“ IT IS A FINE LINE THAT SEPARATES LONELINESS FROM SOLITUDE’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Two Indians, who spent months at sea, share their insight on managing isolation. Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) recalled vignettes from his 2009-2010 voyage, circumnavigating the planet in a sailboat, solo and unassisted. Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi spoke of how she and her crew tackled isolation during their 2017-2018 circumnavigation. Both voyages were part of the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project.

From midnight March 24, 2020, India was placed in a 21 day-lock down to check the transmission of COVID-19, the disease that first surfaced in China in late 2019 and within a few months graduated to be a global pandemic.

The lock down meant families, couples and those living alone confined to their houses. Isolation can be a strange experience. Our houses are homes because that is where we return to for secure rest and belonging after being out on work. It is a different sensation when that blend of in and out is replaced by a state of being in – housebound – permanently. Variety, often described as the spice of life, disappears in its familiar form and begs reinterpretation. The hours are felt as minutes and seconds; they sit heavy on your shoulders. Confined to limited space, your dwelling rises to meet you in myriad small details, all previously ignored because you weren’t there for long, like now. If you are staying alone, the solitary existence may corrode to loneliness. How do you cope with this?

Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) was quick to respond to the subject. “ It isn’t much different on a boat,’’ he said. In 2010, he had become the first Indian to complete a solo unassisted circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat, the INSV Mhadei. Seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans and seas. It is a vast blue, big enough to isolate boats even when they are sailing under no strictures like completing a solo, unassisted circumnavigation in accordance with the rule books of the sport. Dilip who was serving in the Indian Navy then, didn’t have any prior expertise in meditation. Nor did he court such techniques on the boat to keep his act together.

What kept him engaged was the simple fact that when you are solo sailor afloat in a vessel at sea, ensuring that the vessel is in good condition and you are in good shape is pivotal to keeping the voyage alive. The sea is a dynamic, unforgiving medium, its dynamism ranging from its moods to its long term impact on the vessel you are in. You take care of the boat. The boat takes care of you. Such connection with the vessel in which you are afloat is viscerally felt at sea, even as the parameters of solo unassisted sailing allow you no human alongside for company.

“ There are plenty of things to do on a boat. There are repairs, maintenance work – they keep you fairly busy. You also need to rest adequately,’’ Dilip said. It is an observation many of us who have embraced routines under lock down – like cleaning the vessel we live in; our house – would easily identify with. Once the boat related-tasks were taken care of, Dilip read a book, watched a movie or cooked himself a nice meal. “ Basically, you slow down your life, slow down the pace of everything you do,’’ he said.

Contacted in early April, Dilip was home in Goa, locked down like the rest of India. He felt that there was similarity between the lock down experience ashore and what he had experienced at sea on his long voyages. Admittedly, there is one major difference. During a solo voyage on the vast blue, even if sailor is alone on his boat, the boat is moving. Your house on the other hand, is a very rooted entity that stays still in one place. You see the same views. That isn’t the case at sea, which is a convergent ambience of many natural elements in their free form. “ Every sunrise and sunset is different. Every day is different,’’ Dilip said. Still the fact remains that a voyage is a mix of diverse experiences and on those days of nothing but wide blue featureless sea, it is how you approach the stillness that matters.

Being alone on a boat does not have to automatically mean loneliness. “ It is a fine line that separates loneliness from solitude,’’ Dilip said. Loneliness comes with a sense of being mentally dragged down. Solitude on the other hand is different; it has the ring of something positive, something that you can work with. The key to coping with isolation, Dilip said, is changing that inevitable loneliness to solitude. Care for boat and care for self eventually become meaningful acts in solitude. At his home in Goa, Dilip has his mother for company during the lock down. “ On the boat, I was alone. I used to talk to the boat,’’ he said, adding, “ it is all in you.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Dilip’s voyage was part of the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project. It was conceived by the late Vice Admiral Manohar Awati, an inspiring naval officer who retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command. The solo unassisted circumnavigation, which was Sagar Parikrama’s first major achievement, was followed by a solo unassisted non-stop circumnavigation by Commander Abhilash Tomy; that voyage spanned November 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013. In February 2017, the INSV Mhadei was joined by a sister vessel, INSV Tarini. Over September 10, 2017 to May 21, 2018, an all-woman crew from the Indian Navy successfully completed a circumnavigation on the Tarini. The crew was led by Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi. In terms of predicament, there is much that is similar between a crew out on circumnavigation and a family enduring isolation. Unlike journeying solo, one of the challenges here is handling multiple human beings in the confines of limited space. Since people react differently, it was very important for the crew to know each other, something their months of preparation and time spent working together on training voyages, gradually instilled.

“ Over time, we transformed to being more receptive of each other. Instead of talking more, you began to listen more. Eventually, we didn’t have to speak much to be understood,’’ Vartika said. According to her, an important aspect in such situation of crew aboard sailboat on voyage of several months, is remembering to honor each other’s need for personal space. It checks the ambiance from becoming too overbearing on self. As with solo sailing, routines addressing the boat’s need for repair and maintenance, count here too. That is unavoidable on a boat. “ It is extremely important to set a routine. If it isn’t there, you lose your sense of time. On a boat there are plenty of tasks and standard drills to do,’’ she said. At any given point in time, there has to be somebody keeping an eye on the boat and its surroundings. The crew takes turns to be on watch. Those not on watch, enjoy personal time. “ With crew around, the situation is different from solo endeavors in that we have to see each other for long and we have nowhere else to go. But remember – they are also the persons who will come to your assistance when you are in need of help,’’ Vartika said. She and her crew picked up the required skills during their training, which exposed them to potential situations and taught them suitable solutions. “ Any meditation and such – that was personal. Besides, what could be a better medium to meditate in than living amidst and listening to the ever changing sounds of the sea to soothe us mentally and emotionally,’’ she said.

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

SEBASTIAN COE: CURRENT SITUATION CAN BE AN OPPORTUNITY TO REIMAGINE SPORT

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics (this photo was downloaded from the World Athletics [then IAAF] website in February 2019. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

“ We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit. This should and could be the new normal.’’

Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics, has said that the predicament the world currently finds itself in can be an opportunity to look at sports differently.

In an open letter to the athletics community, dated March 27, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics, Coe said, “ in sport we have a unique opportunity not to tip toe around things and tweak at the edges. We have the chance to think bigger, to rip up the blueprints and banish the ` that’s the way we’ve always done it’ mentality.’’ He felt that while the current priority is to tackle the pandemic, stay healthy and stay at home, in the long run, social distancing may actually bring the world closer as a community and sport can be right at its center.

“ The situation the world finds itself in today is a huge wake up call for all of us – as human beings, as businesses and as sport. We should capitalise on this and work out new ways of delivering events, create and plan new events that embrace the many as well as the few. We can use this time to innovate and extend our sport across the year. Rather than just focusing on one-day meetings and one-day road races at one end of the spectrum and 10-day extravaganzas at the other end, we should look at weekend festivals of running, jumping and throwing that take advantage of the Southern and Northern Hemisphere seasons. We should work with governments to re-establish sport in schools, rebuild club structures, incentivise people to exercise and get fit (I rather fancy more people are exercising this week – doing 15-minute exercise routines in their homes or going out for a daily walk – than they have probably done in the last month). This should and could be the new normal. We don’t have to do things the same way,’’ Coe said.

