a foray up to an elevation of 4000 meters (13,123 feet) on Khanpri Tibba, a nearby mountain, to acclimatize. Once permission was sanctioned by the SDM, on June 14, Kieren did a recce of the trail to Friendship. That too would have contributed some bit to acclimatization.

Kieren started his run on June 16 at 1.02AM from Mall Road, Manali. He ran from Manali to Solang and onward to Dhundi, from where he took the true left of the Beas River and proceeded upstream. That is the path hikers take to reach Beas Kund. However Kieren didn’t require reaching this alpine lake. Much ahead of it is the deviation to the base of Friendship. The mountain’s real ascent starts at a long ridge called Lady Leg. From here onward there was snow. Kieren continued in running gear with one addition for this stage on, being micro-spikes fitted to his shoes. Some ways up, is a col. Members of the film crew were already in place at these points. At the col, he changed to slightly warm attire and traded his running shoes for proper mountaineering boots and crampons. He also left the small backpack he had been running with, there. Roughly three and a half hours later, he was on the summit of Friendship. Altogether, it had taken him seven hours and fifteen minutes to reach there from Mall Road, Manali. The film of the climb shows him running on the return too, all the way to Manali. Kieren told this blog that the GPS data from the trip has been submitted to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) to be officially ratified. The IMF is the apex body for mountaineering in India.

A July 2 report in the South China Morning Post quoting Kieren, positioned the run up Friendship as an exercise in Fastest Known Time (FKT). It is a culture that is quite strong overseas but is yet to catch on in a big way in India. Compared to the institutional scrutiny characterizing records in mainstream outdoor disciplines like mountaineering, FKTs started in the comparatively diffuse regions of outdoor sports – like the overlapping zones of running, hiking and mountaineering. They are actually loved for their informality as regards verification and the organic evolution of new quests. Perhaps you could call them the paradigm adopted till given activity becomes mainstream and formal.  “ With a dwindling number of outdoor milestones to be achieved first, top adventurers are trying to achieve them fastest. Trails of every length and mountains of every size are increasingly becoming racecourses for those lured by the challenge of the F.K.T,’’ an article by John Branch, in the New York Times of August 5, 2015, said. Commissioners in the space are unofficial. In the US, the article said, that position belonged to ultra-runner and former atmospheric physicist Peter Bakwin and the website he commenced. Claims of record timing are naturally accompanied by questions from competition. Bakwin has stepped in occasionally to settle some such disputes. It is a dynamic world in which quests crop up; records are claimed, some record holders specify rules and others question it. “ Trickier questions surround the degree of support the athlete receives: unsupported (carrying all supplies from the beginning), self-supported (collecting additional supplies along the way) and supported (having a team that provides everything from pacesetters to nightly shelter and food). Bakwin lists them all. It is left for readers to decide which is most impressive,’’ the article said. According to it, FKTs have no governing body. On the other hand, as Bakwin points out, the existence of questions and suspicion, indicate how passionately people in the field track FKTs. One of the best known FKT pursuits in the US is trying to be the fastest on the roughly 3500km-long Appalachian Trail (for more on this please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/28/the-pursuit-of-endurance/).

Kieren D’Souza; from a run in winter in Manali. The town can be seen in the distance (Photo: Nitish Waila / provided to this blog by Kieren)

In his earlier mentioned piece in the South China Morning Post, Mark Agnew wrote, “ D’Souza hopes that other runners will be inspired to set their own FKT and he has already received messages from other interested mountaineers or runners. But more importantly, he wants to show those who are apprehensive about starting mountaineering that it is not all-consuming. “ I’m not saying they will do it in one day, that’s not the point, but definitely over a shorter time,” D’Souza said.’’ There hasn’t been a culture of documenting FKTs in India. In the past, for instance, a speculated FKT would surface periodically around Stok Kangri (20,190 feet), the popular trekking peak in Ladakh. Outdoor clubs in Maharashtra harbor stories of people who did fast hikes in the Sahyadri. Same holds true for Friendship Peak as well. Kieren told this blog that he was aware of earlier attempts by some of his friends to climb the peak fast but a precedent on Friendship essayed in the specific style he did was unknown to him.

With COVID-19 causing cancellation of major events in running worldwide, Kieren has all of 2020 and likely a chunk of 2021, to focus on projects similar to the one he accomplished on Friendship. There is also the chance to sample the virtual versions of some iconic trail races. UTMB for instance, has said it will be informing of developments in this regard. Kieren can do such runs from Manali.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The heights of peaks and elevation of towns quoted in the article are as available on multiple websites on the Internet.)

COMING UP: SPORTS AS PART OF CURRICULUM

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

It is a good move but keeping a few concerns in mind wouldn’t hurt

If you take the typical Indian school and college education, there won’t be a day that passes by without emphasis on academics. In the glaring divide between curricular and extra-curricular activities, the latter – even if it contributes more to shaping an individual – is distant second. You may excel at arts and sports but it counts for little, except a sprinkling of grace marks. There is also this angle of how close to academics and bolstering its luster, your chosen interest is. Things literary agree with the Indian mind. As do music and dance, if they happen to be the classical sort. Cultural tastes that are more freewheeling or innovative, and sports – they don’t count as much.

Indeed the best way to sell sports in India is to highlight how the active life helps overall, including in studies. Needless to say, back in my school and college days, someone good at sports typically meant either an average student or a straggler in academics bailed out by grace marks. It was rare to find a combination of academic excellence and excellence at sports. For a long time, we justified the academics heavy approach on the grounds of India being a third world country where career took precedence. Now however, the continued justification reeks of conservative mindset.

Liberation from this academics-centric approach has been the dream of many Indian students. Even present day parents should agree because the number of middle aged adults and senior citizens who can convincingly say that they discovered what they are and got around to doing what they like to do, are few. Maybe none of us will ever really know that. But it remains one of life’s great quests and if great quests and questions are what education is all about, then, teaching you to discover yourself and become what you think you can be (or what all you can be), should be the purpose of going to school and college. Sport is an important tool in this journey. It tells you much about what you are the first time you rendezvous with it; it goes on to tell you what you are capable of as you train and improve. By what yardstick can you say this isn’t education? Media reports of June 11, 2020 quoted the Union Minister for Sports, Kiren Rijiju, saying that sports is set to become part of educational curriculum. It was encouraging news. The details of government policy in this regard, are still not known. But viewed as promised move, it hints of benefits.

