Kabir Rachure (Photo: courtesy Sapana Rachure)

Kabir Rachure has successfully completed the 2019 edition of Race Across America (RAAM).

The cyclist from Navi Mumbai, India, covered the roughly 3000 mile (4800 kilometers) distance in 11 days, 22 hours, 43 minutes, as per results available on the leader board section of the event’s website. RAAM’s course stretches right across the United States, from Oceanside in California on the US west coast, to Annapolis in Maryland on the east.

Kabir’s support crew for RAAM was anchored by his sister Sapana. Earlier, she had been his crew chief for several races in India too. At roughly 260 miles left to finish, she recalled the main challenges the team had faced at RAAM that far. “ Till now Kabir’s longest ride was 1750km Ultra Spice race, which he finished twice. So after that, the entire thing is new territory for us. The biggest problem is sleep management after the sixth day,’’ she said. According to her, Kabir was sleeping around two and quarter hours daily with short naps during daytime as required. They had three support vehicles and a crew of ten. All crew members were from India. The team had four bicycles for use during RAAM – a Lapierre Pulsium, a Lapierre Aircode, a Colnago C-RS and a Specialized.

Kabir, 29, is the third Indian cyclist to complete RAAM in the solo category.

The previous such finishes were in 2017, when Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath earned the distinction of being the first Indian solo cyclist to complete RAAM. He finished in 11 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes. Srinivas was followed by Dr Amit Samarth, who became the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category in the very first attempt in 11 days, 21 hours, 11 minutes. That year, Kabir too was there at RAAM; he was part of support crew for Samim Rizvi, cyclist from Bengaluru. Among Indian cyclists, Samim had been a pioneer at attempting RAAM solo. Unfortunately Samim’s 2017 attempt ended up DNF (Did Not Finish), somewhere past 900 kilometers into the race. Not wanting to give up on his chance to see the RAAM route, Kabir had then taken a car and gone up till Durango in Colorado before returning to California and later, back to India.

Kabir Rachure (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

These solo rides aside, the first Indian finish at RAAM was in 2015 when the Mahajan brothers – Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – completed the race in eight days, 11 hours as a two person-team.

In other finishes at RAAM 2019, Brazil’s Daniela Genovesi crossed the finish line first among women solo riders. She covered the distance in 10 days, 17 hours, 59 minutes. Coming in second was Leah Goldstein of Canada, who reached the finish line in 10 days, 19 hours, 28 minutes. Both riders belong to the 50-59 years age category. Daniela’s average speed of 11.9 miles per hour is a new record at RAAM for women in this age group.

For more on Kabir Rachure please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/12/19/three-years-and-raam/

The 2019 edition of RAAM also saw Krishna Prakash, senior police officer from Mumbai complete the shorter Race Across West (RAW), a race carved out from the initial stages of RAAM. His crew chief was Amit Samarth.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

If you compare length for length, then over 60 per cent of Race Across America (RAAM) is uncharted experience for riders from India.

RAAM is a little over 3000 miles (approximately 4800 kilometers) long.

The longest Indian ultra-cycling event serving as qualifier for RAAM is Ultra Spice, which spans 1750 kilometers (1087 miles); the race proceeds from Goa to Coorg, Wayanad and Ooty and then returns to finish in Goa. The 1750 kilometers length of this race means that somewhere past the first one third of RAAM’s 3000 miles in the US; Indian riders begin to tackle unfamiliar waters. Will having a race longer than Ultra Spice on the domestic circuit help shrink that element of unknown at RAAM and similar races elsewhere?

“ Yes obviously,’’ Divya Tate of Inspire India, organizers of Ultra Spice said, adding, “ just as doing RAAM once or even failing at it, makes it easier to do it next time! But seriously, training approaches worldwide don’t demand for you to do the distance while you train, especially not for ultra-cycling.’’ Having qualified for RAAM and trained for it diligently, Lt Col Bharat Pannu was supposed to participate in the 2019 edition of the race. But an unfortunate injury sustained in rides ahead of race in the US, forced him to withdraw. Asked whether he thought having a race longer than Ultra Spice in the domestic circuit would help reduce the unknown in RAAM, Bharat said, “ as per my experience, the distance of 1750 kilometers provides you with all necessary experience required for RAAM, except the distance. And for distance such as RAAM, it becomes a test of your mental strength and your ability to endure pain. Definitely, a longer race will prove to be beneficial,’’ he said.

