CURIOSITY AND THE TRIATHLON

Sree Sivadas (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2015, Sree Sivadas – then 48 years old – decided to attempt the triathlon. She had just learnt to swim; she didn’t know cycling.

The brain is everything.

Wikipedia describes the nervous system as that part of an animal coordinating its actions by transmitting signals to and from different parts of its body. Needless to say, this function is vital for sports. At the center of the nervous system and reigning as the most complex organ in any vertebrate’s body, is the brain. Thanks to advancements in science, the brain is understood much better now; yet it is also mystery awaiting science. The operation of individual brain cells has been comprehended in detail but the way they cooperate is still a subject of study.

The brain is well protected. There is the skull and then, the brain and the spinal cord are encased in three membranes called meninges. There is also the cushion and protection provided by cerebrospinal fluid. As with all inventions, language would have been impossible without the brain. Human language is very sophisticated. In Greek, `meninx’ means membrane. In medical parlance `itis’ denotes inflammation. That’s how meningitis, the medical condition caused by inflammation of the meninges, got its name. Sometime in the beginning of the 1980s, an eighth standard student came down with meningitis in Mumbai. Hers was a miraculous recovery. The medicines she had to take included steroids, a category notorious for its side effects. Sreedevi (Sree) Sivadas recovered from meningitis but at the cost of how she looked – she started to pile on weight. It wasn’t long before she realized she had to do something about it.

From a trek (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

Walking has never been a glamorous activity. Walking is so fundamentally human – it is what defines us; the idea of it as distinct activity takes some getting used to. Runners typically view themselves as superior to walkers just as climbers and mountaineers do, to hikers. Young people living the age of distinction aren’t known to celebrate ordinary things like walking. Sree’s father – he moved to Mumbai from Kerala in 1963 – worked at Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers (RCF). Not a very sporty person – Sree’s interest in sports never exceeded recreational level – and beset with need to reduce weight, the school girl joined morning walkers in Chembur, the Mumbai suburb where RCF has a residential colony. For those conscious about standing out from the rest, it was an unusual sight – school girl walking for exercise; most others engaged so alongside were senior citizens. Sree wasn’t bothered. She also enlisted for taekwondo, making it to green belt.

This phase was followed by a shift of residence to Vashi. Soon after her college education, Sree worked briefly at RCF. Then she wrote the staff selection exam conducted by the central government and was initially offered a job with the department of defence. Her posting was at Nhava Sheva, at that time an outpost away from Mumbai with port and defence installations for address. She elected to join India Post instead. She had a secure job. Marriage followed. In 1994, Sree got married. Her husband, Sivadas, ran his own business in engineering goods. A year later, their daughter was born.

In 1996, Sree joined the gym. She worked out in the early morning hours. The confines of a gym – that wasn’t something Sree liked. “ I got bored of the gym. So I shifted to aerobics,’’ she said. Then she got into kick boxing, eventually settling for a combination of activity with gym visits twice a week. But the activity she liked the most – and which probably explains the drift away from gym – was none of this. What Sree genuinely liked and did the most was a cousin of all the walking she did as a student seeking to lose weight – trekking. She liked the outdoors. It was a friend – Anitha Varghese, who worked at National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) – who got her into trekking. Sree is now a life member of Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI); she joined the outfit in 2005. She did a lot of treks – short and long ones – through YHAI.

October 2015; learning to cycle at Borivali National Park (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

In 2004, thanks to Anitha again, Sree became curious about Mumbai’s annual marathon. For two years – 2004 and 2005 – she participated in the seven kilometer-Dream Run. In 2006, without any prior training, she attempted the event’s half marathon segment. “ I didn’t know a thing about running,’’ she said of how she went in for the event. She is aware of how politically incorrect such an approach seems in world where running has become an industry driven by logic and protocols.  Equally, an aspect of world where human activity has become edifice wrapped in perfection and achievement, is that nobody wants to fail. The less you are prepared to fail, the less you try anything new. Sree doesn’t mind trying new things. “ I don’t dwell on failure,’’ she said.

In Mumbai, elevators speak a lot. The elevator at the city’s General Post Office (GPO) screamed heritage building and go-find-who-John Begg-is. As the old, elegantly cast metal cage ascended in shaft open to world, you saw and heard machinery at work; something you don’t, in the secluded ambiance of modern elevators. By 2018, it was 81 years since Begg, Scottish architect known for his Indo-Saracenic architectural style, died. Mumbai’s GPO is his design. Sree, personal secretary to the Post Master General, had her office in one of the building’s turrets. The small room was circular in lay out. With its sunlit windows, the room had a faint Disneyland feel to it; like being in a fairy tale castle albeit one with a heavy touch of government office to it. In appearance, Sree is hardly the sought you would associate with sport. The way it is being promoted, sport is increasingly competitive even at amateur level. As performance becomes main goal and room for error shrinks, the approach smacks of going to office. Conversation with Sree is comfortable; you don’t sense office. She completed that 2006 half marathon in three hours, forty minutes. That is a very slow time. The evening of the half marathon she went for her regular dance classes.

Roughly two years later, in 2007-2008, a 40 year-old Sree began addressing another shortcoming in her life. She didn’t know how to swim. She joined for classes in swimming, learning the skill from scratch. There is however one problem in self-navigated learning. You may be good at breaking the ice; you may not be as good at sustaining the learning. “ I joined for classes, learnt the basics and then I dropped out,’’ Sree said. During this time, she also kept running, pursuing it as best as she could; general awareness of her abilities for guide. Then in 2010, tragedy struck. Her husband died of cancer. The disease developed rapidly. There was little time to respond through treatment.

At the Wada duathlon (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

“ Have you met Sree Sivadas?’’ Naushad Asanar asked. He is a senior member of Soles of Cochin, the Kochi-based runners’ group. The conversation was about triathlon, which entails swimming, cycling and running. Naushad mentioned how Sree, having just got into swimming and not knowing how to cycle yet, had enrolled for a triathlon. It put her on a voyage of discovery. According to Sree, her journey to greater intensity in amateur sport had nothing to do with escaping grief. In the years following her husband’s demise, she soldiered on doing the things that interested her, keeping her life interesting. In 2014, as a continuation of her curiosity for running, she joined BNP Green Runners (BNP stands for Borivali National Park). This was the first group of runners she was joining and they introduced her to more systematic training methods. In 2015, Sree met Naushad, Vijayan Pillai and Mathew Mapram – all runners from Soles of Cochin – at Mumbai Ultra, where she was assisting as volunteer. Held every year, Mumbai Ultra is a non-competitive 12 hour-run (5AM to 5PM); it is run on a six kilometer-section of road earmarked for the purpose in the Shivaji Park-Worli Sea Face area. A good swimmer, Naushad had done a triathlon in Goa. During their conversation he suggested that Sree try the Goa triathlon. Sree resolved to give it a shot. At that time, she had rudimentary knowledge of swimming and was still learning to balance on a cycle. “ I just went for it as I was interested in doing all the three disciplines together. I just wanted to try it out,’’ Sree said when asked how she decided on attempting the Goa triathlon after that conversation at Mumbai Ultra.

In October 2015, Sree started to learn cycling. “ I began with a small bicycle meant for children. I learnt it slowly at the Borivali National Park,’’ she said. BNP – as the park is known in running circles – sees a lot of regular walkers and runners. Sree was dismissive of the specter of her learning to cycle on kid’s bike amid all that humanity. If you want to learn something new, you have to go through the process. “ It took me two to three months to get the hang of riding a bicycle. Then I shifted to using a bigger bicycle which I rented at BNP,’’ she said. Later that same year, she bought her first bicycle – a Schnell mountain bike. In the meantime, she also registered for the triathlon in Goa. As a stepping stone to Goa, she decided to do a duathlon – 10 kilometers of running and 40 kilometers of cycling – that was due in Wada, less than 100 kilometers away from Mumbai. “ Even now, I can’t hop on to a bicycle like those who learnt cycling in childhood do. I have to keep the bike stationary, get on to it and then start pedaling. If the surroundings become too congested or traffic gets too gnarly, I grow concerned,’’ she said outlining her competence on two wheels. Wada was tough for her. The cycling there was a combination of road and trail. Newly entered into cycling, she finished long after everyone else did. “ I think everyone was surprised to see me approaching the finish,’’ she said. Sree’s learning was exactly that – she finished! In her mind, Goa seemed doable.