According to him the recent announcement by the Japanese Government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was what athletes wanted. “ The focus of us all must be on the health and well being of ourselves, our families and our communities. And hard as this is for us in sport to say, sometimes sport needs to take a back seat,’’ Coe said.

The new dates for the Tokyo Olympics haven’t been announced yet. Once that is available, “ we will look at what, if any, impact that decision has on our World Athletics Championships Oregon 21,’’ he said. World Athletics, Coe noted, is currently focused on four priorities. First, it would like to get athletes back into competition as soon as possible, once it is safe to do so. “ We will continue to do whatever we can to preserve and create an outdoor season of one-day meetings in 2020, starting and ending later than usual, so athletes, when they are able and it is safe, will have access to competitions in every region. Diamond League events have been postponed up until June at this stage, as have Continental Tour Gold meetings, but we are mindful that our athletes need to compete at some point this year so they can benchmark their performances and adjust their training accordingly for an Olympic Games in 2021,’’ he said in the letter.

Second, World Athletics plans to expedite it’s review of the Olympic qualification process “ and release any changes to the process as soon as possible so athletes know where they stand. Last week all sports agreed to the IOC’s proposal that all athletes currently qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will remain qualified for next year’s event. In athletics the primary qualification avenue is by meeting the entry standards set out in March 2019. Once those places are allocated, the remaining athletes are drawn from the World Ranking list. As of today, all athletes who have met the entry standards for their event will remain qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. This is approximately 50% of the places. What is important now is that we develop a clear and fair process for the remaining athletes to qualify, given many events have been postponed. We will work with our Athletes’ Commission, our Council and the IOC to do this. We are also looking at how we can preserve an outdoor competition season this year with a series of one-day meetings on each continent that may begin as late as August and run to early October, so our athletes can get back in to competition as quickly as possible when it is safe to do so,’’ he said.

Third, there is the need to reorganize the global calendar of events, not just for the next two years which will see some major disruptions, but for the long term. We are committed to working with all sports to sort out the sporting calendar in 2021 and 2022 and this will take some time and compromises all round. We started a review of our own sport’s global calendar in February, bringing together a team from different aspects of our sport and from different parts of the world to review the range of events that happen every year on a national, regional and global level, ‘’ Coe said. According to him, World Athletics is looking to expand its one-day meetings and deliver high quality events in all parts of the world so that athletes do not have to travel across the world to compete and earn a living but can do so on their own continents and in their own countries.

Fourth, World Athletics has teams that are planning a new kids athletics programme; new events and competition formats, new partnerships to help get the world moving, new collaborations around sustainability, air quality and health and the use of new technology to highlight the talents of athletes and bring it home to millions of fans around the world.

The priority for all right now is to contain the pandemic, stay healthy and stay home. “ But where we can continue to drive our sport forward, we must,’’ Coe said, adding, “ the world will not be the same after this pandemic. It will be different and that could be a good thing. Going back to core human values, back to basics of what is important, redefining our purpose, is something we can all do on a human, business and sporting scale. We have heard a lot in the past week from governments, health care professionals, Prime Ministers and Presidents about social distancing and we are all practising it. But as I said at the beginning, although we may be separated physically during this period, my instinct is that ultimately this will draw us closer together, not further apart.’’

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

“ THE IMMUNE SYSTEM IS VERY RESPONSIVE TO EXERCISE’’

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (this photo was downloaded from the doctor’s Facebook page)

Dr Pravin Gaikwad is a well-known pediatrician in Navi Mumbai. He and his wife Arati, also a doctor, have been running a clinic in the Navi Mumbai suburb of Nerul for the past several years. The two are longstanding distance runners and triathletes. They have been frequent podium finishers in their age category at various events. In addition to being a doctor, Pravin heads coaching and mentoring at Lifepacers, a Navi Mumbai-based fitness group composed mostly of runners. On March 6, 2020, this blog spoke to Pravin on the importance of exercise and balanced lifestyle in maintaining good health, central to which is a strong immune system.

Is it possible to strengthen our immune system naturally? What should we do for that?

Very simply put, immunity is your defence against invading bacteria and toxins. It is the system involved in defending your body. There is still much to be known in this regard. The main organs involved include thymus, spleen, liver, lymph nodes, bone marrow; cells include T-cells, B-cells, some cytokine proteins, phygocytes – they are like scavenger cells, then those that are anti-inflammatory in function – there are so many things involved. Even the bacteria in the gut – microbiota – they help in immunity to a great extent. So, from a bird’s eye view, a lot of things are involved.

In Marathi, there is a saying: sainya pothavar chalta; it means an army runs on food. Similarly, the easiest way to strengthen immunity is nutritious food, naturally cooked and visually having a range of colors. There are of course more detailed technical specifications but the typical balanced diet we were all taught in school – in India we are fortunate that our ancestors have been following it for ages – if you follow that, the immune system will be good. Along with good nutrition, sleep is an important thing. If you compromise on sleep, you risk compromising your immunity due to factors like hormonal imbalance; so sleep and rest are vital. Third, physical activity is important for maintaining a healthy immune system. Stress is capable of compromising immunity and therefore ability to withstand stress – which physical activity can contribute to – helps strengthen immunity. Among things to avoid: smoking definitely impacts immunity. Alcohol beyond a limit also has the same effect. These habits have to be cut. Smoking is a big no; alcohol only in moderation if somebody wishes to have it. To my mind, these would be the natural ways of maintaining a healthy immune system – nutritious food, adequate rest and sleep, developing ways to withstand stress and avoiding bad habits.

Can you explain how regular exercise helps to fortify the immune system?

The immune system is very responsive to exercise.

The initial perception was that exercise causes problems in immunity. That view was based on studies of endurance athletes; it was found that their immunity can be a bit low. Later, it was found that immunity was better in these people while performing acute short term exercises. Research and data showed that generally less than 90 minutes of endurance activity a day, is definitely helpful. More than 90 minutes could also be useful but there are other angles to consider. Next would be the number of days. There is no mention that you should do this all days of a week. If you refer the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, what they say is: 150 minutes in a week plus two strength training sessions. That last recommendation – the strength training sessions – is something most of us neglect. My view of this is: the 150 minutes typically ends up as moderate physical activity because it will include warm-up and cool down. So the real overall time for exercise will exceed 150 minutes per week, I feel. You cannot increase your heart rate to 80 per cent of your maximum heart rate just like that. It has to be gradual. Otherwise there will be repercussions of not warming up properly. So to sum up, regular physical activity genuinely helps in strengthening immunity. It serves as adjuvant (a substance that strengthens the body’s immune response) to strengthening the immune system.