According to Divya, Ultra Spice is the bridge between the minimum RAAM qualifiers of 640 kilometers and RAAM itself. “ One doesn’t need to participate in longer ultra-races to train for RAAM. Crewing or doing team at RAAM would however be highly recommended before attempting solo. Also with four RAAM qualifiers being offered in India, a lead-up to RAAM solo or team should include as many of these, offering a variety of terrain and challenges, which is why these were created.,’’ she said.

If a longer race is to be created in India, what will be the challenges?

“ The biggest challenges are monitoring, funding and the participation numbers. Inspire India does have two ultra-races that have been in the pipeline for 3-4 years that we can only now consider putting up since we have affordable tracking devices in India. Funding these big races is not yet happening and they are really hard to run. The longer the race, the lower the number of people able to or interested in participating, and these races are expensive to participate with support vehicles etc. Which is why the two races – The Great Coast Race and The K2K Ultra will have a different format, closer to bike-pack racing. The expense of participation is also why we have now created a separate category in Ultra Spice 1750, which is unsupported or without personal support vehicles. But the unsupported category is not a RAAM qualifier,’’ Divya said.

In 2017, Amit Samarth had become the second Indian to complete RAAM solo and the first to finish it in his first attempt. In 2018, he had successfully completed the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme; a 15-stage, 9100 kilometer-long race in Russia. He had a very simple matrix as reply for the question this blog posed on whether a race longer than Ultra Spice in India, would help Indians tackle RAAM better. According to him: longer the race, longer the recovery. “ You can do a race that is longer than Ultra Spice to reduce that element you call the unknown in RAAM. But it should be done at least 5-6 months before RAAM,’’ Amit said. He suspects Indian cyclists may be over-training for RAAM. That is what happened to him in 2017. Not knowing what to expect, he trained rigorously and ended up feeling tired during the actual race in the US. “ What we don’t realize is that in India, we do too many races. It makes us mentally surer of the distance but eventually it also makes us physically slower,’’ he said of the folly in overlooking rest and recovery. Amit thinks cyclists like Christoph Strasser (2019 marked his sixth victory at RAAM solo) don’t exhaust themselves doing very long rides in training.

Photo imaging: Shyam G Menon

Strasser at RAAM is a treat to watch on the race’s live tracker. RAAM solo and RAW solo (Race Across West; a smaller race within RAAM) start on the same day. Those riding as multi member-teams start later. In 2019, Strasser steadily pulled ahead of the field, hung in there and finished first. The gap between him and second placed soloist was palpable. In that gap, a few teams raced in (because they cycle in relay format, they cover ground faster) to cross the finish line. It was after this early flurry of team finishes that the rest of the solo racers started completing the race. Simply put – keeping aside other issues like sleep management and experienced crew, Strasser rides faster than others. His average speed at 2019 RAAM over the eight days, six hours, 16 minutes he took to reach the finish line, was 15.48 miles per hour. The fastest team this year at RAAM was the 4-person Team Alpha from Austria; riding in relay format they covered the course in five days, 15 hours, 33 minutes at an average speed of 22.65 miles per hour.

After RAAM 2017, when Amit decided to head for Trans-Siberian Extreme, he knew two things – the race in Russia at 9100 kilometers is significantly longer than RAAM; he didn’t want to repeat what happened to him at RAAM 2017. He connected with Pierre Bischoff of Germany – Bischoff is a much experienced ultra-cyclist; 2016 winner of RAAM – to learn how best to prepare. Bischoff’s suggestion was to focus on two aspects – speed and recovery. “ I made sure I did not over-train for Trans-Siberian Express,’’ Amit said. He became the first Indian to complete Trans-Siberian Extreme; Bischoff won it.

So if needlessly piling on miles in training is unwise, how then do you tackle the unknown in RAAM?

“ There is no other way but to deal with it mentally. One thing you must understand about ultra-cycling is that because the distances involved are huge, you cannot cover all aspects in training as you would for a marathon. There will always be the unknown,’’ Amit said.

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


Nanda Khat, Peak 6477 and Nanda Devi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Please scroll down for updates

Late evening June 23, the media reported that a team of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), dispatched to recover the bodies of climbers believed to have met with an avalanche on Peak 6477 near Nanda Devi East, had recovered seven bodies from under the snow.

According to a senior ITBP official quoted in the report, the bodies were found “ on the western ridge of the peak towards the Pindari Glacier.”  Peak 6477 is on the ridge continuing from Nanda Khat towards Nanda Devi East. It is on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary; Nanda Khat is close to the Pindari Glacier.

