7KM SHORT, 215KM OF LEARNING

Shikha Pahwa (Photo: courtesy Shikha)

What defines outcome – the goal or the experience? This is an article by invitation. In 2019, Delhi-based runner Shikha Pahwa set out to attempt the 222km-race of La Ultra-The High in Ladakh. She tackled 215 kilometers before a combination of weather, fatigue and injury forced her to pull out (215 is the figure Shikha heard at the time of DNF, the figure shown on the race website is 212km. We decided to go with 215 because this is  a first person account of an experience and what you hear in the thick of an experience is part of it). For the past few years, Shikha has been a regular on the Ladakh circuit. In 2018, she ran the 111km distance category of La Ultra-The High, completing it in 18 hours, 15 minutes, 42 seconds. The year before that she was winner among women in the 72km Khardung La Challenge. In 2016, she had placed second among women in the Ladakh Marathon. This is her account of participating in the 222km race of La Ultra-The High in 2019.

My decision to attempt the 222km race at La Ultra–The High in Ladakh had its share of apprehensions. Not only was it double the longest distance I had run till then but its route also lingered at high altitude for a longer period of time given two mountain passes to tackle. Temperatures would range from minus 10 to 30 degrees Celsius.

I was not new to running in Ladakh. I had participated in events there since the past three years. I knew what I was getting into. To sum it up, I would say the 111km I had done the previous year was just a trailer.

Training for the 222km-run was not easy in Delhi. The weather and the terrain of the national capital are nowhere close to what one experiences in Ladakh. I focused therefore on just one aspect – more time, staying up on my feet. To be able to move for 48 hours at a stretch I needed to do a lot of training on tired legs. I started with two consecutive days of running 40km and 30km during the weekend for a month or so and then progressed to three consecutive days of 50km, 40km and 30km starting from Friday through the weekend for about two months. During Delhi’s summer months of May to July, this routine sapped my energy. In this period, I also participated in the Tuffman Shimla 80km ultra-marathon, mainly as practice for La Ultra-The High. It turned out to be a good decision as the event route featured some steep uphill and downhill portions; exactly what I needed.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Weather conditions in Ladakh can be unpredictable. At La Ultra-The High, runners are warned to be prepared for rain or snow or heat or all of them. I knew the drill and I was ready. But the mountains proved me wrong.

On August 17, 2019, runners assembled at the start point in Nubra Valley. The race started at 6PM in light rain; it continued for approximately 60 kilometers. After that, it transformed to snow and blizzard. Going uphill to an altitude of 18,000 feet in those conditions was something I had never imagined. I felt like giving up several times but somehow, looking at Nischint Katoch, the only other runner in sight, fighting the situation ahead, I pushed on putting one step before the other. As I had never walked in snow before, it was nothing short of a nightmare. To add to the whole experience, I started to feel a pinching pain in my left shin (it later turned out to be a stress fracture in the shin and a ligament tear in my ankle, as per the MRI test report).

I felt a sense of relief upon reaching Khardung La. I expected the downhill from there to be easy. But I was completely wrong. Moving downhill in the snow was very difficult. I slipped at least seven to eight times in the snow. I had absolutely no control over my feet. I was either stepping deep into snow or into icy puddles. Worried about the manner in which I was moving, the medical teams stopped several times to check if I was alright. I was okay, except that my shin pain was increasing with no clear solution for it.

Downhill running is something I love. I just give into gravity. As I am wont to, I let go and almost immediately I felt the pain in my shin. The next four kilometers I resorted to run-walk.

As part of the 222km event (and for distances in excess), we are assigned support crew. They joined us at the 87th kilometer. The crew is not there to merely help runners with hydration and nutrition. They also act as motivators to ensure that participants keep moving.

When I reached the said mark, my crew, Milam Shah from Nainital and Kunzes Dolma from Ladakh, immediately jumped into getting things ready to make me comfortable. After a short re-charge break, I headed out again. With no rain and snow, it felt like things were back on track.

Arriving at the 111 kilometer-mark at Shanti Stupa felt great as it was almost halfway point for my distance category. There was a huge round of cheering by the gathered volunteers. After a break at a guest house ahead, we headed out again. From Leh, it was pretty much a flat route for the next 60 odd kilometers. As easy as that sounds, it wasn’t so in real terms. It was mentally exhausting to get through the endless road especially at night. It was pitch-dark. My crew car was the only vehicle tailing me. I started feeling extremely sleepy. I fought to keep my eyes open and at one point started seeing things on the road that weren’t there. That was when I stopped the car and decided to take a 20 minute nap. Even after that it was a struggle to stay awake and so the crew stepped in. They took turns to walk with me, talking, making sure that I didn’t lose self-control. We had another stop to eat and sleep in the car. Eventually we made it to the 173 kilometer-mark at the next guest house. By then, my shin was red and swollen and I was suffering from fatigue. After consulting the doctors, eating and taking medicines for the pain, I slept for around two hours.

Feeling refreshed and ready to take on the last leg, we started moving again. It was just 49 kilometers to the finish line but half of it was climbing up to Wari La at an altitude of 17,500 feet. The weather was good and there were many people around, as the 55 kilometer-category runners were on the course. Slowly making my way up, I saw two friendly faces; my good friends Taher Merchant and Gregor Gucwa, who had come all the way just to support me. These are the priceless moments of participating in an event like La Ultra-The High. We get to meet amazing people. Both Gregor and Taher were participants of La Ultra-The High. Gregor was attempting the 222km and Taher, 111km (unfortunately, both had to give up due to altitude sickness. They came to Wari La for the final stretch of the race to support me).

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

After a couple of kilometers, Taher had to leave. Gregor and I, with the crew following, kept walking. As we gained altitude, the uphill walk became difficult. Gregor was going strong. He kept chatting with me and making sure that I was eating and hydrating all along. He helped me get through every sharp climb, one step at a time. We were on track, I was sure of making it to the finish in time. Then, reality hit back. We were told that there was snow along the route on the top. It brought back memories of the Khardung La stretch. The target got very very tight at this point prompting us to move faster. With snow and blizzard, there isn’t much you can do. It was slippery and wet all the way. Those four kilometers seemed endless. It played on my mind even more since I couldn’t see the point where I had to turn around; everything was just white.

At that juncture, I met Jyotsna Rawat, who is part of the La Ultra core crew team. She became my motivator, supporter and morale-booster for the moment, giving me the push that I needed, helping me to turn around. Gregor caught up soon enough, fighting the extreme weather, to be by my side. Although it was all downhill now, the snow and altitude didn’t allow us to gain much pace. With every step, time was slipping out of our hands. After the snow cleared, I started running down in small stretches. The pain in my shin was getting worse and the altitude was making me breathless. I knew there was very little chance of making it to the finish line before the cut-off time. Nevertheless, I kept pushing ahead.

The next time I asked Gregor if we would make it in time, he said it was too tight. Jyotsna, who was following me in a car, came up to ask if I wanted to continue, as there wasn’t enough time.

I was keen to finish even if it was after the cut-off time. But I had to slow down because of the agonizing pain in my shin. After another couple of kilometers I was again asked if I wanted to continue. There is that point when runners don’t see logic or consequences and are willing to endure pain and discomfort, just to reach the finish line. Gregor and the crew members tried very hard to convince me to stop, trying to prevent my injury from getting worse. After much resistance, I finally gave in. At that point I wasn’t sure how much distance was left. I later discovered that I had dropped out just seven kilometers from the finish line. Not wanting to go to the finish point at all, I was driven straight to the guest house close by to rest. After that, I only remember being comforted by Gregor, my crew and all the core crew members around.

I reached the 215 kilometer-mark but fell short of the finish by seven kilometers. To me it was an experience of a different kind. I wouldn’t term it failure. I witnessed several things for the first time, learnt a lot, realized my mistakes and understood how much the mind can push the body. Those 47.5 hours were one hell of a journey and I was extremely lucky to have so much support throughout. I couldn’t have gone through it without my crew and especially Gregor, who really is from another planet.

From La Ultra-The High (Photo: courtesy Shikha Pahwa)

Having said all this about how insane this experience was, I then look at those three super-humans – Jason Reardon, Matthew Maday and Ashish Kasodekar – who completed the 555 kilometer-event in similar conditions and over much longer distances; I feel I need to work a lot harder. Human endurance has seen a whole new level and I would be extremely happy to reach at least halfway there.

Putting together an event like this is a mammoth task. The core crew members were not there to just man the hydration points; there were multiple complex factors to take care of simultaneously in those harsh weather conditions and for several days at a stretch. Despite all that, they went all out to motivate and encourage every single runner on the course. These are the people who make the impossible, possible.

I wouldn’t call La Ultra-The High a race. I was competing with myself, fighting mind and body, battling fatigue, suffering sleep deprivation and nursing an injury. In a span of 48 hours, I saw an unbelievable side of nature and tremendous support from some amazing people. It was a completely overwhelming experience. As difficult as it was, I would like to go back and try again.

(The author, Shikha Pahwa, is a Delhi-based runner. She owns Café Qahwa, located in the city’s Safdarjung Development Area. The 222km category of La Ultra-The High saw only one finisher in 2019 – Amit Kumar, who covered the distance in 41 hours, 48 minutes. There were eight DNFs. As per the race website, both Shikha and Munir Kulavoor pulled out at 212km covered, the farthest run by those who stopped short of the finish. Shikha’s DNF followed that of Munir, the race organizers said.)

A PUNE CLUB AND ITS TRYST WITH 8000M

Mt Shivling (6543m / 21,466 feet). It was after an expedition to Shivling in 2007 that Giripremi’s string of expeditions to 8000m peaks, started (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

Climbing an 8000m peak is a major project. A project to climb all the fourteen 8000m peaks is in a league by itself. Aside from the climbing, crucial aspects therein are – project structure, funding and management. Pune-based mountaineering club Giripremi and its senior mountaineer, Umesh Zirpe, have been tackling this challenge for a while now. Here’s a snapshot of how the engagement with 8000m came about and how they managed repeated expeditions to high altitude.  