When there is earlier mentioned physical activity of less than 90 minutes the count of anti-inflammatory proteins, cytokines, neutrophils, phygocytes, NK (natural killer) cells, cytotoxic T-cells, immature B-cells – all this goes up. After a certain time, it comes back to normal. But what is important is that a summation effect occurs (summation effect in medicine is described as the process by which a sequence of stimuli that are individually inadequate to produce a response are cumulatively able to induce a nerve impulse). Over a period of time, immunity is found to be better.

The basic concept of any disease is inflammation. Acute inflammation is useful to the body; chronic inflammation is not. Inflammation can be caused by three things. First is trauma, second is infection and third is allergy. Chronic inflammation is caused by stress. Acute inflammation is caused by acute exercise; that is beneficial, over a period of time it develop the ability of the body to withstand the stresses properly. The body becomes stronger. Ultimately, that is immunity. Then, there are different patho-physiologies. One is that thanks to the summation effect, the immune systems itself becomes more active and capable of adapting better. Another thing to mention here is the microbiota. One third of these beneficial bacteria are the same in you and me. Two thirds is different. Initially it was learnt that the more diverse the bacterial flora, the better is our immunity. Then it was found that athletes have more diverse bacterial flora. One reason for this is that once you are into regular physical activity you tend to address your nutrition intake better. Besides diverse bacterial flora, good diet also leads to optimum vitamin levels.

One of the effects of regular exercise is that it helps reduce instances of obesity. In obesity, the fat cells can contribute to chronic inflammation and chronic inflammation can compromise immunity. Another angle is that of ageing; with age, immunity reduces. The process is called immunosenescence. When you age, the immune system gets progressively dysregulated. It raises susceptibility to various diseases. When there is regular exercise, there is delayed immunosenescence through improved regulation of the immune system. There is something called telomeres in our chromosomes. With ageing its length reduces. However in the case of those with regular physical activity, their telomere length has a better chance of staying normal. That is part of the anti-ageing effects of regular physical activity.

If you exercise or you run – especially run – everything else falls into place. You automatically give up smoking; limit your alcohol intake, take care of your nutrition, sleep and body composition. Just being into fitness, puts the other components into place. Having a goal catalyzes it.

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (photo: courtesy Pravin)

You mentioned about the WHO prescribed norms for exercise. You have rich personal experience as swimmer, runner and triathlete. What would you say is the apt quantity and quality of exercise for an average individual?

I would definitely insist on strength training sessions; at least twice a week. As we age our growth hormone levels decline. Testosterone level declines. Your muscle mass is going to decline. The fat mass will increase. Ultimately, the muscle is a furnace. This means that with the same diet, the same exercise – aerobic without strengthening – you still gain weight. When you strengthen your muscles, not only do you get the popularly known advantages like reduced chances of injury, improved balance and improved bone density; you also slow down the growth hormone decline. Talking of growth hormone, sleep and growth hormone is related. When you have good sleep, there is good growth hormone secretion. All this gives you that anti-ageing effect, more energy and combined with better muscle mass, the potential for a higher level of activity. So do strength training at least two days a week. It should be for the whole body. It can’t be that you are a runner and therefore you strengthen only your legs. Aerobic physical activity can be anything – running, swimming, cycling. I think, 30-40 minutes of such activity – as WHO says, moderate physical activity – with warm-up and cool down and with heart rate rising to 80-85 per cent of maximum heart rate, is good enough.

Now, there are those who wish to challenge themselves. Let’s take the marathon as example. One study showed there was 2-18 per cent increase in sickness level – particularly respiratory tract infections – was found in marathon runners two months before a race and 15 days after a race. We are subjecting ourselves to multiple stresses during those months leading to a race. After running a marathon, there are a lot of chronic inflammatory changes which occur in the body. In my own case, after a marathon I usually do HSCRP (Highly Sensitive C-Reactive Protein) test. The figures are usually high. Then it settles down. I generally run only one full marathon a year. I rarely run half marathons but I do quite a few 10-kilometer runs. It is those speed runs that are more important from a health point of view. Fast for one minute, then slow for one minute – like that some 6-8 times in one particular run, that will be enough exercise. Running for two hours, three hours – that is not really required; it can cause chronic inflammation. Studies show that when you start exercising, in the initial stage, you are contributing to improving your immunity. As you elevate exercise, the risk increases. In heavy exercise, the risk can go up by two to six-folds.

How do you decide severity of exercise? If you take any of the amateur athletes who are pushing themselves, how can they know if they are exercising beyond acceptable limit or not?

Let us talk of the elite athletes. They do severe exercise. But their bodies have adapted gradually to that level of exercise. This is what amateur runners often miss. Good coaches don’t increase mileage by more than 10-20 per cent a week. Every fourth week, you try to incorporate a cutback-week. Follow these routine things. Let me give you the example of Comrades Marathon. I did Comrades in 2018; myself and my wife, Arati. We did not do Comrades back-to-back. I might do it once more when I turn 60. Given Comrades entails lengthy training of 4-5 months, if you are doing it regularly, you may be erring on the side of greater inflammation. Overtraining may also not give you enough sleep. So to return to your question of what qualifies to be severe: if you are not getting up fresh, if you are not sleeping well, if you don’t have enough energy for the day, if your appetite is less, if you are falling ill, if your immunity is declining – those are all signals from the body telling you to cut down. A new runner, for three years at least, he should not run a full marathon. Also remember – running is a muscle-shortening exercise. With age and with constant running – it’s going to affect your speed. Some of the elite runners in the later part of their life, become triathletes. Swimming has the ability to restore muscles to their original length. Plus it involves a different muscle fiber; it also improves breathing.

I think, accepting your declining pace helps you sustain the act of running and enjoy it for more years. Throw off your watches and measuring devices and run. Go with the flow. Except when training for a race, I don’t resort to these gadgets. The longevity of physical activity and fitness is more important than results delivered by great pace. Unfortunately we are fascinated by that pace.

You spoke of the importance of mixing fast and slow running for meaningful work out. There are many people who prefer not to run and are instead into walking. Can they too leverage this blend?

It can be done. In terms of evolution, we are born to run. Once we get used to a certain level of activity, it is normal for the body to learn to use less calories to deliver the same outcome. You do a particular activity, you get some benefits. But later, you don’t. I have been running for years in Navi Mumbai. In that time I have seen many people walking religiously in the morning. But some of them are also gaining weight. That’s because their bodies have got adapted to the routine. They are no longer getting the benefit of walking. You can get the benefit by challenging yourself. There are simple things you can do. For example, you can change the time of your walk; sometimes walk in the morning, sometimes walk in the evening. That way, the body gets a bit shocked. Second, change the terrain. Go to the hills for a change; the body gets challenged in a different way. You can try brisk walking. People try aerobic walking too; you walk like you run. Normal walking burns 4-5 calories per minute. Aerobic walking will burn 8-10 calories per minute. You can introduce the Fartlek concept in walking. Or keep an app that collects data about your walking, if data is a source of motivation for you. Anything that can be measured can be improved upon. I feel somebody who can walk for 30 minutes should be able to run. And if you have been running regularly for three months, you can become a runner. The point is – whatever physical activity you are engaged in, you should challenge yourself a bit. Plus, don’t forget strength training. That helps you walk faster too.

What kind of effect does stress have on the immune system?