Sree at a triathlon; shouting her bib number after every lap (Photo: courtesy Sree Sivadas)

The Goa event required swimming 1.5 kilometers in the sea, 40 kilometers of cycling and 10 kilometers of running. She started to train again in swimming, electing alongside to stick with the breaststroke as she was comfortable with that style. About the sea, her coach and friends assured her that her worry was “ psychological.’’ Although ` psychological’ is frequently thrown around in India as panacea for beginner’s fears it addresses much less than it proposes to. There is more to sea-swimming than overcoming fear of depth and distance. For example, as distance increases both the swimming style used and strokes deployed therein have to be hydrodynamic and efficient. Rather than fearless mind making you confident (which is the usual Indian argument), it is good technique that makes you confident and thereby, less afraid. In February 2016, at the event in Goa, a mere 100 meters out to sea, Sree panicked.

One attribute about the Goa triathlon, you hear often, is that it is well organized. That helped Sree. In the sea, overcome by fear, she made for a lifeboat nearby. She hung on to it for ten minutes. Then the organizers asked her if she wished to continue. She said yes. “ Thereafter I faced no problem. The sea also helped; it is more buoyant than the waters of a swimming pool,’’ she said. However the event wasn’t without mishap. Shortly after she commenced the cycling leg, she crashed and broke a tooth. “ I still remember. There was a photographer watching all this. He picked up the broken tooth and gave it to me,’’ Sree said. Although she completed the cycling, her knee was swollen. The running was therefore difficult. But as at Wada – she completed the event. She finished in approximately five hours, forty five minutes. “ It was a feeling of mission accomplished,’’ she said. Less than five months after Goa, Sree completed the triathlon in Chennai organized by Chennai Trekking Club (CTC). “ Thankfully that went off without any accident. I didn’t fall from my cycle,’’ she said laughing. The swimming for the CTC event was in a big abandoned quarry. According to her, the cut off for the Chennai event was seven hours. Sree said she finished in roughly five hours, thirty minutes. In November 2016, Sree completed a triathlon in Pune, designed to Olympic distances. Here the swimming was in a lake and the cycling was in the hills. “ This one was really tough for me,’’ she said. Sree completed the event. She took way beyond six hours for it. “ I just managed to finish, that’s all. I was not prepared for the cycling route,’’ she said.

At the Goa triathlon (Photo: Sree Sivadas)

Three triathlons old, the unassuming India Post staffer, begins her day around 4 AM. Depending on the day’s choice of workout, she trains for about two hours and gets back home by 6.30. On weekends she trains for three hours. To help her use time efficiently, she has bought a home trainer that allows her to cycle at home. She is also moving away from breaststroke as preferred swimming style at triathlons. Breaststroke leaves the legs feeling tired and at a triathlon, all the three disciplines involved, require use of legs. If a swimming style – like freestyle – can be more efficient, it makes sense to learn it. She has also realized how flawed her bicycle purchases have been. From the Schnell MTB she progressed to a Fuji hybrid. But a bike fit she got done at a 2017 cycling expo in Mumbai, showed her that both cycles were not of recommended frame size. Some of the difficulties she continues to face in cycling probably stems from this. Meanwhile, the legacy of those steroids from childhood linger. At one point in her childhood, the injections had been a dozen a day. Then it was brought down to eight, finally six. “ I have always been on the heavy side,’’ Sree said.

For future project, she hopes to do a Half Ironman someday, provided she can balance the training with her work schedule. Triathletes are often the most meticulous and disciplined of athletes. Viewing life differently, Sree hasn’t allowed the sport she has got into or the projects she has signed up for, to reduce her life to a matrix of goal-setting and achieving. “ I don’t fret if I can’t keep up a training schedule. I do the triathlon for fun. I hope one day I can attempt a Half Ironman overseas,’’ she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Timings at races are as mentioned by interviewee.)

SUMIT PATIL: SEGUE FROM RAAM TO MANALI-LEH

Sumit Patil (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In mid-June 2018, when the year’s Race Across America (RAAM) kicks off in Oceanside, California, Sumit Patil won’t be there. The Mumbai cyclist qualified for the event and registered for it but cannot go for want of funds. Sumit won’t be sitting idle. He has other plans up his sleeve.

In Mumbai, Colaba is well known. It is the southern tip of the city; home to Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal hotel, the flea markets of the tourism district and the local military cantonment. With its popular pubs, longstanding eateries, the iconic Regal Cinema, the fish market at Sassoon Docks and proximity to other South Mumbai nodes like Churchgate, Nariman Point, Kala Ghoda and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), Colaba is a place many in Mumbai visit once in a while. Beyond Colaba is the Arabian Sea, albeit a busy portion of it, for it is through the nearby shipping channel that ships headed for the region’s two major ports and naval base navigate their passage. That channel is a bit out to sea. Closer to shore are the sail boats, yachts and ferry boats.

Not many people know Kulaba.

Kulaba is the old name for Maharashtra’s Raigad district. As the crow flies, it is approximately 45 kilometers, south-south east of Mumbai. While Mumbai is a composite of islands, Raigad is on the mainland. The administrative headquarters of Raigad is Alibag. If Matheran and Mahabaleshwar are the hills Mumbai frequented to escape itself, then Alibag is where it went for sea and farm life. The city’s rich and famous are known to own property there. According to Wikipedia, the name – Alibag – is rooted in farming and plantations. The place was historic hinterland of Bene Israeli Jews. One of them, Ali, was a wealthy person owning plantations of coconut and mango. The region where he stayed came to be known as Alichi Bagh (garden of Ali in the Marathi language); over time that became Alibag. The first major industrial unit in these parts was the factory producing urea and chemicals, set up by Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers Ltd (RCF), a company owned by the central government and having significant presence in Mumbai and Raigad. Born 1985, Sumit Patil studied at the school in RCF’s Alibag campus. His father worked at RCF while his mother was employed with India Post. He has a younger sister; she is now a doctor. “ Alibag was close to Mumbai. Yet it was so unlike Mumbai,’’ Sumit said. We were at a café opposite Mumbai’s famous Siddhivinayak temple, in the suburb of Prabhadevi. Although Saturday, the arterial road outside, linking South Mumbai to places like Bandra, Andheri and Borivali roared with traffic. Alibag was a vision in mind dreaming slow life.

Anatomy of an interest; in the foreground, Sumit’s Trek Madone (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

Life at RCF’s school in Alibag was interesting. “ We had two large football grounds and an Olympic size swimming pool,’’ Sumit said. He made use of it. He also took to swimming in the sea. These are possibilities hard to find in wealthier Mumbai with its congested environs. “ When I moved to Mumbai, I realized that most people here hadn’t enjoyed such facilities in their childhood,’’ Sumit said. Besides the facilities at school, Raigad provided options for hiking and star gazing. Having picked up cycling around the third or fourth standard, he recalled a memorable field trip facilitated by mobility on two wheels. A class on what taluka (an administrative division in South Asia) is came alive after the students cycled around their taluka for improved comprehension. Very simply put, in Alibag, free of overwhelming urban currents Sumit could indulge his childhood curiosities. The shift to Mumbai was gradual. Determined to join the armed forces and required to clear the relevant exams, he used to come to the city on weekends for coaching classes. Although in his eyes, the interest in the armed forces was a major influence shaping his life, in retrospect, that would seem to compete with another trend setting in strongly. From a very early age, volunteering appears to have captured his imagination. Among the first major instances of this was a multi-day cycle trip organized by Dnyan Prabodhani, a Pune based-school that saw Sumit and other students visit places ranging from Vigyan Ashram founded by Dr Shrinath Kalbag to the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope to Ralegan Siddhi and its social activist, Anna Hazare, and a night climb up Shivneri fort, the birth place of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, founder of the Maratha empire.  In all the students cycled some 600-700 kilometers taking a little over a week to do it. “ Today you would call it bicycle touring,’’ Sumit said. Uniquely, it wasn’t the cycling that left an impression. The take away for Sumit was the volunteering he saw at many of the places he visited. That and subsequent similar experiences, has left him deeply suspicious of and uncomfortable with commercial instincts in human activity, including sports.