Besides introducing young people to sports and putting sports on a more even platform with academics, it should provide job opportunities and job security to those specialized in physical education and coaching. Amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, Kolkata-based newspaper, The Telegraph, had carried an insightful article on the plight of those teaching non-core subjects at school, sports being one. When things shrink to essential (as in lockdown), like a drowning man reaching for a log, the Indian imagination of education instantly grabs academics to stay afloat. The rest become dispensable. If sport is part of curriculum, such injustice to the ` dispensable’ may become rare. Given the benefits of the government move can be imagined, let me focus on a couple of concerns. After all, good policy reserves vision to address concerns as well.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For most people Brie Larson is the actor who played Captain Marvel on screen. In 2017, she directed a film called ` Unicorn Store.’ Three years later, it was among films I watched during the COVID-19 lockdown. What made me click on the film when it showed up on Netflix was the presence of Joan Cusack in the cast. She is a wonderful actor. As it turned out, I found nothing remarkable about the movie. But towards the final quarter, there was a stunning piece of dialogue from Cusack’s character, addressed to her daughter played by Larson; it went: the most grown up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about. I will remember Larson’s directorial debut for that single sentence, which encapsulates an approach that is the abject opposite of what the Indian education system drills into you. Here it is all about success and winning; to the extent, very few venture into unfamiliar territory including what they actually care about. Perpetuated across the years and imposed on large populations, this authors a mental trap. It skews the imagination towards certain priorities as though nothing else matters. This tenor is present in the Indian interpretation of sport too. I never forget what I once saw at the swimming pool of a housing society. A child, who was clearly hydrophobic, being shamed in front of others by his coach as the parents watched approvingly.

In India, the drive is to excel; not become comfortable with what you are doing as prerequisite to decide in due course, how you would like to navigate further.  A good example is the popular positioning of the Olympic Games as elite aspiration in sport. That is premature strategy when exploration of sport hasn’t happened yet at the required breadth and depth in India, a country of 1.3 billion people. It is the potential panacea for this predicament, which we see in the government move to make sport part of educational curriculum as well as the realistic assessment that the 2028 Olympics and not the earlier editions would be practical goal to improve medals tally. Still if you foray with Olympics as direction, you risk putting people off through excess evangelism of one sort and search for suitable talent. Instead, can you make young people fall in love with sport? Can you make them love it such that they don’t mind failing at activities they care about and come back for more?

Opening up young minds to the myriad possibilities indulging in athletics or playing a game offers, is an engaging task. Some won’t have a mountain to climb; they are already so good that all they need to do is slide into the lake of success. It is a coach / teacher who works with average talent and takes them places that you should applaud, not the ones making a beeline to train the best primed talent.  India has too many teachers / coaches of the latter sort; it is also what parents endorse. So you see, before we make tall claims for the future, there is a way of looking at human beings that has to be put in place. Without it, we risk doing to sports what we have already done in our mainstream academic education. One approach worth mentioning in this regard is India’s amateur running movement. Except some from the corporate category who are forced into it because it is the in thing to do at offices, amateur running is a personal choice. It is also a conscious choice because for many, it is an option exercised in midlife. There is no compulsion; no coercion. Yet the performances returned by Indians in their thirties, forties and fifties – long past the energy of school and college – has been fantastic. There are now several people running sub-three marathons from these age groups and in 2019, we had the first Indian finisher in a 555km ultramarathon at altitude. Marathons and ultramarathons are not for school and college. Point is – isn’t there something for educational curriculum to learn from these cases of results gained through affection for something and not, compulsion to do it?

Second, not everyone will be good at sport. There will be those whose wiring is different. There will also be those whose wiring is neither for academics nor sports. If the intention of making sports part of the curriculum is to treat these segments the same way those inclined to sport were once treated, then, you are not educating. You merely author one more reason to rank youngsters into winners and losers. Under education, we must all be helped to find ourselves and our capabilities. Sport – and academics – should not be put on a pedestal. It must be there at the same level as any other potential, resident in the human being.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Finally, there is the issue of a blindness upon us that isn’t for want of eyes but happens because we block vision with our insularity. In sport, there is an insularity born from world view by nothing but athletic prowess and the disciplined focus which goes into accessing that prowess. When everything is focused on performance, the mind becomes dull to so many things that are critical to keeping us aware overall. That is when like art hijacked for propaganda, sport degrades to being an appendage in service of other goals, political ideology and image building being examples. Mass displays of athleticism and physical coordination – the sort seen at certain giant ceremonies – also betray this tenor. Just like money is no guarantee of brilliance and some billionaires have uttered the most stupid things, pursuit of sports holds forth promise of awareness; it does not guarantee it. If you want a mind that is conscious of existence and responds consciously, then introduction to sport and one’s rooting in it has to be an experience immersed in appreciation of freedom. Individual and freedom – these are the two fundamental building blocks of awareness. That’s why the swimming pool episode matters – that little boy’s sense of individual was crushed; forced to perform and conform he would have also lost his appreciation for freedom. Instead, doesn’t he deserve the chance to overcome his fear of water, fall in love with it and find out if a swimmer lives in him?

It is this author’s personal opinion that notwithstanding instances of excellence produced, India’s mainstream academic education has contributed little to overall awareness and appreciation of existence. We are like foot soldiers following set recipes (all reform seeks to do is replace one curriculum with another). We shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in sport. Sport should set us free.

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

COVID-19 AND THAT DRUG IN A MOUNTAINEER’S FIRST AID KIT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A drug that is familiar to mountaineers finds mention in humanity’s ongoing tussle with COVID-19. We use the juncture as an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and the drug in question.

Dexamethasone has been part of medicines used to treat high altitude illness for several years. Notwithstanding the lives it may have quietly saved so, its moment in the limelight happened in mid-June 2020 when news reports from the UK said, it was proving to be a life-saver in the battle with COVID-19. The drug’s name wouldn’t have escaped the attention of mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts. Proper acclimatization, hydration, descent to safe altitude when beset with discomfort and having acetazolamide and dexamethasone in the first aid kit, form the classic defence against high altitude illness.