Stress impacts the immune system. Stress is of two types. There is the psychological type. Then there is the physico-chemical type which encompasses environmental stress, food, toxins we inhale etc. The body has a tenacious ability to adjust to the challenges in the environment. But if your immune system is compromised or you are under so much duress that the resultant stress is beyond your capacity to cope with, then it can manifest as disease. It can give rise to chronic infections, auto-immune diseases, inflammations and even cancer. I remember a study on anti-depressants used in the treatment of cancer. They don’t address the cancer per se; they address the stress factor. Beta blockers are medicines used to tackle the higher levels of hormones like adrenalin that can be triggered by stress. Prolonged chronic stress can result in more pro-inflammatory cytokines and health conditions thereof.

Dr Pravin Gaikwad (Photo: courtesy Pravin)

How important is rest and recovery in the scheme of things?

Seven to nine hours of sleep will maintain your growth hormones properly. Memory consolidation also happens during sleep. This is important for children. There was a time when school used to be from seven in the morning till twelve noon. You come home and sleep. That consolidates memory. Evening you play. Then you study, eat and sleep. You find something similar in elite runners. They train twice a day. For them, their sleep consolidates their training. Amateur runners, who hold down jobs and pursue their passion, are probably at a disadvantage here. If you can catch a nap some time in between, it helps. It should also be mentioned in this context that use of alcohol and excessive use of mobiles disturbs sleep pattern. If you want good performance, eventually it is about TNR – Training, Nutrition and Recovery. Recovery is where our muscles actually get trained. Then they perform better. On partially trained muscles if you exert, they will be prone to injury. Rest and recovery are the same things. It is very important. I can give you an instance from personal experience. My personal best in the marathon is three hours 38 minutes, which I got at the 2017 Mumbai Marathon. Some days before the event I developed pain in my left calf muscle. So I stopped everything. After 15 days of rest, a Thursday night, I ran around six kilometers to see how the leg held. On Sunday, I got my PB. That forced rest of 15 days helped. The body always gives you a signal of how it is feeling. You just have to listen to it. I also strongly believe in the seasonality of endurance activities. We were typically expected to peak in the winter months because that is when most of the events were held. But now there is an event every weekend. People participate. I feel we should not. Constant racing is not going to improve your performance. You have to give your body time to recover.

Herein, on the nutrition front, one study found that 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for a marathon or any activity beyond 90 minutes, helps reduce the post-race inflammation. Polyphenols – found in fruits – also help similarly. Banana and good carbohydrate intake is thus good for your recovery.

There is the observation that you are good in-season depending on how well you trained off-season. What do you recommend for the off-season?

Mileage has to be less. I would put emphasis on agility, strength training, nutrition and making sure your weight does not increase too much. Don’t compromise on sleep. One hour of physical activity in this period is good enough.

In terms of the quality of running you do in the off-season: take it easy – would that be correct?

Take it easy. But then don’t run easy every time. Do simple things like – open up your strides for 20 seconds, recover for a minute and then open up again. Do that six to eight times. Cool down. Or you can do Fartlek with your friends around; that is enjoyable. Keep long runs fewer in number than when you are training for a race. Similarly reserve tempo runs for the time you are training towards a race.

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

A PHASE OF UNCERTAINTY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In mid-February 2020, the organizers of the Tokyo Marathon announced that the event would be restricted to elite athletes. This followed the outbreak of COVID-19 and its spread to multiple nations including Japan. Some days later, news appeared of the 2020 Seoul Marathon being cancelled.

At a press briefing of March 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. At the time of writing, the number of cases was over 220,000 worldwide. Nearly 9000 people had died. Among precautionary measures recommended has been restricting mass participation events. Contributing their bit to contain the disease outbreak, organizers of major marathons started announcing cancellation or postponement of events.

In the second week of March, the organizers of the Boston Marathon announced postponement of the event to September 14. Soon afterwards, London Marathon made a similar announcement, postponing the race to early October. Both these World Marathon Majors are usually held in April. Other major cancellations included the 56-kilometer Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa, Athens Half Marathon, New York Half Marathon. Several other marathons in Europe and the US have also been rescheduled. On March 16, the organizers of Swimathon Goa, an open water swimming race, decided to cancel the event. It was originally scheduled to be held over March 28-29.We spoke to some of those who had planned to attend the above said events; we also spoke to some currently training amid lack of clarity on what may happen to the event they are due to go for.

Deepti Karthik (Photo: courtesy Deepti)

Bengaluru-based Deepti Karthik was scheduled to run the Tokyo Marathon of March 1, 2020. Mid-February, the World Marathon Major, announced that it was restricting the race to elite athletes. Recreational runners were informed that their registration would be carried forward to the next year. Post 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) Deepti had stepped up her mileage in training aiming to go for the Tokyo Marathon. Notwithstanding the financial loss due to arrangements already made for travel and stay in Tokyo, once news of the cancellation sank in, Deepti decided to take a short break from her training.

She shifted her attention to the 2020 Boston Marathon. “ I was putting in a lot of mileage. I was running 80-85 km each week,” she said. But then, Boston got postponed. Forced to refocus her efforts and recalibrate her training schedule, she has now in her sights the TCS 10 K, slated for May 17, 2020 in Bengaluru. But past that event she is staring at a small pile-up on her plate. Deepti had also signed up for the 2020 Berlin Marathon. With the postponement of Boston Marathon, Deepti will now have to do two World Marathon Majors in two weeks.  Boston Marathon has been rescheduled to September 14 and Berlin Marathon is set for September 27.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman (Photo: courtesy Muthukrishnan Jayaraman)

“ I have no choice but to run both the marathons. I guess I will take Boston Marathon as an easy run and go strong at Berlin. Boston has a tougher route while Berlin is flat,” she reasoned. If the situation does not worsen, Deepti hopes to resume her training for the two international marathons by early June. So far, she has completed three of the six World Marathon Majors – London, Chicago and New York City Marathon. This year a good number of recreational runners from India were slated to go for the Tokyo Marathon. The news of its cancellation came as a disappointment particularly because some of them were hoping to complete the World Major Marathon series in Tokyo.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist with the Indian Army, was at the peak of his preparations for the Boston Marathon, when the year’s running calendar started to come apart. Now with news of the Boston Marathon being postponed to September, he is taking a break. “ I will go back to building my foundation and focus on strength training,” he said. “ My coach Ashok Nath has asked his mentees to do a self-assessment of their strong and weak points. Based on that we will have to work out our training plan,” he said. The army doctor hoped to resume his training in May and do one domestic marathon – either the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon or the AFMC Marathon in Pune, both scheduled to be held in August this year.

Apoorva Chaudhary is scheduled to run the 2020 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships to be held in July in Bengaluru. Based in Delhi, Apoorva commenced her training sometime in mid-March. So far, thanks to the disease outbreak, her training has been muted. She plans to ramp it up from April though that would depend on how COVID-19 impacts the environment. “ I run solo and most of my training runs are done very early in the morning when there are few people on the road,” she said.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi had qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group Championships, which was to be held as part of London Marathon. She is also one of the runners representing India at the 2020 IAU 100 km World Championships to be held in the Netherlands on September 12, 2020. With London Marathon getting postponed to early October, Anjali has decided to give it a miss as her main event is the World Championships. At the 2019 IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships, Anjali had set a new national best with her finish in 9:22 hours. “ I have decided to opt out of London Marathon as I will not be able to recover well after the World Championships and do justice to it,” she said. She plans to resume her training for the World Championships in April.

