TRANSFORMED

Girish Bindra (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A logistics business keeps you on your toes.

You must ensure your vehicles are in good shape and available to haul cargo; find cargo, make sure the cargo is delivered on time and manage the cargo transit environment with its plethora of paper work, which in India – land of forms, taxes and toll plazas by the dozen, is never easy. Finally, there is that vigil over one’s vehicles being on Indian roads and surviving the traffic. Logistics is not for the faint of heart. That modern work place – the smartphone – didn’t spare Girish Bindra even in the depths of a 48 hour-stadium run. Transporter by profession, he is currently among Mumbai’s leading ultramarathon runners. “ On the second morning of that stadium run, I was answering calls from work,’’ he recalled. We were at a coffee shop in Chembur, not far from his office and its modest fleet of trucks and trailers plying the roads of western India. It was quiet in the café compared to the busy road outside. The road led to Navi Mumbai and destinations like Pune, Goa and Bengaluru beyond.

From the Veterun Half Marathon in Pune (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Most runners have a story, one that harks of transformation. Girish too has one. More than just a story, for anyone who has run in Mumbai these past few years and crossed paths with him somewhere on the road, it is a small movie of transformation playing out in front of you. In appearance, Girish is now an absolutely fit person. He reminds of a triathlete, which he isn’t yet. Two to three years ago, he was visibly on the heavy side. Somewhere in the time elapsed since, his persistent physical activity saw him get past that point of no return for fat to continue sticking around. He transformed to athletic build. The Girish of old was actually heavier than the Girish we met for the first time on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, a couple of years ago. Born October 1973 in Mumbai, Girish is the middle child among three siblings. The family lived in the Mumbai suburb of Sion. “ My father ran a transport business. He is now 78 years old. He is my inspiration. Both my parents are diabetic. For the last forty years, they have lived a simple life and stuck to their daily walking,’’ Girish said. He attended school at AMK Premier High School in Sion, studied commerce at Podar College in Dadar and pursued his cost accountancy and chartered accountancy. Life nudged him towards taking over his father’s business, which he eventually did; merging it with a transport business he himself founded to merit the fleet size he managed when we met him. Apart from playing cricket in college and being good enough to be included in the Podar College-team twice, Girish had no other involvement in sports. In 1997, he did what many in India do – he went in for an arranged marriage. Five years later, he was a well looked after-93 kilos. Concerned, in 2002, he joined a gym. He was regular with his work-outs there. The main goal was to cut down weight. But 11 years ago, in 2006, a crucial twist happened in Girish Bindra’s life.

Girish with his elder son, Hriday, at Matheran in 2003 (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Girish was at his sister’s place in Ahmedabad, when for the first time ever, he got convulsions. In the course of one night, he got three epileptic seizures. The subsequent medical investigation revealed cysts in the brain and neurocysticercosis, a major cause of acquired epilepsy. It is a serious condition. Neurocysticercosis is a form of cysticercosis, a parasitic infection. The onset of the infection was attributed to excessive intake of salads. Doctors advised strict rest and no work-out at the gym, for one year. Every day, Girish had to take 20-22 tablets. “ I was quite depressed,’’ he said. The changed lifestyle was unbearable. He had come to enjoy his daily work-outs at the gym. He used to do weight training and exercises for cardiovascular fitness. To compensate for the lack of gym visits, Girish started going for walks at Five Gardens in Matunga. One of the oldest instances of planned urban development in Mumbai; it is an area now popular with walkers and runners. During his days of walking there, Girish inevitably came across the specter of others running. “ I thought why not give it a try,’’ he said. Slowly, he progressed from walking to a bit of running. But he got tired easily. “ Three hundred to four hundred meters of running and I would be a panting mess,’’ Girish said. Improvement was gradual. In six to eight months, he reached the stage where he could jog 8-10 kilometers. Running and its accompanying gift of endorphins helped Girish combat his depression. In turn that enhanced the pace and quality of his recovery from neurocysticercosis. His doctor – Dr Ramesh Patankar – was happy with the progress, Girish said. In retrospect, a seemingly insignificant factor may have also helped. Many of us commit the mistake of focusing excessively on the upper body while working out. That is the physical landscape of our vanity. The legs are typically forgotten. Girish didn’t do that. At the gym, he had invested effort in exercising his legs too. So when the time to run came, his legs were in a position to cope with the strain. Girish’s interest in running gathered momentum. The seizures had happened in 2006. By 2009, Girish was off medication. By 2010, he was also free of the half yearly medical check-ups doctors wanted him to do. In between, in 2008, he registered for the half marathon segment of the 2009 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), now called Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