Colonel (Dr) S. P. Singh (Retd) is currently Additional Professor, Department of Physiology, All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), Rishikesh.  He runs India’s first course in High Altitude Medicine there. A product of the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), Pune, Dr Singh has been working in the field of high altitude medicine and physiology since 2008 when he was posted to the Indian Army’s High Altitude Medical Research Centre, in Leh (Ladakh). He has a number of publications in the field and was a member of the team that wrote the latest edition of the army’s guidelines for prevention and treatment of high altitude illness. Dr Singh responded to questions posed by this blog.

“ Dexamethasone is a medicine that is used for treating a large number of illnesses, including those due to inflammation (within that, auto-immune diseases where the body’s immune system attacks its own cells; for example: rheumatoid arthritis) and allergy; for example: skin allergies, eye allergies etc. It is also used as a life-saving drug when severe inflammation threatens dire consequences. The body produces corticosteroid hormones (better known to doctors as glucocorticoids) which are essential for life and continuously regulate a host of functions including energy production, water content of the body, immune regulation and behavior. An important function of glucocorticoids is to help us overcome stress. The term stress implies any shift in the environment that changes or threatens to change the existing optimal state of the body. Thus, extreme heat, cold, low environmental oxygen ere all examples of stress. Large amounts of glucocorticoids are secreted by the adrenal glands of the body to help overcome stress, ‘’ he said.

Dexamethasone in the context of AMS

In mountaineering, dexamethasone is spoken of in the context of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).  According to Dr Singh, AMS is the most common illness to occur in un-acclimatized sojourners arriving at High Altitude (>2700m/9000ft). It consists of a constellation of symptoms viz., headache, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, giddiness / dizziness and weakness / fatigue. Most people who develop these symptoms recover spontaneously or with symptomatic therapy (pain killers, anti-vomiting drugs and rest) within 2-3 days. Thus, AMS is a harmless illness, in terms of no threat to life and limb. Yet, it is important that people with AMS not ascend higher till their symptoms resolve completely. This is so, because we believe that approximately one per cent of people with AMS will develop High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) if they ascend higher while symptomatic. HACE involves collection of excess water in the brain (brain edema) and can kill a person within hours of onset.

Hypoxia (the condition in which, the body or a portion of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply at the tissue level) is the direct cause of AMS. It leads to an increase in the pressure of Cerebro-Spinal Fluid (CSF – a derivative of blood in which the brain and spinal cord float) inside the skull. This is associated with increased leakiness of brain capillaries, which allows excess water to enter the brain from the blood causing very mild brain edema (in contrast to the florid edema of HACE). The cause of the increased leakiness of capillaries might be mild inflammation due to low oxygen at high altitude. Dexamethasone appears to prevent / treat AMS / HACE by inhibiting inflammation, preventing / reducing capillary leakiness and improving blood oxygen levels by salutary effects on the lungs. Because steroids have a general action to help us overcome stress, dexamethasone helps overcome the stresses of high altitude in the first few days while the body responds to and settles down in the new environment.

Since dexamethasone decreases capillary leakiness and has positive effects on the lungs to improve blood oxygen levels, it is of benefit in the prevention and treatment of AMS, HACE and HAPE. However, dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid. “ It is important to remember that much higher doses of (synthetic) corticosteroid are given, than are naturally present in the body, to suppress inflammation and allergy. These high doses also carry the risk of significant adverse effects. For instance:  when given in the case of pneumonia due to a bacterial infection, dexamethasone will suppress fever and symptoms of lung infection but if the infection is not treated simultaneously with antibiotics it will spread throughout the body. Therapeutic doses must, therefore, be given with great caution, under strict supervision, along with other therapy,’’ Dr Singh said.

Descent is the definitive cure for all high altitude illness

The other major drug for AMS is acetazolamide (Diamox). According to Dr Singh, acetazolamide creates a mild acidosis in the body. This counters the alkalosis (the normal pH of blood is 7.35 – 7.45. pH<7.35 is acidosis and pH>7.45 is alkalosis) that is inherent on ascent to altitude. As a result of the acidosis caused by acetazolamide the rate and depth of breathing increases and the water content of the body reduces (due to excess urination). These effects are bound to be beneficial because more breathing means more oxygen in the body. Also, since AMS / HACE / HAPE are all conditions of excess water in the brain / lungs; maybe less water in the body helps. Acetazolamide also has a mild direct effect of decreasing the pressure inside the skull by reducing formation of CSF. “ Acetazolamide is best known for preventing AMS / HACE and has a smaller role (as dexamethasone) in the treatment of these conditions too, although dexamethasone is far superior for treatment. Clinical experience and some scientific studies suggest that acetazolamide may have a role in the prevention of HAPE too. This is, however, not yet established,’’ Dr Singh said.

High altitude; from an expedition to Denali (20,310 ft) in Alaska (Photo: courtesy Seema Pai)

In the context of AMS, both these drugs – acetazolamide and dexamethasone – are typically talked of as prophylactic treatment. Dr Singh explained it. “ Prophylaxis means to administer a drug before the occurrence of an illness, when the chances of the illness occurring are high, to prevent the occurrence of the illness. For example: hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) has been touted for prophylaxis / prevention of COVID-19. As already brought out, dexamethasone is effective in the cure of AMS but is usually not necessary. AMS is amenable to symptomatic therapy (pain killer for headache, anti-vomiting drugs for nausea / vomiting) and if needed some oxygen supplementation for a short period (usually 30-60 minutes helps significantly). Descent is not necessary for the treatment of AMS, but the decision must be guided by local conditions, tour itinerary and logistics. For example: if the rest of the team has no option but to ascend and the person with AMS can’t be left alone, it is better to send him down with one more person rather than risk HACE by ascent. Cases of HACE and HAPE must descend as soon as possible, unless, of course, institutional care is available at the altitude of occurrence. For instance: people arriving in Leh, who develop HAPE or HACE are treated in the hospitals there. After recovery, the patient with HACE should not ascend further but the person with HAPE may, with exercise of due caution. Descent is the definitive cure for all high altitude illness,’’ he said.