Sunil Chainani was in the midst of his training for Boston Marathon when the news of postponement came in. Now with the date of Boston Marathon moved to September 14, Sunil will have to participate in two marathons in a period of four weeks – Boston and Chicago. Chicago Marathon is slated for October 11, 2020. He has gone back to minimum essential training. “ I run for fun. Right now my focus is to stay fit,” Sunil, who lives in Bengaluru, said.

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

It was not long ago that Zarir Baliwala, Mumbai-based businessman and recreational endurance athlete, decided that he will focus on swimming for a change. He decided to temporarily stop running and cycling and get ready for the Goa Swimathon, scheduled over March 28-29. He had just made the decision in his mind when the Maharashtra government acting to contain spread of COVID-19, announced closure of Mumbai’s swimming pools till further notice. Zarir was forced to reassess. Subsequently, the organizers of Swimathon also announced the cancellation of the event in Goa. “ I will now go back to running and cycling,” Zarir said.

For many Indian runners and triathletes focusing on national events, the current phase represents the quieter part of the calendar. Major domestic events have concluded and the new season will commence in three months. However for runners attempting international events – especially events under the World Marathon Majors – the calendar has turned topsy turvy. Between September and November, there are now five World Marathon Majors: Boston Marathon, Berlin Marathon, London Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath had signed up for the 2020 Boston Marathon. Subsequently, he also qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group World Championships to be held as part of the 2020 London Marathon. Having completed Boston Marathon multiple times, he opted to give its 2020 edition a miss and focus instead on the London Marathon. The new revised schedule has cast a fresh spin. He feels there is a manageable gap between Boston and London but the Berlin Marathon, given it is too close to the London event may have to be run another year – that is, for those planning to attempt more than one of these events.

“ The running season in India concludes by end-February and the focus shifts to rebuilding the basics until it is time to commence race specific training. The first major race on the new calendar is the TCS 10 K in Bengaluru, in May,” Ashok said. Following that, India’s season of long runs and the now revised schedule of international marathons will unfold. Depending on how the virus outbreak plays out it may cast a shadow on how you prepare for the year ahead. The critical word is immunity. In these times, training has to be within manageable limits so as not to compromise one’s immunity, Ashok said. “ Long runs will lower immunity. Is that the right thing to do in the current situation?” he asked.

Samson Sequiera (left) with Poonam Bhatia (Photo: courtesy Samson)

The Comrades Marathon, the ultramarathon held annually in South Africa, is among major events in the running calendar. It has been steadily gathering a following in India. The organizers of the event are scheduled to review the situation on April 17, 2020, an official Comrades Marathon press note said. Indian runners attempting the 2020 edition of Comrades Marathon have been pressing ahead with their training. “ Training for Comrades is going on full steam so that we are not found lacking the training mileages required,” said coach Samson Sequiera, who heads a large Mumbai-based marathon training and fitness group called Run India Run.

Training for Comrades Marathon is strenuous. It includes three or four long runs spanning distance of 45 km, 55 km and 65 km. According to Samson, runners are practising self-restraint. They are taking care of their hydration and paying attention to rest given the current situation caused by COVID-19. A total of 35 runners from Run India Run have registered for Comrades Marathon (downhill version) this year. In all, approximately 330 runners from India have registered to run the 2020 Comrades Marathon. The race is scheduled to be held on June 15, 2020.

Satish Gujaran (Photo: courtesy Satish)

“ Runners slated to do Comrades are quite confused on how to take their training forward. Normally, April is the peak month of training for Comrades. We are scheduled to do the longest run of 65 km during the second week of April,” ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, who completed Comrades for the tenth time in 2019, said. He felt, it would be better if the organizers announce their decision early so that runners can stop training and go back to basic fitness routine.  “ One option is to scale the training down now and pick it up after April 15 depending on what the situation is on the pandemic,” Satish said.

According to Ashok, it would be prudent to cancel all sporting events including those two months away such as the Comrades Marathon and TCS 10 K. Given the training for these events happen now, postponing or cancelling them will prompt amateur athletes to stop race-training and focus on fitness-based training.

Septuagenarian Kumar Rao was well into his training for the Boston Marathon, when COVID-19 began upsetting schedules.  He was aiming for a 3:50-3:52 hour finish, an improvement over 3:59, his time to finish last year in Boston. “ I was doing 85-90 km per week. Now, I have decided to scale back. This week I plan to do 35 km. I will eventually settle for 60 km per week,” he said.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

It also appeared practical; apt for these times. “ Considering my age, I think it is better for me to scale down. Initially, I was cavalier about this and continued training. I even did a glycogen-depleted training run,” Kumar said. Boston wasn’t the only major race overseas, on his plate. He had also registered for the New York City Marathon. “ I may have to go to the US twice; once for Boston Marathon in September and then again for NYCM in November. If my wife agrees to come with me, I may stay back in the US with my son for the period between these two marathons,” he pointed out.

Although he shuttles between India and the US, Kochi-based recreational runner Ramesh Kanjilimadhom hadn’t signed up for any major international event in 2020. He did think briefly of running in Paris but then didn’t pursue it. He felt that the shifting of major races to the September-October period could make for a crammed fall season calendar, particularly in the US. On the bright side, provided the disease outbreak tapers, the additional choices emergent for the fall season may prove interesting to runners.

For now, a whole planet of major events in sport is at the mercy of the virus.

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

OUR REFLECTION IN PETER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ IT MAKES YOU FEEL ALIVE, COMPLETELY OPPOSITE OF DAILY ROUTINE’’

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

It was in 2018 that Chennai-based ultrarunner, Peter Van Geit, first stitched together several passes in the Himalaya, doing an extended spate of fast-hiking. In 2019, he took that up another notch, journeying across 120 passes in about as many days. Then he shifted his attention to the state of Maharashtra and ran or cycled to some 200 forts. In January 2019, Peter was in Mumbai for a talk. He spared time to speak to this blog. Excerpts:

How was your trip of 2019 to the Himalaya different from the one of 2018?

This was longer. I was there for almost four months – from May until September – covering about 120 passes in four months, almost doing one pass a day. This time I had to plan more carefully because in the month of May you still have snow in areas above 4000 meters. I started from the Kumaon-Nepal border and worked my way towards Himachal Pradesh. During the whole of May I was traversing from east to west in Uttarakhand. In the beginning of June the snowline started retreating. At that time I was in Himachal, where I spent some time in the Great Himalayan National Park; very dramatic landscape with steep slopes. From there I proceeded to the Dhauladhar and the entire range from Dharamshala to Palampur, which separates Kangra plains from Chamba valley. By the end of June, monsoon kicked in. I had to retreat and cross the Pir Panjal range towards Lahaul. I crossed over to Zanskar, Ladakh and Lahaul where I spent all of July and August. I went to Hemis National Park, where I covered many passes. I had to plan it carefully as there was lot of snowfall last winter and much meltwater in the summer that followed. In peak summer there were strong currents in the streams, it was very difficult to cross these streams. In 2019 too, probably due to climate change, sometime in mid-August there was flooding in parts of the Himalaya – Chamba, Manali. Manali-Leh Highway saw heavy landslides. At that time I was somewhere in Zanskar and got stuck. I managed to come down and for another couple of weeks explored a lot of valleys around Bada Bhangal and places like Kalihani Pass. I explored the Chamba valley fully. It was an amazing journey.