From the 2016 12 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

“ That run was my first half marathon. It was the most I had run till then. I found it tough. I finished in two hours, 55 minutes. However notwithstanding the difficulty, I enjoyed it very much. It was a liberating experience, I felt very positive,’’ Girish said. There was no looking back after that. Girish began running regularly. He kept up his regular visits to the gym too. In 2012, he signed up on Facebook to be part of Mumbai Road Runners (MRR), one of the biggest runners’ groups in the city. The introduction came through Runners for Life (RFL); MRR had a relay on a five kilometer-route in Navi Mumbai, which Girish subsequently went for. He liked the outfit and became a regular on their practice runs. Through the network of friends he gained at MRR, his got introduced to more events in running. In 2013, he registered for his first full marathon, signing up for that year’s Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), an event on Mumbai’s periphery loved by runners for the fervor and scale of its cheering. In as much as VVMM greets you with infectious cheering, it tends to be a hot and humid race. The 2013 edition was notoriously hot and humid. Girish got cramps after 30 kilometers and had to walk the rest. He finished in five hours 27 minutes. As paradigm change from the half marathon, Girish said, he had no difficulty embracing the full marathon. “ I genuinely like to run. So for me, it was an invitation to run more, do more of something that I anyway enjoy doing,’’ he said.

At the 2017 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

At the 2017 Tarblazers Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

According to Girish, since 2012, he has participated in more than 45 half marathons and 11 full marathons, including the well-known races in Mumbai, Vasai and Hyderabad. His best timing in the half marathon was 1:35; in the full it was 3:43. It doesn’t stop at these established distances. Girish had done 20-25 races over the 10 kilometers-distance; his personal best was 43 minutes, eight seconds. He had also done 12 ultramarathons, including those spanning distances of 75 kilometers and 100 kilometers. He had two 12 hour-stadium runs (one each in Mumbai and Hyderabad) and two 24 hour-stadium runs (Bengaluru and Mumbai) under his belt. The 2016 24 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru, where he placed second covering 182.8 kilometers, had qualified him for the world 24-hour endurance championship due in Ireland in 2017. He got to know of his qualifying only much later and so could not go. However in 2017, he achieved another personal milestone, ending fifth in the 48 hour-stadium run in Bengaluru, covering 252.8 kilometers. This repertoire, spanning 10 kilometers to ultramarathons and 48 hour-stadium runs, can be found among amateur runners but it is not something people persevere to retain. Most gravitate towards a chosen discipline or two. Girish has no such plans yet. “ I love speed as well as mileage. Whatever it is, I work to give it my best. I am a fighter in life. I have seen what I went through; there was that medical condition, I also overcame financial difficulties in my business. I don’t want to repent not having tried anything,’’ he said.

It is important to note that Girish’s journey in running never had a coach in it, save four months of training he did with Raj Vadgama. For someone navigating his route by himself, Girish has done remarkably well. He reads up on running. He listens to his body and appears to have struck a healthy balance between actual running and strengthening his body. At the time of talking to us, his weekly mix was approximately three days of running and four days in the gym. He used to cycle but has since given up on cross-training; a judicious balance between running and working out was his mantra for continuing the journey. “ The strengthening exercises and stretching I do at the gym have helped me,’’ he said. His recovery after strenuous events is good. At the time we met him, Girish was not following any special diet. He liked his food as tasty and wholesome as they came. The largely self-taught runner had also doled out training plans and tips on training to his friends in the sport. “ It gives me immense pleasure to be of use like that,’’ Girish said.

At the 2017 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

With Kiranpal Singh Dhody at the 2016 Veterun Half Marathon in Pune (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

Chittu Shetty, 50 years old in 2017, had met Girish through MRR’s practice runs. The two used to pass each other while running on the road. Chittu was always doing long runs and Girish had been noticing it. When the two got talking, Girish offered advice. “ He is a very approachable person; somebody who is willing to help. He gave me tips on resting and improving my speed. I followed it and my performance in the half marathon improved. I used to finish running 21 kilometers in 2:15 or so. I was able to haul that up to 1:53. Similarly in the full marathon, he gave me tips like the right stage to have an energy gel. My personal best in the full is now 4:23,’’ Chittu said, when contacted. MRR runs were the context to meet Girish, for Ritu Kudal too. As of 2017, she had been running for six years. For the first four years or so, when Ritu stayed focused on the half marathon, Girish provided her periodic tips on improving performance. In 2016, she decided to train for the full marathon segment of the 2017 SCMM (now TMM). That needed a whole plan and Girish provided her with a comprehensive training plan, starting in July-August 2016 and leading up to the race in January 2017. “ It was a good plan; one that really helped me. I finished strongly and did not suffer any cramps,’’ Ritu said. Her opinion of Girish was similar to Chittu’s. “ He is a very down to earth person, very grounded,’’ she said.

