MAY THEN, MAY NOW

Haseeb Ahsan, Dona Ann Jacob and Clifin Francis (Photo: courtesy Clifin)

It was to be an enjoyable journey on bicycle across a few countries. But the virus decided otherwise.

May 2018, Clifin Francis was on a bridge connecting Azerbaijan and Georgia. The cyclist had officially exited Azerbaijan at one end when Georgia on the other side, denied him entry. Trapped on the bridge in no man’s land, he was saved by a small, unexpected gesture. A German cyclist who crossed the border just ahead of him left him a local SIM. With that installed in his phone, he first contacted the Georgian embassy in Baku for help and when nothing came of that, he applied for an e-visa to return to Azerbaijan. It was night by the time he was admitted back into the country he had left. “ The experience taught me patience,’’ Clifin would tell this blog some six months later in Kochi. The bridge episode had been part of his journey, cycling from Bandar Abbas in Iran, to Moscow in Russia, for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

May 2020. This time there isn’t any no man’s land to worry of. Clifin is well within the boundaries of India, albeit a long way off from his home state, Kerala. Along with two other cyclists – Dona Ann Jacob and Haseeb Ahsan – the freelance mathematics teacher is at Asha Holy Cross in Agartala, an organization engaged in social work. The trio had started out from Kochi on December 15, 2019; their plan was to cycle from India to Japan and be there in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.  A report in the New Indian Express dated November 30, 2019, said that Haseeb, who is based in Bengaluru, had met Clifin in 2018 at the FIFA World Cup in Moscow while Dona, who is based in Mumbai and worked in Mexico, had backpacked in Mexico and Guatemala and cycled 1000 kilometers around Cuba. Their route (as per the New Indian Express report) was to take them from India to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China before catching a ferry from Shanghai to Japan. “ We should have been in China now,’’ Clifin said, May 27 from Agartala in Tripura, where the trio had reached after cycling through Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Bangladesh. With India under lockdown, they have been stuck in Agartala since mid-March.

Roughly a fortnight after the trio commenced their journey from Kochi, China reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause, in Wuhan. That date of reporting to the WHO – December 31, 2019 – is generally treated as official start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which then proceeded to paralyze normal life in many countries (it has since been reported that the earliest cases in China likely go back to November 2019). In the initial stage, the difficulty for everyone was with regard to properly gauging the disease outbreak – what is it; will it be contained and extinguished, will it spread? Nobody really knew. The world celebrated the intervening New Year with usual enthusiasm. By January, 2020 the three cyclists were aware of the situation evolving in China. They had a long stint of cycling to do there in order to reach Shanghai. So it was a concern. “ But we pushed on nevertheless because we thought things would improve,’’ Clifin said. Further, the immediate world around them was still normal although on January 30, India reported its first case of COVID-19 (a student in Kerala, who had returned from Wuhan). The trio planned to enter Myanmar from Northeast India. To save time and distance, they crossed from West Bengal to Bangladesh for further passage to Tripura. When they were in Dhaka, the first reports emerged of COVID-19 in the city.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

By now, there was uncertainty over the Olympic Games as well. Japan was among countries affected by COVID-19 and in a mass gathering like the Olympics, visitors come from many countries, several of those already impacted by virus. Further on March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19, a pandemic. The number of cases was also slowly picking up in India and the disease claimed its first victim in the country on March 12. Question marks were now weighing down the bicycle journey. Proceeding on from Dhaka, the trio reached Akhaura, the border crossing between Bangladesh and the Indian state of Tripura. It is less than ten kilometers from Agartala, the state capital. They crossed into Northeast India on March 17. From the border crossing, they were taken in an ambulance to the government quarantine facility in Agartala. Seven days later, on March 24, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to a date beyond 2020 but no later than the summer of 2021 (it has been rescheduled to July 23-August 8, 2021). Same day, midnight onward, India entered the first phase of a nationwide lockdown that has since been extended and was in its fourth phase at the time of writing.

Its website says that the Association for Social and Human Advancement (ASHA) was registered as a social service society in 1999. It is the official development wing of the Society of the Fathers of Holy Cross, Northeast India. After completing their quarantine at the government facility, the three cyclists shifted to Asha Holy Cross. They have been helping the organization with some of its charity work; they assist in making masks and packaging food for distribution. The organization has taken care of their food and stay. Asha Holy Cross also became shelter for a Spanish lady cyclist who met the trio at the government quarantine facility; on May 25 Hindustan Times reported that Yesenia Herrera Febles had left for Delhi by train to catch a relief flight back to Spain. “ I am hoping things ease up some more from June first week,’’ Clifin said. Flying home to Kerala with bicycles for baggage will be expensive. “ You have to first fly to Kolkata and then from there to either Hyderabad or Bengaluru before catching a flight to Kochi. Train will be cheaper but about as complicated in terms of connections. I don’t think there are any direct trains from the Northeast to South India at this point in time. Hopefully we find more options in June,’’ Clifin said. An IT engineer who once worked with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Clifin had resigned his job and become a freelance mathematics teacher after the travel bug got to him. Given COVID-19, the institute he taught at in Kochi has closed down. He is looking for online teaching assignments.

Clifin Francis (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Aside from figuring out a way to get back to Kerala, what bothers is the altered reality cyclists now confront. Riders like him, who travel long distances on their bicycle, count on the hospitality of people along the way. Theirs is not a race (competition is what most people live to court) but a way of seeing and knowing the world. The bicycle keeps you mobile but unlike motorized vehicle, it proceeds at an unhurried pace and keeps you in communion with the surrounding environment. You carry your own camping gear and live independently or you find cheap lodgings or you stay at the houses of those who take you in. You halt and hang around if a place engages your interest. “ People are a part of the journey,’’ Clifin said. It is possible that such human equation has been altered by the virus. Wary of catching infection, the old goodwill and warmth people had for travelers, may have ebbed, adversely impacting models of cycling like the one Clifin loves. It will be some time before the world is back to being as relaxed and welcoming of people as before. “ I think it will take time,’’ Clifin said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please click on this link for an account of Clifin’s 2018 bicycle trip to Moscow:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/30/football-with-a-difference-the-fan-who-cycled-to-moscow-for-fifa-world-cup/ Please click on this link: https://www.instagram.com/snails.on.wheels for the cyclists’ Instagram handle.)        

COPING WITH THE MASK

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

With COVID-19, the face mask has become part and parcel of our lives. The general feedback from runners who ran wearing a mask is that it is an uncomfortable experience, which you may however get used to. In mid-May 2020, a report appeared in the media (it was circulated on social media as well) of a man in Wuhan, China, who ran wearing a mask and later suffered a collapsed lung. Although health officials believed the culprit was the mask, at least one newspaper reported that a senior doctor at the hospital where the patient was treated had said, the runner was already susceptible to “ spontaneous pneumothorax because of his tall, lanky frame.’’ Aside from speculating, it wasn’t possible to conclude anything from the report. To compound matters, there seems to be no conclusive study available yet on the subject of wearing a mask and running. We spoke to four doctors with strong ties to running, for their take on the subject.

“ There is no real research or study available on the subject yet. It is a new topic,’’ Dr Aashish Contractor, Director, Department of Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, said of the emergent debate around mask and running.

The normal act of running outdoors has to be seen in its full context. It is usually done at an hour before the regular flow of people manifests on roads. There are not many people around and the number of runners among those choosing to be out at that hour is not high. It must also be remembered that runner is neither static nor moving at walking pace. The chances of catching the virus depends on various factors including how crowded an area is, proximity to others, the duration of exposure and the viral load one is exposed to. Against the above outlined outdoor scenario with mask and physical distancing additionally in place, it would appear that the chances of contracting the virus may be further minimized. However it must be borne in mind that exercise – like running – causes heavy breathing. “ I would think you should stay about 20 feet away from another person while running,’’ Dr Contractor – he was Medical Director of the Mumbai Marathon from 2004-2014 – said.