Cycling up the Nilgiri hills (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

Following school education, Sumit joined Ruia College in Mumbai to do his graduation in Physics, following that up with MSc in the subject. Away from studies, two lines of interest characterized college days. To bolster his chances at joining the army, he stayed active in the National Cadet Corps (NCC). Within NCC, participation in the annual Republic Day camp is prized. Selected to go and adjudged best cadet from Mumbai Group Headquarters, the camp however eluded him as he came down with jaundice. But his desire to join the military was the strong. Over the years that followed, Sumit would attempt selection to the armed forces 13 times and be rejected at some stage or the other.  He exhausted his last chance via these selection tests in 2012. He hasn’t given up hope yet; the final port of call is the Territorial Army, a second line of defence after the regular army, composed of volunteers. The other thing which happened during Ruia days was immersion in Mumbai’s hiking scene. According to Sumit, the attraction for hiking was as much outdoors as it was an opportunity to mimic the military, popularly associated with all things tough. “ You saw them as heroes and when you hiked, you walked a bit like them with rucksack on your back,’’ Sumit said laughing. Mumbai has many outdoor clubs with the local hiking season peaking during the rains. He didn’t join any of the clubs. He trekked with whoever came along. The hills and mountains would become a major influence in his life. In April 2001, he did his Basic Mountaineering Course from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi.

In Mumbai, with Btwin FC 7 (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

Sumit is a little unclear on what exactly pushed him into endurance sports. In 2005 he suffered a road accident in Alibag. He was on a two wheeler and was hit by large truck. The truck drove away from the scene; he was left unconscious on the road. Passersby ensured he was taken to the hospital. Among injuries, he had a fractured wrist and a broken mandible. Coupled with the consistent failure to get into the army, this was a trying phase. He admits he may have looked for release, an outlet to vent his frustration. From some years earlier, the Indian bicycle market had begun to slowly change. Firefox entered the market with bicycles that attracted for their design; they were also sold at swanky showrooms, another first in the trade traditionally associated with heavy, steel bikes and a retail format that paid little attention to customer. Firefox was also local distributor for Trek bicycles. The Firefox-Trek combination (Firefox has since been purchased by Hero Cycles and Trek now retails in the Indian market on its own) was the first whiff of change. By 2006, a large shopping mall that opened in Mumbai’s western suburbs had begun selling imported Raleigh bicycles. Sumit bought a Raleigh M-Trax, a MTB. Meanwhile in 2004, the Mumbai Marathon commenced. With all that exposure to sports in school, the intermittent cycling and his fondness for hiking, Sumit was a decent runner. He participated in the Mumbai Marathon’s half marathon segment in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010; his best timing across these years was one hour, forty two minutes. With this came another realization. Thanks to the RCF pool, he knew swimming from a young age. Alibag’s proximity to the sea had also ensured that he swam in the sea and held no fear for it. Now he was into cycling and running. Had the time come to attempt the triathlon? – That was the thought.

Serendipity is a 2001 romantic comedy directed by Peter Chelsom; it stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in the lead roles. Sumit liked this movie. In 2010, there was a triathlon announced in Goa. Event in mind, Sumit bought his first road bike. It was a Trek 1200 SL. He named it Sara after Kate Beckinsale’s character in Serendipity. As it happened, the triathlon didn’t take place that year. Given bike anyway bought, Sumit rode to Goa from Mumbai. On the third day of cycling, he heard a passing three-wheeler driver shout something about the road ahead. Sumit couldn’t understand what he said. Ahead was a series of badly built speed breakers. That was the end of Goa trip for Sara and rider. Sumit returned to Mumbai in a state transport bus, nursing his injuries. Sara lay lashed to carrier on the vehicle’s roof.

Riding in Kerala (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

In cycling, audax means audacious. According to Wikipedia, the first recorded audax cycling event took place on June 12, 1897; twelve Italian cyclists attempted to cover the 230 kilometers from Rome to Naples during daylight hours. As similar events gained popularity, a French journalist, Henri Desgrange, formulated rules and regulations for audax events. Riders rode as a group and successful rider were awarded a certificate called Brevet d’Audax. The onus of organizing events was assumed by Audax Club Parisiene (ACP). But following a disagreement, Desgrange withdrew ACP’s right to organize events using his regulations. The ACP created its own version of the sport with successful riders being awarded certificates called Brevets des Randonneurs. This format came to be popularly known as randonneuring. It has its own eccentricities. A brevet – which is how these rides are called – is not a race. No order of finishers is published; everyone is equal. Riders may ride alone or in groups. They are required to be self-sufficient between check points. To that extent, randonneuring is sometimes considered a cousin of touring. Brevets come in various distances and cut-off times. They are: 200 kilometer-brevet to be completed in 13.5 hours; 300 km / 20 hours, 400 km / 27 hours, 600 km / 40 hours, 1000 km / 75 hours, 1200 km / 90 hours (or 80 hours or 84 hours as the rider chooses) and 1400 km / 116:40 hours (or 105:16 hours or 93:20 hours). A rider who completes a 200 kilometer-brevet is called a randonneur. Brevets are many in the world but some are iconic. One of the most famous is Paris-Brest-Paris; started in 1891 and currently the oldest regularly held bicycling event in the world. It is held once in four years and to participate, a cyclist must complete a series of brevets in one year.

From a ride in Coorg (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

The first thing Sumit did when he got back to cycling after the accident was, buy a helmet. He hadn’t been wearing one on the ride to Goa. To buy a helmet, he visited the shop run by Prabodh Keny. During their conversation Prabodh mentioned about an upcoming BRM (Brevets des Randonneurs Mondiaux), the first 300 kilometer-BRM being held in India, from Mumbai to Vadhivare near Nashik and back. The distance had to be covered in 20 hours. “ At that time, I was doing 100 kilometers in four to five hours. So I calculated in my head and decided 300 kilometers in 20 hours should be very doable. That was the first mistake; my first lesson in endurance – there is no mathematics in this madness,’’ Sumit said. On the day of BRM, Sumit rode Sara, breezing past the first 100 kilometers in good style. That was when reality hit home – he had no clue about how he would fare for any kilometer following that first 100 kilometers as he hadn’t ventured past such distances at a stretch, before.  It was a cardinal error – thinking that all the stages of a ride unfold similarly. Ideally, you should visualize the whole distance and plan your hydration, nutrition and pacing for each stage. Such ability is a product of experience and maturity; it comes from having lived life and having been out there cycling, for long. “ As Indians we specialize in racing straight off the blocks in a mad rush to be first. That is what we are taught at our schools. In the race between the hare and the tortoise we reserve our admiration for the hare. Endurance is all about being tortoise,’’ Sumit said. By the time, Sumit reached Kasara Ghat the BRM had become a killer for him. He tagged along with Raunak, a friend. Eventually he completed the BRM in 19 hours, 45 minutes. From finish line in Mumbai, he had to go to the RCF colony in Chembur in the eastern suburbs, where he lived. Utterly drained from the ride, he alternatively walked and cycled, treated himself to dinner at Chembur’s roadside food stalls and slept the exhaustion off. “ After this first BRM, I started attempting BRMs like anything. It was now familiar territory. The more I became aware of what I did, the more analytical I became. I then consulted the Internet for advice. It is awash with people’s experience and suggestions. You have to pick what is relevant for you and adapt it to your reality,’’ Sumit said.

BRM was brought to India by Satish Patki, among Mumbai’s most respected cyclists. Now in his late sixties, interviews done with him and available on the Internet say he splits his time between the US and India. Satish is more than cyclist. According to published articles, he has a background in mountaineering and has indulged in a variety of adventure and endurance sports. The first BRM Sumit went for was the second BRM Satish organized. Sumit remembers being overtaken very early in the BRM by this much older cyclist, who he saw next only at the finish line. Satish was what endurance cycling was all about. He had tonnes of experience, he had the required maturity to assess a route and plan his strategy. “ Satish was older than many of us youngsters recently entered into distance cycling. Yet he was so much stronger and better than us that pretty soon, we knew, he was the guy to beat. Satish used to finish two to three hours ahead of the rest. For us the only goal was to beat this veteran. How was he managing to finish so? ’’ Sumit said. Listen carefully to Sumit’s talk and you understand this wasn’t competition with another person. Newcomers, in their attempt to improve, seek external benchmarks. For Sumit, his first such quest was to be as good as his friend Kaushik Iyer, who had more experience in cycling and had done a Tour of Nilgiris before the two started attempting BRMs together. Beyond Kaushik, the person to catch up with was Satish. Sumit considers Satish his mentor. Their camaraderie has seen its share of ups and downs.