For Girish, quality of training matters more than quantity. The number of days in a week that he actually runs remains pretty much the same; it hasn’t altered despite portfolio of disciplines ranging from ten kilometers to the ultramarathon. Within that, intensity and mileage may go up depending on whether he is training for a ten kilometer-run, a half marathon or a full marathon. During the course of a regular week, he can be usually seen doing hill work-out every Wednesday near Mount Mary’s Baslica in Bandra, speed intervals every Friday at Five Gardens or on the Eastern Express Highway and long runs of 20-30 kilometers every Sunday, commenced either at Shivaji Park or Nariman Point. Not long before we met him, Girish completed his course in marathon training from Exercise Science Academy (ESA), Mumbai. Officially therefore, he is now a certified trainer. It is a line of work that he would like to grow. Japanese athletic equipment manufacturer, Asics, is set to start its running club in Mumbai from October 2017. Girish said that he has been selected to work with them as a coach.

Latter half of the 2017 24 hour- stadium run in Mumbai; feet covered in blisters, younger son Sahaj for company (Photo: courtesy Girish Bindra)

In terms of races ahead, Girish had registered for the 2018 Comrades in South Africa. He admitted that work pressure denied him the chance to travel and run at various locations, he would otherwise love to. A destination like Ladakh for instance, requires runner to include a proper acclimatization schedule. Many days away from work is tough for transporter juggling the responsibilities that go with trucks heading this way and that. Well supported runs at easily accessed locations, at altitudes not drastically different from Mumbai’s, are therefore easier to handle. But one wish still defies this time constraint authored by business – at some point he would like to attempt Badwater Ultramarathon in the US.

For all the personal supervision Girish must do in his business, he maintained some clear switch-off points in his daily work schedule. His running is always in the morning. For regular runs, he is up at five in the morning. On days of long training runs, he is up at 3.30-4AM. After his running, he heads to work. Every evening he heads from office in Chembur to his gym in the same suburb. By about 7.30-8PM, he makes sure he is home for time with his family. Girish has two sons. The eldest, he said is creatively inclined. Except Girish, nobody from his family is into running. In much of the narrative about his running, that world and the world of his family don’t overlap. However, during the 2017 24 hour-stadium run in Mumbai, his wife, Rashmi came to see it and after Girish developed a bad case of blisters on his feet, which reduced him to walking, his younger son joined him on the 400 meter-track, keeping him company for some of the mercilessly repeating loops. “ That felt good,’’ Girish said.

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

“ I WANT TO ACHIEVE SOMETHING IN LIFE’’

Khurshid Mistry (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The discoveries of middle age and after are interesting.

It’s the stuff of new life.

Khurshid Mistry was 44 years old when she commenced a serious pursuit of athletics.

What she likes to do most is – sprint.

She has been a consistent participant and winner at Masters Athletics, where enrollment is restricted to people over 35 years of age. In Mumbai’s community of amateur runners, she stands out for the unique mix of events and training she does. The amateur running calendar in Mumbai is largely made of marathons, half marathons and 10 km-runs. The biggest event therein is the erstwhile Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), now called Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) thanks to change of main sponsor. This is the event that got Mumbai running, gifting it over time, the country’s biggest amateur running community. TMM occurs every January. That’s when runners try to peak. Khurshid also runs at the event; she does the half marathon. Thereafter, while the local crowd drifts to a more relaxed schedule or attempts things closer to their heart, Khurshid commences training for the 100m and 200m. These are small distances compared to a 10 km-run or a half marathon. Except, these are distances that demand considerable training, particularly if you are the sort determined to excel. For the first half of every year, from just after the Mumbai marathon, Khurshid is completely focused on sprinting. In the second half of the year, she trains to run half marathons; the last of which signaling the switch back to sprinting, is the annual Mumbai marathon. Khurshid, a vice president at UTI Mutual Funds when we met her in August 2017, has been a podium finisher at all the half marathons (she had done 18-19 half marathons) and most of the sprint events she participated in.