Wearing a mask and running is bound to be difficult. “ Depending on the level of exertion, it will be hard to breathe,’’ he said. One way of overcoming this is to be conscious of how much you are pushing yourself. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a good rule of thumb to stay on the safe side. “ If you feel your breathing is becoming hard, slow down. Do that because this is not anyway a time to be proving anything,’’ he said. A simple three ply surgical mask should be adequate for the morning run. Wear it when running and if you are feeling uncomfortable, use your judgement and pull it down a bit for easier breathing. Relief gained; pull it back on. As for the news report about the Wuhan runner who suffered a collapsed lung, Dr Contractor felt available details are inadequate to establish direct link between the condition and use of mask.

Given the number of races held under its banner, the 2019 edition of La Ultra The High was spread over five days in Ladakh. At that elevation oxygen content in the atmosphere is lower than at sea level; it is lower still atop the high mountain passes the ultramarathon’s route touches. “ We encourage runners, support crew and officials to use their bandanas; cover their face to protect themselves from the fumes of passing vehicles. In the case of someone who walked-ran all those five days, at least as many hours as in a half-day would have been spent protected by the bandana and breathing through it,’’ Dr Rajat Chauhan, Race & Medical Director of the event, said. Dr Chauhan specializes in sports & exercise medicine and musculo-skeletal medicine. “ It should be fine,’’ he said when asked about the issue of wearing a mask and running.

However, there were caveats to the observation. A pre-existing medical condition can alter the tolerance someone has for prolonged breathing through protective barrier. Further, you have to get used to breathing so. “ In the last two months of lockdown, I would have gone out of my house just twice. On both those occasions I wore a mask and it wasn’t easy doing the things I had to do while breathing through the mask. My suggestion to those who are in zones where they are allowed to venture out for running is that they first wear the mask indoors for about the same duration as they plan to be out. Get used to it,’’ he said, pointing to the heat of summer as another factor to be aware of.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Getting used to the mask gradually also makes sense because in Dr Chauhan’s assessment most amateur runners haven’t learnt to use their lungs efficiently. “ The typical amateur runner in India still has shallow, rapid breathing,’’ he said. Next, your intensity of exercise matters. Intense exercise puts commensurate demand on the respiratory system. “ Do workouts at low intensity. Very long and or high intensity workouts are best avoided,’’ he said. Aside from the fact that high intensity training is a period when risk of cardiac problems is higher (before things improve as product of having exercised), immunity also lowers temporarily in this phase. The present characterized by COVID-19 is not times when immunity should be fiddled with. The N95 mask, which is more effective in keeping the virus at bay, is tough to breathe through. The normal surgical mask is easier to breathe through but not as effective a virus-barrier. “ At the end of the day you are in the realm of informed decision-making,’’ Dr Chauhan said of the challenge in framing best practices for a problem yet to merit in-depth study and research.

“ Right now the ideal approach would be to consider everyone a potential carrier of disease and have everyone stick to safety protocols like using a mask or face cover. This is not a phase to be viewed only through the prism of sport. It is a question of humanity,’’ he said of world battered by COVID-19. His advice to runners was – focus on strength training.   “ I have this saying: if you can’t do something sitting down or standing up, how can you hope to do the same while moving? All those boxes have to be ticked before you get down to running or running with a mask on,’’ Dr Chauhan said.

When it comes to air quality, Delhi is among the world’s most polluted cities. Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman is a doctor with the Indian Army. He is a regular runner. He first used a mask while running, in 2018, after he was posted to Delhi. “ It was extremely difficult. If you exert yourself, you need more oxygen and getting that in was a challenge,’’ he recalled. The mask was also prone to becoming wet with the moisture of one’s breath. Eventually he stopped using it. Roughly two years later, the mask has become a regular fixture in life due to COVID-19. “ We wear it at work. For that purpose, it is not a problem. But wearing a mask and running is a challenge,’’ the army doctor said. First, it defeats the very idea of a morning run, which is to do something enjoyable. Second, with the more effective masks meant to keep viruses at bay bound to make breathing hard, you end up using simpler models that are not totally competent as virus barrier; it is a compromise. You wear it only because any protection is better than no protection. Consequently, Col Jayaraman is of the view that choosing less crowded stretches of road to run on and maintaining adequate physical distancing is the best option. However, one aspect needs to be borne in mind, he said. During exercise and for a little while afterwards, there is typically a dip in immunity levels. Given this, other precautionary measures to prevent infection, shouldn’t be trivialized, he said.

“ In healthcare, masks have been used for over 100 years now. They are used mainly during an operative intervention, to prevent transmission of infection to the patient,’’ Dr Pravin Gaikwad, pediatrician based in Navi Mumbai, said. A runner and triathlete, he illustrated the equations at work while using precautionary measures like the mask.

For instance, the operation theater scenario of doctor wearing a surgical mask is a case of – I protect you. In the present situation of COVID-19, if 60 per cent of the population wears masks which are even 60 per cent effective in blocking the transmission of virus, the epidemic may be stopped. That would be a case of – I protect you, you protect me. In a highly infectious disease scenario like COVID-19, special N95 respirator is used to protect the healthcare professional and others from him. The equation here is – I protect myself and I protect you. In industry like asbestos, N95 with valve (which is more comfortable) is used to protect the worker but not others. This is a case of – I protect myself but I expose you. “ That would be sinister if used in the present situation,’’ he said.

Masks can cause discomfort. “ The N95 which fits snugly certainly causes a bit of discomfort upon prolonged use. Talking and being heard, is also an issue. Surgical masks are relatively more comfortable. Surgeons use them for a long time – even 9-10 hours – in long supra major surgical procedures,’’ Dr Gaikwad said, adding, “ compared to the surgical mask, homemade cloth masks or bandana, I presume, would be less breathable and therefore less comfortable.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to him, running in a face mask would be uncomfortable in any weather. If one really wants to use it, one has to gradually introduce it in one’s regime. It would take a few weeks to months getting used to it. “ As the amount of air inhaled becomes limited, breathing becomes more laborious. Pace would obviously reduce and fatigue would set in faster. Mask becoming damp partly due to water vapor in exhaled air and partly from sweat is another issue making it not only uncomfortable but also less effective,’’ he said. He felt that for running, surgical masks would be more comfortable to use. “ Basically, the mask has to be breathable and effective….a homemade mask which has to be removed time and again will defeat the purpose,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

Breathable masks don’t pose the risk of inhaling one’s own exhalation to a significant extent so as to cause disturbance in oxygenation. The droplet size of the present Corona virus is 125 microns and that of the CO2 molecule is 0.00023 microns, 1000 times smaller. Still, to check discomfort, the best option would be to keep runs shorter and gentler, striking a balance between getting exercise done and not exerting to levels inviting strain while using a mask. Choose to run after checking what zone (red, orange or green) your area is in and how authorities have relaxed lockdown rules therein. Even if you are using a mask, maintaining physical distancing of at least six feet is a must.  “ There shouldn’t be sudden increase in mileage in even indoor runs or those done on local campuses as this would make a runner prone to injury besides reducing his or her immunity temporarily. We can ill afford both these angles at present. Always listen to your body,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

Author’s note: On May 18, 2020, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) – it is the apex body for athletics in the country – issued Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for its national camps in Patiala and Bengaluru (please click on this link for that report: https://shyamgopan.com/2020/05/20/afi-issues-standard-operating-procedure-for-its-athletes-coaches-and-support-staff/). The on-field protocols followed by elite athletes at these camps have not been gone into in detail in this article because the training ambiance of amateurs and elites is totally different. Amid pandemic, amateurs live and train in a world that includes everyone else; elites live and train in sanitized national camps with access strictly monitored. Nobody goes from the outside into the camps, nobody from within comes out (rejoining requires quarantine). It won’t be fair to compare the two worlds or blindly copy what performance driven-elites do while training against backdrop of pandemic because one ecosystem is controlled and sanitized, the other isn’t. Some general protocols laid down at the national camps make sense as meaningful guidelines for amateurs taking to public spaces for exercise. They include: not going for training if you have any flu-like symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, difficulty in breathing, fatigue etc or if you have been in close contact with someone who showed above-mentioned flu-like symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19 in the preceding 14 days; maintaining a safe and isolated distance of minimum two meters from others while walking to the training ground and during the training, and avoiding exercising / training / walking in groups. For an overview of the AFI’s SOP for its national camps, please follow the link mentioned earlier.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The above article is presented in the interest of reading and discussion.)