Sumit cycling in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

2010 was a busy year. Sumit kept attending BRMs regularly. He also planned a cycle trip from Alibag to Leh. That plan had to be abandoned following cloud burst in Leh. But around this time, he read an article about Samim Rizvi in the media. Samim, who hails from Mumbai but lives in Bengaluru, was the first Indian to attempt Race Across America (RAAM). It is a 4800 kilometer-long ride across the US, from west to east, with the winners typically finishing it in eight to nine days. As he gathered more information on RAAM, the race captured Sumit’s fancy. Same year, a 600 kilometer-BRM with 40 hour-cut off – from Pune to Kolhapur to Lonavala and then back to Pune – occurred. Sumit and Kaushik finished this BRM by cut-off. “ Those days BRMs had an accommodative ambiance. It wasn’t about competition. Riders helped each other. They looked out for each other. They left none behind,’’ Sumit said. Nevertheless one thing he had to do to feel good about his abilities was beat the maverick; which he did at a 2011 600 kilometer-BRM from Mumbai to Ratnagiri and back. Sumit passed Satish at Mahad and reached Ratnagiri two to three hours ahead. On the return leg from Ratnagiri to Mumbai, which was after some rest, they rode out together. Sumit was now at peace. He knew what he can do. Satish told Sumit to go ahead, for the BRM was opportunity to ensure a slot at the upcoming edition of Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), subject to qualifying in 2011. Sumit eventually finished the BRM three hours before cut-off, earning his slot at PBP. He subsequently qualified for PBP as well. Then the young man in him set about complicating the opportunity.

At the Pune-Kolhapur-Lonavala-Pune BRM, one of the participants was Samim Rizvi. That BRM had been opportunity for Sumit to talk to Samim and get acquainted with RAAM. However he didn’t mention his own interest. He researched RAAM more and found an imminent avenue to qualify. PBP offered three options for participants – you could sign up to complete it in 80 hours, 84 hours and 90 hours. Sumit found that there was a provision at PBP, whereby if you finished it in 64 hours, you qualified for RAAM. An old bug – the sort that had bitten him just ahead of his first BRM – got to Sumit. While most others from Mumbai signed up for 90 hours, Sumit signed up for 80 hours. Others tried to talk him out of it to no avail. Then to compound matters, his visa for France got delayed. He reached France with less than 24 hours for PBP to start. By the time he got to the venue the riders aiming for 80 hours had already cycled off. He was allowed to ride with the 84 hour-group but it was hopeless. His ride was terminated at Brest. Sleep deprived from having reached the venue straight from airport and tired by the cycling that followed, he was hallucinating, mistaking Brest’s architecture for Mumbai’s CSMT. That year, there were two Indian finishers at PBP – Samim and Kailas Patil.

At the start line of 2014 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

After the 2011 PBP, Sumit continued to go for BRMs. But his interest was slowly waning. The first BRM he went for after PBP was a 200 kilometer-trip. In due course, Satish stepped down as organizer and a new set of organizers took over. While he didn’t articulate it as such, it was clear from Sumit’s talk that among reasons for his fading interest in local BRMs, was the event’s own maturity, a process that progressed in tune with cycling’s growing popularity in the country. In any sport, such progression is characterized by love for camaraderie and purity of sport in the beginning. Then as the movement gathers momentum, the original values rust a bit. “ I kept going for BRMs despite my receding interest because the mileage all of us put in matters for country at PBP,’’ Sumit said. As per rules, the more the cumulative mileage earned by cyclists completing BRMs in a given country, the more the slots allotted to that country at PBP. At a 600 kilometer-BRM – his third time at Pune-Kolhapur-Lonavala-Pune – Sumit’s disenchantment eventually caught up with him. Some 180 kilometers ahead of finish, he got off the bike, handed over his energy bars to his friend and sat by the road. He was done. An antidote for the obsession with competition in India is to stretch endurance so much that completion itself becomes a daunting task. As his fancy for BRM receded, RAAM grabbed attention in Sumit’s mind. It was an ultra-endurance event. He qualified for RAAM at the 2013 Ultra Bob, a RAAM qualifier in India conducted by Globeracers.

2013 was also the year another portal to opportunity presented itself. That year, Sumit started working as volunteer with Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI). His job was to shepherd YHAI’s clients attempting to cycle from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Khardung La, the high mountain pass near Leh. This is high altitude landscape. Cast into volunteer mode, a style of work he has had considerable respect for since childhood, Sumit liked the assignment. YHAI charged a fee that was much lower than many private operators. The approach appealed to Sumit, who has an ideological disagreement with steep sums of money charged for adventure activity that results in those who are talented but not wealthy, being unable to try it. The work gave him considerable satisfaction. Sumit wishes for those entrusted to his care to have done their homework and prepared in advance for the trip. Thereafter, if someone struggles, he helps by giving them company. Sumit has been YHAI’s point man for the Manali-Leh trip for many seasons. In turn, it has meant prolonged cycling at altitude. He stays in Leh for a few months every year and ends up doing the Manali-Leh cycle trip two to three times. An endurance monster like RAAM wasn’t therefore a shot in the dark. Once back in Mumbai, Sumit shifted to Pune to train for RAAM. It was based on a simple logic – exit to highways and good roads with less traffic takes longer in Mumbai as it is a huge city. It takes less time in Pune. But even as he trained, there were other problems cropping up. Big expensive projects like RAAM have multiple components. There is the challenge of raising funds; there is the question of finding the right people for support crew. With endurance cycling and RAAM little known in India, raising resources proved a drag. Eventually the minimum required funds were pieced together thanks to two rounds of crowd funding and assistance offered by the Rotary Club of Mumbai, Worli.

Sumit with support crew at 2014 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

By then however, there were issues with the support crew. The original team Sumit had imagined – it featured some of the most experienced cyclists, managers and technicians around – didn’t seem keen to go along. A new team was assembled. But neither with this new team nor the earlier one, had he managed to put in long hours of training together. Mutual familiarity born from such training is critical for endurance races like RAAM. “ I tell people, it isn’t rider; it is rider plus support crew that win a race. Ideally the team should think for you. Sometimes if support crew is damn good, all a rider does is listen to what the crew says,’’ Sumit said. But most important of all, a rider won’t ride well if he has too many worries in the head. And that is what Sumit was beginning to face ahead of 2014 RAAM; the funds were in place only close to departure for the US and the support crew was relatively untested although he was happy that somebody came along.

From 2014 RAAM; Sumit’s support vehicles and his three bicycles (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

In California, the 2014 RAAM got off to a shaky start for Sumit. Lack of adequate work with support crew before the event meant that details like hydration and nutrition wasn’t as aligned to his needs as it should be. By day three, race officials informed that he seemed unlikely to meet the cut-off at Durango. Currently, besides Sara, Sumit owns four other cycles – Mukta (Pinarello Dogma 60.1), Toothless (Btwin Alur 700), Veronica (Giant Trinity) and a yet to be named Trek Madone. Given he had a stint as technical partner with Btwin in India, he also owned a Btwin FC 7 in between. Of these, Mukta and Veronica were bought specifically for RAAM. However bought with funds gathered for the purpose, they had been acquired late and were still new to Sumit. On the road in the US, this too was a problem. For the first time Sumit developed blood blisters from long hours spent on the saddle. Shortly after his fate was spelt out by race officials, Sumit shifted to the Btwin FC 7, which he was familiar with. His pace picked up. One reason for this was tyre pressure. An experienced combination of rider and crew would calibrate tyre pressure to the sort of surface the bicycle is tackling. Mukta was mistakenly calibrated to smooth race track. Result – on the road, the high pressure kept air time (the time the wheels are in the air) high causing less traction. The Btwin didn’t have tyres that could hold air at such high pressure. So, even as the team continued to err on the tyre pressure front, the Btwin gripped tarmac and Sumit cruised comfortably. Noticing his improved pace, race officials relaxed the Durango cut-off and let him continue. However at South Fork, past the highest pass on the RAAM route and with approximately 1600 kilometers covered, Sumit pulled out. It was curtains for the 2014 attempt. On the bright side, according to Sumit, he learnt later that his RAAM attempt which had been back-ended into raising funds for charity had raised close to ten million rupees for a project distributing prosthetic limbs.