In general, acetazolamide (Diamox) would seem more popular with the outdoor fraternity as a means to check AMS. It is a good drug for prevention of AMS / HACE and may be of benefit for prevention of HAPE too. “ More importantly acetazolamide is a safe drug. It is given to some patients with eye problems (glaucoma) for months and years with minimal adverse effects. So, we know it is safe. With dexamethasone one must be careful of the dose and duration it is taken and even so, some people might develop adverse effects at lower doses or shorter durations,’’ Dr Singh said. He feels that a first aid kit for mountaineering should contain both the drugs. “ Acetazolamide is our old friend that will prevent all three acute high altitude Illnesses – AMS, HACE and HAPE; whereas dexamethasone is the life saver in an emergency situation. No medical supervision is required for ingesting acetazolamide. If you know you have no drug allergy to sulfonamides (an antibiotic with structural similarity to acetazolamide) go ahead and take acetazolamide. A dose of 125mg (Diamox) twice a day or 250mg sustained release preparation (Iopar) once a day, starting the day before you ascend to altitude and continued to the second day there, is a great way to prevent / reduce the severity of AMS / HACE. If you intend to continue climbing and know you are prone to AMS, continue acetazolamide to the second day of reaching your target altitude. Should you find the benign side-effects such as a metallic taste in the mouth or tingling of the lips, hands and feet troublesome you could shift to dexamethasone tablet 4mg twice a day. But it would be good to not take dexamethasone in this dose for more than 10 days. A combination of both drugs in the same doses may also be used if you want to go high (from sea-level to >3500m in one day) very fast and have to indulge in strenuous activity there without time to acclimatize. Given in these doses for the recommended duration, medical supervision is not needed, provided the cautions mentioned above are adhered to,’’ Dr Singh said.

None of this however takes anything away from the merit in patiently acclimatizing to high altitude. That is the safest method. Patience – respecting the time needed for the body to gradually acclimatize – is, key. “ In my experience, there is nothing that can replace natural acclimatization,’’ Dr Tsering Norbu of Ladakh Institute of Prevention (LIP), said. Based in Leh, the retired physician is known well to visiting mountaineers. “ If you are not allergic to sulfa drugs, then we prescribe Diamox. We don’t approach dexamethasone in a similar fashion because it is typically used as a life saver in cases of AMS where the situation is bordering HACE,’’ he said. Being a tourist destination 11,500 feet up from sea level, Leh gets its fair share of high altitude illness. LIP is a NGO working in the domain of health. When patients require formal medical intervention, he refers them to the district hospital, Dr Norbu said.

COVID-19 and dexamethasone

On June 16, 2020, amid world battling COVID-19, BBC reported that dexamethasone “ cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth.’’ This was a finding from the UK. What made dexamethasone significant beyond its stated life-saving ability was the fact that it was available in good supply and was affordable. The name of the drug must have struck a bell immediately with mountaineers worldwide. Asked what likely made dexamethasone relevant in the treatment of COVID-19 patients on ventilator support and whether medically there is any parallel in the stress the body underwent with what happens during AMS, Dr Singh said, “ since dexamethasone helps combat stress it could possibly help in COVID-19 pneumonia or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). COVID-19 involves inflammation which damages the lungs even as it fights the virus. Dexamethasone can suppress inflammation and because it reduces capillary leakiness it should reduce the severity of the symptoms caused by ARDS. The caution that needs to be kept in mind, I believe, is that dexamethasone is not the definitive cure (it does not kill the virus) and by suppressing inflammation which controls the infection even as it causes symptoms, it might worsen the infection. If, however, adjunctive therapy to kill the virus is available then dexamethasone could help tide over the critical time in ARDS when inflammation does more harm than good to our body. The disease process of ARDS in COVID-19 involves increased capillary leakiness. Other than that, there is little in common with HAPE. Having said that, I believe a respiratory physician may be able to help you better with this question,’’ Dr Singh said.

Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman is an endocrinologist with the Indian Army. A regular runner, he has contributed in the past to articles related to health on this blog.  “ Dexamethasone in COVID-19 is as an anti-inflammatory to counter the cytokine storm that happens especially in the more severe forms of the disease,’’ he said. Further on June 17, BBC followed up with another report explaining how dexamethasone works in the case of COVID-19. “ This drug works by dampening down the body’s immune system. Coronavirus infection triggers inflammation as the body tries to fight it off. But sometimes the immune system goes into overdrive and it’s this reaction that can prove fatal – the very reaction designed to attack infection ends up attacking the body’s own cells. Dexamethasone calms this effect. It’s only suitable for people who are already in hospital and receiving oxygen or mechanical ventilation – the most unwell. The drug does not work on people with milder symptoms, because suppressing their immune system at this point would not be helpful,’’ the report said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For a pulmonologist’s view, this blog reached out to Dr Jacob Baby, Lead Consultant (Pulmonology), Aster Medcity, Kochi. “ Dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid; they are naturally occurring chemicals produced by the adrenal glands located above the kidneys. Corticosteroids affect the function of many cells within the body and suppress the immune system. They also block inflammation and are used in a wide variety of inflammatory diseases affecting many organs. Dexamethasone is 20-30 times more potent steroid action than naturally occurring cortisol. It reduces inflammation by blocking an enzyme named phospholipase A2, which breaks cell wall phospholipid and releases inflammatory mediators. Glucocorticoids function through interaction with the glucocorticoid receptors by up-regulating the expression of anti-inflammatory proteins and down-regulating the expression of pro-inflammatory proteins. It is cheap and easily available and used as effective anti-inflammatory in many inflammatory diseases like asthma and rheumatological disorders like inflammation of muscles, inflammation of blood vessels, chronic arthritis, and lupus. It also exerts excellent anti-edema (reducing swellings) action enabling its use in cancerous conditions, brain swelling and also swelling in the spinal cord,’’ Dr Baby said.