The bodies, including that of a woman, have not been formally identified. That will be possible once the bodies are brought down to base camp, the reports said.

It was in end-May that news broke of eight climbers (seven from overseas plus the team’s liaison officer from India), part of an expedition that had set out to attempt Nanda Devi East, reported missing following avalanche on Peak 6477. The expedition was led by well-known British mountaineer and mountain guide, Martin Moran.

In subsequent search operations, helicopter sorties by the Indian Air Force (with some of the surviving members of the expedition aboard to refine area of search) had sighted five bodies in the snow and ample evidence of avalanche.

Besides a large team composed of personnel from ITBP, State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) dispatched from the Munsyari side, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) had also sent a team for recovery operations. The latter headed up from the Pindari Glacier side.

For more reports providing background, please refer the list of articles on this blog dating from end-May.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

From high mountains to vehicle sales and jobs with fat salaries, the industrial paradigm is blinding us to the obvious.

2019 was not the first climbing season on Everest hosting queue of climbers.

One recalls photos shown by those who climbed Everest in the past decade. Lines have happened before; maybe not this bad on the final stretch of the ascent. A line is a potential queue; a queue is potential congestion. In other words, 2019 was in the works.

All that was needed was favorable circumstances converging. A slightly higher number of permits doled out, fickle weather of climate-change, a cyclone big enough to have distant impact in the Himalaya and climbers rushing to take advantage of a narrow window – that appears to have tipped what was potential into reality. In the days following the tragic deaths of May 2019 official explanation puzzled. A memorable line of reasoning was that people had died of altitude sickness, poor fitness and lack of experience, not traffic congestion on the peak. That is probably true.

Traffic jam at altitude

Consider the following. Altitude sickness is checked through acclimatization. But there is no certainty that it won’t strike. When it hits, the best remedy is losing elevation. Poor fitness can spell trouble when climbing a mountain entailing physical strain and the challenges of altitude. Experience counts. The more you have been to the high mountains and endured different scenarios, the better your understanding of self (and its limits) and greater your bandwidth to cope with nature.

In the event of altitude sickness, how easy will it be to turn around and lose elevation if the climbing route has too many people, at least some of them slowed by strain of altitude? If your fitness is poor and experience limited, how well will you cope with extended exposure to harsh nature, which is what happens when caught in a queue? Point is – long lines on any high mountain is unsafe. That raises the question: why do we ignore signs of potential accident? Why do we defend after tragedy?

One reason (certainly not the only one) would be the difference between mountaineering as activity and the same as industry. Across sectors, industry has typically showed reluctance to acknowledge its faults. There are investments, businesses and livelihood at stake. Viewed through such prism, old lines from old photos may not have seemed early indicator of what could potentially be. The other thing you notice in activity cast as industry is how notion of dynamic nature recedes and predictability becomes prized. Approached as industry, a high mountain becomes branded objective bought off a shop shelf. As with any other product, expectations rule the transaction and those expectations have to be met. The tragedy and defence from Everest spanned May-June 2019.

Traffic jam at sea level

On June 19, a leading daily reported that Mumbai had some of the worst traffic jams in the world. The report was notable for pinning blame almost wholly on civic authorities responsible for roads and the traffic police, responsible for issues like parking. There are two actors overlooked in the story of traffic jams – vehicle manufacturers and consumers.

Vehicles are manufactured, marketed with high voltage campaigns, sold at attractive prices and backed with consumer finance – all by the automobile industry. The ones willfully spending, congesting the roads with their purchase and often prone to driving rashly are the customers. Yet no solid blame reaches these two segments. Vehicle manufacturers have traditionally kept big advertisement budgets; something media seeks. About two decades ago, officials at Indian auto companies used to argue that they are above spoiling the market with aggressive pricing, low interest loans and product discounts. Growing competition among auto companies, the pressures of surviving market cycles, the technological challenges facing the global auto industry, the rising relevance of public transport and ethical preference for less polluting means of mobility – all these changed industry. There is desperation to sell before product relevance dries up. Now the Indian market also hosts freebies, discounts and cheap loans. Sellers are targeting pockets where the consumerist dream still attracts and tales of urban congestion are distant.

Questioning the habits of readers / viewers (who are also vehicle customers) to the point of irritating them is not affordable to media. Editors have limits decided by business model. As people spend on vehicles in age of high salary and more disposable income, both customer and industry are spared acute scrutiny by media. Civic authorities and traffic police take the blame instead. Like the mountaineering industry’s inability to visualize potential danger in a long line at altitude, vehicle manufacturers and customers reserve a Nelson’s Eye for their role in traffic congestion. They see their combined activity as feeding GDP (even if time wasted in traffic jam is productivity lost). GDP is currently unquestionable; it is a nice place for big fish to hide.