Cycling in Ladakh (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

Big cycling projects are like mountaineering expeditions. The echoes of actions taken continue long after expedition. With performance at stake, things are said in the heat of the moment. Misunderstandings occur. Sumit burnt some friendships. He regrets it; there is pain sensing the void that has crept in where good relations once existed. Then there are the obligations emanating from resources raised. His RAAM attempt may have ended but his responsibility to those who supported, continue even after event. It was a three year contract. Sponsors expect you to meet these obligations. In the process, an attempt to set a record, cycling India’s Golden Quadrilateral (the highway linking Mumbai-Delhi-Kolkata-Chennai-Mumbai) had to be sacrificed so that the demands of sponsors, who backed his RAAM trip, could be met. In world smothered by the triad of money, media and marketing what they ask you to do may not be agreeable if you are someone wishing sport to stay pure. Sumit had to swallow his reservations and go along. June 2018, when I met him, Sumit had become free of all these obligations. The shadow of 2014 RAAM was gone. But his attempts to go for RAAM post 2014, had all failed. In the meantime, the first Indians to finish RAAM had also happened – in 2017, Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath became the first Indian to complete RAAM; he was followed by Dr Amit Samarth. Sumit’s latest RAAM qualifier had been the 2018 edition of Shivalik Signature, which he completed successfully in April. He was also registered for 2018 RAAM as Team Agni. However lack of resources decided otherwise. As Indian teams registered for RAAM made their way to the US or were already there, Sumit was cautiously sipping coffee with me in Prabhadevi. A coffee lover, he has been told to restrict his caffeine intake. Reason – he suffers from Ankylosing Spondylitis. It was diagnosed after PBP; symptoms had set in earlier. Ignored, this type of arthritis can be debilitating. One of the best ways to keep the condition in check is to remain active. That is a solid reason to keep cycling. Coming up therefore was something else; a segue from RAAM.

In Ladakh, man on bicycle, another on motorbike (Photo: courtesy Sumit Patil)

Days after we met and a few days before the start of 2018 RAAM in the US, Sumit was scheduled to leave for Leh. Sometime in July, he will take up a project that seeks to improve a record he achieved in 2015. That year in September he had cycled from Manali to Khardung La, a distance of roughly 517 kilometers, in 71 hours, 28 minutes. The route features several passes – Rohtang (13,051 feet), Bara-lacha La (16,043 feet), Nakee La (15,547 feet), Lachulung La (17,598 feet) and Tanglang La (17,480 feet) before reaching Khardung La (17,582 feet). It gained him entry into the Limca Book of Records; the certificate awarded describes it as “ fastest solo bicycling across Himalayan passes.’’ According to Sumit, the choice of September for riding affected the time he took to finish. When you are riding with little rest, seeking record, you cannot decide when you will be on a high mountain pass. Sumit reached some of these passes in very cold circumstances. September is the beginning of winter. The real problem is in the descent. Wind chill adds to the cold and conditions can be quite unbearable for rider on bicycle. Consequently, he had to halt at times on descents, go down by car to wait out the cold, come back up to where he stopped and resume. This year, he plans to improve his record. He has chosen July for the attempt and believes that the halts of before may not be required in July’s temperatures. Daylight will also last longer, at this time of the year. The section selected is Manali-Leh and his goal is to cover the distance involved – approximately 490 kilometers – in under-40 hours. “ We hope to enter the timing in the Guinness Book of Records,’’ Sumit said. Both the Manali-Leh project and a similar attempt planned on the Golden Quadrilateral later this year, are steps towards showcasing endurance cycling in paradigm familiar to the public and thereby make cyclist deserving of support. The RAAM project lives.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Sumit Patil. Except for the road distance mentioned in the Limca Record and those associated with BRMs, all elevations and distances quoted have been taken from the Internet. Save the first photo, all other photos used herein have been downloaded from the Facebook page of Sumit Patil and used with his permission.)             

SHUBHAM AND THE OCEANS SEVEN

Shubham Vanmali (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

A young man, who battled Learning Disability as a child and discovered purpose in swimming, is trying to complete one of the toughest challenges in open water swimming. This is his story; based on a conversation with his father. 

On May 29, 2018 the Navi Mumbai suburb of Nerul woke up to news of one from their midst completing a long distance swim in the US.

Twenty two year-old Shubham Vanmali had become the youngest person to complete the San Francisco Round Trip-Angel Island swim entailing a distance of 16.1 kilometers in the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

According to a statement from the North California Open Water Swimming Association (NCOWSA), the swim is reputed to be the most technically challenging in the Bay waters and has been attempted by more than 25 people over the past 40 years with only 12 completions. Besides being the youngest person yet to do it, Shubham is also the first Indian and the first to complete the swim under the newly formed NCOWSA. The swim starts and ends on the shared beach of San Francisco’s open water swim clubs, the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club. The course requires the swimmer to leave through the opening of Aquatic Park, swim past Alcatraz Island, swim around Angel Island through a body known as Raccoon Strait before returning past Alcatraz and back through the narrow opening of Aquatic Park. All this, while crossing three international shipping lanes twice, 12 ferry routes and swimming cross-current for the major part in 10-14.5C waters, the statement said.

May 29 evening, this blog caught up with Shubham’s father, Dhananjay Vanmali for a chat.

Shubham doing the San Francisco Round Trip-Angel Island swim (Photo: Pacific Open Water Swim Co)

He was due to leave for the US, the next day. Coming up was another swim, part of the main project Shubham has been working on. Over June 3-9, he will attempt swimming the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. According to Wikipedia the Molokai Channel aka Kaiwi Channel separates the islands of O’ahu and Molokai. The crossing of this channel is part of the Oceans Seven Challenge, which is the project Shubham has been working on for the past few years. The other crossings required for the Challenge are the North Channel (formerly called Irish Channel) linking the Irish Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, the Cook Strait between the North and South Island of New Zealand, the English Channel between Britain and France, the Catalina Channel in California, Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaido in northern Japan and the Strait of Gibraltar connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The only Indian to have done the Oceans Seven yet is Pune’s Rohan Dattatrey More who is also so far the youngest and the first Asian on the finishers’ list. The first person to complete the Challenge was Stephen Redmond of Ireland. A former rugby player and triathlete, he completed the Challenge over 2009-2012, at times requiring multiple attempts at some of the channel crossings. The Oceans Seven Challenge is positioned as swimming’s equivalent to the Seven Summits of mountaineering, which entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The Challenge was conceived in 2008 by former professional marathon swimmer Steven Munatones who was world champion in the discipline in 1982 and coached the US national team for several years. Articles on the Challenge published in the media say that participants need to be hardcore endurance athletes with ability to swim in very cold and warm seas and be physically and mentally prepared to tackle adversity ranging from sea creatures to currents and strong winds.

Shubham; from the Dharamtar to Gateway of India swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Shubham comes from a family of sportspersons. His father is a former state player in volleyball, his mother used to play kabaddi and his sister used to be a competitive swimmer. According to Dhananjay, Shubham’s career in swimming commenced after an initial foray into football. Around 2001, Nerul Gymkhana started Mission 2010 seeking to train talented youngsters in football, swimming, hockey, cycling, tennis and athletics. Shubham was selected for football under Mission 2010. Born 1995, he was quite small and very likely would have not been well developed and competitive in the sport by 2010. “ So he was shifted to swimming,’’ Dhananjay said, adding that by around 2009, Mission 2010 ended for want of funds. Following this, Shubham moved to practising at the pool in the complex housing Nerul’s D.Y. Patil Stadium. However, from the point of view of becoming a competitive swimmer, he seemed to have a problem. Although he trained well, at the time of competition, all that hard work couldn’t be made to focus and deliver performance. By around eighth standard, Shubham was formally diagnosed with Learning Disability. It took a while to locate the correct doctors but eventually intervention by good psychologists and sports psychologists helped.