Shivling, the 21,466 feet-high peak in the Garhwal Himalaya, is among the most beautiful mountains in the world.

It resembles a rugged pyramid. While ascents along steep ridge lines visible on the mountain’s popular pictures have won climbers the highest accolades in mountaineering, its regular climbing route moves up the mountain’s bulk that lay behind its well-known visage. But regular route or not, any climb on Shivling entails technical climbing. It is not an easy peak, modest elevation notwithstanding. In 2007, Pune-based mountaineering club, Giripremi, marked its silver jubilee celebration with an expedition to climb Shivling.

According to Umesh Zirpe, senior member of Giripremi, when the expedition returned to Pune after the climb, there were interactions with the public. At one such meeting, a woman held forth on her relative who had just been on a pilgrimage called Char Dham in the lower Himalaya. To her mind, Char Dham and attempting Shivling represented the same level of objective difficulty – it was all similar; all Himalaya. For Umesh, who had plans for more expeditions, the interaction was both reason to feel aghast and a lesson in marketing. Funding mountaineering expeditions has been traditionally difficult for civilians in India. It is an expensive sport entailing costly equipment, travel to remote places and eventually a method of team-work wherein the hard work of many will put a handful on coveted summit. It is also a fringe sport in India with proper awareness of climbing restricted to those who have been out in the mountains. In their ranks Shivling is hugely respected. Move away from that niche to larger world, and knowledge of technical climbing and other objective difficulties faced at elevation, fade. How do you raise funds for mountaineering if the public’s knowledge of climbing is limited?

South Col, Everest (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The Indian state of Maharashtra (where Pune is) had a successful civilian expedition to Everest in 1998; it was called Tata Everest Expedition, named so after the main sponsor. One of the expedition’s two members reaching the summit of Everest – Surendra Chavan – was from Giripremi. By 2007, mountaineering in India was increasingly aware of objectives like the many challenging peaks of medium elevation in the Himalaya (overlooked through obsession with Everest) and the much prized goal among mountaineers worldwide of climbing the planet’s fourteen 8000m peaks. Not to mention – Seven Summits, the quest to reach the highest point on every continent. Umesh’s vision was to attempt good climbs, go for the 8000m peaks and promote mountain sports on a large scale so that it got noticed. To do any of this you need funds. Problem was – in the public’s perception height of peak was everything. Therein nothing beats Everest (8848m / 29,029 feet) although as guided ascent by its regular route, the mountain is not ranked a major challenge by climbers. Still, as the woman at the public interaction proved, the world was blind to mountaineering’s details. All it asked was: how high did you climb? Space probes journeying far from Earth sometimes exploit the proximity of celestial objects to propel themselves onward. It is called gravitational sling-shot, gravity assist maneuver or swing-by. Umesh knew after that public interaction, Giripremi would have to be sling-shot on its journey by Everest. The club should first summit Everest and bring mountaineering closer to the public, if they are to become interested in more such big projects. Right then, in Maharashtra’s mountaineering circles that approach seemed regressive. Especially since Giripremi had just returned from Shivling, a peak genuinely respected by climbers. But then marketing has its rules and those rules are decided by the market.

Umesh joined Giripremi in 1986. He was into rock climbing; he also did his mountaineering courses from government-run institutes in the Himalaya. When the Shivling expedition occurred he was already some 20 years old at the club. A tax consultant by profession, he had become one of Maharashtra’s most successful expedition leaders with major peaks climbed by his teams (eight of these expeditions were to 8000m peaks). He had also been conferred the state’s Shiv Chhatrapati Award. Giripremi is at present Maharashtra’s most accomplished mountaineering club by a wide margin. The journey started in 2007 when after Giripremi’s return from Shivling and that session spent listening to Char Dham, steps commenced for a club expedition to Everest. “ I decided that mountaineering required the hue of a brand; something that draws the attention of the public. We will tell the people what the sport is. I was certain that I wanted to leverage Everest to popularize mountaineering,’’ he told this blog, July 2019, at Giripremi’s office in Pune. The planned Everest expedition featuring 13 members was estimated to cost Rs 3.5 crore (1 crore = 10 million). The number of climbers was large for a reason. Umesh wanted to avoid that classic mountaineering endgame of only a handful reaching the top. It kept a few in the limelight; the others faded to backdrop.

Umesh Zirpe (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The expedition budget initially shocked Giripremi. Back in 1998, a smaller budget for Everest had nearly gone unmet and the eventually successful expedition was a case of last minute bail-out by the leading Indian business conglomerate, Tata. Giripremi’s biggest budget till its Everest expedition was the just preceding trip to Shivling; that cost Rs 10 lakhs (1 lakh = 100,000). Umesh also wanted an altered approach to expedition. “ Usually in our expeditions a bunch of climbers did everything from beginning to end. By the time they reached the peak, they were tired. I didn’t want that, I wanted my climbers to be able to focus on their training and climbing,’’ Umesh said. He called for a meeting of mountaineers from Maharashtra. Around 125 people turned up to help the Everest expedition and spread word about the need for funds. In the fund raising campaign that followed, Umesh estimates that close to 25,000 people extended support. The campaign also had hooks built in. For instance, there was a trek arranged to the top of Kalsubai (5400 feet), Maharashtra’s highest peak. More than 470 people signed a banner kept on the summit; it would travel with the Giripremi team to Everest Base Camp. Specifically with regard to his climbing team, Umesh demanded commitment of two years from every member. Six people resigned their jobs to comply. The expedition members took to staying at the Giripremi office (while Umesh did not articulate it as such, others this blog spoke to said that this would have helped the team bond and know each other better). Aside from regular training, they also had sessions for meditation and breathing exercises. “ Roughly 80 per cent of funds for this expedition came from individual contributions. About 20 per cent was from company sponsorships,’’ Umesh said. It is a critical ratio. For in its progressive change over the years lay the contours of the machinery Umesh and Giripremi were putting in place. On May 19, 2012, eight members of Giripremi’s team reached the top of Everest. After the expedition, the attitude was one of objective met. For Umesh, it was launch pad for the next stage – attempt the planet’s fourteen 8000m peaks.

Last section before summit of Makalu (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The next peak the club focused on was Lhotse (8516m / 27,940 feet). It is adjacent to Everest and given some members from the 2012 Everest expedition hadn’t been able to top out, this expedition was made a joint Lhotse-Everest expedition. The previous success on Everest helped. Company sponsorships were more. According to Umesh, the ratio of financing for the new expedition settled at 60 per cent from individual contributions and 40 per cent from companies. In mid-May 2013, up on Everest, the team’s progress was hampered by unexpected bad weather at Camp 4. Descending to lower camps and then returning in fair weather was not an option as the Sherpas accompanying the team made it clear that in such weather conditions a descent would be descent for good. There would be no coming back up. Given oxygen supply was dwindling alongside, Umesh volunteered to go down; it would spare bottles for the others. On May 17, three Giripremi climbers reached the top of Everest. Same day, Ashish Mane from the club, reached the summit of Lhotse. The club now turned its attention to Makalu (8485m / 27,838 feet). In the Makalu expedition which followed in 2014, Ashish Mane became the first Indian civilian to reach the summit. In 2016 Giripremi had successful expeditions to Cho Oyu (8188m / 26,864 feet / two persons summited) and Dhaulagiri (8167m / 26,795 feet / Prasad Joshi became the first Indian civilian to summit the peak). In 2017, Giripremi reached the top of Manaslu (8163m / 26,781 feet) with two members summitting. Then in May 2019, it planted ten club members on the top of Kanchenjunga (8586m / 28,169 feet). “ That leaves Shishapangma and Annapurna from the list of 8000m peaks accessible to Indians,’’ Umesh said. The remaining peaks are in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Giripremi plans to attempt Shishapangma in 2020.

Ashish Mane; he reached the top of five 8000m peaks besides being the first Indian civilian climber to summit Makalu (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

With this journey since the 2007 Shivling expedition, club member Ashish Mane has the distinction of reaching the top of five 8000m peaks (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Manaslu and Kanchenjunga). Others from the club with the distinction of summiting at least two 8000m peaks include Ganesh More, Dr Sumit Mandale, Bhushan Harshe, Anand Mali, Rupesh Khopade and Krushna Dhokale. From an organization perspective (which is the thrust of this article) there are trends to note. When you ask about Umesh in mountaineering circles, you hear him described as someone focused on what needs to be done and a manager of people who connects with others. By his own admission, he has gone out of his way to ensure that his team members are properly taken care of; at one point he even met a company CEO to secure employment for a climber so that the latter could continue training for one of Giripremi’s expeditions in peace. You sensed premium for loyalty in the operating ambiance. There are also other vignettes of the style of project execution and attention to keeping constituents happy. Giripremi has done social work in the Everest region. Project Shivaji was launched for the welfare of the Sherpa community in the Solukhumbu valley; Mt Everest is located in the northern part of Solukhumbu district. In 2012, a statue of the Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji was installed at Gorakshep (16,942 feet), on the way to Everest Base Camp. Three years later, the club did relief work when Nepal was hit by a major earthquake in April 2015 (it did so at times of calamity in other parts of the Himalaya too – in Uttarakhand [2013] and Ladakh [2010]).

Still, what matters more from the perspective of repeating expeditions to major peaks is how well the project model transitions to stable funding. As subject, sustainable funding of expeditions has often been glossed over at India’s outdoor clubs. Good climbing clubs are a composite of considerable experience in the outdoors plus a convergence of people having different professional skills. With good leadership, mechanisms can be evolved and institutionalized to set up funds devoted for expeditions that a club can periodically dip into; at the very least, make the hunt for funds easier to handle. However, the traditional tendency at clubs has been to address expeditions as they arise. Once an objective is decided, the scramble for funds starts again, from scratch. At Giripremi, you notice departure from this attitude; you detect different pattern.