Khurshid running at the 2017 National Masters Athletics Championship in Lucknow (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Born 1963 in Mumbai, Khurshid grew up in the city. She attended Queen Mary’s school at Grant Road, where her tryst with sports began. She was a regular at the inter school sports meet. “ I was really good in sports,’’ she said. Over time, she has indulged in running, swimming, cycling, horse riding and a variety of games. At Lala Lajpat Rai College near Mumbai’s Haji Ali, where she was next, her participation in sports continued although devoid of systematic training. By now studies had begun to matter. For the next more than 20 years, aside from aerobics and swimming to keep fit, she stayed off deliberate participation in any sports. UTI Mutual Funds was her second job and once there, she stuck on. In 2007, UTI Mutual Funds decided to take part in the annual Mumbai marathon, scheduled for January 2008. In November 2007, those interested – Khurshid among them – commenced training under the watch of city based-running group Striders. In January, Khurshid completed her first half marathon comfortably. Praful Uchil, one of the founders of Striders, told Khurshid that she seemed the type who would do well in sprinting. “ At this age?’’ Khurshid asked. Praful assured her she would be able to do it. Soon after the Mumbai marathon, there was a corporate sports meet (it was called Corporate Olympics) which happened at Priyadarshini Park (PDP) in South Mumbai. A 20 acre-recreational complex with facility for sports, PDP has a synthetic track. At the corporate sports meet, Khurshid took part in 100m, 200m, 400m and the long jump. She won in all four. It brought to focus the merit in what Praful had said earlier. Someone who likes excelling at what she does, Khurshid’s predicament required a road map. Two developments – the first one, three years before Khurshid was born; the other, when she was three years old – had set things rolling for what she could do bearing in mind Praful’s observation. There was a way ahead for middle aged sprinter.

At the National Masters Athletics meet in Rohtak (Photo: Khurshid Mistry)

In 1960, Milkha Singh aka The Flying Sikh had finished fourth in the 400m final at the Rome Olympics. It has remained a high point in men’s athletics in India, ever since. For much of the twentieth century, general life in the world’s second most populous country stayed obsessed with making a career and earning a livelihood. Sport, athletics included, wasn’t a priority. A decade and a half into the twenty first century with India’s GDP among the top ten in the world, things are slightly different. Activities like running and cycling are catching on. Yet older people leading an active life, is still culturally new to India, where typically you live to support your family and then once you retire from work, you progressively fade. In Europe, Australia and New Zealand, as early as the 1930s, middle aged athletes used to participate with the younger lot in cross country races and road races. Some did well. Bunching together performance across wide disparity in age and then judging to find a winner is unfair. But the sporting spirit is such that an opportunity to run – even if it is a race – attracts. That’s probably what brought senior runners to these early races where people elder by age could participate.