There is a cost for our collective existence – growing and burgeoning – that nobody wants to acknowledge. Like Mumbai’s traffic jams and May 2019 on Everest, all costs eventually come home. Yet the architecture of potential mess appears lost on even the educated.

Traffic jam in the head

The new rain; rain of vehicles (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

And so in June 2019, it was Nelson’s Eye again, as a former senior official of the Indian IT industry argued that what stifled employment in the country was not lack of jobs but lack of well paid jobs. It harked of an older fantasy sold (much successful like vehicle sales measured in numbers) – that of celebrating exploded population as demographic dividend. Doesn’t demographic dividend / workforce have the propensity to be consumerist with consequences thereof? If you are not blinded by GDP, you will notice that more money does not reduce the carrying cost of our bloated existence and its equally bloated aftermath ranging from stress to congestion to trash. Instead, allowing ourselves to see without tainted spectacles would be a good starting point.

What we need is reasonable hours of work, reasonable salary and most importantly – affordable cost of living that stretches currency’s mileage. Unfortunately, our educational system (that’s where we gain perspective of life) has been surrendered to GDP. It is the stuff of rat race; it even advocates it. We have few original characters born from it. There is no contrarian thought. To the extent it is all driven by money, alternative incentives like social acceptance and support, relevant to sustain non-mainstream imagination, have shriveled up. Your intuition warns that the overall accounts of existence are not balanced. Money tells you: don’t listen to that internal auditor, just keep minting money. What would you call such book keeping if it was a company, bank, airline or housing finance outfit, you were auditing?

In June again, there was a news report which said, some youngsters were living frugally and saving as much as they could to retire earlier than usual. It smacked of industrial superstructure tapped solely for income with an acknowledged lack of soul-connect to it. Unlike before, meaning it seemed, lay in retirement. There were others stepping out to see the world on small budgets; hope in their hearts to compensate for lack of cash. Now, that’s a different approach. At least, it’s no Nelson’s Eye.

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


Abdullah Zeinab at the finish in Yorktown (Photo: Chip Coutts / this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Trans Am Bike Race public group and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Melbourne-based cyclist Abdullah Zeinab has won the 2019 Trans Am Bike Race in the US.

He covered the roughly 4200 mile (6800 kilometers) distance in 16 days, nine hours and 56 minutes, a new course record. Abdullah bettered the previous record by over 10 hours, the event’s Facebook page informed in a post early today.

Like Race Across America (RAAM – its roughly 4800km long; its 2019 edition began on June 11), Trans Am too is a coast to coast bike race. Its course stretches from Astoria, Oregon on the US west coast to Yorktown, Virginia on the east. The race passes through ten states. There is however a significant difference between RAAM and Trans Am. The former is a supported race. The cyclist has support crew accompanying him / her in a vehicle; they take care of logistics, navigation, bike maintenance, nutrition, rest and shelter. Trans Am is an unsupported (or self-supported) race with no support crew tagging along. The rider has to take care of everything.

Trans Am cyclists, journey with essential gear packed on their bicycle. Rest and shelter for them is usually a mix of camping, houses and motels. According to Wikipedia, all food, accommodation and repairs on the Trans Am Bike Race have to be purchased from commercial sources. One specialty of Trans Am is that there appears to be no rigid and fast rule on how participants should treat the event. Some take it as a race. Others take it as an opportunity to bike across the United States and see the land. As the clock keeps ticking this difference in perception, shows in the time taken to finish.

In 2018, Trans Am was won by San Diego based-Peter Andersen. He covered the route in 16 days, 20 hours, 41 minutes. At the same event, Nishant Iyengar from Bengaluru, participating in Trans Am for the opportunity to pedal across the US, had finished in 56 days, seven hours, 11 minutes. He placed 56th among 58 finishers. For more on Nishant and Trans Am please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/10/19/america-the-trans-am-way/

In 2018, Abdullah Zeinab had won the unofficial Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a 5500km bicycle race across Australia, from Perth to Sydney.

This year’s Trans Am Bike Race began early June.

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


Nanda Devi (Photo: Punit Mehta)

Please scroll down for updates

The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) has launched an expedition to the Traill Pass area to recover the bodies of climbers sighted earlier during helicopter sorties.