Prasad Joshi; first Indian civilian climber to summit Dhaulagiri (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

As of 2019, Giripremi had organized more than 40 expeditions to the Himalaya (source: information provided in a diary brought out by the club). Somewhere along the way, the resource base available for Giripremi to play with began to change. Arguably the toughest part of life by expedition is getting started; that is when inertia is highest. Once the ball gets rolling, it develops its own momentum. The growing confidence and familiarity with solving problems become lubricant for journey’s progress. Through the club’s earlier expeditions, including the ones to Shivling and Everest, Giripremi built up a stock of mountaineering gear. Once bought, this equipment is good for several expeditions. Consequently such capital costs slowly declined with each expedition. The club’s budget for Everest in 2012 may have been Rs 3.5 crore. But according to Umesh, Lhotse-Everest settled at around Rs 90 lakhs and Makalu at Rs 60 lakhs. The budget for Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri was one crore rupees; for Kanchenjunga, a major peak with time consuming access, the budget was Rs 1.57 crore. These figures must be read alongside location of peak, logistics and expedition size.

Further the ratio in funding between individual contributions and corporate sponsorships changed more from where it was by Lhotse-Everest. For the Makalu expedition it was 50:50. “ Now, we are at around 20:80, with 80 being corporate sponsorship,’’ Umesh said. Without doubt the Pune environment has contributed to this pattern of progressively institutionalized funding. After the successful 1965 Everest Expedition sponsored by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the early fulcrum of civilian mountaineering in India was Kolkata. The city and the state of West Bengal have many mountaineering clubs and they are known to have traditional strength in collecting funds through individual contributions. But well-oiled club machinery devoted to systematically targeting big budget 8000m peaks and repeating expeditions of that magnitude year after year (as Giripremi did) is rarely heard of. One likely reason for this – as per those familiar with the West Bengal mountaineering scene that this blog spoke to in Mumbai – was the lack of resource-rich clubs. West Bengal has a community that backs mountaineering and donates at the individual level to assist expeditions. But clubs backed by organizations / patrons with deep pockets, are few. Equally, once past the threshold of support by individual donors, expeditions don’t have a large base of companies to turn to, locally. As aggregators of people and resources, companies have the financial strength to sponsor expeditions on a scale individual contributions pooled-in, would find tough to match. Major companies (and companies in general) capable of vaulting civilian expeditions into the big budget league are more in western India.

Beholding peaks (from left to right): Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

At Giripremi’s 8000m expeditions, the drift to more and more company provided-funds was likely made possible by some structural changes in overall model. Around the time of the club’s Manaslu expedition, those working on the 8000m peaks project started an 8000-er club. By all accounts, in terms of economic background, this club is a notch above the regular outdoor club. “ Currently this small club has about 85 individuals and eight companies as members,’’ Umesh said. Members of this niche club get to hire equipment from the cachet of gear accumulated by Giripremi through sustained mountaineering. They can also avail facilities from another initiative commenced by Giripremi – the Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering (GGIM). In a national climbing ecosystem with leading government run mountaineering institutes located in the north, GGIM is Maharashtra’s first establishment in that role. The institute has a battery of services. As per its website, the institute – its advisory board has officials from the IMF and India’s mountaineering institutes – offers adventure courses, treks and hikes, mountaineering expeditions, tour of the Sahyadri for expats and adventure programs for companies. In August 2016, it launched a rescue co-ordination center for adventure enthusiasts landing in trouble in the state’s Sahyadri range. According to Umesh, Giripremi is a NGO while GGIM is a NGO under the Companies Act. GGIM is operated in league with the business group – Guardian Corporation; the latter’s involvement falls in the category of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). GGIM has tangible services to offer individuals and companies. In turn, that shared ecosystem, the goodwill it generates and the many people and companies it touches, is available to assist Giripremi’s expeditions. Not just that; as Umesh pointed out, GGIM has provided full time employment to some whose first love is climbing and the outdoors; they have been thus spared the need to struggle for livelihood in contexts they don’t fit in as well. One more point qualifies Giripremi’s funding model. Their backers are usually medium sized companies, not large ones. Umesh explained the reason. “ Large companies have more capital. But it is also true that decisions in such environments take time because the owners or really top officials, who decide on sponsoring expeditions, are far up in the hierarchy from the levels you get to speak to. On the other hand, at medium sized companies, this distance is less. You get to speak to owners. We typically speak to a basket of medium sized companies,” Umesh said.

Giripremi’s 8000m expeditions, essayed with Sherpa-support,  are not unquestioningly lauded by all in the climbing fraternity. For sure these expeditions are not in the same league as the alpine ascents, winter ascents and ascents up difficult routes done by some other countries. But it is a significant beginning and everyone this blog spoke to said, disagreements aside, credit must be given where it is due. Mumbai-based mountaineer, Rajesh Gadgil is a senior member of The Himalayan Club, one of the oldest and most respected institutions in mountaineering. “ I may have my differences of opinion in terms of what constitutes a great climb. But I cannot overlook a few important factors in the Giripremi story. First, they have been very consistent with their visits to the Himalaya. Second, they systematically groomed a new generation of climbers. Umesh is the expedition leader. His team belongs to a younger generation and that speaks volumes about how the club has operated, bridging generations. This is not a case of one group of people excelling and the club declining after they are gone. They have transmitted the enthusiasm onward. Third, they availed the same support systems as anyone else seeking to climb the high Himalaya. Yet, even as accidents occurred for others, Giripremi expeditions have returned safely from altitude, year after year.” Mountaineering circles recalled that there was a time long ago, when a set of tragic reversals in the Himalaya saw Giripremi reviewing its engagement with the world’s highest mountain range. The club eventually resolved to continue its expeditions to the Himalaya. The present track record follows that introspection, those this blog spoke to in Mumbai, said.

According to Umesh, the selection procedure followed for the Pune club’s 8000m expeditions is strict. A high level of physical fitness is demanded from participants. This is complemented by much training and preparation. “ Before each major expedition I travel to the location concerned to see for myself what the place is like and to develop a first hand idea of what safety and rescue measures we should have in place. We go in with Plan A, Plan B – like that. Finally, there is God’s grace,” Umesh said. Rajesh pointed out that steps like expedition members working and staying together at the Giripremi office would have introduced a degree of mutual familiarity in advance; something critical when it comes to intervening and assisting in hostile environments like high altitude. “ You typically listen to those you know. When you have known somebody for long, you trust their judgement,” he said. One classic occasion, when this mutual trust and respect becomes important is when people are told to descend for safety, much against their own wishes and perception of self. Timely descent from altitude has often saved lives.

On Kanchenjunga; approaching Camp 4 (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

Umesh’s real legacy in Indian civilian mountaineering is most probably the systems and structures he evolved, which bring an element of sustainability – including sustainable funding – to mountaineering expeditions. Unfortunately even as he and Giripremi have emerged successful, the model they used may be a tough act to follow. Umesh’s journey started with Everest selected as objective for very practical reasons. At that time – Giripremi’s Everest expeditions happened in 2012 and 2013 – there were eyebrows raised in Maharashtra’s climbing circles over this continued pursuit of Everest, a much climbed peak and one associated strongly with commercial expeditions to boot. For mountaineers, the criticism was relevant. For the general public, it didn’t matter; in their eyes Everest was the pinnacle of mountaineering. To their credit, Giripremi successfully transitioned the public attention on their projects provided by Everest, to projects involving other peaks. However, by 2019, Everest, which kick-started the 8000m journey of Giripremi and Umesh, had fallen in public perception. There was yet again a season of high number of mountaineering deaths and most importantly a bulk of the blame was heaped on too many people lured to attempt the peak because the normal route is not very hard to do. If you can afford to pay the required money, guiding companies take you up. Queues built up at altitude when conditions turned adverse affecting climbers’ progress. Inexperienced climbers added to the mess. The long wait and exposure to the elements took its toll; people died. The media glare on Everest and the many stories told has meant the magic of Everest dimmed proportionately. The media has also brought to light the high levels of garbage collected and brought back from Everest at the end of each climbing season. It is likely that now if you say you are planning Everest, at least some may ask: can’t you spare it? Don’t you have another peak to try?

Simply put, it will be difficult to make Everest the sling-shot it was for Umesh and Giripremi.

What can you use other than Everest?

Time will tell.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Umesh Zirpe in Pune. Further conversation for building context and adding shades to debate was provided by others hailing from Mumbai’s climbing circles.) 

“ IF YOU ARE MOVING, YOU ARE DOING IT’’

Arham Shaikh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In June 2019, a young cyclist from Pune found himself unexpectedly on the saddle at the 3000 miles (4800 km) long-Race Across America (RAAM). He had sought to crew for a team but found himself accepted as a racer. It was an unbelievable opportunity; he hadn’t trained for it, he was a fan among some of the world’s best ultra-cyclists and he was pedaling the same route they were on. Arham Shaikh recalls his RAAM experience and his journey in cycling so far.

In 1990, Colin Needham, an engineer working for computer giant HP in Bristol, started the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). It provides information on movies, TV programs, video games, home videos and content streamed online. Since 1998, IMDb has been owned by Amazon. The database has a page devoted to the top 25 Indian films based on sports. Placed eighth on the list as of August 2019, was the 1992 Hindi film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, the highlight of which was a bicycle race.

RAAM 2019; cycling through Arizona (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

The movie was a hit at the Indian box office. Arham Shaikh wasn’t yet born when the film released. But it was this movie and its bicycle race that got the young man, born 1993 in Pune, wanting to do something in cycling. Getting to focus on the sport took a while. Growing up, he was into several activities. “ I believe it is one life and I have to do everything. If I am not learning I am as good as dead,’’ Arham said. Thanks to his being in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), his childhood lived up to that credo. He got to train in mountaineering; yachting, shooting and diving. As university student, he also got into rowing and kayaking. He was in the naval wing of NCC. His desire was to join the Indian Navy. But the fact that he ended up graduating in computer science as opposed to being an engineer restricted his prospects for selection by the navy. It must have hurt for Arham had even been best NCC cadet at the all India level, once. However that cycling bug didn’t let go. It hung on.