On how dexamethasone works in the case of COVID-19, he said, “ Recovery Trial in the UK – for treating COVID 19 – had an arm investigating dexamethasone. Oxford researchers announced the results of the dexamethasone trial, in which 2104 enrolled patients were administered 6 mg of the drug for 10 days. Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one-fifth in patients receiving only oxygen. One death would be prevented by treatment of around eight ventilated patients, or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone. The drug reduced the 28-day mortality rate by 17 per cent with significant benefit among patients requiring ventilation. COVID-19 causes accumulation of cytokines mainly IL-6 in the lungs. IL-6 increases inflammation in the lung cavity which causes the production and accumulation of fluids in the lungs. Dexamethasone reduces inflammation and suppresses immune activation of immune agents. The drug induces anti-inflammatory effects by reducing the secretion of cytokines into the lungs.’’

(Compiled and edited by Shyam G Menon, freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

THE SUNSHINE VITAMIN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things encapsulate the relevance of the outdoors as vitamin D does. It has been aptly called the sunshine vitamin. When human life recedes indoors – as it has in recent times dominated by work and workplace, sedentary lifestyle and growing atmospheric pollution – we turn our back on sunshine. In India, that should provoke thought because we were already a population associated with vitamin D deficiency. This blog spoke to two doctors who lead an active lifestyle for an overview of the role vitamin D plays in our life:

“ In the basket of vitamins, vitamin D is an important one. Yet ironically, it isn’t strictly a vitamin. Vitamins cannot be produced by the human body. What we call vitamin D is more a hormone. Thereby, it is the only vitamin, which can be produced in the body,’’ Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist with the Indian Army and a regular runner, said. The main role of vitamin D is in bone mineralization and calcium metabolism. Research has shown that vitamin D has receptors in many cells. It has an anti-cancer role; cancer can get out of control in cells that are deficient in vitamin D. Although not yet established beyond doubt, vitamin D is believed to influence immunity. Deficiency in vitamin D can lead to inflammation and autoimmune diseases. Further, there are connections between vitamin D levels and diabetes.

In general, nutritionists advise a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 600 to 800 units of vitamin D (600 being for those up to the age of 70 years; 800 for those above 70). Over time, the body needs more vitamin D. There is also an optimum level of 30 nanograms per milliliter, assigned for vitamin D in the blood. Below 20 nanograms is deemed deficient. Above 30 is good for bone health. However, above 100 is toxic. “ Between 30 to 100 nanograms – that is what we need. There has been a recommendation that the RDA be more,’’ Col Jayaraman said. The body gets vitamin D through synthesis and supplementation. In the latter, sources of vitamin D include select fishes and egg. “ Some of the food items we turn to for vitamin D are expensive. But we have an inexpensive avenue to process vitamin D in sunlight. The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays affect cholesterol in the skin cells and provide the energy for vitamin D synthesis. It is generally noted that the sunshine available between 11AM and 3PM works best for this purpose. The recommended period of exposure to sunlight is 15-20 minutes. You can expose as much of your skin as you wish. Don’t go overboard. Excessive exposure, prolonged exposure – these can be counter-productive. We are all familiar with the sensation of sunburn. At about the point of being sunburnt, you may conclude that you have done enough to synthesize a month’s worth of vitamin D. That is a practical thumb rule,’’ he said.

The population of South Asia – including India – is generally deficient in vitamin D. This has been attributed to the darker skin of the region, which is not very efficient at vitamin D conversion. The predicament has been compounded by acquired habits like excessive use of sunscreen (especially brands sporting high PF value) and emergent environmental problems like atmospheric pollution. “ A study from Mumbai last year showed that almost 80 per cent of the survey sample was deficient in vitamin D. There was another from North India, which showed deficiency of 15-30 per cent. Deficiency was higher in urban areas and less in rural areas. It betrays the impact of lifestyle and varying degrees of exposure to sunlight therein. However what should worry us in India is that even solders and farmers, who are generally associated with greater time spent in the outdoors, have vitamin D deficiency,’’ Col Jayaraman said. Further, contemporary lifestyles are not helpful for vitamin D production. “ Modern day life has grown progressively sedentary and courted the indoors. We don’t indulge in sports; we spent less time outdoors. What we should note is that the risk associated with fair skin – that of excessive exposure to sunlight causing skin cancer – is not high in the Indian context, ‘’ he said.

“ Vitamins refer to a group of nutrients which are not synthesized by the body and are required in small amounts through dietary sources. In Latin, vita means life. Vitamine was the original word as Thiamine was the first vitamin to be discovered. At that time it was thought that all such nutrients would be amines (they are organic compounds which contain and are often actually based on one or more atoms of nitrogen). The amine angle wasn’t found to be true.  So the `e’ in vitamine was dropped to de-emphasize the amine reference,’’ Dr Pravin Gaikwad, a pediatrician based in Navi Mumbai, who is also a runner and triathlete, said.

Vitamins are micronutrients necessary for cell function, growth and development. There are 13 essential vitamins required for the body to work properly. Vitamin D, through a historical accident, became classified as a ` vitamin.’ It is produced in the human body. It is absent from most natural foods except certain fish and egg yolk. Even when it’s obtained from food, it must be transformed by the body before it can do any good.  It’s actually a fat soluble pro hormone steroid that has endocrine (hormonal) and extra hormonal functions. Hormonal function is involved in calcium homeostasis and extra hormonal function is related to genetic mechanisms required in cell multiplication, differentiation and death (apoptosis). The dietary sources of vitamin D are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel (100 gm gives 1006 units); cod liver oil and egg yolk (100 gm egg yolk offers 218 units of vitamin D; each measure of egg yolk is approximately 18 gm, so 5-6 eggs would be required). Red meat and animal liver supply negligible amounts of vitamin D.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The main raw material for vitamin D is sunlight. Therefore, it is also known as the sunshine vitamin. The recommended requirements are: adults up to 70 years – 600 IU per day, beyond 70 – 800 IU per day. Vitamin D has been found to regulate the expression of almost 900 genes involving calcium phosphate metabolism, immune system and brain development. It is well-known that vitamin D deficiency causes rickets in children and osteomalacia (softening of bones) in adults. It also aggravates osteoporosis. Further, vitamin D deficiency causes chronic muscle pain and muscle weakness. Several observational studies have demonstrated the association between robust levels of vitamin D and reduced mortality and the risk of developing certain types of chronic diseases.