CYCLING / AMID LOCKDOWN, AN EXAMPLE FROM BENGALURU

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Late April 2020, authorities in Bengaluru formally approved cycling as a means of transport during lockdown. Here’s how it happened:

An erstwhile technology worker currently active in public policy related to mobility solutions, Sathya Sankaran is Bengaluru’s Bicycle Mayor.

It is an honorary position awarded by a NGO called BYCS in the Netherlands. Its website describes BYCS as “ an Amsterdam based-social enterprise driven by the belief that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world.’’ Volunteers apply for the post of bicycle mayor; they are screened, selected and appointed. There are around 100 bicycle mayors worldwide at present, including in several Indian cities.

As the city most representative of the IT boom that followed economic liberalization, Bengaluru sits in an engaging matrix. It combines old world charm and a wealth of educational and scientific institutions with the subsequently emergent trends of skilled, well-traveled workforce and the ideas they gather from various parts of the world. The city is one of the major hubs of the active lifestyle in India. It has a large community of cyclists, a regular calendar of races and is among the bigger bicycle markets. All that ground to a halt when lockdown set in. Along with the rest of the country, whatever norms for transport amid lockdown applied in Bengaluru, concerned motorized transport. “ It was extremely disappointing to find that there was no mention of the bicycle in directives from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. They issued specific guidelines on how to be out in cars and on motorized two wheelers; there was nothing similar about bicycles. In the absence of specific mention of the bicycle in protocols issued, people were hesitant to take their cycles out for permitted outings like purchase of essentials. It was a case of nobody objecting but permission not specifically granted,’’ Sathya said. He wrote to the Home Ministry. Till the time of speaking to this blog (May 23, 2020), there hadn’t been any response.

Sathya’s first initiative during lockdown was a concept called ` Relief Rider’ under which, volunteer cyclists delivered medicines and groceries to senior citizens in various parts of the city. Relief Rider commenced operation on March 29. There was a phone number provided for people to call up and inform of their requirement. The cyclists brought the consignment to their doorstep. Within a month to month and a half, 75 cyclists under the program had pedaled over 1600 kilometers; a figure that can also be viewed in terms of that much less motorized vehicles used and pollution avoided. The program was tangible evidence to authorities on the merits of having a community of cyclists. It was time to take things a notch higher. Dr Arvind Bhateja is a prominent neurosurgeon in Bengaluru and Medical Director of the city-based Sita Bhateja Speciality Hospital. A keen cyclist, Dr Bhateja came to Sathya with a campaign called ` Reset with Cycling’ under which, the duo decided to submit a proposal to authorities recommending a few measures. Its gist was the following:

  • Declare bicycle shops and associated businesses like bicycle repair and maintenance, as essential service.
  • If authorities can allow people to walk during lockdown, then they should be willing to accept the use of bicycle as well.
  • Major shopping avenues should be closed to vehicular traffic and opened only for walkers and cyclists in the interest of maintaining physical distancing.
  • Create roughly 57 kilometers of bicycle lanes across four major transport corridors in the city.

Sathya Sankaran (Photo: courtesy Sathya)

The website of ` Reset with Cycling’ introduces itself as a collective effort to revive cities post-lockdown. “ Let’s not go back to old habits. Let’s use the bicycle to reduce traffic, stress, improve health, air quality and renew our cities. Build a city for our children,’’ the website said. Sathya put the recommendations submitted, in perspective. Physical distancing has been identified as a major tool to combat spread of COVID-19. It is difficult to enforce it in public transport. That may serve as incentive to bring back private cars. In the months before lockdown, Bengaluru was notorious for its traffic jams while cities like Delhi and Mumbai experienced high air pollution levels. On the other hand, cycling allows for transport with physical distancing factored in; it is also healthy being a form of exercise. Further, when frenzied human activity on the planet temporarily ceased due to lockdown, the quality of air improved almost everywhere. “ In Bengaluru, pollution levels were down by 50-75 per cent. If upon relaxation of lockdown, we revert to world as it used to be and bring back motorized vehicles in strength, then we lose whatever gains we made,’’ he said.

Notwithstanding the merit in the proposal made by Dr Bhateja and Sathya, approval for it hinged on those in authority being sufficiently empathetic. Having administrators, who understand new lifestyle trends, helps. According to published news reports, it was in August 2019 that Bhaskar Rao assumed charge as the Police Commissioner of Bengaluru. He is a cycling aficionado. On April 25, 2020, Rao was shown the proposal submitted by Dr Bhateja and Sathya. That same day, he sanctioned permission for cyclists to be out on city roads. Authorities are studying some of the other recommendations. The Police Commissioner’s decision was welcomed. “ I don’t recall any opposition from the public to the move or reluctance to embrace it. During lockdown there had been mental issues and domestic problems. Cycling provided a means to gain relief from all that besides addressing practical transport needs,’’ Sathya said.

Meanwhile in some other parts of the world – as reported earlier on this blog – the pandemic and its subsequent need for physical distancing fueled steep rise in bicycle sales. Realizing that public transport would be challenged to offer physical distancing and not wanting a complete return to the earlier paradigm of motor vehicles and air pollution, some foreign governments have unveiled bicycle-friendly policies and investments to improve cycling infrastructure. Sathya said he has more plans for Bengaluru.

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

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

AFI ISSUES STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE FOR ITS ATHLETES, COACHES AND SUPPORT STAFF

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has issued Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for AFI athletes, coaches and support staff at the national camps. The SOP has been prepared with focus on the current environment characterized by pandemic (COVID-19). While issuing the SOP on May 18, 2020, AFI noted alongside that although as of that date, there have been relaxations in the rules and regulations of the ongoing nationwide lockdown, athletes, coaches and support staff are strictly advised to remain inside the protected environment of national camps at Patiala and Bengaluru.

Besides the SOP, the periodic guidelines issued by the central and state governments must also be followed. “ The re-opening of training facilities including outdoor training and weight training will be as per the programme schedule circulated by the Chief Coach,’’ the circular on SOP, available on the website of AFI, said.

According to it, athletes should not go for training if they have any flu-like symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, difficulty in breathing, fatigue etc or if they have been in close contact with someone who showed above-mentioned flu-like symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days. They should inform the Chief Coach / Deputy Chief Coach or HPD about any sickness or if they have come in contact with any sick person. They should not also go for training if the training has been cancelled by the coach or center in-charge due to unavoidable circumstances.

Before they go for training, athletes should be aware of their timings for outdoor training and weight training session; they should speak to their coach, group athletes before leaving their room so that everyone is present at the venue on time and there is no delay. They should leave their room exactly five minutes before their scheduled training. Use of disposable gloves by athletes is highly recommended. For relay athletes practising baton exchange, use of hand gloves is mandatory. Athletes should always wear full sleeve T-shirts, tights and shirts whenever they step out of the room

During training they should maintain a safe and isolated distance of minimum two meters from others while walking to the training ground and during the training. They should carry their own water bottle, energy drink etc. as well as their own personal hand sanitizer, paper napkins, towels. They should not exercise / train / walk in groups; they should not take the help of other athletes / coaches. They should not shake hands or hug other athletes, coaching staff members and at any point of time if they feel ill, they should immediately report to their coach, support staff. Athletes should avoid using public toilets as far as they can; they should not sneeze or cough without covering their mouth and nose. They should not spit on the ground. They should always use dustbins to throw any waste such as empty water bottles, paper napkins etc. They should not call any person from outside to the training area or en route to training area / hostel / dining hall.