RAAM’s route from the US west coast to the east ( Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Arham’s father initially worked in the hotel industry and later, with the Baba Kalyani group of companies. His mother worked for Tata Motors. When he was in seventh standard, they bought him his first road bike – a BSA Mach 1. He asked his school coach what he should do to train and become a good cyclist. It was an unusual request; school coaches in India are typically generalists. Coach and ward had to figure out their way. Sole phase of proper structured intervention in between was a month when Arham trained at Kreeda Prabodhini in Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex. They trained competitive cyclists. Then in tenth standard, Arham finished on the podium at a national level road race. He was promised a good road bike at home but funds crunch ensured it remained a mirage. A few years later his brother acquired a Hercules hybrid. Hitting the roads with that, Arham gradually got introduced to the culture of randonneuring, which had by then taken roots in Pune. Although he tagged along on his own with the riders, he didn’t do a BRM officially at this stage. He was a bit too casual and unorganized in his cycling gear to meet the safety standards demanded by the organizers. They recognized his earnestness but politely emphasized safety more.

Arham (left) at a pre-race interview for television, in San Jose (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Towards the closing stages of graduation, Arham worked with the sole intention of saving enough money to buy a good road bike. He worked for a Pune based-bicycle retail shop called Cymour. Around this time, Divya Tate of Inspire India – she also oversaw randonneuring in India – had commenced the annual 400 mile (646 km) bicycle race called Deccan Cliffhanger. At a ride to Lonavala (a hill station roughly 65 kilometers from Pune) organized by Cymour, Arham got to meet Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath. The latter asked Arham to crew for him at the 2014 Deccan Cliffhanger. Arham assembled the crew. Cymour helped Srinivas procure a new road bike – a Merida Scultura 300. “ It was a good race,’’ Arham said of the experience. That year, Chaitanya Valhal finished first; Srinivas placed second. Arham was sure he would try Deccan Cliffhanger sometime. Four months after he started working for Cymour, he received a Scott Speedster 30 as payment. Working for Cymour meant more than just getting that cycle. He learnt how to service and repair bikes, not to mention, he got insight into online sales. In 2015 Chaitanya became Arham’s coach. Arham went on to race at Deccan Cliffhanger in 2015, 2016 and 2017 – on all three occasions as part of teams (twice 2-person; once 4-person) he christened Relay Spirit; on all three occasions his team finished on the podium. He also made sure that besides participating in Deccan Cliffhanger, he crewed at one another race. The mix he followed every year was several short distance races, one ultra-distance event and an instance of crewing.

From the pre-race briefing session; Arham with members of Team Serpentine Golden Girls, a 4 person-relay team from UK competing in the 70-74 years age category at RAAM 2019. They had completed RAAM in 2008 earning the distinction of being the oldest female team to finish the race then. Unfortunately, although they cycled for seven days, 16 hours and 15 minutes covering 2673 miles in that while, they could not finish the 2019 edition of the race (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Meanwhile the basket of races at Inspire India grew. In 2017, Arham thought of attempting Ultra Spice, at 1750 kilometers (it also has a 1000 km version), the longest race in their collection. But the dates clashed with a short distance race he had signed up for in Ahmedabad. There was also another event smoldering at the back of his mind; one he had heard spoken of a lot in the cycling circles around Inspire India – Race Across America (RAAM), the event entailing a ride, 4800 kilometers long, from the US west coast to the east. In 2017, Srinivas became the first Indian to complete RAAM solo; Amit Samarth became the first Indian to complete it solo on the very first attempt. At a subsequent party at Divya’s house, Srinivas shared his RAAM experience. Arham was in the audience. It added to the pull RAAM had on Arham. But embarking on a RAAM project was unthinkable for him just then; it cost a lot. A year later, in 2018, Amit successfully completed the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, a race over 9000 kilometers in length, almost twice as long as RAAM. Same year, Arham was asked if he would like to crew for Amit at Inspire India’s Great Himalayan Ultra. That good fortune of offers coming his way didn’t end there.

Arham with Pete Pensyres, winner of RAAM in 1984 and 1987. Pete held the record for being the fastest cyclist at the race for 27 years till in 2013, his record was broken by Christoph Strasser (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

In October 2018, Lt Col Bharat Pannu informed Arham that he was set to go for 2019 RAAM and as far as he was concerned, Arham was part of his core team for crewing. Arham likes everything at a race except driving the crew car, which he finds limiting as regards learning. Bharat assigned the responsibility of navigation and rider care to him. The team was well prepared. Bharat left a month ahead of everyone else for 2019 RAAM. He needed to train in the US, get used to cycling there and acclimatize. The first lot of the crew including Arham was scheduled to reach California ten days before the actual race, scheduled to start on June 11. Unfortunately Bharat had an accident while training. That ended his dream of participating in 2019 RAAM. It was a last minute setback bringing the curtains down on months of preparation. Tickets had been booked and all that was left for crew to do was, fly from India to the US. Instead of canceling his ticket, Arham decided to proceed to America. He planned to approach any other team requiring a hand in crewing. The logic was simple – crewing puts you in the front row to observe race and rider. It tells you how RAAM unravels, how the challenge impacts rider and crew. It is great experience to obtain especially if you have your own plans to attempt RAAM in the future.

Arham posted his offer and cycling resume on RAAM’s social media pages and community hang-outs. He even wrote to Christoph Strasser, among the world’s leading ultra-cyclists and winner of RAAM multiple times. Inspire India – connected as they are to the RAAM ecosystem – pitched in to help Arham secure an opportunity to crew with a team. Amit Samarth put in a word for Arham to one of RAAM’s all-time greats – Seana Hogan. Back in time, Amit had crewed for Seana. Around May 27-28, Seana called Arham. However Seana couldn’t confirm straight away. Then Dr Lam Do of Team SuperMarrow called. They were riding for a charitable cause. On their website, the team describes themselves thus: We are a team of relentless individuals, comprised of Leukemia patients, their families, and their physicians. Together we will race across America. We bike with the common mission to raise awareness for Leukemia, and to help diversify the Be The Match Registry by registering more potential donors. Team SuperMarrow supports Asian American Donor Program. All net proceeds will go to Asian American Donor Program to help support stem cell education and registration programs. Dr Lam Do asked if Arham was still available. Arham recalled what Dr Lam Do said, “ we will be honored if you come aboard and help our team to finish. Those were his words.’’ Team SuperMarrow was to be an eight person-relay team at RAAM. Arham’s role was to be assistant crew chief. SuperMarrow confirmed in five minutes.  RAAM was on, for Arham.

Arham on the De Rosa; near Wolf Creek Pass, RAAM 2019 (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

Next day, Seana called to confirm but it was too late. Arham recommended Ajay K, a teammate from Bharat’s crew for the job; he got it. A day before Arham was to leave, Dr Lam Do called telling him to pack his biking gear as well. Reason – Arham may have to race. Unlike attempting RAAM in solo category which requires prior qualification for eligibility, relay teams can pick up any cyclist they perceive as competent to be a team member. Nevertheless, Dr Lam Do’s announcement was a bolt from the blue. RAAM is a major race and Arham hadn’t trained at all. To compound matters, it was the month of Ramzan and its accompanying tradition of fasting was on. It isn’t the best period for a Muslim sportsperson to exert himself / herself. “ It was a weird time for me to say yes to racing,’’ Arham said. Five days after reaching the US, he was in Oceanside, California, fitted out in cycling gear and training with Team SuperMarrow. The team gave him a bike; it was a 54 centimeter-frame as opposed to his regular 52 centimeters. “ Usually cyclists take around three months to get acquainted with a new bike. I had eight days,’’ Arham said. On the bright side, he was given whatever gear he wanted. Back in Pune, only his parents and Chaitanya knew that he was going to cycle at RAAM. Chaitanya sent him a crash course on training.

From RAAM 2019; halting at a time station en route, to check-in. At right is Dr Lam Do, the team leader of SuperMarrow (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

On race day, having obtained official permission, Arham rode first with Kabir Rachure (rider from Navi Mumbai, he was attempting RAAM solo / he completed it successfully), then for 12 miles he rode with Christoph Strasser, a champion looked up to by many endurance cyclists in India. Team SuperMarrow was divided into two groups of four riders with four crew members; that’s eight cyclists riding on shift basis. One group completes its rotation first, then, the other follows. Arham was initially part of Team B therein. One member of Team B fell sick. Arham volunteered to do double shift. He was the youngest at 25 years of age; the rest were older ranging from 45 years to 72. The team’s previous experience in ultra-cycling was limited. The first few days were taxing. Mistakes happened. Past Durango, a team meeting was held to remind everyone of the need to work in harmony. At Wolf Creek Pass (10,856 feet; it is on the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado), Arham’s exhaustion caught up with him. Some of his sessions on the saddle had been long. He was also doing night shifts. Amid this specter of inexperienced team whipping itself into shape, there was one positive. The team had provided Arham two bikes for the race. Both were top notch – a De Rosa and a Blue TT. “ They were the best bikes I had cycled in my life till then,’’ Arham said. Working diligently the team crossed all cut offs in time. RAAM spans the distance from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland. Arham got the honor of leading the team into Maryland. In all, they took eight days, two hours and 19 minutes to complete RAAM. It was well within the nine days cut-off period allotted to relay teams at the event. Team SuperMarrow raised a good amount towards charity, Arham said.

Team SuperMarrow; soon after they successfully completed RAAM in relay format (Photo: courtesy Arham Shaikh)

2019 RAAM had been a learning experience for the Pune based-rider. It more than met his expectations. He anticipated crewing; instead, he got to race and finish as part of a relay team. At the time he spoke to this blog in July 2019, Arham was planning to attempt Dunes, a RAAM qualifier race scheduled for mid-September 2019. He was preparing to do that solo. Also in mind was a Half Ironman in 2020; maybe the one in Dubai. Plus, there was the idea of taking a shot at the Great Himalayan Ultra. Of Dunes and solo rides, he said, “ I don’t have the training yet to do a solo. I have to work on my patience. Ultras are not about going fast; it is about being consistent. That’s what I learnt from 2019 RAAM. If you are moving, you are doing it. Not to mention – stopping is also critical. RAAM shows you how small you are.’’