“ Vitamin D has been found to be important for physiological functions such as muscle strength and neuromuscular coordination. Deficiency may lead to increased risk of falling, especially in the elderly. This vitamin’s role in preventing development of colo-rectal cancers, breast and prostate cancers has also been observed. Vitamin D’s role in brain development and function has been a subject of study lately. It has been found to be so crucial that it is also regarded as a `neurosteroid.’ Further, it has been documented that vitamin D can influence fundamental processes for brain development in the embryonic brain. The influence of vitamin D is also suggested in complex planning and formation of new memories. Vitamin D deficiency could be responsible for the patho-physiology of schizophrenia,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

As said earlier, the main raw material of vitamin D for human beings is sunlight. It is derived through the photo conversion of 7 dehydrocholesterol to cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) in the skin by UVB radiation – 299-310 nm – following exposure to sunlight. The amount of vitamin D produced depends on several variables like environmental factors, personal variations and personal habits. The environmental factors include latitude; season, time of day, weather conditions, amount of air pollution, natural ozone layer and surface reflection. Personal variations include skin type; age and obesity. Habits include sociocultural habits like clothing and religious preferences, lifestyle, workplace and sun avoidance-practices like using sun block. Exposing the whole body to UVB radiation inducing a light pink color for 15-20 minutes will prompt production of up to 10000 IU of vitamin D. As per the Endocrine Society’s clinical practice guidelines, vitamin D deficiency in blood is less than 20 ng/ ml; insufficiency is 21 to 29 ng/ ml and sufficiency: 30 – 100 ng/ ml. “ Over 50 per cent of the world’s population and around 75 per cent of the Indian population is supposed to have insufficiency or deficiency of vitamin D,’’ he said.

The solar radiation between 11AM to 3PM is maximally helpful for vitamin D production. Over 7AM to 11AM and 3PM to 7PM, the radiation is around 40 per cent of what you get at the earlier mentioned time. “ It’s obvious that most of us (including children nowadays) are not outdoors at the time of peak exposure,’’ Dr Gaikwad said. According to him, a study published in 2018 from Pune indicates that men in western India, living in an urban setting at 18.5 degrees north and having dark skin, required over one hour of casual sunlight exposure to the face, forearm and hands (15 per cent of surface area) between 11AM and 3PM or scaled equivalent time to maintain vitamin D level above 20 ng / ml and 2 hours for 30 ng / ml.

Challenges to proper vitamin D synthesis include: increased air pollution, which makes solar radiation available less on the planet’s surface and the thinning of the natural ozone layer, which actually helps with getting radiation but is found to increase incidence of skin cancer. To note further is that it is direct sunlight and not reflected sunlight from surfaces (of buildings) which has maximum UVB for vitamin D production. “ We Indians have skin type 5 (Fitzpatrick type 5) due to which we are able to produce less vitamin D compared to lighter skins. However, the same factor plays a favorable role in preventing skin cancers,’’ Dr Gaikwad said (according to Wikipedia, the Fitzpatrick scale was developed in 1975 by Thomas B. Fitzpatrick as a way to estimate the response of different types of skin to ultraviolet [UV] light. Type 5 is described therein as: very rarely burns; tans very easily).

The older one’s age, less is the skin thickness. That leads to decreased capability for vitamin D production. With incidence of overweight and obesity increasing alarmingly, cases of vitamin D deficiency have also increased because vitamin D available in the blood reduces as it gets deposited more in fat cells. Sociocultural habits like clothing also makes production of vitamin D that much more difficult. Our present day lifestyle and workplaces offer no outdoor exposure during the peak hours. Sunblock with SPF 15 and more reduces UVB penetration by more than 95 per cent. High fiber phosphate in the diet makes calcium in food less available for absorption. Low calcium in diet exhausts vitamin D stores fast. Finally, in South Asians, there is a gene which may also contribute to low body stores of vitamin D by activating its turnover thereby exhausting its stores, Dr Gaikwad said. Generally, we get around 10 per cent of vitamin D from food and the rest from the sunlight. In August 2018, FSSAI allowed fortification of food with vitamin D. Certain milk brands are now fortified with vitamin D. It is also pushing for the fortification of oils.

There’s no evidence to suggest that very high doses of vitamin D can prevent or treat COVID-19 and that individuals with limited access to sunlight should consider a supplement, a British Medical Journal (BMJ) report on nutrition, prevention and health has stated, Dr Gaikwad pointed out.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Immunity depends on many variables of which sunlight is just one factor. If we maintain a healthy lifestyle – meaning thereby proper nutrition, exercise (at home in the present pandemic situation) and adequate sleep – and ensure ways to withstand the stress of modern life, immunity would not be compromised. In general, given that modern lifestyle demands we be less exposed to sunlight, vitamin D production would obviously be less. The best option seems to be to monitor the blood levels of vitamin D and take supplements, if necessary. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin (not water soluble like vitamin C and B complex vitamins). It remains stored in the body for a long time and does not get excreted if taken beyond required levels. In Nordic countries, where the winter lasts for a long time, blood vitamin D levels are known to fall by only 20 to 40 per cent. “ If lockdown extends for a long time, a blood test to check vitamin D levels – especially in the elderly population above 70 years of age – may be considered,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

The risk of taking very high doses of vitamin D is vitamin D toxicity. As it is a fat soluble vitamin, vitamin D accumulates in the body gradually and shows symptoms of hypervitaminosis D after a few months, which are largely reversible but may cause kidney damage and calcium deposition in arteries. So it is always recommended to be taken under medical guidance with monitoring of blood levels, if necessary.

(Compiled and edited by Shyam G Menon, freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

LOCKDOWN & ME / SIGNS OF LIFE

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom (Photo: courtesy Ramesh)

Amidst continuing lockdown due to COVID-19, there has been relaxation of rules. Runners and cyclists have reappeared in some cities and towns, albeit in small numbers. It is a beginning although the new normal with mask, physical distancing and no races on the horizon, won’t be easy for all to embrace. Yet, signs of life – that it is.