After training, they should apply their own personal hand sanitizer. They should check their belongings carefully and make sure it has not been touched by others. Similarly, they shouldn’t touch anything that does not belong to them. They should go back to their hostel room as soon as their training is over and not hang around in groups. They should take shower immediately upon reaching their room put used clothes for washing and not wear the same clothes after shower. Sauna / ice bath facilities will not be available during the restricted training phase. They should relax and re-asses their health after sometime, report to their coach or administration immediately if they feel sick. They should keep their personal hygiene level high at all times, not take on mental stress and keep in touch with their families, friends remotely through mobile phones, video conferencing.

Referring to safe use of exercise equipment, the SOP said that athletes should use such equipment cautiously. All handheld implements should be sanitized prior to and after use e.g. shots, javelins, discus etc. Upon conclusion of training, equipment should be cleaned with a disinfectant spray. “ Although there is no specific evidence that equipment can spread COVID-19, we know that contamination from respiratory droplets from an infected person can potentially survive on hard surfaces for up to three days,’’ the SOP said.

On coaches, the SOP noted that respective coaches will be responsible for maintaining social distancing. Clean and disinfected equipment should be used during training sessions and the supply and requirement of disinfectants must be reported in time to the Chief Coach. “ The coaching sessions following proper protocol will be supervised by Chief Coach, Deputy Chief Coach & High-Performance Director,’’ the SOP said adding that persons other than those already in the camps are strictly barred from access to the training area.

As for dealing with the outside world, the SOP said that social distancing should be maintained at all times. Athletes must try to clean their rooms themselves and not leave their hostel rooms except for training / medical / rehab purposes. Visit to barbershops /saloons / beauty parlors / shopping malls is strictly prohibited. They should not eat outside or order food parcels. They should wear a mask before leaving their room; carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer if visiting ATMs and use sanitizer after operating the ATM machine. They should avoid touching parcels / letters delivered to them and always sanitize such articles before any contact. They should try not to touch any surfaces and if they do, they should sanitize their hands as soon as possible.

The SOP made it clear that athletes are not allowed to leave the camps. Any leave from the camp can only be sanctioned by the AFI President / Chairman, Planning Committee. Athletes leaving the camp will have to go through 14 days of quarantine before rejoining.

AFI has said that the SOP will be updated and circulated again depending on changes to the COVID-19 control scenario.

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

INDIA WATCHES FROM THE SIDELINES AS PANDEMIC FUELS BICYCLE SALES OVERSEAS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

COVID-19 and its accompanying need for physical distancing and maintaining good health, has caused bicycle sales to zoom in some countries. Any chance the trend may offer cycling in India, fresh impetus? Unlikely – that is the feedback from the cycling community. But there is hope.

For those into cycling and reading, a series of recent articles in The Guardian, would have been particularly heart-warming.

On May 15, 2020, Matthew Taylor reported in The Guardian that the city’s mayor proposed to close large areas of London to cars so that people can walk and cycle freely when the COVID-19-induced lockdown is eased. It would be one of the biggest car-free initiatives by any city worldwide. The reasons for encouraging walking and cycling: physical distancing would be tough to observe in public transport while the return of cars could precipitate traffic jams and increase air pollution.

Earlier, on May 10, 2020, Sean Ingle wrote in The Guardian about the growing relevance of cycling as mode of transport in a world where COVID-19 is forecast to linger. The resultant need to maintain physical distancing directs us to measured use of mass transport systems. We also seek avenues to stay healthy. It is in this matrix that cycling merits attention. It is viable non-polluting personal transport for short to medium distances. Further, as done by normal cyclists, it is a mild form of exercise satisfying the type of physical activity recommended by researchers as ideal to stay healthy. Ingle’s article mentioned a study by scientist David C. Nieman which helped establish that regular exercise assists in lowering upper respiratory infection rates while at the same time improving immunosurveillance. Also mentioned was a report by the US Surgeon General in the 1990s, recommending exercise as a vital component of preventive medicine. According to the article, Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary of the UK, has promised two billion pounds “ towards plans to double the number of cyclists and walkers by 2025.’’

The next day, May 11, 2020, Miles Brignall writing in the same publication reported that bicycle sales have been booming in the UK. Shares of listed companies in the segment had risen in value and the country’s biggest bicycle retailer had informed that sale of some equipment was up 500 per cent with bike sales itself prevailing at double the normal level. At smaller shops, stocks were running out and some had a waiting period. The article noted that cities around the world were rushing to improve their cycling infrastructure. In Germany, cycle lanes were being expanded and Paris was installing 650 kilometers of cycleways.

A couple of weeks earlier, on April 22, 2020, Justin Landis-Hanley reported in The Guardian that Australian bike retailers were struggling to keep up with booming sales following imposition of restrictions on general life due to COVID-19. The reasons cited ranged from people wanting to avoid infection and therefore staying off public transport, to regular avenues for exercise like gyms and pools being shut and the bicycle suddenly seeming attractive, to the aptness of the bicycle as a combination of exercise and transport in troubled times to simply having more time on one’s hands and therefore taking up a new hobby. The underlying instincts were visible in the sales mix; a considerable portion of bikes being sold belonged to the entry level segment.  The report said that a major worry among retailers in Australia was about exhausting stocks. Replenishing it would be tough as manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and China haven’t yet recovered from operations ceased due to pandemic. Further both the above mentioned articles pointed out that it wasn’t just sale of new bikes that was picking up; business in a range of services associated with cycling – including servicing of old bikes – had gone up.

When India slid into lockdown on March 24, 2020, all forms of transport – save those used for essential services – ground to a halt. There were even reports of people out for a morning walk, penalized by authorities. Flights and trains ceased to operate and automobile sales declined sharply. Yet even as air quality improved thanks to less vehicles being out, one of the early news reports based on equity analysts’ views cited potential recovery in car sales post lockdown, on the basis that the car offered an insulated cocoon for mobility amid contagion. Bizarre as this reasoning is in times of respiratory diseases growing, it is a fine portrait of the Indian approach to life. Needless to say, while the government has recommended specific protocols for using four-wheelers and two-wheelers (all motorized), there hasn’t been any utterance yet on cycling, forget its emergent virtues. In the absence of that and given how lockdown-rules are interpreted at ground level, you hesitate to take your cycle out for shopping and errands. India is among the world’s biggest producers of bicycles but the manufacturers’ lobby too has been strangely quiet. One can’t recall a single public service advertisement taken out amid COVID-19, reminding people of the bicycle’s ability to contribute to health; health of user through exercise and health of others by not polluting.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This blog spoke to the country head of a leading international bicycle brand to gauge whether anything similar to what has been reported from UK and Australia, could be expected in India. He confirmed the developments overseas; it featured in business conversations with colleagues abroad. But hoping for the same in India would be premature because the overall matrix governing cycling here remains bicycle-unfriendly. While there was the pet peeve of high duties imposed on imported bicycles, there was also the undeniable fact that India’s crowded, congested ambiance and lack of consideration by motorists for cyclists, continue to make cycling unenjoyable. Sample the following: on May 15, 2020, Times of India reported that despite lockdown (it started on March 24; at the time of writing it was still on) an estimated 321 lives had been lost in 1176 road accidents in India according to data compiled by Save LIFE Foundation, a NGO. When general lack of road safety hits home, it fuels the argument that only cars and similar steel cages on wheels are viable option for transport. Given personal safety trumps concerns for environment and climate change, nobody then has the patience to sample cycling’s virtues. It is a vicious cycle. There is also another angle, which neither the bicycle industry nor cyclists, openly agree to, although in private, they concur. It has to do with the ink of Indian imagination these days – GDP. Viewed through GDP’s prism, the automobile industry’s voice dominates like a foghorn. That of bicycles is a squeak you strain to hear.