Shubham crossing the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Around tenth standard, Shubham’s approach started to change. “ In the tenth standard he was selected for the state championship. By the twelfth, he had secured podium finish in the state championship in 1500 meters freestyle,’’ Dhananjay said. During his time in eleventh and twelfth standard, Shubham trained at the pool belonging to Father Agnel Sports Academy. Gokul Kamath became his coach in swimming. By the time Shubham reached college, he secured bronze in 100 meters, silver in 200 meters and gold in 400 meters and 1500 meters at the inter-college meet, Dhananjay said. Besides clear evidence of his emergent ability to focus his energies, it also indicated that his strength lay in the longer distances demanding endurance. In Shubham’s first year at college, there was a competition in Thane he participated in. Dhananjay recalled that a couple of senior Channel swimmers had come to attend it as guests; they were watching from the gallery. A month and a half after this event, Shubham approached his father and said that he wished to attempt crossing the English Channel. After discussing it with his coaches, the family decided to take up the project. Shubham started training for it. Besides his regular swimming, every Saturday and Sunday he used to go to Uran and be taken out to sea in a boat to do open water swimming for three to four hours.  “ We also did swimming at night,’’ Dhananjay said. For stepping stone to English Channel, Shubham first swam from Dharamtar to Gateway of India in Mumbai, a distance of roughly 35 kilometers. Then, on August 4, 2014, he swam across the English Channel becoming the youngest to do so at that point in time.

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Given he was going all the way to Europe and UK for doing this it made sense to attempt the Strait of Gibraltar soon thereafter. Approaching bad weather restricted his window for the Gibraltar swim. It was complicated further by the fact that the swim had to done the same day he was reaching the start point from UK. However Shubham went ahead. For a prospective record, the family first thought of trying a to and fro swim. Shubham gave it some thought and told Dhananjay that there was another option – he could try and reach the other side faster than any Asian had done so far. That’s what happened on August 14, 2014 – he became the fastest Asian to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, doing so in three hours, sixteen minutes. Dhananjay believes that it was from this trip to Europe and interaction with swimmers and other people he met that Shubham picked up the idea of Oceans Seven. With two of the required crossings done, it seemed worth pursuing.

Shubham (in the water, next to the kayak); from the Catalina Channel swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In 2015, Shubham successfully accomplished the swim in the Catalina Channel. “ He began the swim one night and finished early next morning. It took him 10 hours and 42 minutes,’’ Dhananjay said. Shubham followed up Catalina with the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim on the US east coast, thus completing a smaller challenge in marathon swimming called Triple Crown – it is composed of swimming the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Then a reversal of fortunes happened. In 2016, Shubham travelled alone to Ireland to attempt the North Channel aka Irish Channel. His family searched on the Internet and rented suitable accommodation for him to stay in Ireland and prepare for the swim. The Irish Channel is rated one of the toughest swims in Oceans Seven. On the day of the attempt, after 13 hours of swimming and a mere two kilometers from successful completion, Shubham developed hypothermia. He had to abort the swim at that stage.  It left him feeling low for quite some time. “ He didn’t swim much. He was into cross-fit. Then last year, he began returning to swimming,’’ Dhananjay said. On the Internet, the Molokai Channel is described as the longest swim in Oceans Seven. The sea is deep here, nearly 700 meters. Early June, should the young man from Nerul accomplish the swim in the Molokai Channel; that would be four down, three to go in his pursuit of the Oceans Seven Challenge. He plans to go back to Ireland to attempt the North Channel again.

Dhananjay (left) and Shubham after the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

Swimming at all these locations and the training required for it, requires financial resources. His family has funded Shubham so far. That was also among reasons, he felt bad after the North Channel attempt didn’t succeed; he apparently felt he had wasted his parents’ hard earned money. Dhananjay works with Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL); his wife works with Vijaya Bank. He tried getting sponsors. According to him, he would have repeated meetings with prospective sponsors but on the day of providing sponsorship they would offer an amount much smaller than what was originally promised. There were also other problems. Projects of this sort are PR intensive and securing such traction is not the forte of every athlete or his / her family. On the other hand, mileage in the media is what sponsors seek in return for their support. Further sponsors easily warm up to supporting games because that is a picture of team effort which is a popularly liked theme. It is also one that is in line with corporate imagination. Adventure sports and endurance sports are on the other hand, typically solitary pursuits. “ These things affect my motivation level,’’ Dhananjay said. He still looks for sponsors but in the meantime dug into his own resources to fund Shubham’s project. Among means of raising resources, he sold an apartment he owned. “ This is a unique feat and it is my son who is doing it,’’ he said at his house in Nerul, less than a day left for his flight to the US and opportunity for family to watch Shubham attempt the Molokai Channel.

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

AFTER EVEREST

Grant Maughan; from the Everest expedition (Photo: courtesy Grant)

Grant Maughan is an experienced ultramarathon runner and adventure racer. Hailing from Australia, he is a freelance super yacht captain who also keeps a busy schedule as endurance athlete. He has participated in many ultramarathons including some of the world’s toughest. In India, he is remembered for his 2016 joint win – with Jovica Spajic – in the 333 kilometer category of La Ultra The High. In May 2018, Grant climbed Mt Everest successfully. In this interview done by email, he shares his thoughts about Everest, altitude, ultramarathon and plans he has around the theme of endurance and adventure.

Everest ascents happen from the Nepal (south) side and the Tibet (north) side. Was there any reason why you chose to climb from the north side? Did you want to be on that face or was that natural fall out of the group you chose to go with and their choice of route?

I chose the north side because inherently there are less people doing that route. I also find the history of Mallory and Irvine disappearing there in 1924 very interesting.

Can you briefly describe the climb? What were your testing moments therein?

Everything about the climb is difficult: the time it takes to acclimate, establishing camps and equipment at different levels, technical impediments, oxygen deprivation and fatigue. Your body and mind get worn down after weeks and weeks of ascending and descending. It becomes a real chore just to be there and accomplish some for the daily tasks. As you get higher on the mountain some of the technical sections become more difficult and your energy and focus at overcoming the tasks become harder to manage.

One measure often used to describe the challenge involved in an ultramarathon is cumulative elevation gain. Many ultramarathons have cumulative elevation gain exceeding the altitude of Everest. That is further complemented by the act of running and moving, often with little rest, to meet cut off times. Obviously you had a fascination for Everest despite the challenges in ultramarathons and adventure races. Can you describe the specific attraction / motivation you had for climbing Everest? Had you been thinking of it for long?

After some years of mountain running it became a natural segue to start climbing bigger mountains. It was a real fascination for me to get up some of the mountains. I spent years reading climbing books but never thought I would be able to achieve such things because I have a natural fear of heights. Even though I had flown hang gliders, tried free-fall parachuting and bungee jumping when I was younger I just figured high altitude mountaineering was for elite athletes and people much braver than I. My first big climb was Mount Rainier in the US and after that trip where I learnt some new skills and equipment selection, I was keen to try other mountains. I climbed Aconcagua in Argentina; then headed to Denali in Alaska where unfortunately we couldn’t make the summit because of a nine day storm that trapped us at almost 15,000 feet before we retreated due to lack of food and our permit, close to expiring. I have climbed Mt Shasta in California a number of times solo; Stok Kangri in the Indian Himalaya solo plus Mera peak and Imja Sja in the Nepal Himalaya. I really wanted to try an 8000 meter peak like Cho Oyu or Manaslu before considering Everest but this year after talking with a team leader I decided to just go for Everest and see how it turned out. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get the chance due to expense and the time required but everything fell in place and I only decided three weeks in advance to go on the expedition. Sometimes it is better that way so you don’t have much time to think about it and talk yourself out of it.