In the first phase you had been minimalist traveler with little gear. This time did you make any alternations to your gear?

Actually this year I reduced my gear further. I did not carry any tent, just a small bivy sack. Also, I had a light weight sub-zero sleeping bag, which was very comfortable. My ration plan was minimalist and optimum. I would just carry enough food to get to the next village. First few days I mostly carried fresh food. But then in Ladakh-Zanskar where you have 5-6 days trek, I had to cook some food. I carried a very minimalist stove. But I decided to give up that stove. Instead, I would collect dry cow dung and yak dung and horse dung and sprinkle that with kerosene and make a cooking fire. I would cook white oats which is easy to prepare with some water. That way I only carried a 4-5 kilogram backpack.

Photo: courtesy Peter

You mentioned taking an ice axe in 2019. Was that only for a portion of the trip?

Snow and ice were new to me. Previously, I had only gone in the months of July and August. In Uttarakhand I did not carry an ice axe. I just had some light carbon hiking poles, which were very useful. Snow is easy to tackle if it is on a flat surface but when it’s on a gradient, then you need poles. Poles are also essential for stream crossing especially over uneven river bed. Stream currents in some of the canyons in Ladakh can be dangerous. In July I was near the Dhauladhar. There I was lucky I met a person who had an ice axe. We trekked together for a week. It was a light weight Black Diamond axe. That became my main tool. By mid-August the ice axe was not required. But I continued to carry it because I was going to new places.

Are you going back again this year?

In addition to the May-September period, I am planning a new mission. I am planning a winter mission from February till April not to the passes but some remote valleys. Some of the valleys have beautiful hamlets. I want to go in winter and experience how it is. But I will have to be careful. I know snow can be dangerous. I will have to see how I can optimize my luggage. I will have to carry warmer stuff.

Will you be attempting a higher elevation this year than what you have done so far?

More than elevation, I would say traversing shepherd routes across Pir Panjal, Waru and the Kali-Cho Pass. In 2019, many passes opened late because of the heavy winter. Across many of the lesser known passes I was able to follow the shepherds; otherwise it is impossible to know these places. These are not regular hiking routes.

Is east of Nepal on your cards?

Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh are there on my mind.

When you chose places do you prefer to go to places which are not frequented by people?

The contrast between commercial versus unknown is striking. Visiting an unknown place is so much more enriching, both in terms of natural beauty and the absence of plastic waste and garbage. You don’t meet visitors there and the shepherds who are there – they also don’t see many people. They are surprised to run into me, a solo traveler. They receive you with such heart-warming hospitality. In commercial places you are treated as a customer and in other places they see you as a guest.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

What took you to the Sahyadri?

The Sahyadri was unknown to me. This place is unique; almost 300 ancient forts, many of these are in ruins now. That; combined with the unique geography. Last February when I was this side for a talk at the Himalayan Club, I stayed with a couple of guys in Pune and they took me on a trek. That’s how I got a feel of it. I did about 20 forts. After my 2019 Himalaya trip, I was looking for a place where I could spend a couple of months. I considered the southern states of Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala. But access to places here is restricted by the forest department. Both the Himalaya and the Sahyadri are like paradise, you are not restricted by anyone. I was already following a couple of people on Instagram who would post beautiful pictures of the Sahyadri. I started searching for names of forts and checking with Google maps, GPS logs. There were some specific websites which gave detailed information. I was able to get proper routes for almost 200 forts. For other forts I started studying satellite maps, finding the trails myself. Then I started to work on how I could do this in the quickest way. I was in that ultra-running mode – light and fast. I visited many of the hill forts, running or fast-hiking. The forts of the Konkan coast – those I visited on my bicycle.

That way I was able to wrap it up within two months. I used to put up photos on Instagram and within no time my followers grew from 6000 to 20000. For many people, I was not visiting forts but temples of Chhatrapathi Shivaji who fought invaders.

What do you hope to do with all the information you have gathered?

I am a little bit privileged in the sense that people can hardly take a week or a weekend off. For somebody like me who has quit his full-time job I feel privileged to spend an entire month out. In the Himalaya, I acclimatise once and then go very fast. Those 120 passes were done in four months, which is roughly 120 days. Planning these long journeys is not simple because you have to spend quite a few weeks to put together a 3500 kilometer-route with so many passes which in my case includes many non-touristy places that are remote.

There was a lot of study. All the data I collect and the maps I create by studying the terrain are compiled in my blog www.ultrajourneys.org to make it easy for people to follow in my footsteps.

So, is it possible for those who want to do a few passes to just download the digital information and proceed with GPS co-ordinates?

Yes. I have documented all the passes; I rate them on the basis of elevation, distances, duration and scale of difficulty. Novices can start with easy passes. I also have a column for dangers. Some passes are risky in terms of stream crossing. People can start with conservative, safer options.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

The same digital information is available for the Sahyadri too?

Yes.

You had a full-time job at Cisco and now you are a full-time explorer, runner etc. How do you sustain this activity monetarily?

I have a home in Chennai. When I am not in Chennai I do an Airbnb with it. Financial is one aspect. If you live in cities you end up spending a lot of money. When I get to a remote place, I cannot spend money anymore. I carry my tent, I don’t stay in hotels, don’t use private transport, always commute in buses. In the end I eat two meals a day which is like Rs 60 per plate of momos in the Himalaya, Rs 50 per plate of bhakris in the Sahyadri.

Are your social media accounts fetching you anything monetarily?

I am not looking at that. Now I have some 22,000 people following me. I am giving talks and doing some workshops. I am not looking at monetizing them. I feel very uncomfortable charging people for it. This is my passion and I want to inspire as many young people as possible. In every talk I am able to reach out to 200-300 people.

While you were doing the passes you were burning a significant amount of calories. Is it possible for you to match the two – significant burn of calories and frugal lifestyle?

I have done it now for two years. In the Himalaya, the elevation gain and very challenging terrain can be exhausting and you can easily burn 6000-8000 calories a day. These need to be replenished. Many times you end up with members of the Gujjar community and other mountain people. They cook fresh food. They typically source local organically grown stuff. You get a lot of nutrition from their food. High altitude cereals are high in nutrition. Also, living in these remote places is like detoxing your body because the air and water are unpolluted. All of these keep you in good shape. Also in the mountains your sleeping pattern gets aligned with the solar cycle. You will always settle down by sunset. You get up automatically when sun hits your face. That rest makes you mentally and physically fit to do the next day’s traverse. Further when you are exploring new places you are mentally engaged.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

At the start of the season when you have drawn out plans to do a certain number of passes, it is a task sustaining yourself that long. Does the goal feel formidable at the start of the season?