According to one senior cyclist, notwithstanding the above mentioned handicaps, the last decade or so has laid the foundation for a cycling movement in India. The choice won’t be driven by supportive cycling infrastructure – that is a role the government may or may not perform. It will be based on informed choice. As paradigm shifts like work from home set in, more of us may consciously choose a healthy, non-polluting form of transport that is light on planet, maintains the physical distancing mandated by COVID-19 and is also more connected to world as compared to the steel cocoon and quick passage of a car. In fact, if life is going to be in and around the house for the near future, why would you congest your neighborhood bringing out your car all the time? So far climate change was a debate. But the days of pandemic, which saw humanity locked up indoors, proved that human activity restrained has the ability to revive nature, restore air quality. There is thus palpable evidence to base your questions to old world on. However the key to promoting cycling – those from this school of thought argue – may not lay in petitioning the central government. “ Local governments will probably understand better,’’ the senior cyclist said emphasizing the need to go local when it comes to promoting cycling. Reportedly, such lobbying has yielded results in the past. Closer to the present, local also makes sense because the relaxation of lockdown will be in line with what zone (based on severity of infection) your area falls into. The seed for change exists in the evidence we experienced due to COVID-19. Question is – will we plant that seed and let it grow?

Update: On April 25, 2020, authorities in Bengaluru formally permitted the use of bicycles during lockdown. In its order dated May 31, 2020, concerning guidelines for easing restrictions and phased opening of lockdown, the Maharashtra government has permitted the return of outdoor physical activities like cycling, jogging and running in non-containment zones from June 3 onward. No group activity is allowed; only open spaces nearby or in the neighborhood may be used and the activity will have to be between 5AM-7PM. “ People are actively encouraged to use cycling as a form of physical exercise as it automatically ensures social distancing,’’ the order said. All physical exercise and activities must be done with social distancing norms in place. The order said that people are advised to walk or use bicycles when going out for shopping. The above is a condensed version; for a complete overview please refer the actual government order. 

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

“ THE NEW NORMAL DOESN’T FEEL SO BAD TO ME’’ / KILIAN FISCHHUBER

Kilian Fischhuber (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian Fischhuber is among the most decorated competition climbers in the world. Hailing from Austria and participating in bouldering and lead climbing events, he has the rare distinction of winning more than 20 World Cup events. Having retired from competitions in 2014, Kilian has enhanced his repertoire of climbs. He travels the world in search of routes to climb; in the process he has visited India. Kilian worked for a while as a teacher in Innsbruck. Since end-2019, he has been a national team coach for Austria Climbing. Thanks to this, has been able to train since April 20, 2020 with elite athletes at the gym “ Ki” in Innsbruck, which is also the national training center. They were given special permission. “ We have to maintain strict protocol including distance, number of athletes, disinfection and the like,’’ Kilian said. He spared time to respond to questions mailed by this blog on the new normal in climbing forced by COVID-19. 

Reports have now begun coming from Europe of lockdown relaxation and the resumption of climbing. To your mind, how do we reconcile the need to observe disease related protocols with the sport of climbing? Is this a sport that can coexist comfortably with COVID-19 protocols or do you see climbers being pushed to situations where it is a choice between enjoyable sport and protocol?

We had a serious outbreak of COVID-19 here in Austria. Due to strict regulations, a lockdown and maybe a pinch of luck we avoided a larger mess. Now we see protocols relaxed and some kind of normality return. However, we kind of live under the shadow of a future outbreak and possible repeated lockdowns. Austria Climbing and the Austrian alpine federations worked on regulations for climbers and I hope we can enjoy our sport almost as before, soon. We’ll need more space per person and will have to follow hygiene protocols and use common sense to maintain our reclaimed freedom. As we have no other choice I guess we’ll have to coexist with the new rules. I’ve been climbing since more than two weeks now and the new normal doesn’t feel so bad to me.

If we broadly divide climbing into bouldering, lead climbing and mountaineering, do you see the impact of COVID-19 protocols as being fairly uniform for all these segments or do you suspect that a branch like bouldering, which is generally more social, requiring spotting and capable of climbs over shorter distances may be hit harder?

I’m afraid some will be hit harder than others. The virus definitely does not treat us fairly in any sense. It’s the same with sports. Contact sports or sports where you have to touch others (as in spotting) will see a larger impact. But again, I think with common sense we can live with the new normal.

Can you give us an idea of how a typical climbing session looks like for you these days? There has also been this debate around chalk powder versus alcohol based-liquid chalk for the present times. Which type of chalk do you use?

When I go rock climbing, I climb with my partner Anna. We live in the same household. When we meet other climbers we try to maintain the distance which is usually no big deal. I use normal chalk but I bring hand sanitizer to the crag.

From a 2015 visit to India; Kilian Fischhuber climbing in Badami, Karnataka (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Indoor climbing gyms are now a major part of the sport. How do you think COVID-19 protocols will affect climbing at these venues? While physical distancing may be possible, frequent sanitizing of surfaces will be a challenge depending on the size of gym. Are there any practical approaches with protocols included, beginning to emerge at climbing gyms in Austria and elsewhere in Europe?

I don’t think it is possible to disinfect climbing surfaces in climbing gyms after each climber. I feel that sanitizing your hands frequently, avoiding contact with others, more space and using face masks is all we can do. If there’s another major outbreak the gyms will be closed again anyways. Our gyms have gradually begun opening last week. First the outdoor walls opened and soon, with new protocols, indoor walls too. What I don’t know is whether it will still be lucrative for gym owners to run large gyms with only few people inside.

What is the general attitude you sense with regard to climbing in the months immediately following relaxation of lockdown? Are people coming out to climb or is there reluctance? Are they waiting to see what protocols to follow at crags and gyms?

The vast majority runs with the protocols. I’ve been rock climbing again since about two weeks (when relaxation began in Austria) and most people I met behaved responsibly and showed understanding.

Who do you think should take the lead in setting health related protocols so that sports like climbing can resume in a safe fashion when lockdown relaxes?

The Austrian Climbing Federation, the alpine federations and the gyms proposed a protocol to the Austrian Health ministry which has been adopted so far. All the decisions are aligned with what health experts from the government propose.

How was the situation like in Austria when the pandemic was at its peak? Were all the major climbing crags and gyms shut?

All gyms shut, nobody went climbing.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the above interview should be seen in the right perspective. It reflects circumstances in Austria, which is very different from the predicament in India, a nation of 1.3 billion people with crowded cities. The interview is presented here to foster awareness and hopefully, contribute to templates for the new normal.)

TEMPLATES FOR TROUBLED TIMES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early 2019, Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club had visited Mumbai to receive the annual Kekoo Naoroji Book Award from The Himalayan Club. In May 2020, amid lockdown in India due to COVID-19, this blog contacted Steve for pointers on how relevant agencies in the US were advising the climbing community. The following is drawn from links he suggested for reference.

Here’s what Access Fund posted on its website:

We strongly encourage all climbers to help flatten the curve and err on the side of caution. Here’s how you can help:

Follow the lead of your Local Climbing Organization.

DO NOT travel to climb.

Strictly comply with all shelter-in-place and similar orders.

Strictly comply with all closures and restrictions, and follow federal, state, county and city guidelines on social distancing.

DO NOT take unnecessary risks. Don’t be the person that creates more stress and burden for our medical and SAR professionals.

Please understand that climbing areas will still be there once this crisis passes. The best way to return to normal in the shortest period of time is for all of us to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. In many cases, that will mean that we simply shouldn’t go climbing.

There was this observation too on the Access Fund website: Over sixty years of scientific research has proven that being outside in nature, or even just viewing natural landscapes, helps reduce stress hormones, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Being in nature also lifts our spirits and helps us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

At the time of writing, Access Fund had announced a webinar for mid-May 2020 on the topic, “ Climbing during the pandemic.’’ It was to feature representatives from the outdoor community and the medical fraternity.

On its part, the American Alpine Club posted the following:

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and impacts us all. Our community must act thoughtfully to “ flatten the curve” to reduce transmissions of the virus over time.