For well over a month Ramesh Kanjilimadhom was confined to being indoors. In that while, the IT professional and amateur runner worked out to keep himself physically fit. Then, to stay connected to his chosen sport, he began jogging within the compound of his apartment complex. “ It was to keep myself going. By no yardstick can that be a replacement for running outdoors like before,’’ he said.

Contacted on May 22, five days into the fourth phase of the nationwide lockdown, he said that following relaxation in the severity of lockdown in Kerala, some runners have resumed their early morning run. Ramesh is among founders of Soles of Cochin, the state’s best known running group. It is a very sociable, outgoing group; the outfit’s social media presence reflects that spirit. The new normal has two important aspects, which are a departure from the sociable past – the use of masks and physical distancing. Ramesh described the outings amid the fourth phase of lockdown. Given the group is active on social media and well networked, a few of them still assemble at a predetermined place but with none of the clustering of before. They maintain physical distancing and wear masks. When the running commences, they don’t run as a group; they maintain separation. Post run, there is none of the old visits to café for breakfast either. According to Ramesh, it is not easy transitioning from an environment where people ran close together and chatted as they went along, to one where they are distanced from each other and consciously staying in a protected personal ecosystem. You have to acquire that habit. From among those venturing out in the new normal, the majority – including Ramesh – runs solo.

It is tempting to assume that the discomfort felt is less for those pushing longer distances like the marathon and the ultramarathon as they are used to being in a personal cocoon.  Ramesh thinks that assumption is too simplistic. “ Even distance runners used to find a few others of their league and proceed as a small group. So it is more a case of managing individual character, whether you liked sociability and proximity or could do without it. Overall, the current experience is a bit monastic compared to how sociable running used to be earlier,’’ he said. Ramesh said that runners from the group, who are doctors, had discussed the recent media report of a Chinese runner who used to run wearing a mask and eventually suffered a collapsed lung. Based on details available, they were not convinced that the collapsed lung was a direct consequence of wearing a mask; it seemed more due to existing comorbidity. However, Ramesh conceded that although people wear a mask when running in the new normal, it is not a pleasant experience. “ First of all, it is uncomfortable. Second, in places like Kochi, the humidity is quite high. It takes no time for the mask to get wet,’’ he said.

It was in September 1987 that Pink Floyd released their thirteenth studio album: A Momentary Lapse of Reason. For cover, it had a picture showing hundreds of hospital beds. Its opening song was the instrumental ` Signs of Life.’ The name of that song could be apt description for recreational sport right now in India. Things came to an abject standstill when lockdown commenced from the midnight of March 24. Now, amidst continuing lockdown due to COVID-19, there has been relaxation of rules. Runners and cyclists have reappeared in some cities and towns, albeit in small numbers. It is a beginning although the new normal with mask, physical distancing and no races on the horizon, won’t be easy for all to embrace. Yet, signs of life – that it is.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Anjali Saraogi and her husband run a health care services company in Kolkata. “ I haven’t run for over ten weeks now. I decided to take this lockdown positively and focused on yoga and flexibility,’’ she said. Anjali represents India in international ultra-running events. She holds the national best among women in the 100 km run. At the 2019 IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships, held at Aqaba, Jordan, Anjali set a new national best of 9:22 hours, breaking her own previous record.

According to her, running with a mask on is very challenging. Getting back to races will take a long time. “ The running community will have to figure out how to organize races, which have huge crowds, especially at the big events. Also, the expo of the event, the holding area, the start line, the finish line and volunteering – all these are usually so crowded and involves physical contact,’’ she said. For some time ahead, the focus of running will be purely on fitness. She believes the new normal will definitely dilute the fun element, the bonding and camaraderie that training runs and races used to offer.

Pervin Batliwala (Photo: courtesy Pervin)

As COVID-19 plays out in India, one of the clearest trends yet is that of positive cases being most in a handful of major towns and cities. And of this unfortunate lot, Mumbai is the worst hit. In the domestic world of running, Mumbai is among cities most active in the sport; it hosts India’s biggest annual event in running – Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) – and it is home to a large number of amateur runners. Transposed onto running, Mumbai’s lockdown story becomes one of a city of runners caged by the misfortune of being a red zone. It is a predicament they must weather. “ I miss running on the road and meeting my runner friends in the process,” Pervin Batliwala, Mumbai-based amateur runner who has been an age category podium finisher in many races, said. She does not miss the gym, though. “ Through the lockdown period, I have been doing workouts at home at least three times a week,” she said around the time the fourth phase of India’s nationwide lockdown was due to commence. Recently she started jogging in the compound of her colony, which is quite large by Mumbai standards.

Although she misses running on the road, Pervin enjoys the fact that she does not have to wake up at unearthly hours to commence her run. “ Running in the new normal would mean we have to keep a distance between runners. But running with the mask on is not in the least comfortable. It is suffocating,” she said. A gregarious individual, Pervin loves running with big groups and enjoys chatting while on the run. However, as of mid-May, she was already reconciled to the new normal. “ We have to take the whole process of resuming running gradually. Anyway, there is no goal or race to focus on, anytime in the future,” she said. For 2020, Pervin had enrolled for the Tokyo Marathon and the Chicago Marathon. The Tokyo Marathon, held in March this year, was confined to elite runners and the organizers allowed amateur runners to defer their participation to 2021. “ Tokyo Marathon may allow runners to defer further to 2022. If so, I will opt for 2022,” she said. Chicago Marathon has already announced the option for deferring participation to 2021.

Chitra Nadkarni (Photo: courtesy Chitra)

Given the pandemic, most major running events and similar mass participation events in the field of endurance sport have been getting postponed or cancelled. Hope at large is no more centered on return of races; it is centered on simply getting back to doing the things we love, something as simple as the morning run for instance. The new normal will get some time getting used to. Maintaining adequate physical distancing from other runners won’t be easy in training and particularly so at running events, Chitra Nadkarni, said. A Mumbai-based amateur runner and frequent podium finisher in her age category, she was all set to shift her focus to the triathlon after the 2020 Tokyo Marathon. Following COVID-19 outbreak, the marathon in Japan was eventually held restricted to elite runners. But her triathlon plans are on. With the aim of attempting an Ironman event, she has been focusing on cycling. “ I have put my cycle on a trainer and have been training regularly,” she said.