I never think of the numbers, I just take one day at a time. Although you plan your journey the actual journey can be different because you could get stuck somewhere due to some unexpected snowfall. Of the 120 passes, 2-3 of them were quite dangerous to traverse and I have had to take a mature decision and make a U-turn. Some of them are quite technical. Sometimes you get on top of the pass and then you realise that it is impossibly steep to get down on the other side. You don’t want to take unwanted risk. Sometimes it is like trial and error. You have to take a call.

Why do you do this?

People ask that question. I don’t have an answer for that. It is more like an internal drive. I have always been very excited and feel very alive when I go there. Even when I was working I used to go to such places and feel the freshness of nature, waterfalls, streams, jungles, birds and wildlife. The forest gives you so much of positivity, both physically and mentally. Also, it gives you internal peace. Climbing up 3000 meters and not seeing anybody for two days, there is total peace all around you. It makes you feel alive, completely opposite of daily routine. Probably that connection is what drives me.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used with this interview were downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page; they have been used here with his permission. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/)

THE WORLD CHAMPION WE OVERLOOK

Manikandan Kumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When this blog met him, Manikandan Kumar’s triumph at the 2012 IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships was over seven years in the past. He hasn’t been idle. There have been other podium finishes including three more at the world championships. What have been less than ideal are our system of encouragement and the resource-rich we call: sponsors.

There was palpable imperviousness to the negative and the pessimistic, in how Manikandan Kumar spoke. “ I believe in myself. I grew gradually in climbing. It wasn’t easy. You can ask anyone – I never complain,’’ he said. It was now years since Mani, as he is popularly called, burst on to the scene. For this writer, that moment happened one night at an outdoor school in Ranikhet, when Kuttappa (Kuttss) Bommanda showed up for dinner apologizing for his late arrival. “ I was watching Mani’s climb at the Paraclimbing World Championships on my laptop. He has won it!’’ Kuttss, an outdoor instructor from Bengaluru, said enthusiastically. The year was 2012. Mani had become India’s first world champion in paraclimbing; the country is otherwise a relative unknown in the top echelons of competition climbing. Aside from fellow climbers and officials linked to that circuit in sports, practically none in India knew him.

Seven years since, the environment for Mani and his ilk in climbing wasn’t much different. Sport climbing was slated to debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo by mid-2020. But the discipline wasn’t yet on the list of sports for the Paralympics that would follow. That meant, Mani, a former world champion and still among the best in his category worldwide, wouldn’t get a shot at the Paralympics. Why blame the Olympic movement? Seven years since Mani’s triumph at the Paraclimbing World Championships, India was yet to have a distinct paraclimbing program. “ I would like to change that,’’ Mani said, sipping coffee. It was November 2019. We were at a café on MG Road in Bengaluru.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Born 1986, Mani is the eldest of three brothers; their father worked as a carpenter, mother remained a home maker. He grew up in Malleshwaram, a suburb of Bengaluru. When he was around five years of age, Mani had an attack of typhoid. “ That was when my parents realized that my right leg had been affected,’’ Mani said. He began limping. General literature on the disease, available on the Internet, speaks of typhoid as fever caused by bacterial infection. However, you also find mention of rare neurological complications that impact a patient’s limbs and movement. In Mani’s case, the affected leg stayed weak in terms of musculature and strength. The boy loved sports, particularly football. Limp notwithstanding, he plunged in and played. “ I faced no discrimination. I played without thinking of my disability,’’ he said. Those years, climbing wasn’t at all in the frame.

In 2002, aged 16, Mani found himself at an outdoor camp in Ramnagaram organized by The Association of People with Disability (APD). Located roughly fifty kilometers away from Bengaluru, Ramnagaram has historically been a climbing hotspot. The camp participants were introduced to bouldering and rappelling. “ We climbed two to three boulders. I liked the experience. One of the instructors suggested that I try out climbing at the office of GETHNAA, which had a climbing wall right behind their building,’’ Mani said. GETHNAA stood for General Thimayya National Academy of Adventure. At this point, the climbing wall adjacent to the city’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium was still a couple of years away; GETHNAA’s was the only wall around. Mani’s opening stint at the GETHNAA wall was encouraging. “ I climbed three routes. I felt I should take up the sport,’’ he said. He started attending the climbing sessions there regularly. Among the instructors he met there was Keerthi Pais, who would become India’s best known trainer in the discipline. Not long after this foray into climbing, Mani also participated in a state level competition, in the regular category; there was no separate category for the physically challenged. “ I remember doing a dyno at that competition. I did it using my better leg. Everyone was appreciative,’’ Mani said laughing. The right leg was still quite weak. He was at the threshold of an engaging format of progression with that limb, for climbing by nature is a sport demanding three-point contact with the rock or wall being ascended.

Photo: courtesy Mani

In the sharp divide between staying perched or falling, there is little room to spare a limb to haul up a weak one. Yet in the initial days, that, was exactly what Mani often had to do – he had to lift his right leg with his hand and place it on the next foothold. None of this stopped him from making the first major decision of his life. Mani completed his tenth standard and gave up studying. “ I had no interest in studies. I wanted to make a career out of climbing,’’ he said. He did not have the benefit of money and wealthy parents. His family was struggling financially. He had no sponsors or well-wishers. All he had was self-belief.

In 2002, Mani went to Delhi to watch the national climbing competition. It left him wanting to qualify for the next edition of the event. At an open competition held thereafter at Ramjas near Delhi, he was the only climber making it to the final in his age group. “ I got an appreciation letter for that,’’ he recalled. Now the desire to excel was picking up. That year was noteworthy for something else too. Mani was among those featured in a documentary film on climbing. “ Facing the camera, I blurted out that one day I want to be a world champion. It’s still there in that video,’’ he said. In 2003, he participated in the zonal competition and ended up seventh or eighth, narrowly missing selection for the national competition.  However, he got a wild card entry, the condition being he would have to do a trial climb and prove his worth before the senior official overseeing sport climbing. That done and initial rounds too cleared, Mani found himself among four climbers from the South Zone who featured in the final. He finished last but won the best climber award.

In 2004, he was back in the final. In 2006 also, he qualified for the national competition (in India, the national competition is at the apex of a series of zonal competitions arranged below it in the hierarchy). That year, he started working as a coach under Keerthi Pais, reporting every day to the new climbing wall that had come up near Kanteerava Stadium. In 2007, Mani didn’t qualify for the final at the national competition; it was the case in 2008 too. But the coaching continued, including accompanying his wards (they were in the junior category) who had made it to the national competition, to their respective events. The coaching assignment brought with it a small salary. Additionally Mani worked at outdoor adventure camps. The income he thus made was useful for his family.