We are concerned about transmission of COVID-19 to rural or gateway communities. These remote towns often have limited access to medical facilities and their closely-knit, interconnected social structures are more prone to the spread of infection.

Please keep places like Bishop, Fayetteville, Moab, Springdale, and Slade as safe as possible by limiting recreation-based travel at this time. If you have a trip planned, please reschedule until we are through this health emergency. This is not the time to head to the desert or rally to your favorite national park for “social distancing.” While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities.

Consider also keeping outdoor objectives conservative to reduce the load on the medical system. Backcountry emergencies contribute to overloading hospitals and potential shortages of ventilators in intensive care units. As always, be safe out there and mindful of unnecessary risks.

Finally, we all should follow the directions outlined in the CDC’s guide on how to keep yourself and others safe from the virus. It’s necessary that we as a climbing community make decisions from the perspective of the most vulnerable people in our community.

The AAC is certain that the climbing community can be a part of the solution to COVID-19 by taking collective action now.

Some parks in the US have opened for limited use during the day. The website of Washington State Parks provides an idea of how such entities approach the current predicament.

To begin with, the parks have said that parking capacity will be reduced at some urban locations as reducing the number of parking stalls leads to less number of people and thereby, less crowds. Authorities want people to respect closures and visit only parks that are open for day use. The detail of limited restroom facilities at some parks has been mentioned. Before they go, people have been asked to check what is open and what isn’t. They have been advised to enjoy the outdoors only when healthy; if they have fever, cough or shortness of breath, they have been told to save their outdoor trip for another day. If you are healthy and going out, then bring your own mask or bandana. Overnight stays are not allowed. So opt for an outing closer to home. Stick to immediate household members to check any potential spread of virus. Bring own soap, water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. If upon reaching a park, it is found to be crowded, then go elsewhere or return another time. Avoid crowds. Practise physical distancing (six feet). Similarly, leave at least one parking space between your car and the next. Wash your hands well. Pack out what you pack in. Be kind and respectful to the park staff.

One segment where protocols are still being figured out is that of climbing gyms. Gyms have significant presence in the US.  On climbing gyms, Steve Swenson said, “ no one knows yet what the protocols will be.”  State governments in the US are setting the time frames for a phased approach when different parts of the economy can reopen. “ So it varies from state to state.  In most states, things like gyms (which include climbing gyms) are included in the third phase of reopening which is one of the latter phases.  The nature of what these latter phases will look like and when they can happen, will be determined by what happens with the spread of the virus after the phase 1 and 2 parts of the economy reopens,’’ he said.

Please note: In India, all sports, outdoor pursuits and climbing gyms have remained suspended or shut since commencement of lockdown. At the time of writing, the lockdown was still in force. The ground realities of life and the challenges faced in tackling disease are very different in India, compared to the US. The contents of this article are presented for thought and discussion by those related to outdoor pursuits, who recognize the need for evolving best practices in these troubled times.

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

“ RUNNERS HAVE TO LEARN TO COEXIST AND YET STAY DISTANCED’’ / THE NEW NORMAL WITH BHASKER DESAI

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This is an article by invitation. Bhasker Desai, 68, is a Mumbai-based businessman and amateur runner. He has been in the US since mid-March 2020. Amid COVID-19, states there have had varying degrees of lockdown. In California, where Bhasker is at present, there is a shutdown; not a complete lockdown. At this blog’s request, Bhasker wrote in of running’s new normal as experienced there; he also applied his mind to imagining how the new normal may play out in Mumbai.

I am currently in San Bernardino County, southern California. This state has a shutdown but not a complete lockdown. One can venture out any time for a walk / run apart from drive down to pharmacies and grocery stores. Wearing mask and keeping safe distance of six feet is mandatory when out to pick essentials. But there are no such specific guidelines for runners who have access to trails, roads, sidewalks and parks, which they share with walkers and cyclists.

I go out for a run, twice a week; each session lasts 45 minutes to an hour. I run solo for I have no runner friends here. I see very few runners out and about. When I do find someone, it is usually another solo runner. There are walkers too, out for fresh air. They are typically seen in pairs, group of friends and quite often, a family of adults and children. Most of them wear masks. Where I live, I have yet to see runners wearing masks. I suspect they must feel uncomfortable wearing a mask and running. The mask gets wet from breath and sweat; breathing becomes tad difficult.

May 10, 2020: an empty street in San Bernardino County, southern California (Photo: Bhasker Desai)

In general, people wear masks when out. So I am unsure how welcome to others, the sight of runners not choosing to wear one is. After all, we do huff and puff more than them and that does not help alleviate the concerns of these times. However, every time I see passersby, I make sure I am more than ten feet away. I even jump to the edge of already empty roads (very few cars are out), let people go by and only then, get back on to the path. Some people wave to greet or show approval. When you are greeted so, for a moment it feels like old times! It reminds you of times when people joined you to enjoy the camaraderie; an unexpected running partner had for a short distance. But alas times have changed. For now it is only a smile and we move on safely, away from one another. The new normal sucks but it is a reality we must accept and not flout till this phase gets over…hopefully soon.

I think of Mumbai. The city is home to a big number of recreational runners. Personally I don’t see much social inequality in the sport. The running spirit encompasses all kinds of runners, slow, fast, young, old, rich and poor. That should be good news to start with as and when Mumbai opens up again for runners. Even the comparatively disadvantaged runners, we take them along with us to run side by side and support them in different ways. Till such time as COVID-19 becomes a thing of the past and there is a vaccine that cures, maintaining physical distancing (ten feet?) should be number one priority. So, when Mumbai reopens and permits resumption of running, remember to stay apart from each other. No rocket science there, it is the obvious thing to do for safety of self and others.

Solo running or running with a few friends you know are healthy – that may be your new normal. Make it mandatory not to touch one another. No hugs or handshakes to greet (namaste should work) and always, that physical distance. I agree it feels terrible. But self-preservation and precaution are essential in this new order. Seniors (I would say, those above 55 years) should be even more cautious, they should ideally run solo. They are a higher risk group and so should feel nothing bad at being isolated.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Mumbai is a thickly populated concrete jungle. That is its biggest challenge. Its community of runners too has grown rapidly. There are few free spaces to tread. There are only few green zones and limited sea fronts for runners to breathe fresh air and feel healthy. And with many people walking side by side, it adds to the crowding. Social distancing for runners in most cities in the US is not such a big challenge. North America has less people, more accessible free space, plenty of parks, running trails, sidewalks and special zones for extracurricular activities. There is no dearth of space to run freely and at the same time, keep physical distance from each other. Mumbai in comparison is no runner’s paradise. I suspect, similar challenges will be felt as regards the new normal in other Indian metros like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata.

Good behavior by runners in Mumbai’s limited free space will be crucial if we are to check the spread of this lethal virus. Life style changes are on the anvil. Get ready to accept that you will not be running free spirited like before in the new normal. We runners are very gregarious and love to chat as we run. We won’t be able to continue that. It’s another change we need to accept to restrict spread of droplets. It means we have to count that much more on self-discipline and resilience to fall in line with the new normal, which Mumbai too must accept. Runners need to keep their ethics and spirits high, stay strong and united. They should not become weak and resort to protest (for space). Good behavior and sportsmanship are required if we are to thrive in the new normal. Where this doesn’t happen, government regulations and dos and don’ts may be imposed with potential penalty to defaulters. Is that the solution? I hope we don’t come to that stage. I hope we shoulder our responsibilities and make the things that provide us joy, happen, so that we live in peace and harmony. Perhaps team leaders, running gurus and running clubs like Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) can lead the way to formulate runners’ ethics and influence right behavior through proper guidelines. Runners have to learn to coexist and yet stay distanced. Notwithstanding what others can suggest, in the end, it will be the individual’s inner calling. So, this compliance is something we have to generate from within.