Endurance sport at the training level and at the event level will not be the same, says Chitra. “ It is going to be a sad scenario. I will miss meeting, training and bonding with people,” she said. Things are not very clear at this juncture and will take quite some time to evolve into a new normal, she said.

Anuradha Chari (Photo: courtesy Anuradha)

Mid-May when lockdown eased in Bengaluru, Anuradha Chari, recreational runner and triathlete, was able to go for a long bicycle ride covering a distance of about 45 kilometers. Prior to lockdown, Anuradha was doing 60-70 km. After being confined to limited space, a bike ride of said distance was liberating experience for her. “ It felt good to get out and breathe some fresh air. I went slower than my usual pace and also covered lower distance compared to my normal mileage,” she said. While there was personal relief in being out, the altered reality outside wasn’t a pretty sight. The ride was exhilarating but the sight of migrants walking along the road to destinations they wished to reach was distressing. Also, the deserted roads did not feel entirely safe, Anuradha said. All through the lockdown, she hadn’t been able to focus on a fitness regime to the level desired for want of time. “ With work from home, cooking and cleaning, I could not spare time for workouts,” she said. She did step out early morning for a short run around her housing complex. Going forward, the need for physical distancing will remove some of the fun from both training and racing, she said.

Mini Nampoothiri (Photo: courtesy Mini)

The new normal may be particularly challenging for those who are new to running or are yet to settle into a solo space. That early phase is when you seek a supportive ecosystem and typically in sport, it means training with others around. It is a symbiotic relationship – you feed off the group’s energy and the group gaining from each one’s contribution has more energy to spread around. “ I was running with others alongside as I was new to running,” Dr Mini Nampoothiri, Navi Mumbai-based gynecologist and amateur runner, said. She has been running for over two years. At the time of writing, she had participated in half marathon races and distances lower than 21.1 kilometers. Functioning under lockdown like everybody else, she is keen to get back to running but knows it may be a different experience in the new normal. “ I am waiting to get back to running,” she said, mid-May. She felt that running with a mask on will be most uncomfortable. Physical distancing while running will make running much less enjoyable for her, Mini said. But she felt she would adapt to the new normal. She avers she should be able to run solo during her training runs in the future.

Naveen John (Photo: courtesy Naveen)

The view is tad different when perspective is that of elite athlete. “ If there is a national competition tomorrow, I will do well,’’ Naveen John said late-May 2020. Among India’s top bicycle racers, he held out the same possibility should he be heading to Belgium to participate in a kermesse, which is usually the norm for him in this time of the year. The observation reflected how well he had trained during the preceding three phases of the nationwide lockdown (by late-May, India was into the fourth phase). “ I am absolutely happy with my fitness,’’ he said. Despite the training and hard work there was a sliver of disillusionment – rather an honest admission of reality – emergent. “ The challenge now is that for the first time in my career in cycling, there is no horizon,’’ he said of India and world sailing on with no real end game in sight for the pandemic. The lockdown itself hadn’t worried Naveen much. He had rationalized that a couple of months spent so, won’t make a dent to the years he had spent so far in cycling and the years ahead. The forecast of a monastic new normal with much less sociability in sport too didn’t upset him because as he put it, athletes chasing high performance are already into the hermit life. Further, all athletes have to cope with episodes of being out of action due to injury and illness. The lockdown could be treated as a slightly longer version of the same. But the important thing is – there is a return to normalcy; a sense of confidence with roadmap alongside for how to get back to normalcy. This roadmap is missing with COVID-19 and to the extent it is absent, athlete misses concrete direction when preparing for the future. “ Previously my plans used to span three to four weeks. Now I am taking it one week at a time,’’ he said.

On the bright side, Naveen is back to cycling outdoors. From the third phase of lockdown, Bengaluru authorities made it possible for cyclists to venture out. He leaves home at 5 AM, when there are very few people out on the road. “ It feels good to be out again,’’ he said. Naveen is currently working on devising a template for the rest of the year. In all likelihood the rest of 2020 will require a change in paradigm for him. A landmark shift in global cycling that happened during the lockdown was the virtual reality version of the annual Tour of Flanders (the actual event was postponed due to pandemic). Unfortunately a similar version is not available for Belgium’s renowned season of kermesse and other races rated below the elite segment. One reason is that outside the professional category of racing (to which elite races belong), the world of virtual reality hasn’t yet got a level playing field in place. Among parameters used to judge outcome in virtual races is the product of power generated on home trainer divided by stated weight of rider. The latter is a case of self-declaration. Systems to monitor such parameters exist in the professional category but not in the rungs below it, where Naveen has so far participated. This inhibits virtual races from catching on in a strange year like 2020, although the practise of cycling using trainers and apps has grown exponentially amid pandemic.  Simply put therefore, there is nothing to fully replace the kermesse season Naveen will miss this year. “ I think this year will be a case of focusing on training self and others,’’ he said. He is working on the details.

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: courtesy Sunil Shetty / NEB Sports)

Ultra-runner Apoorva Chaudhary was confined to her apartment in Gurgaon during the lockdown. On May 25, she managed to travel to Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, where her parents live. “ I resumed my running only after I got here. I don’t do very long runs. There are no Covid-19 cases on the 10 kilometer-route that I run on,’’ Apoorva said. She holds the national best in 24-hour ultra. At the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held at Albi, France, Apoorva clocked 202.212 km during the stipulated period, the highest for a woman runner from India.

In Bijnor, she steps out very early for her training run. “ People here don’t go out for walks. Therefore, except farmers getting ready to move to their farmlands, there are very few people out,’’ she said. She tried running with a mask but found it too uncomfortable. “ That’s the reason I go out super early for my run,’’ she said. While at home during the lockdown, Apoorva focused on strength training, something that most endurance athletes ignore to a great extent. She likes running alone and sometimes with one or two runners. “ In the new normal, I will miss the old routine of catching up with runner friends after a training run,’’ she said. Although there are no races on the horizon, as and when they begin, she feels runners may be reluctant to enroll for fear of catching the virus. In the new scenario, runners will run for the joy of running and the competitive approach will take a back seat, she said.

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

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are freelance journalists based in Mumbai.)