Mani with Philippe Ribiere at one of the editions of Girivihar’s open sport climbing competition at Belapur in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

For over a decade in Mumbai, the city’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, ran an open climbing competition. It would eventually lead to two editions of the IFSC World Cup in Bouldering (IFSC – International Federation of Sport Climbing) being held in Navi Mumbai in 2016 and 2017. Mani had been to these events. Among foreign climbers visiting the open competition held in Belapur was Philippe Ribiere from France. “ He is someone I respect,’’ Mani said. At age four Philippe was diagnosed with Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome and has excelled at climbing despite that. He started climbing at six. To others climbing so having overcome physical challenges, he is important not merely as example to follow but also as among those inspiring the first international paraclimbing competition held in 2006 at Ekaterinburg, Russia. More such competitions were held in the years that followed. Then in 2011, the first paraclimbing world championships were held in Arco Italy, under the auspices of IFSC. Mani had been following these developments. He had faith in himself and there was also that old statement to camera: one day I want to be a world champion, which had come out naturally, to explore.

“ Between 2009 and 2011 – that is when I realized, this is my chance. I watched all relevant videos of paraclimbing. I used to take note of participants at these competitions. After the 2011 paraclimbing world championships in Arco, I decided that no matter what, I am going,’’ Mani said. He didn’t tell anyone of his resolve. He commenced preparations in January 2012. Sometime in July-August 2012, he had a conversation with the zonal chairman overseeing sport climbing in South India. He agreed to forward Mani’s candidature. The venue for the 2012 paraclimbing world championships was Paris. Registration done, Mani’s next challenge was finding sponsors to cover the expenses of his trip. Karnataka State Housing Corporation covered the cost of his flight tickets. For the rest, friends, students, the parents of his students – they chipped in. “ Somehow I managed,’’ Mani said. It was his first time overseas; Mani traveled alone. “ The process of flying out made me resolved – it is now or never. There is no way I will complain,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Mani

Given the variety of physical disabilities and the way they impact human performance to different extents, paraclimbing has several cub-categories for participants. The categories are awarded on the basis of medical documents and examination. In 2019, there were as many as eight sub-categories in the men’s section at the world championships. In 2012, only the second year of the paraclimbing world championships, there were four sub-categories – Amputee Leg PD, Arthritis + Neurological PD1, Visual Impairment B1 and Visual Impairment B2. Mani was in the second segment – Arthritis + Neurological PD1. Mani reached Paris two days earlier. He stayed alone in a dormitory and on competition day, took a train to the venue. The competition featured lead climbing. Mani cleared the qualifying round (he estimated the climbing grade therein at around 7b) and made it to the final. Philippe Ribiere was among the competitors; he didn’t reach the final that year, Mani said. The final featured six climbers: two from France and one each from Italy, Brazil, Hungary and India. Each climber had one shot at the route on the lead climbing wall.

“ I almost made it to the top. I fell short by four holds. After the climb, I knew I was in the top three but didn’t know I had won. It was the Brazilian coach who told me that. I dropped whatever I had and ran to the notice board to check. It was true. I was over the moon. I had achieved my dream,’’ Mani said. He spent another two days in Paris; he wanted to see the Eiffel Tower. Then he returned to Bengaluru. Family; friends, the media – they all turned up at the airport to receive him. “ It was the biggest thing that happened for India in competition climbing,’’ Mani recalled. A country hardly mentioned in sport climbing suddenly had a world champion in paraclimbing. Mani has since had podium finish thrice at the world championships – second place in 2014, third place in 2018 and third place again in 2019. He is typically lone participant from India. “ India and Hungary – we don’t have teams. Other nations send large teams supported by sponsors and funds to the paraclimbing world championships. France is really big in paraclimbing,’’ Mani said. In August 2019, he was among recipients (in the land  category, for the preceding year: 2018) of India’s annual Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award.

Photo: courtesy Mani

One of the legacies of Philippe Ribiere’s push to hold a paraclimbing competition and the IFSC world championships that followed has been the emergence of more competitions – you could call it a circuit – where paraclimbers can participate. Mani has been active here and there are several podium finishes earned so. But it has indisputably been a pattern of ups and down; he won some, lost some and sometimes a setback or series of setbacks made him feel very bad. On the other hand, as Mani put it – even his idol, tennis great Roger Federer has had to deal with inconsistency in performance. “ If it can happen to him, it can happen to me. I just need to calm myself down,’’ Mani said. He does bouldering and lead climbing but his strength is in lead. The categories and rules of the sport have also got revised going ahead. At the world championships of 2018 and 2019, his category for participation was RP2. He continues to limp when walking but sustained climbing and pushing one’s limits has meant he no longer needs to free his hand and haul up that right leg. It is responding better. That said; his body strength is distributed differently from that of the average climber.

Mani has good upper body strength. One of the exercises used to train climbers features the campus board. It is usually installed at a slight overhanging angle and requires climber to ascend using handholds (typically horizontal wooden sections fitted on the board) with no footholds to support body weight. Climbers train to move sequentially, using one hand and the next; they also train to move explosively wherein they launch off using both hands and go for the next hold. “ My ability to campus is stronger than that of many normal climbers,’’ Mani said explaining how he compensates for the weak right leg. But his own success aside, he worries for paraclimbing in India because although there are physically challenged people who speak to him of foraying in that direction, few of them turn up later to climb. If they don’t turn up to climb and train, how can there be Indian paraclimbers? For now therefore, it is just Mani on the global map. He has been to five world championships so far (winning medals on four occasions). He would like to make that ten. He is also the first Indian climber to win gold medals in the US when he topped his category – neurological / physical impairment – at the 2017 and 2018 Adaptive National Championships conducted by USA Climbing. “ My ultimate goal is a medal at the Olympics. I am hoping that paraclimbing gets included in the Paralympics. I would like to keep competing till the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. One way or the other, people always encouraged me. That was motivating. Further, if anyone says I can’t do it, that is bigger motivation for me,’’ Mani said. Aspiration is one thing; as is personal commitment. What about the means?

Photo: courtesy Mani

So far – notwithstanding four podium finishes at the world championships and several medals on the paraclimbing circuit – Mani has no steady sponsor. For his trips overseas, he now taps crowd funding. “ Funding has improved with each year. But it worries me that despite so many medals won, I still have to struggle to get backing,’’ he said. It felt strange hearing that for Bengaluru is home to wealthy IT companies (with CSR accounts to their credit) and IT professionals have been big in the pursuit of adventure sports like climbing. Adding to Mani’s frustration was that able bodied climbers of less achievement in competition climbing found sponsors in India. The anger was clear in his tone. He was willing to explore more zones of discomfort as regards his climbing but that question puzzled: why aren’t sponsors interested in him, a paraclimber? “ Why should I seek their sympathy? Will you sponsor me only if I seek your sympathy? I am not complaining. Why don’t you appreciate my hard work instead?’’ Mani asked on the subject. It was the only time in our conversation his wall of optimism showed cracks. Meanwhile his coaching continues and he lays much hope on two of his wards; the prayer is that at least one of them secures a podium finish at a world cup in the future. “ I want some able bodied climber to win a medal at a world cup or the world championships. It is a big task for Indian climbers. But with the right approach, it is possible,’’ Mani said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the years of participation at national and zonal climbing competitions and podium positions earned therein, are as stated by the interviewee.)