January 5, 2020: the old normal; runners from various parts of the city after their Sunday run at Marine Drive, Mumbai (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

The other challenge in India will be for organizers of running events. Big ticket events like Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Airtel Delhi Half Marathon – may have to take a back seat as participation in numbers like 30,000 and 40,000 can break down physical distancing and be a threat to human safety. Besides, till such time as they develop a runner-friendly mask, wearing a mask and running more than five kilometers may be irritating; you end up with a sweaty, smelly face cover.  Forget big events, even small ones with 500 to 1000 runners may prove unacceptable unless some solution like split timings for start or large enough space to run (we can’t imagine such luxuries in Mumbai) or some such impractical unfriendly way of going about organizing a race is evolved. Nothing comes to my mind except that for some time, let running events be on the back burner in big cities. In smaller places, far flung semi metros and towns, local small events can be a reality with just a few runners. In the end, running for us amateur runners is about health and happiness. So no world lost if for some time we don’t race and get another PB! I hope and pray that vaccine comes earlier than projected; a vaccine that cures and allows us once again to breathe next to our fellow runner.

(The author, Bhasker Desai, is a Mumbai-based businessman currently in the US. The write-up was edited by Shyam G Menon.)

THE NEW NORMAL AND THE RELEVANCE OF CLUBS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Properly used, clubs can be the avenue to teach the new normal of sport with COVID-19 protocols mixed in. This article compares the organizational structure of two sports in India – hiking / climbing and amateur running – to illustrate what is possible with grassroots level outfits.

Running is an old sport.

As popular movement, it is young in India.

The country’s outdoor clubs are probably older than its running clubs.

The example of climbing

Given the risk associated with climbing and mountaineering, the sport features many protocols. Although the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) and the training institutes for mountaineering played a role, fact is the bulk of climbing – especially rock climbing – owes its growth to small groups of outdoor enthusiasts typically ordered into clubs. It is thanks to them that the basic techniques of climbing got disseminated in the domestic climbing ecosystem.  In some of these clubs, the pursuit of knowledge exceeds what you find at the training institutes, which tend to settle into an ambiance of employment. For instance, it was the passion for sport climbing among a handful of members at Girivihar that saw the Mumbai-based club organize a decade of domestic sport climbing competitions and eventually two editions of the IFSC World Cup in bouldering. Suffice to say, clubs are the immune system of sport; they spread the joy of activity and teach its techniques.

Organizations dedicated to risk management and safety in adventure activity have begun to emerge (Maharashtra Adventure Council [MAC] is an example). Thanks to digital age, these new organizations have established direct link with hikers and climbers. Information can be communicated directly to individuals bypassing clubs. However, you learn by doing. When it comes to ground level implementation of protocol and developing familiarity through practise, the clubs cannot be ignored. That’s because they are the ones leading hikes and climbs on a regular basis. It is a lot like the ongoing battle with COVID-19 itself; it isn’t so much top-down as it is bottom-up featuring simple precautionary measures diligently observed at individual level to keep you safe.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The challenges and how climbing’s structure can help

In an article dated March 24, 2020 that appeared on the Rock and Ice website, Peter Beal outlined what COVID-19 could mean for rock climbing. He wrote that a lot of public lands (earlier accessed for climbing) could be temporarily shut and the closure of climbing gyms and their business models shaken up by the virus may mean bleak investment scenario for the segment. Not all such businesses will survive. In an article dated April 29, 2020, which appeared on the website of Climbing, Bennett Slavsky, summed up reasons why climbing outdoors was discouraged amid the pandemic. “ A key component is so that climbers don’t travel from densely populated, highly infected regions to remote climbing destinations, introducing it to smaller local communities that lack robust medical facilities. Climbers can also spread the disease to one another while sharing ropes, climbing the same routes, or just being in close proximity at crags,’’ he noted. Sociability, so far a fun element in sport, may take a hit as physical distancing becomes necessary protocol. Vulnerable in this regard in climbing, could be bouldering, the sport’s most sociable format. Further, a simple visualization of potential scenarios will make you aware of operational difficulties in the field, particularly in contexts where outdoor activity is commercial or supervised with onus resting on a service provider. For instance, while wilderness first aid courses can prep you to recognize symptoms and activate relevant protocols in the outdoors, unlike in earlier cases where a single patient was evacuated and the rest continued hiking, COVID-19 demobilizes a whole group because every reported case is treated as patient plus contacts. Is this risk, commercially viable? Already there is talk among adventure tour operators of small companies being particularly vulnerable in the current downturn. “ Currently there are too many ifs and buts. There is a threshold that must be crossed. There is both the need for a certain level of pick up in traffic and comfort with overall environment before these outdoor activities can resume at sustainable scale,’’ Vaibhav Kala, founder of Aquaterra Adventures, one of India’s biggest adventure tour companies, said. As and when authorities allow operations to restart, small customized trips featuring limited number of people from one family or a close group of friends may be the genre first off the block, he added. That was the view from the commercial side.

Like many sports waiting to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, climbing and hiking will have to come up with its share of disease related protocols for the short to medium term. The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), global climbing’s apex body, has a COVID-19 Crisis Consultation (CCC) task force and webpage devoted to the pandemic. Indian climbing has at least two organizations capable of accessing international expertise on subjects close to its heart – the IMF and the Himalayan Club. The IMF has a circular from early April, albeit tucked into its news archives, providing overview of the COVID-19 situation. A director of MAC said that the council is aware of challenges to the field posed by COVID-19. For the commercial side of adventure activities in India, there is the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI). For ground level coaching of hikers and climbers, there are the mountaineering institutes and the outdoor clubs. Many outdoor clubs are members of IMF and state level adventure associations. Point is, theoretically speaking; the domestic world of climbing and hiking has a structure – an edifice – through which important information about the sport may be transmitted to ground level. It is possible to source relevant protocol and coach people in it down the line so that at the very least, those who report for activity as and when it is permitted are aware of the full ramifications of the new normal. Emphasis on “ theoretically speaking.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Running can learn from climbing’s organizational structure

Indian distance runners have long held promise on the international stage – the late Shivnath Singh had finished eleventh in the marathon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics; T. Gopi placed 25th in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics besides being Asian champion in 2017. Elite athletes have their protocols addressed by organizations like the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Athletics Federation of India (AFI). In fact, on the eve of lockdown, news reports mentioned guidelines issued by government to elite athletes on how to manage themselves amid pandemic. On March 28, 2020, The New Indian Express carried an interview with Volker Herrmann, AFI’s high performance director on lockdown regimens suggested for the elites.

What about the vast number of amateur runners?

As in climbing, running too has its clubs. Running is the bigger sport by a wide margin. It has annual events participated in by tens of thousands of people. With COVID-19 around, that size and scale of running also proved to be its Achilles Heel. Mass participation made it vulnerable before a virus with insatiable appetite for new hosts and pace of infection to match. Predictably, as the disease spread worldwide, major marathons got cancelled or postponed. Amateur running is more or less in hibernation. So far, amateur runners in India appear to have addressed lockdown in a fairly efficient decentralized, democratic fashion with leading coaches and runners offering advice online on how to stay fit and remain promising for the times when lockdown eventually relaxes. But there is a gap as regards new normal, that time post-lockdown when everyday activity must respect safety protocols as well. Protocols have to be imagined well, possess a standardized core, be accessible to all and must be communicated clearly. In this, having an element of organizational structure helps for both conviction and communication.