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

A CHILDHOOD DREAM AND THE LIFE IT GAVE

Catherine Stefanutti; occasion: completion of swim from Jersey to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

This is an article by invitation. Catherine Stefanutti is a South African swimmer based in England. An experienced Channel swimmer, she was a valuable late entrant to Team HOPE, the group of swimmers from Mumbai who successfully crossed the English Channel in relay format in July 2019. Here Catherine writes about how her love for open water swimming started, her journey to date in the field and suggestions she has for those planning to attempt the English Channel.

It was more than four decades ago that my coach in South Africa showed his squad of swimmers a newspaper article about somebody who had just swum the English Channel. I was then 12 years old. I instinctively told him that one day, I too would achieve the crossing. Growing up in South Africa, there was a lot of focus on sport within schools. There was a strong competitive environment between schools and good opportunities to participate at a reasonably high level. Born into a family of swimmers, I was a reasonably good swimmer and did swim competitively in my youth. I did well in competitions although not at the level of my siblings. My brother Andy for instance, swam for South Africa.

Andy was a really talented all round swimmer. He held South African national school records for several years in the 200m and 400m Individual medley and 100m and 200m butterfly.  He was selected for the South African team in the late seventies, a notorious time when South Africa was banned from the Olympics. Unfortunately  because of this Andy and other South African sportspersons never had the chance to participate in this great international arena. After school, Andy’s swimming talent took him to Indiana University in America, where he trained with coach Doc Counsilman (also coach to the US Olympic team, including Mark Spitz). He later moved to Louisiana University to complete his degree in Geology and continued to swim for the university squad until his final months of study, when he gave up swimming to focus on academics.

Notwithstanding my stated objective of crossing the English Channel, in my late teens, I gave up swimming. As I got older and moved on to university, the hours spent pounding up and down a pool lost appeal, and gradually fizzled out.

Andy, Christine and Catherine after their swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many years later, I moved to England. My sister Christine encouraged me to give open water swimming a shot. Christine had been participating in open water events in South Africa for a few years. It had rekindled her love for swimming and she was doing very well.  When she suggested that I join her for an event at London’s Docklands, I loved the idea.  I went for a few refresher sessions with my kids’ swimming teacher and took it from there.  I surprised myself by swimming the event in good time and so the journey began.That was the beginning of my journey to open water swimming. We – Christine and I – commenced by entering organized events like the Great London Swim, South Africa’s Midmar Mile and various Thames River swims. From that, we progressed to sea swims. Soon, we were looking for bigger challenges. The first of these was the Hellespont Europe to Asia swim in Turkey. A couple of years later, we swam the slightly easier Bosphorus (Asia to Europe). Then I swam the 17 km-length of Lake Windermere.

Meanwhile the old promise of crossing the English Channel resurfaced. Even with all the open water swimming I had done, this was an enormous challenge. What changed the equation was the realisation that the Channel could be swum in relay format. I felt sure that doing it this way was manageable and would ` tick the box,’ to fulfil my childhood dream. In 2014, Christine and I, along with a friend, joined a charity team to swim across the Channel as a six person-relay. Crossing done and that box in mind ticked, I was back in 2015, this time as part of a five person-relay team assembled by my coach Tracey Baumann. In 2016, I returned again for a third crossing. The occasion was special; it was a three person-relay team featuring my sister, my brother and I. Notwithstanding these three relay crossings there was still a niggle that I knew would go away only if I attempted a solo . The one thing that stood between me and the solo, was utter fear. I lacked confidence. Yet I knew alongside that I would nurse regret if I didn’t try.

Catherine; from her solo swim across the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

I needed tiered progress to my objective. Emma France, a Channel swimmer who runs the Dover Channel Training group, suggested that I build up my confidence by first swimming from Jersey to France, a shorter, gentler crossing (approx. 26 km). Jersey is a British Crown dependency located near the coast of Normandy, France. Among islands in the Channel, it is second closet to France after Alderney. In August 2017 I successfully did this crossing in a time that surprised me and built my confidence. Still I was hesitant to book a slot for an English Channel crossing. So instead, I booked to swim around Jersey in July 2018.  This is an iconic 65 km swim; it is very tough but aided by the fast-moving tides around the island. No sooner had I booked this swim than Emma France approached me to say that somebody had cancelled their slot with Channel Pilot Neil Streeter and she was offering first option to take the place.  That was an offer I couldn’t refuse (English Channel swims are heavily booked, and one normally has to book with a pilot at least two years in advance). I was now faced with the challenge of two major swims booked within two weeks of each other – the enormity of this task was just the push I needed to focus and prepare.

The bulk of my training was on weekends, with the Dover Channel Training Group in Dover. They offer endurance training and full support for aspiring Channel swimmers. The training was complemented by a few sessions with their sister group, Durley Sea Swims, set on the South Coast in Bournemouth. The support given by these groups was invaluable. On 13 July 2018 I successfully swam around Jersey. Exactly three weeks later, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of swimming from England to France, crossing the English Channel solo.

All sports come with associated community of aficionados. It is no different in open water swimming. You meet people sharing the same interest in swimming and wishing to tackle objectives therein. In 2019, Team HOPE from India due for an attempted crossing of the Channel in July confronted an unexpected development. Theirs was a four person-relay. One of their swimmers – Samiir Wheaton – had to withdraw leaving them a swimmer short. Mere weeks remained to allotted time frame for the crossing. Given the limited time it seemed wise to scout for a replacement in the UK. A swimmer from there would be already used to the cold Channel waters. If someone was recruited in India then that person would have to go through the whole process of training in cold water; he / she would also have to do the obligatory two hour-qualifying swim in 16 degrees Celsius water. Against this backdrop, my friend Deepthi Indukuri, who is a Total Immersion swim coach in Mumbai, asked me if I would be interested to join Team HOPE as Samiir’s replacement. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get back into the English Channel.

Catherine after her solo swim to France (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Many people think that if you have swum the Channel solo then a four person-relay should be easy. This is certainly not the case. A Channel relay comes with different challenges to a solo and one should never underestimate how tough it is. I met my team (Team HOPE) – the others were Zarir Baliwalla, Moiz Rajkotwala and Sudarshan Chari – a few times in the days before the crossing. The weather was unstable that week and the swim kept getting postponed or called off. Such uncertainty causes a lot of angst for swimmers; they are forced to wait. Finally, on the evening of July 11, our pilot Reg Brickell gave the go-ahead to attempt the crossing early next morning. On July 12, the swim started just after sunrise in reasonable conditions, which gradually worsened as the day progressed. By the time the team reached the French shipping lane, the weather had changed dramatically.  A strong wind working against a strong tide created large waves causing boat and swimmers to be tossed around in the cold water. The team did what they had to – dig deep and push hard through the tides. Fifteen hours after we started from England, we eventually landed on a sandy beach in France.

What an adventure we had, what a team we made. We started as strangers and now have a lifelong bond through achieving this great challenge together. Indeed, one of the things I love most about the open water swimming community is how swimmers from around the world are brought together by circumstance.  For some reason, I have repeatedly found a connection with swimmers from India. Some years ago, I met Deepthi Indukuri in a Masters swimming group, while she was training to become a Total Immersion Coach.  Deepthi was in the UK at the time, completing her Master’s degree. When she returned to India, she retained her strong connection with the group.

Catherine with members of Team HOPE. From left: Moiz Rajkotwala, Zarir Baliwalla, Catherine and Sudarshan Chari (Photo: courtesy Catherine)

In 2017, I spent most weekends of the summer training with the Dover Channel Training community, training for my Jersey to France solo swim.  Here I met Sameer Patil who had taken a three month sabbatical to come and train in the UK, in preparation for his English Channel solo that September. Sameer and I regularly swam together, we were a similar pace and I enjoyed training with him. My approach to training can be rather casual but Sameer was extremely driven and focussed. This pushed me to work harder and I really benefitted from that. During the season, Sameer often encouraged me to think about swimming the English Channel solo, something I was still afraid to commit to.

On 16 September 2017 Sameer Patil successfully swam the English Channel. As is tradition, a Channel swimmer picks up a pebble on the beach where he or she lands and takes it home as a well-earned trophy.  However, Sameer landed on a sandy beach in the middle of the night; he could not find a pebble in the dark.  Before he returned to India, I told him that I would plan a day trip to France and find him a pebble on the beach where he landed. His answer to me was very clear: No Catherine, I want you to swim to France to get my pebble.  I can honestly say that his words stuck in my head and played a big role in my decision to go for it (I did swim to France and got us both a pebble).

I have had the pleasure of meeting several Indian swimmers who have come to train in Dover, including amazing swimmers like Vandita Dhariyal. I never expected to become part of an Indian team swimming the English Channel. It was a great honour for me when this opportunity arose. I became a proud member of Team HOPE.

Catherine swimming for Team HOPE (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Suggestions for those aspiring to swim the English Channel

If you are interested in swimming the English Channel as a team or individual, the first step is to book a pilot and boat. There are two official Channel Swimming Organisations and each has a list of registered pilots.  Pilot information and contact details can be found on the websites of these organisations, either the Channel Swimming Association (www.channelswimmingassociation.com) or the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (www.cspf.co.uk).  Channel crossings are done from mid-June to end September so there are only a limited number of places.  People book their slots up to three years in advance, although if you want to go sooner it is worth contacting the pilots as they do sometimes have cancellations.  Both websites contain lots of vital and useful information about Channel swimming.

Once you have booked your swim, it is time to start with the preparation and training. Cold water acclimatisation is a big factor and it is advisable to start with short swims in very cold water, gradually building up to longer swims as the water warms up.  In India the biggest challenge is finding cold water.  Some Indian swimmers have attended cold water swim camps around the world whilst others will plan to spend time before their swim in the UK to swim with the Dover Channel Training group.  In order to swim the Channel, it is obligatory to complete a qualifying swim in water temperature below 16 degrees Celsius.  Relay swimmers need to complete a two hour-qualifying swim, whilst solo swimmers need to complete six hours.  Training should be a combination of long swims as well as regular pool training and general fitness.