From the Everest climb (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

How would you describe your relation with altitude? How well do you cope with it? Does the reservoir of endurance, distance runners have, make them better at tackling it or is altitude, the great unknown that even the best of runners must approach respectfully? What was your experience on Everest?

I definitely think that endurance athletes have a bit of an advantage when climbing big mountains. Endurance and fitness are part and parcel of some of the most important aspects of getting to the top. I seem to be able to acclimate fairly well and without too much trouble. I have developed breathing techniques for distance running that I cobbled together from the sport of free-diving and by just thinking about the mechanics of gas exchange that have worked for me really well. I did notice that at about 7000 meters the breathing techniques still helped but were not as efficient as at lower altitudes. Above that height everything just becomes harder. We started to breathe bottled oxygen above 7000 meters using different volumes of gas per minute compared to height and difficulty of climbing at the time. It definitely made things easier but never the same as lower down. It was always an extra worry about running out of gas or having a regulator or mask fail. So it actually added to the stress.

Distance runners and adventure racers are used to getting pushed to their limits. How extreme is this in the combination of strain and altitude that is mountaineering? In your Facebook post, you have described what you experienced on Everest as quite challenging. What made it so?

The limits are a little different. Sometimes you are struggling carrying a large, heavy backpack on steep terrain or trying to focus on getting over a technical section using hardware, both of which are not common in distance running or mountain ultras. The physical aspects can be very similar though: being on your feet for days on end, sleep deprivation, fatigue. I also found the danger aspect to be way higher than anything I have done before in the sport. A combination of the terrain, altitude, weather and support; there was always stress in the back of my mind of what could go wrong and how I would deal with it.

Aside from the busy calendar of ultramarathons and adventure racing you maintain, did you indulge in any training that was specific to your attempt of Everest?

No. I didn’t have time beforehand. I spent four months working on a ship in Antarctica with no training over Christmas; then went straight to Alaska to do the Iditarod 350 mile and then straight to Tennessee for the Barkley. One week later I was in Tibet at Everest Base Camp.   Some would say this is crazy but I seem to have the capacity to do things like this with no training and hardly any preparation of any sorts. Next month I have the 315 mile Vol State race across Tennessee and then straight to Death Valley for my sixth Badwater 135 race.

From the Everest climb (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Personally, what was it like for you to be on the summit of Everest? What did you feel right then or at the first instance you had to reflect on it?

I spent 14 minutes on the summit. It was blowing around 40 knots of wind and bitterly cold though the sky was a beautiful deep azure color. I was scared. It had taken 10 hard hours of climbing through the night to get there (we arrived at 8:50 AM on May 19th). I remember looking back down at the ridge line we had traversed in the dark and knowing how long it would take me to get back to any sort of safety at high camp number three and feeling the dread. I really just wanted to get started down to find out if I could make it back safely and get far enough down the mountain to get out of the death zone. My three cameras were all frozen as well as all my water. I didn’t know if my oxygen bottle would last and how hard it would be to descend the technical sections while being extremely tired. It was very stressful. Just after leaving the summit one of our team members got snow blindness and had to be helped all the way down. It was very difficult to manage to overtake this group on the narrow section we were on. So I lost a lot of time waiting and getting cold.

Do you have any other dreams similar to Everest and away from the world of ultramarathons and adventure races you are regularly associated with? By profession you are a seafarer. The sea is a magnificent medium; it too is wilderness. Do you have any projects on that front?

I plan to row solo across the Atlantic as well as climb some other 8000 meter mountains in the future. Lots of things to think about and plan…

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai For more on Grant Maughan please try the following links: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/04/05/barkley-2018/   https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/  https://shyamgopan.com/2016/10/13/living-the-interesting-life/)

INSV TARINI RETURNS TO GOA, CIRCUMNAVIGATION DONE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

INSV Tarini has returned to Goa completing its voyage of circumnavigation.

The sail boat, belonging to the Indian Navy, had a crew of women.

This is the first time a crew of women from India has completed circumnavigation in a sail boat.

According to a recent statement from the navy, the vessel reached back on May 21, 2018. It had embarked on its voyage from Goa, in September, 2017. The voyage spanned 254 days; the Tarini covered over 22,000 nautical miles.

On arrival back in Goa, the Tarini was received by Defence Minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman.

“ During the course of her voyage, the vessel met all criteria of circumnavigation,’’ the statement said. According to it, the required criteria include crossing the Equator twice, crossing all longitudes and touching all the three great capes – Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope. The expedition was executed in six legs with halts at five ports – Fremantle (Australia), Lyttleton (New Zealand), Port Stanley (Falklands), Cape Town (South Africa) and Port Louis (Mauritius).

The Tarini’s crew comprised Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi (who was skipper), Lt Cdr Swathi P, Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal, Lt S. Vijaya Devi, Lt B. Aishwarya and Lt Payal Gupta.

The Tarini is essentially a copy (with a few modifications) of the older INSV Mhadei, veteran of two circumnavigations. Like the Mhadei, she was built in Goa, at Aquarius Shipyard.

The latest circumnavigation too is part of the navy’s Sagar Parikrama program. Earlier in Sagar Parikrama, Capt Dilip Donde (Retd) had completed the first solo circumnavigation by an Indian in a sail boat while Cdr Abhilash Tomy did the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian.

For more on the Sagar Parikrama program and articles related to sailing, please click on Sagar Parikrama in the categories section of this blog.

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

LOVE RAJ CLIMBS EVEREST FOR THE SEVENTH TIME

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, who holds the Indian record for successfully climbing Everest the most number of times, has added yet another ascent of the peak to his tally.

At 6.50 AM on May 20, 2018, he reached the summit of Everest for the seventh time.

He was leading an expedition by the Border Security Force (BSF).

Love Raj is currently an Assistant Commandant with BSF.

The 2018 climbing season also saw Kami Rita Sherpa of Nepal set a new overall record for the most number of successful ascents of Everest.

In May 2018, he reached the summit of Everest for the 22nd time.

A mountaineer who has climbed several peaks in the Indian Himalaya besides multiple ascents of Everest, Love Raj was awarded the Padma Sri in 2014.

The 2018 expedition was Love Raj’s tenth visit to Everest.

He had successful ascents of the peak previously in 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2017.

Last year, he had reached the summit of Everest on May 27. The 2017 summit followed an aborted expedition in 2015, when Nepal was rocked by earthquake and an avalanche slammed into Everest Base Camp, claiming significant number of casualties.

This blog has previously written on Love Raj and the Johar region of Kumaon that he hails from. For more on Love Raj, please try this link:  https://shyamgopan.com/2014/07/10/everest-to-the-east/ For an account of the 2015 avalanche including Love Raj’s experience, please try this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/everest-when-the-earthquake-struck/

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

SLOW TRAIN TO PONMUDI

View from the top of Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tucked away in the deep south of Kerala is a delightful little run; from Thiruvananthapuram to Ponmudi. I am an amateur runner. This article is a personal account. Treat it as such. For more on Ponmudi and its neighborhood please try this link to a three part series published earlier on this blog: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/08/09/a-trek-and-a-tea-story-part-1/)

I have a strange relation with Kerala.

Decades ago, when I was in school, the state’s language – Malayalam – was taught with a vengeance. Born Malayali, I was expected to be a master of Malayalam, including Malayalam literature, pretty early in life. I dislike anything shoved down my throat. Consequently, I grew up hailing from the state but with no identity founded in mother tongue. Instead, I rediscovered Kerala on my own terms, loving it in adulthood for its natural beauty; the sheer magic of being a land where you can travel from 600 km-long coastline to an equally long spine of high hills in three to four hours or less. Few places have such diversity, so easily accessed. For bonus, it was all green although a green battling to hold its beauty amid the state’s emergent bane – the garbage of its rampant consumerism ranging from an explosion of automobiles to trash piled at every turn. As for Malayalam, I won’t say I rediscovered it with the same fervor as bonding with the state’s geography. I am told I speak and write it better than before. The improvement amazes others; the effort I make to articulate well amazes me. Maybe back at school, the curriculum should have set aside linguistic chauvinism and let me explore geography first, as reason to know land and language.