“ Based on permission received from DM (district magistrate) Pithoragarh, IMF has launched a ground search expedition. Fully equipped 12 member-team is headed for the accident site through Pindari glacier. They are expected to reach the area by Saturday,” a senior IMF official informed Monday (June 10) morning.

Late-May following eight climbers reported missing from an expedition to Nanda Devi East, district authorities had launched a search mission. Five bodies were subsequently located near Peak 6477, an unclimbed peak the team hoped to try. However efforts to retrieve the bodies didn’t succeed.

The IMF then sought permission to launch its own search and recovery mission.

The eight climbers reported missing was from an expedition led by senior British climber and mountain guide, Martin Moran.

Please scroll down on this blog for earlier reports on this tragedy.

Update / June 14: Media reports quoting the District Magistrate of Pithoragarh said that a 32-member team comprising 11 mountaineers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) are also heading to the accident spot to retrieve the bodies. The team left for Munsyari on Thursday (June 13). They are expected to be airlifted to “ Nanda Devi second base camp” on Friday, the reports said.

Update / June 15: The IMF expedition has established its base camp close to Zero Point in the Pindari Glacier region, a senior IMF official informed on Saturday. A few members have shifted to Advance Base Camp (ABC). Asked about conditions at altitude, he said that the monsoon is yet to make its presence felt.  There are light showers at base camp and sleet at ABC. The team is able to go about its work. They will take a couple of days to open the route to higher camp and reach the accident spot, the official said.

Update / June 22: Weather appears to be an issue. According to a senior IMF official, nine members were expected to proceed towards Camp 1 today with six staying one there and three returning after load ferry. However the team had to turn back at around 4900 meters due to white out conditions. They are now back at ABC.

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


Tlanding Wahlang (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Run Meghalaya and is being used here for representation purpose)

Tlanding Wahlang from Meghalaya registered the best timing from among Indians participating in the 2019 Trail World Championships held at Miranda do Corvo in Portugal on Saturday, June 8.

According to a report available on the Facebook page of Run Meghalaya, he finished 114 among men and 129 overall, covering the 44km course in four hours 30 minutes. Kieren D’Souza had the second best timing from the Indian contingent – 4:37; he placed 133 among men and 156 overall. The report has been credited to Sandeep Kumar and Dr. Carolyne Lyngdoh, who were support team for the Indian runners. The report had Tlanding’s photo and the following caption: This was the moment for Tlanding Wahlang. A poor farmer from Shngimawlein a distant village in South West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, he braved all odds to get to Portugal and he gave his heart and his legs to compete with the best in the world of trail running. His story of hardship and strife to try and earn enough to feed himself and his family is one of inspiration that triumphs all others because he succeeded inspite of it all. He is our hero.

Tlanding is a familiar face on the Indian marathon circuit. A regular member of the Run Meghalaya group frequenting major marathons in the country, he has finished on the podium in his age category at multiple events. At the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), he had finished second overall in the full marathon for amateurs with timing of 2:40:53. In his age category (40-44 years) he had placed first (for more on Tlanding and Run Meghalaya please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/01/23/2019-tmm-run-meghalaya-scores-again/) Kieren is among promising young Indian long distance runners; he has a known preference for trail and training in the mountains.

The Indian team for the 2019 Trail World Championships included Kieren D’Souza, Ullas Narayana, Tlanding Wahlang, Rajasekar Rejendran and Radhey Kumar. There were no Indian women participating this time, the participants’ list available on the event website showed.

Tlanding Wahlang; after 2019 TMM (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As per the earlier mentioned report by the support team (posted on Run Meghalaya Facebook page), the performance in full of the Indian team is as follows: Tlanding – 4:30 / 114 among men / 129 overall, Kieren – 4:37 / 133 men / 156 overall, Radhey – 4:51 / 148 men / 190 overall, Ullas – 5:06 / 167 men / 228 overall, Rajasekar – 5:39 / 194 men / 316 overall.

The event held under the auspices of The International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) was organized by the Trilhos Dos Abrutes. According to an official statement available on the event website ahead of race, 411 athletes had registered to participate; 186 women and 233 men, representing 53 delegations.

Miranda do Corvo is a historic town in Portugal. The maximum altitude is 1000m. Coimbra is the fourth largest urban center in Portugal (after Lisbon, Porto and Braga). The athletes taking part in the Trail World Championships had to tackle a distance of 44km involving 2120m of ascent and 1970m of descent.

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