Channel swimmers’ tradition – signing on the wall of Fleurs pub in Dover (Photo: courtesy Catherine Stefanutti)

Swimming in a relay is great preparation for a solo swim as you will experience the conditions and challenges of the English Channel first hand. Obviously a solo swim is more demanding than a relay, both physically and mentally. However, both have unique challenges and a relay should never be underestimated.  A relay requires team members to swim in rotation till reaching France.  This means doing an hour of swimming, getting out, warming up and preparing to enter the cold water again for the next hour swim; repeating this until you reach France.  There are stringent rules to adhere to in order for the swim to be recognised.  Each time you return to the water, you need to prepare mentally for the hour ahead.  Whilst on the boat a big challenge is seasickness.  Pilot boats are small vessels travelling at a swimmer’s pace, which means a lot of rocking motion and many relays have been aborted due to swimmers being too ill to carry on. Preparing for this is essential and there are various medications available. These need to be tested for side effects beforehand.  Most crossings will involve swimming in the night and swimmers will need to prepare mentally for this.

It is beneficial to train in conditions similar to the Channel but it is not always practical to do so. It is a good idea to join open water swimming groups and take every opportunity to swim in open water.  It is also useful to become part of a Channel swimming community through social media as you can always draw on other people’s experiences and expertise.  Dover Channel Training is a good example of such a group, as is the Outdoor Swimming Society.

(The author, Catherine Stefanutti, is a Channel swimmer based in England. She is “ a full time mum (two teenagers), part time swimming teacher and company director for our family construction business.’’ For more on Team HOPE please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/29/a-relay-swim-across-the-english-channel/)

MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH SPORTS

Corina Van Dam (Photo: courtesy Corina)

Trained to be a football coach, Corina Van Dam, opted to use sport as means to heal and empower. Currently living in Mumbai, she has been running for several years and is now figuring out which distance suits her best.

During a recent six-hour night run in Thane near Mumbai, many runners ran determinedly through the heavy, sometimes lashing rain.

One among them was Corina (aka Cocky) Van Dam, a Dutch runner, living and working in Mumbai for the past three years. She surprised herself by covering a distance of 50.7 kilometers during those six hours.

Two weeks later, she ran a 50k race at the Igatpuri Mountain Challenge. She finished the race in six hours, 26 minutes and 23 seconds securing top position among women aged 46 and above. A week must have gone by. Then she wound up on the podium yet again in her age category, at the BNP Endurathon in Mumbai. She covered the 25k distance in 2:28:14 hours.

Corina grew up in Alkmaar, a town 40 kilometers north of Amsterdam in Netherlands. The local topography was largely flat; there was much water around and as is characteristic of Netherlands, a lot of wind. It is a town well known in the cheese business and home to a velodrome hosting the annual Dutch national track cycling championships (the European Cycling Championships is scheduled to take place in Alkmaar from August 7 to 11, 2019). Not to mention, it is the birthplace of Harm Ottenbros, unexpected winner of the 1969 world cycling championship; he came in from nowhere to win that title but earned the ire of fellow cyclists and fans for just that – being the nobody who snatched the title from under the nose of more fancied heavyweights. Alkmaar also has a private museum dedicated to the British band, Beatles.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Growing up, sport was an integral part of Corina’s education. At the age of 12, she began playing football at a local club. She commenced playing at a still younger age but there were no girls’ teams around. The Dutch are passionate about football. Alkmaar and Corina’s family therein were no different. The town is home to the football club Alkmaar Zaanstreek (AZ), winners of the Dutch football league (Eredivisie), in 1980-81 and 2008-09. Corina was good at football. The game gave her the nickname she goes by – Cocky. She trained to be a sports coach. But she soon discovered that it was “ boring to teach people sports.’’ It was rather limited in scope. She sought something more engaging; something that would touch people’s lives in a more fundamental way.

So she opted for an internship with a mental health institute. The institute used sports as medium to help mentally ill people. For 20 years, she worked at the clinic employing sports as a means to assist patients in their treatment and recovery. “ People are depressed, sometimes so depressed that they don’t want to move. As part of psychomotor therapy, I used football to treat patients suffering from depression. There is evidence that running works well to treat patients,’’ Corina said. Psychomotor therapy uses physical activity and body awareness to help in the healing process.

After two decades spent working in the Netherlands, in 2005, Corina decided to move to Kenya to work with a community-based organisation called Moving the Goalposts (MTG) in Kilifi. She was placed as a volunteer through Voluntary Service Overseas, an international NGO.  A sport for development outfit, MTG harnesses the power of football to overcome social obstacles girls and young women face in coastal Kenya. Teenage pregnancy was (and still is) a very big issue in the country. That was among topics Corina required working with. Central to MTG’s strategy was football. Located on the east coast of Africa, Kenya has varied topography that includes an Indian Ocean seaboard, the Great Rift Valley and the Kenyan Highlands famous for tea and running. Corina worked at Kilifi near Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city situated on the coast. Roughly 4400 kilometers north east from Mombasa, across the sea, lay Mumbai, India’s financial capital. After working in Kenya for 11 years, Corina moved to Mumbai to work with Naz Foundation (India) Trust.

Corina Van Dam at the Mumbai office of Naz Foundation (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

Naz India is an NGO working in the field of HIV / AIDS and sexual health. Corina works as Impact Manager at Naz Foundation. She is focussed on Young People’s Initiative (YPI), a program to empower girls by using sports and life skills education. It seeks to provide opportunities for adolescent girls. “ Many NGOs now leverage sport as tool to empower girls with reference to their body and emotions,’’ she said.

Naz India’s YPI project uses netball as sport for team building and empowering activities. “ Group sport or team sports helps tackle peer pressure, instil team work and develop leadership skills as opposed to individual sport,’’ Corina said. The choice of netball was because it is less of a contact sport compared to football and such a game appeared to suit the girls joining the program. Some other NGOs use sports such as football, basketball and kabaddi for similar work. For Naz India, the choice of sport is based on the needs and issues at hand in each of the projects that the foundation takes up. Naz India primarily works in schools, mostly trust-run schools. “ We are constantly negotiating with schools and designing our projects based on the feedback,’’ Corina said.

As an Impact Manager, Corina’s role is to make constant assessment of the teams working in schools; whether they are achieving their objectives or not. Outside of work, she continues to play football, mostly in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. She plays for Wolfpack FC. She got to participate in local league matches.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Many football players, according to her, do not like running as a specific sport. It’s one thing to run playing football; it’s another running a marathon focused solely on movement with no paradigm of game, team or score enveloping it. However, she took to running during her teens and continued to do so through her years in the Netherlands. In Kenya, living in Kilifi a rural area near Mombasa, Corina resorted to running in the nearby farmlands. She ran three times a week covering a distance of 7-10 kilometers on each of those practice sessions. She also recalled making a brief visit to Iten in the highlands of Kenya, home to the country’s best runners. “ I visited Lornah Kiplagat and her husband Pieter Langerhorsts’ high altitude training center. That was a fleeting visit,’’ Corina said. Olympian Lornah Kiplagat, a Dutch cross country and long-distance runner, is of Kenyan origin. She is a four time-world champion and has held world records over 5 km, 10 miles, 20 km and the half marathon. The training center in Iten was founded in 1999.

Arriving in Mumbai in 2016, Corina decided to look for a house at Tilak Nagar primarily because of its proximity to her place of work at Vidyavihar, just a kilometer away. At Tilak Nagar, the well-known Sahyadri Ground became venue for her daily practice runs. She runs several rounds of the ground in 500 meter-loops. “ Many women came and asked me how I got into running. They also expressed a desire to take up running,” Corina said. Hailing from Netherlands, she beheld the scene with curiosity. “ At the Tilak Nagar ground, a lot of people were involved in various activities. But you rarely found women at the centre of the ground. It is now slowly changing,’’ she said at the small Mumbai office of Naz Foundation tucked away on the ground floor of an apartment complex. It was July 2019. Just days earlier the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup had concluded with USA defeating Netherlands 2-0 in the final. It was the first time the Dutch national women’s team played in the final – a point Corina recalled with pride and a feeling of much changed since she started playing football when the sport was considered a game for men.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Corina’s first stint at a running event in India was the Dream Run segment of the 2017 Mumbai Marathon, something that happened because Naz India was a recipient of free slots to the run. For someone used to regular running like Corina, the Dream Run and its wall of people ambling along was a disappointment. In 2018, at the same event, she chose to run the newly introduced 10k segment and finished on the podium in her age group of 50-54 years.

In the 2019 edition, she ran the full marathon finishing the distance in 5:15:06 hours securing eighth position among women in her age group. This was her background prior to that rain soaked six hour-run in Thane, the 50k and the 25k, which followed. She was recently appointed Pinkathon Ambassador. Through this, her responsibilities now include empowering women through running. “ I am still figuring out which distance is best suited for me. I also plan to participate in the Goa Ironman later this year,’’ she said.

Goa Ironman 70.3 or Half Ironman is slated to be held on October 20, 2019. Corina, now 54, has invested in a road bike. She cycles regularly and for swimming she visits the pool at Dharavi. She hasn’t yet done any open water swimming in India but given she grew up in Alkmaar with its share of open water and winter temperatures, hopes she should be able to tackle it.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

PSYNYDE BIKES: WEATHERING TOUGH CHEMISTRY

Psynyde Dioxide (Photo: Vinay Menon)

In 2016, when Psynyde Bikes launched the Furan MTB, it was for India, a rare instance of cycling enthusiasts designing bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest numbers in the domestic market. After a promising start, the company is now in a phase of struggle. If it persists, it may be able to look back and say of now: that was a learning experience.

Roughly three years after introducing their first factory built-models capable of selling in modest numbers, brand Psynyde continues to retain the cultish feel that accompanies performance. In that time, it also experienced reversals on the business front not for want of product acceptance but things gone wrong internally in the fledgling company. The core team is back to two – MTB enthusiast turned bicycle designer and builder, Praveen Prabhakaran, and Vinay Menon who still rides hard and oversees marketing for the brand.

On the bright side, the initial 100 units-strong consignment of the trail bike they designed – Psynyde Furan – sold out in a year; as did an initial lot of 100 of the hybrid – Oxygen. Feedback was encouraging. There have been no complaints except for small issues with a plastic cap, Praveen said. However, the Chinese factory, which manufactured the bike frames he designed, fell into hard times. Praveen said he has identified alternative factories, capable of similar quality.