As part of rediscovering Kerala, most trips home include a visit to the seashore, hills, backwaters or forests. At the very least, an extended ride stitching together a clutch of state transport bus routes. On such trips along state highways or between towns, from my bus window I watch mansions and properties priced beyond my wallet, pass by. That has been another route to banishment from home state – I can’t afford a place there. Elsewhere in the state, I soak in the greenery knowing well that its ownership is domain of wealthy agriculturists and where it isn’t, belonging to government. I am therefore visitor; sometimes I think, visitor everywhere. Even visitor in life, for as we are prone to say in our wakeful moments: who is going to haul all these assets along, when they die? But humans are empire builders. Try preaching the virtues of living light to emperors! Life is as you choose to live it.

From the last uphill stretch to Ponmudi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

One trip I often make from Thiruvananthapuram is to Ponmudi, a 3600 ft-high hill approximately 60 km away from the city. Positioned as a resort, it was once home to a healthy tea industry; the southernmost tea plantations of India. Now there are portions of neglected tea estate and an industry that is a ghost of its former self for a variety of reasons. What continues to attract people like me to Ponmudi, is the prospect of getting away from city, even getting away from ourselves. You take a bus from the Thampanoor bus stand, reach Ponmudi in two to two and half hours, spend some time on top and then take another bus back. Years ago, it was a quiet place. It is still relatively quiet on weekdays but with Thiruvananthapuram’s growing army of cars and bands of youngsters on motorcycles, the peace has begun crumbling.

On April 14, 2018 – the day before Vishu, the Malayali New Year – I ran to Ponmudi from my home in the city. I am sure there are many who did this before me; many who continue to do it. I did so for a few reasons. First, all my previous trips to Ponmudi had been in a bus or a car. I had long wanted to do the journey on foot. Second, I know my limitations as a runner. I am not cut out to compete or chase podium positions. I like the act of moving. I like running as a means of moving. I am also ready to mix running with walking when required; even walk if that be all I can do. A journey – as opposed to a race – appealed. Third, I find it increasingly difficult to make sense of the world I live in. I like it when I can shut out thoughts in the head. A long run helps you do that. I had imagined doing this run in advance. So before I left Mumbai for Kerala, as part of my regular running, I ensured that I did a few modestly long runs. Frequently prone to injury, this trip happened luckily in a phase wherein I kept injury at bay.

On April 14, I left my home in Thiruvananthapuram at 3 AM with just one goal in mind – don’t injure yourself. I promised myself to run slowly, be gentle – maybe even walk – on uphill and downhill sections and I pinched myself to remember well, the care to avoid injury my friend, Ramachandran of Coimbatore had described in his article about running 80km in Kodaikanal (please click on this link for that story: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/29/kodaikanal-by-trail/). I had a hydration pack with one liter of water, a few bars of chocolates, phone, wallet and a change of clothes. The pack had reflector strips; roads in Kerala are narrow and people tend to drive fast. I wore a bright red T-shirt and until the sun showed up, used a headlamp. As much as the run was self-supported, I was also determined to pause at roadside tea stalls for fuel and conversation. I wanted to get a sense of local life. The first such pause was on the outskirts of Nedumangad, where a tea shop that was just opening for business gave me a big glass of water to drink (the water in the hydration pack, I reserved it for use on the final ascent to Ponmudi). Twenty minutes later at another tea shop, I had a quick glass of tea. At Tholicode, roughly 30 km from Thiruvananthapuram, I bought a bottle of ice cold water to drink and wash my head and neck with, for the April heat had set in early and strong. I reached Vithura, about 37 km from Thiruvananthapuram, by 7.15 AM. There I took a half hour-break. The tea shop I went to was already bustling with customers digging into their breakfast and it took fifteen minutes for my tea to manifest. Leaving Vithura around 7.50 AM, I again halted some distance away at a fruit shop. Its owner, who had just opened the shop for the day, said he would give me an orange. Thus fueled, I headed for Kallar at the foot of Ponmudi.

Road to Ponmudi. This picture is from near the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

By now I was a little tired and needing effort to produce good running form. I must have been a sight, for one person from a group of laborers gearing up for their day’s work, trotted towards me imitating the hunched shoulders and slouch of an old man. It triggered laughter. I am happy I provided them reason for mirth although right then, I chose to ignore the group. About five to six kilometers before Kallar, a woman looked up from what she was doing and said loudly for all to hear, “ look, there is somebody running in from some far off place.’’ Her brief broadcast made me feel important and happy. I put on my best running form, jogged past the settlement and out of sight, relapsed to journalist’s slouch born from too many hours before the computer. In general, all through the run people left me alone. But deep down, knowing how much well-settled life and its frills count for social standing in Kerala, I suspected my running self was an oddity. Middle aged and pointlessly sweating it out on foot to Ponmudi; one man I checked with for road directions asked: why don’t you take the bus?

I reached Kallar by 9 AM. The sun was now out in full force and it was blazing hot. Kallar is approximately 45 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. The road from the capital city till Vithura is mildly hilly, from Vithura to Kallar it gets hillier, and from Kallar to Ponmudi, it is completely uphill for 15km. I had been mixing running and walking from just ahead of Vithura. From Kallar, given the heat, I decided to walk the uphill portion and not run. For the first eight kilometers or so of this final stretch, there are no small shops you can visit for a drink of water. I sipped from the hydration pack. Past this portion, you have small stalls opened by tea estate workers. At one of those shops, I met Muniyandi who busied himself making two glasses of lemonade for me while his friend, Appukkuttan, regaled me with great conversation. I love these small shops filled with produce from the local tea estate and the land these people live on. They sold tea, guava, rose apples (locally called chambakka) and, my favorite – sliced green mangoes served with salt and chili powder. I paid twenty rupees for the two big glasses of lemonade Muniyandi gave me. According to Appukkuttan, neither he nor Muniyandi had received salary for their work at the tea estate for the past several months. I remain utterly grateful for the lemonade they generously gave me notwithstanding their own troubles. It was a very warm morning.  These two men – the lemonade and conversation they provided – made my day. A little ahead, I met a group that had stopped to have tea. They said they had seen the running group I belonged to – Soles of Cochin. I was aware of Thiruvananthapuram based-Iten (another group of runners), who run up Ponmudi on a regular basis. I wasn’t aware of Soles of Cochin joining in. I told them that I didn’t belong to any of these groups and had come alone. We had another nice chat.

Ponmudi, view from the top (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

I was on top of Ponmudi, at the restaurant operated by Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC), by 11.53 AM.  Technically they call this the lower portion of the apex of Ponmudi. But having witnessed the traffic congestion that sometimes happens in the upper half on previous visits, the KTDC restaurant had been my destination right from start. I sat down, took my shoes off and nursed my left sole, where a large blister was beginning to form. It woke me to a mistake in preparations – I should have packed in an extra pair of dry socks. Two youngsters who were speaking to the restaurant’s security guard (he knew all the running that had happened that day; he asked me for my account too) came to speak to me; the mother of one of them had been part of that day’s team run from Kallar to Ponmudi. The view from the top was an eye opener. My ever distracted brain held no memory of rolling hills from past visits to Ponmudi and I was staring exactly at that. Water, coffee and lunch later, I caught the 2PM bus back to Nedumangad and from there another bus to Thiruvananthapuram. With last fifteen kilometers walked, would I call my outing a run? Years ago one of the gifts Thiruvananthapuram gave me was introduction to blues music. Trains found mention in some of these songs – from just “ train” to “ lonesome train” and “ slow train.” With my huffing and puffing, I have always felt like a train engine on my runs. On the road to Ponmudi with people on cars and bikes whizzing past, I think I was slow train. One day, I will sing the blues.

Then, I committed a blunder.

After two days of rest, I returned to my daily running. Happy with my outing to Ponmudi and enjoying the roads of Thiruvananthapuram, quite empty early in the morning, I ran at a pace faster than sensible. Vanity got the better of me. I forgot that what had worked for me on the trip to Ponmudi, was being slow train. I forgot the caution Ramachandran had wisely shown. One hour later, I was home nursing a very familiar shin pain from the past. I knew I would be grounded for a month, at least.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All distance and elevation mentioned herein are from the Internet. All the photos used with the article were clicked a few days after the run, when I returned to Ponmudi for some solo time.)