Recently, after weeks of lockdown and battering by COVID-19, Spain allowed morning joggers back on the road. It was done with safety protocols in place. Mark Steven Woolley is a retired ultramarathon runner living in the southern part of Spain. “ Everyone is pretty respectful of the distances and makes space for everyone to pass. The MTBs and runners share the same trails. It’s very cordial and relaxed,’’ he wrote in to this blog about the new normal requiring physical distancing. Mark – he has been finisher at major ultramarathons including La Ultra The High – is currently experimenting with mountain biking. From Czech Republic, elite athlete Adam Ondra shared with the world, a picture of him back to climbing outdoors. Climbing magazine reported of select crags reopening in Canada and Austria with COVID-19 protocols to be observed alongside. None of these predicaments are comparable with India’s, a crowded country of 1.3 billion people. However, if we go by these precedents (strictly as potential pattern), then, much before running returns as event, our right to run or walk in the morning will be restored. This will be accompanied by need for protocols, especially physical distancing. If one imagines further, weeks of such cautious return to activity could lead to resurrection of the old informal monthly group runs. It makes sense to try an event after observing how these informally organized runs play out.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In Mumbai, group runs used to be overseen by major running clubs like Striders, Mumbai Road Runners and groups built around well-known coaches. If clarity is available early enough on what the disease related safety protocols to follow (specific to running) are, then these runs (they may not remain as clustered and sociable as before) can become opportunity to perfect new protocols like physical distancing and acquaint runners with them. They can help ensure that as and when events resurface, those who register are familiar with the new normal. Running has in its ranks those from the medical profession. Evolving correct protocols and disseminating it shouldn’t be tough provided a communication structure is in place. The question amid pandemic is – does amateur running in India have an edifice whereby a standard set of protocols recommended from the top is assured percolation to the bottom? Does amateur running in India have an apex body (that can decide on standardized protocols) with large city based-clubs and smaller ones positioned below, all linked for ease of communication? Inquiries revealed that the answer for now is – no; there isn’t any such structure. Without this structure (at least at big city or regional level), the clubs risk being left to their own imagination, when it comes to new normal and relevant protocols. It results in poor use of a valuable asset. There was also concern on how well the informally organized runs may serve to introduce the new normal because, in India, the sociability of running has always been a major attraction. Isn’t there something for amateur running in India to reflect on, in all this? Of relevance is also the architecture displayed by World Athletics in its move some time back to set up a medical task force for races. The task force saw collaboration between World Athletics and the International Institute for Race Medicine (IIRM).

A word of caution

Human beings are suckers for power and authority. If you allow organizations to grow in influence or exceed their mandate, you will kill the natural freedom of sport. Focus will then shift from sport to regulation and soon, to politics. The best type of organization is one that steps up when intervention is needed and steps back when its intervention is no longer required. Under all circumstances, the feel of organization and intervention must be light. Else, instead of addressing virus, you defeat sport.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The above article has been presented here in the interest of thought and discussion. The author is not an expert in climbing, hiking, running or healthcare.)

OUR REFLECTION IN PETER

Peter Van Geit at the talk in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was a small gathering, just outside the shop floor of a major sports goods retailer in Navi Mumbai. Maybe 15-20 people at best; a couple of them were the retail chain’s staff. But that didn’t stop Peter Van Geit from speaking passionately about what he had been doing the past several months.

A Belgian national and former employee of tech giant, Cisco, Chennai-based Peter is well known in the Indian outdoors. He was among prime movers at the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), contributed much to promoting the active lifestyle, helped clean up the city’s beaches, did excellent relief work during the Chennai floods and then got villainized when an unexpected forest fire killed several trekkers in Theni. That last incident from March 2018 was a tense chapter.

At CTC, one of the activities Peter and others embraced was ultrarunning. They would run for a few days covering a couple of hundred kilometers. In 2018, Peter commenced a personal project. Over 75 days, he ran (the right term would be fast-hiked) 1500 kilometers along trails and across some 40 high mountain passes in Himachal Pradesh and the then state of Jammu & Kashmir. This venture followed an earlier one in Vietnam, wherein he ran close to 2000 kilometers over hilly terrain. Then in 2019, running from the Uttarakhand-Nepal border towards Himachal Pradesh and Zanskar, he crossed 120 passes. The number includes little known routes taken by shepherds, who incidentally are his frequent refuge for food and shelter on these trips. Later that year, in a foray to the Maharashtra Sahyadri and the Konkan coast, he ran or cycled linking some 200 forts. Active on social media with his travel posts, Peter has a fan base. In January 2020, when Peter was in Mumbai to speak at the Himalayan Club, this writer shared a suburban train journey with him. He was quickly recognized by co-passengers and selfies taken.

At two presentations I attended this year, there was a slide that always drew laughs. It showed a small child sitting naked on a beach. “ That’s me. I was minimalist even then,’’ Peter would quip. He says traveling light makes him fast. On the trail, that means less stuff hauled around as he manages to either reach known shelter or camp light at lower elevation having already got past the high crux. That’s utter contrast with the regular. Consider this: a typical photograph of Peter from the Himalaya shows him in running shorts, a small backpack, a thin T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. The backdrop is high altitude; steep, snow clad, at times glacier, clearly cold. Other speakers at the same venue may have just presented slides of them and others in similar environment clad in multiple layers, armed with gear and heavy backpack. That would be the Himalayan experience of most in the audience too.

In the mutual admiration society we are, people flock to similar others. Peter gets applause but you wonder – was he accepted into the tribe? Much of the establishment sitting in judgement came up in a more structured fashion with outdoor courses done and rigid views of what defines a particular sport. They seem organization-builders; lovers of hive and the politics of the hive if we were all bees. Corporate – you could say, for imagery. Peter seems an activity-lover, happiest outdoors, happy to be afloat afterwards in a people’s durbar. In his heart warming short film, Peter stumbles, slips, gets his face liberally licked by a buffalo, does some sketchy river-crossings. Those formally trained in outdoor techniques will question some of his actions. Yet there he was, up in the mountains, doing a hybrid of running and high altitude hiking, most of the time solo. Solo is something few Indians like. Indians are all about groups. Further, where most of us make a whole annual trek out of one pass, he was polishing off a pass a day. For now in India’s world of hiking-mountaineering and running, the Peter-way is an outlier.

Here’s another vignette – Peter is a runner but now nurses little appetite for the organized marathons, ultramarathons and stadium runs that the majority of runners favor. He likes to be away from cities and crowds. When out in the Himalaya, he lives and eats with shepherds and at houses along the trail; he likes that simpler life. He navigates with digital map and GPS co-ordinates on his smartphone used offline and set to battery saving-mode. On the Konkan coast, confronted with the fort of Suvarnadurg located on an island a kilometer out in the sea, he just swam across to access it. The central values of his excursions appear freedom, solitude and living the life he wants. Accessible and easy to talk to, Peter may impress as anything from celebration of the outdoor spirit to bull in a china shop unintentionally smashing our gear laden surrogate commando self-image, with his minimalist approach.

Peter, in a Mumbai suburban train, en route to a lecture (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To be fair, Peter’s journeys in India fell in a list of projects headed to the body of work he achieved. Long before digital became commonplace in India, in 1997, a team of Indian women completed a trans-Himalayan trek from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh to the Karakorum Pass. They crossed 39 passes above 3000m, 15 passes above 2000m and covered 4500 kilometers in 198 days. In the years that followed, at least one seasoned outdoorsman anchored a project seeking to thread a hiking route from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border, replete with GPS co-ordinates for independent hikers to use. More than five years ago, when the Himalaya was yet to be run as Peter did, this writer spoke of the project in waiting to an Indian ultrarunner. Nothing happened. Over August-October 2018, a team of three young Indian mountaineers hiked from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border crossing 27 passes (please try this link for their story:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/13/a-long-walk-traversing-the-western-himalaya/). Then over 2018 and 2019, in two tranches, Peter crossed around 160 passes in the western part of the Indian Himalaya, visited 200 forts in Maharashtra and made the journeys available as digital resource. His own project, Peter has said, was initially spurred by data from a blog by Bengaluru-based trekker Satyanarayana; in the blog Satya used to document with GPS logs, the passes he visited.

It was two years ago that Peter resigned his job, did an Airbnb with his house and embarked on a new life of running around. At the February 2020 talk in Navi Mumbai, he spoke of young Indians he met during his long stay in the country, who were stronger athletes than him but whose promise faded with marriage and corporate life. The young people in the audience laughed. Peter’s face remained expressionless. “ It is not a laughing matter. Life is short and you live only once,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/; https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/)