Vinay Menon riding at Flow Show, Canada (Photo: Vinay Menon)

According to Vinay, Psynyde’s bikes as well as the bicycle components it made featured at domestic and international competitions. The Furan was chosen steed for Psynyde sponsored-riders and some of the company’s customers, who took part in these events. There have also been a couple of podium finishes. Brand Psynyde – as component or whole bicycle – was seen at events including the 2012 FLOW Show demos in Canada, the 2013 and 2014 Asia Pacific Downhill Championships, multiple editions of the Himalayan Downhill Mountain Bike Trophy, 2016 and 2017 Bangalore Mountain Festival Downhill Race, TDRY Gui’de International Downhill Cycling Race in China, 2018 Mechuka Downhill Championship, 2018 National BMX Flatland Championship and the 2019 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (downhill race). But there was tragedy too, one that was felt deeply at Psynyde.

In July 2017, Ajay Padval, a talented mountain biker from Pune, died in an accident while biking down from Khardung La near Leh. This downhill ride, done on the road connecting Leh to Nubra valley via Khardung La, is a popular supported trip availed by many visitors to Ladakh. Ajay was no different; he wanted to taste the experience. He was driven up to Khardung La along with others set to ride down from the high pass to Leh. That day, unfortunately for Ajay, something went wrong resulting in serious injury. Found fallen on the road, he was rushed to the local hospital but passed away the next day. “ Ajay was a very important member of the Psynyde team in the little time he spent with us. Right from being a dedicated team athlete – not just mountain biking, he was excellent at slacklining too – to giving important inputs in operations and matters related to product design. Ajay’s unfortunate demise affected us a lot,’’ Vinay said. Ajay had grown up watching older cycling enthusiasts; among them Praveen and Vinay. They were all part of the same MTB ecosystem in Pune. Not long after Psynyde got into bicycle manufacturing, he joined the company. His untimely passing was therefore personal loss for Praveen and Vinay.

Ajay Padval (Photo: Veloscope)

On the product front, both the Furan and Oxygen were perceived in the market as versatile bicycles. The Furan was designed to be a hard tail MTB capable of tackling a variety of terrain and riding styles; the Oxygen known to be light weight and having geometry partial to speed has been used by customers for purposes ranging from regular commute and weekend rides to bicycle touring. In 2018, Pune-based Abhishek Iyer toured across Norway on a Psynyde Oxygen. From a second lot of Oxygen, at the time of writing, about 90 units remained in stock in Pune. The company needed to invest afresh in components if it was to assemble and sell all of them. As of July, Praveen and Vinay were looking for investors who understood Psynyde’s line of business as well as the performance image, brand Psynyde had created for itself.

Psynyde’s capital requirements are of modest dimension. But the challenge is procuring financial support without the associated baggage of altered direction for the company. Having created its narrative to date by aligning with the performance segment, Psynyde does not want to trade that image for recovery plans advising dilution of its profile. “ One potential investor asked us to change the brand name and make it more mainstream. That was unacceptable,’’ Praveen said.  At the same time, he was aware of the fact that a bicycle business can’t be founded wholly on presence in niche, performance segments. “ There is so much I wanted to do. Instead I have all this to sort out now,’’ Praveen said at his house on the outskirts of Pune. It was July 2019; annual season of rain.

Abhishek Iyer with the Psynyde Oxygen (This photo of Abhishek was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes)

Praveen is happiest discussing bicycle technology and design. He took out his cellphone to show photos of a beautiful road bike with carbon fiber-frame mated to steel joints and wireless, electronic shifters that he had built for a client. It was part of the original custom built-bicycles business that was Psynyde; the seed which eventually spawned a company selling modest volumes of cycles designed by it and factory-built in China. Psynyde’s logo sat prominently on the road bike’s head tube.

Before us in the room, was the prototype of a new Furan. In a major departure from previous models of the Furan and Oxygen, the prototype sported only one chain ring at the front. There was a nine speed-cassette at the rear. The combination changed the traditional MTB gear ratios seen in India but made the bike simpler. It also had front suspension capable of greater travel and a hydraulic seat post that adjusted remotely allowing rider to sit low on downhills and revert to regular height once such sections were tackled. Should this model proceed beyond prototype and witness production, Praveen hoped to have a more aggressive angle for the front suspension. He was also considering steel as metal to build with; potential fallout of that being frame composed of absolutely straight lines unlike the prototype with down tube slightly curved towards its junction with the head tube.

Psynyde Psymptom prototype (Photo: Vinay Menon)

Also available to see as photographs were prototypes of two downhill bikes from Psynyde – the Psymptom and Dioxide. Both sported four bar design for rear suspension set up. The Psymptom had this set up essayed in CNC machine cut-aluminum (rest of the frame was chromoly steel) while the Dioxide was wholly 4130 chromoly steel. As with the Psymptom and Dioxide, a Furan 2 made of steel was not concept, suddenly conceived. Praveen had been toying with the idea of getting back to steel tubing for a while. In the story of bicycles, steel disliked for its weight had given way to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.  All these materials have their merits and demerits.  For instance, even as aluminum is lighter, points of welding are usually invitation to lose strength. As lighter materials gained currency in cycling, steel alloys evolved further. Today, very thin steel tubing that does not weigh a lot, is available. The return of steel is particularly visible in the MTB segment overseas, Praveen and Vinay said.

The tubes used are butted steel tubes, which have varying wall thickness. Such fabrication isn’t yet a strong point with Indian manufacturing, particularly at the dimensions (wall thickness) needed for contemporary performance bicycles. Further when it comes to modest volumes of raw materials, like that needed by Psynyde, any Indian supplier capable of making butted tubes in steel finds it unviable scale. Result – the tubes have to be imported from British, Italian, American and Japanese suppliers; often at high import duty for no better reason than that its eventual application is in cycling. The Dioxide was featured on VitalMTB, a major online portal for MTB news. “ There will be downhill riders in India appreciative of the Psymptom and the Dioxide,’’ Vinay said. Problem is – downhill is a smaller world within India’s small world of MTB. That relapse to niche category brings us back to a familiar predicament.

Psynyde Dioxide, rider: Hrishi Mandke (Photo: Vinay Menon)

If its products are meant for niche within niche, where will Psynyde’s main revenues come from to sustain its avatar of company designing own bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest volumes in India? For sustenance, versatile products like the Furan and Oxygen matter. That’s why the current capital crunch has to be somehow overcome, stocks reached to a market, which anyway liked Psynyde’s products and the momentum carried on. An additional option is to create a set of affordable products closer to mainstream interests in cycling. If so, that would probably have to be done at arm’s length making sure brand Psynyde is not diluted in the process. But there is a deeper question lurking in the backdrop.

The talent required to manage a company is very different from the creativity that goes into bicycle designing or the kick one gets from riding and testing bicycles. Praveen’s house used to be Psynyde’s old factory floor; that was when all Psynyde did was design and custom build bicycles and machine specific components. At that size, the business was easier to manage. Praveen could stay creative and Vinay could continue riding. If they can’t get Psynyde’s current avatar moving at least partly on autopilot mode with good managers in place, then at some point, after cleaning up their liabilities, there will be a question awaiting the duo’s attention: is volume manufacturing their cup of tea? Or are they more comfortable with a boutique operation similar to old, designing and custom-building bicycles?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Praveen Prabhakaran and Vinay Menon. For more on Psynyde Bikes, please try the following two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/)

“ I JUST SAY TO MYSELF IT’S OKAY. YOU’RE OKAY’’ / ABDULLAH ZEINAB, WINNER, TRANS AM 2019

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah / this photo was sourced from the website of Trans Am Bike Race)

The Trans Am Bike Race is an unsupported cycle race from one side of the United States to the other. The 2019 edition of the event was won by Abdullah Zeinab from Australia; he reached the finish line in record time. This is his story.

Melbourne is where Abdullah Zeinab’s story in cycling begins.

He grew up in Adelaide with his mother and grandmother but moved to Melbourne after finishing school, to attend university. In Melbourne, he started cycling to work; he rode a single speed and his commute was around five to six kilometers. “ I really began to enjoy it and started riding the bike on the weekends,’’ Abdullah said. Before this phase of cycling he had tried out several different sports, growing up. He didn’t really pursue any of them longer than a few months. One choice however, was to leave a lasting impact. When he was sixteen he started going to the gym with his friends. That was the first thing he became consistent with. Strength training provided him a foundation to attempt other pursuits from.

“ Eventually I bought a road bike and the same weekend I decided to ride to Adelaide where my mother lived. It was about 1000 kilometers away. I didn’t know what I was in for and the reality of the situation was a big shock. I had no long distance gear, no lights and nothing to charge my electronics, with. The ride really broke me and I remember crying every day for no particular reason. After six days I made it to Adelaide and strangely as I pulled into my house I thought to myself: I want to try it again and see if I can do it better. This was probably in the middle of 2015. Since than I have followed a pattern of cycling consistently for a few months, then taking a few months off; continuing like that,’’ Abdullah said. Back in those early stages of his interest in cycling, he figured things out on his own. He has never been part of a cycling club or group. He wasn’t into brevets. “ I just started riding by myself and slowly began to meet other cyclists,’’ he said.

Roughly three years before Abdullah got into cycling regularly, in February 2012, a race to circumnavigate the globe on bicycle, was kicked off from near the Greenwich royal observatory in south east London. There were nine participants. The event was called Quick Energy World Cycle Racing Grand Tour. The riders were free to choose their own route. But according to media reports, they had to satisfy one condition – they had to cover a minimum of 18,000 miles in the same direction with GPS tracking throughout. Ninety two days after they set out, the race produced a winner – Mike Hall, an engineer from Harrogate, North Yorkshire. It was a new world record. Reporting the win, The Guardian wrote: a cyclist has triple cause for celebration after he won a round-the-world race on his birthday and broke the world record in the process. Hall would go on to become an iconic figure in unsupported (or self-supported) ultra-cycling. In 2013, the year after that round-the-world race, he won Tour Divide, a 2745 mile (4418 kilometers) annual race traversing the length of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to the Mexico border. That year on, he was principal organizer of the Transcontinental Race, an ultra-cycling event in Europe. In 2014, he won the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race, a 4200 mile (6800 kilometers) race spanning the breadth of the United States.

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah / this photo was sourced from the website of Trans Am Bike Race)

As you look at the world map, some countries give you a distinct sense of space as matrix of land area and population (overall numbers and dispersion). Australia with its great outback is one of them. The above said matrix, is often sought by adventurers and endurance athletes; it is aesthetic they dig. Fremantle is a port city at the mouth of the Swan River in south west Australia. It is a place familiar to those into sailing or tracking the sport. It is a halt on the world’s regular circumnavigation route. The closest major city is Perth. The annual Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IndiPac) starts from Fremantle. Its course extends 5500 kilometers – a line across the belly of the continent – to finish at the famous Sydney Opera House on Australia’s south east. Among participants in the 2017 inaugural edition of IndiPac, was Mike Hall. Unfortunately, it was his last bike race. Hall was in the final phase of the race and placed second overall, when he was hit by a car on the Monaro Highway, south of Canberra in the early hours of March 31. He died at the scene. It was a big blow for the race and for the world of ultra-cycling. Following the accident, all racers were pulled off the course. Its impact was felt the next year for although riders registered to participate, the race couldn’t be officially held due to concerns ranging from ongoing inquiry into the accident to road safety. However participants decided to cycle all the same. The 2018 edition of IndiPac was therefore unofficial and it produced an unexpected winner (in this case, given unofficial race; person finishing first).

A year earlier, in 2017, Abdullah had been among those involved with filming IndiPac. It gave him a ringside view of elite ultra-cyclists. The experience was a game changer. “ Filming 2017 IndiPac and being able to witness the extraordinary capabilities of the riders doing the event from such close quarters – that really captivated me. I was following Mike Hall and Kristof Allegaert very closely during that race. Just the way both those guys carried themselves under extreme fatigue was fascinating. It looked like they were on a casual Sunday ride. I told my girlfriend halfway through that I had to try this race one day. After that I couldn’t back out on my word,’’ Abdullah said. He got back from a holiday at the end of November and began training for the event’s 2018 edition. “ I gave myself approximately 12 weeks to really train for it,’’ he said. As mentioned, IndiPac 2018 – happening as it did in the shadow of Mike Hall’s demise the previous year – was unofficial. It was a case of cyclists registered to participate, deciding to proceed despite event being cancelled. Several days and 5500 kilometers later, the first finisher of that year’s unofficial IndiPac reached Sydney’s Opera House. It was Abdullah on his Trek Emonda.

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah)

“ IndiPac 2018 went really well for me. I ended up reaching the finish first out of all the riders who started. Filming and driving the whole route the year before gave me a massive advantage. Also being able to witness two of the best unsupported ultra-endurance cyclists in the world in 2017 was the ultimate classroom. I guess what worked well for me was creating an ambitious plan. I didn’t really know what my potential was and I didn’t really want to limit it by creating a safe schedule to follow. Instead I just roughly set out to do what the leaders from the year before did and stuck to that. To my surprise I was able to stick to it. That race really showed me just a small taste of what the human body is capable of. I was under-trained and didn’t have the conditioning on paper to back it up day in, day out. But I just rode every kilometer as if it was my first and last,’’ he said. Winning the unofficial IndiPac of 2018 called for an altered approach to what he was doing. “ Given the race ended up well for me, I thought I should try and pursue this type of riding a bit further by being more consistent with training and set a target for a new race,’’ he said.

According to Abdullah, at the finish of IndiPac, somebody came up to him and asked if he could imagine a race with double the elevation and another 1300 kilometers thrown in. “ He said that’s what Trans Am is. I guess at that moment the seed was planted in my head,’’ Abdullah said. He went home and rested well for about three months. Then he commenced training with some structure. Although the distance of Trans Am was intimidating, especially once he began to reflect on how hard some moments were during IndiPac, he decided to give it a go.“ So basically, three months after I finished IndiPac, I decided that I would do Trans Am,’’ Abdullah said.

Over the next eleven months, he did triple the training he had done for IndiPac. “ I had never really been consistent with training before. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to see what would happen if I was consistent. I focused on getting out at least five times per week on the bike which was a lot different to my IndiPac preparation wherein at times, I rode only thrice a week. I knew I could ride long hours so I focused on quality rather than quantity and gave myself more time to rest throughout the training. This was possible because I gave myself more time to prepare. All in all it was approximately 750 hours on the bike from start to finish,’’ Abdullah said.  As with IndiPac, he researched Trans Am, essentially figuring out how much he wished to travel per day and checking what services were available along the way – till he was comfortable enough to ride it. “ In terms of details of the research, it’s just knowing the opening hours of gas stations, supermarkets and if there is a hotel nearby,’’ Abdullah said.

Unsupported racing (or self-supported as some call it) requires cyclist to carry all that he / she may need. There is no support crew trailing cyclist in a car. You can eat and avail shelter and repair from outside sources but on courses like the long ones ultra-cycling courts, there are intervening spaces with no human habitation and those with facilities too frugal for the sort of support you seek. An element of self-reliance is therefore important. At the same time, if all that you elect to carry becomes too much, then the weight is bound to slow down progress. What to take becomes a product of research, self-awareness, experience and appetite for the unknown. Given he had done IndiPac, Abdullah had a gear list for such racing. What he needed to do was – research and work out how far he could carry the same stuff for Trans Am too. “ The only difference was I took a few extra pieces of clothing to keep me warm; like an extra set of gloves. Everything I had was distributed between the frame bag and the top tube bag with some spare tubes in a small saddle bag on the seat post. I had spoken with a few friends online who had done the race previously and they helped me understand the type of conditions we would be going through and the necessary clothing required,’’ Abdullah said. Here’s what he finally carried: rain jacket, wind jacket, base layer, gloves (two pairs), beanie and glasses; multi tool, tubes (five), patch kit, spare tyre, zip ties, electrical tape, 10,000 Ma battery pack, wall charger to plug USB ports into, charging cables, Etrex 30x and Wahoo Bolt for navigation. As for bicycle, he used a 2019 Specialized S Works Tarmac.

Abdullah Zeinab (Photo: courtesy Abdullah / this photo was sourced from the website of Trans Am Bike Race)

What did he have on his mind, going into Trans Am 2019?

“ First and foremost I wanted to improve on my previous performance at IndiPac. The Trans Am course has a lot more elevation gain. So I thought that if I could get close to the same average distance per day, I would have improved. Goals before the race and during it are different. I wanted to set a new record at Trans Am and do it the fastest anyone had done before. But once I was a few days deep, I really just wanted to make sure I got to the end in one piece,’’ Abdullah said. According to him, the Trans Am experience was great. “ For crossing a whole country I would say it worked out very well. I had some bad patches of weather but it was mostly just rain and some severe head winds. I was fortunate because some of the racers behind me had to go through snow. There is really no other option than to keep going. I wish I had rain pants and some other things to keep me warm but in the moment the only way out is to continue. From what I experienced so far with this type of riding it rarely goes 100 percent as you expect but you become better at accepting the situation for how it is. The moment you don’t is the moment it becomes harder than it needs to be,’’ Abdullah said.

At both Trans Am and IndiPac, which preceded it, there were several moments when Abdullah was unsure if he would make it; mainly due to physical pain. “ Especially with Trans Am I had some moments of excruciating physical pain and I was unsure if I would make the next town without injury,’’ he said. In such circumstances and generally in ultra-long endurance races, how you think matters. What does Abdullah tell himself through such races?

“ For me, I got nothing to lose. Winning or losing the race isn’t going to define who I am. Cycling is something I do but it’s not who I am. Success for me is giving 100 percent effort. I have achieved enough of the goals I have set out to accomplish to realize that the moment you achieve them is never what you think it will be. It is really the process that is special. Being able to enjoy the process to the highest degree possible is something I continually strive for. In a race like this I tell myself all sorts of things. It depends on the situation and what I am dealing with. To me there is no suffering in a race. It’s not a word I say to myself. If am finding it overwhelmingly difficult and I am struggling to deal with it; well cool… that’s just how it is. Specifically for races like Trans Am or IndiPac, the moment I identify with suffering or something being extremely difficult as a bad or good thing it becomes my slow downfall. You submit yourself emotionally to the ups and downs of good and bad, hard and easy or sad and happy. In my mind moments are just moments. Weather they are good or bad is dependent on your perception of them. I just say to myself it’s okay. You’re okay. Such a simple statement; but it offers me a path that kind of transcends the ups and downs and offers a more stable experience, which allows me to enjoy the whole ride versus being a mess for 50 percent of it and being ‘happy’ for the other 50 percent,’’ Abdullah said.

Abdullah Zeinab in Yorktown, after completing Trans Am 2019 (Photo: Chip Coutts / this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Trans Am Bike Race public group)

At Trans Am 2019, the cyclist from Melbourne, Australia, completed the course in 16 days, nine hours, 56 minutes. He not only won the race; he set a new course record. For Abdullah, who has so far banked on his resources and support from his family, to fund his participation at major races this was the second big win of his fledgling career in cycling. “ I hope now that I may be able to get help from sponsors. We will see,’’ he said. In photos and videos showing his finish at IndiPac 2018 and Trans Am 2019 – they are available on the Internet – one person you notice is his mother. She is there at the finish line. “ My mother has always supported me in anything I do, whether it be playing table tennis or riding a bike. She really is my biggest supporter and I wouldn’t be the person I am without her,’’ Abdullah said.

After Trans Am 2019, what’s next for Abdullah Zeinab? “ Honestly right now I am just enjoying the time off and relaxing as much as possible. I am trying not to think about what’s next too much because I know it will ruin my relaxation and reflection time. In a month or so I will begin to see what excites me,’’ he said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The interview with Abdullah Zeinab was done via email. Trans Am Bike Race website: https://transambikerace.com/)