When Khurshid was three years old and yet a child in Mumbai, the push to get older people involved in athletics gained proper structure. In 1966, David Pain a civil lawyer based in San Diego, USA, started organizing ` Masters Miles’ at indoor and outdoor competitions with the minimum age for participation set at 40. According to Wikipedia, he and similar minded others soon launched the US National Masters Championship, where everyone 40 years and over competed together. The first such meet held in July 1968 at San Diego attracted 186 athletes. The second meet saw 200 people participate; it also introduced 10 year-age groups across all disciplines. Inspired by these meets, participants founded their own Masters meets elsewhere in US and Canada. A movement began, which acknowledged the athletic spirit resident in those middle aged and over. Two other trends contributed to the movement strengthening further. Colonel Kenneth H. Cooper was a doctor in the US Air Force. He introduced the concept of aerobics. In 1968, Cooper’s book aptly titled Aerobics was published. A few years later, its popular mass market version New Aerobics followed. Cooper’s writing helped fuel the American craze for running. As running became a craze, it became more inclusive, embracing the senior age groups as well.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The second catalyst for Masters Athletics was a trend acquiring formal shape in New Zealand. Arthur Leslie Lydiard had represented New Zealand in the men’s marathon at the 1950 London Olympics, finishing thirteenth with a timing of 2 hours, 54 minutes. He became an athletics coach. Lydiard was a strong proponent of running for general health. At a time when the popular belief was that running is bad for one’s health, Lydiard encouraged easy distance running emphasizing its cardiovascular benefits. The word for it was ` jogging’ and its etymological origin appears wrapped up in other ideas for one of the early sentences Wikipedia cites is from William Shakespeare’s comedy Taming of the Shrew (authored between 1590 and 1592), wherein he wrote: you may be jogging while your boots are green. At that time, the word apparently meant: to leave. Whatever, Lydiard is credited with starting the Auckland Joggers Club. Among those, who in the 1960s got to run with Lydiard’s joggers was Bill Bowerman, American track and field coach and co-founder of Nike, the well-known footwear brand. According to Wikipedia, Lydiard organized for Bowerman to go jogging with one of his club members, Andy Stedman, who had survived three heart attacks. Bowerman, who was in his fifties, struggled to keep pace with his companion, who was 20 years his senior. On his return to the US, Bowerman took jogging to Hayward Field – one of the world’s best known track and field stadiums, in Eugene, Oregon – and eventually to the masses. So goes the story. All this – the senior runners of the 1930s, David Pain, Colonel Cooper’s books, jogging and Lydiard and Bowerman’s initiatives – dovetailed into sustaining Masters Athletics. The first World Masters Championship was held in August 1975 in Toronto, Canada. Two years later, in 1977, the World Association of Veteran Athletes was formed. It later changed its name to World Masters Athletics. In 1978, when Khurshid was 15 years old, India took the first major step towards recognizing the athletic ability of its older people by setting up the All India Veteran Athletic Association. The first national meet of this association was held in Chandigarh to lukewarm response. Things improved considerably over the next two years. In the following years, the word ` veteran’ got replaced with `masters.’ Today the Masters Athletics Federation of India (MAFI) is affiliated to the larger World Masters organization. MAFI’s website credits the genesis of the Indian push to include older citizens in athletics, to Milkha Singh.

At the erstwhile Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, now Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

At the half marathon in Delhi (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

According to Praful Uchil, in late 2007 when employees from UTI Mutual Funds were training with Striders for the 2008 Mumbai marathon, he had occasion to run with Khurshid and observe her style closely. “ You can make out from a person’s running style, stride length and the extent of high knee action whether they will do well in sprinting or distance running. Khurshid’s style indicated ability to sprint,’’ Praful said. It is not unusual to come across such middle aged people. “ They may be among those natural sprinters who stayed undiscovered when young and still retain the style,’’ Praful explained. In his career as coach, he has encountered other similar cases in Mumbai. Encouraged by Praful’s observation, following the corporate sports meet at PDP, Khurshid trained and took part in the national meet for Masters Athletics. She topped the sprint disciplines she enrolled for, there as well. Then she hit her first stumbling block. Given she had recommenced her running after 20 years with a half marathon and Mumbai’s amateur running scene revolves around its annual marathon, she decided to train for the following year’s half marathon. She was plagued by injury. “ Training to sprint and training to run a half marathon – they don’t blend,’’ she said. She realized that she required making a choice. She gave up plans for the half marathon and decided to focus on sprinting. It was so until 2012, when she slowly made her way back to the half marathon, training carefully and systematically for it. In the process, Khurshid is in now among few runners of her age in the city, doing both sprint and distance running. The 2013 Mumbai marathon was her first half marathon as an individual participant. She would go on to run all the editions of the event since then till now (August 2017), restricting her participation to the half marathon. She has also run half marathons at other locations like Delhi, Bengaluru, Goa, Amaravati, Vasai and Satara.

From the Asian Masters Athletics Championship in Malaysia (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Training to sprint is an intense affair. But sprinting comes naturally to Khurshid; it does not weigh her down. Her sprint training is done at PDP on the synthetic track there. Her coach at PDP is Deenanath Maurya. Every morning she leaves home for PDP, trains there, returns home, heads to office, works out at the office gym after work and then goes back home. That’s her schedule, six days a week. She trains twice a day; running in the morning, strength training and core workout by evening. In the eight years since she returned to running with that 2008 Mumbai marathon, she has had five stress fractures on the foot plus one hamstring tear. When injury strikes, she gives up running completely. “ A stress fracture usually takes six weeks to heal,’’ she said. But the trick she needs to master every year is the transition from sprint to distance running. After the Mumbai marathon, when Khurshid starts her training for sprint disciplines, it doesn’t take long for her to regain her comfort with running fast. What she struggles with is the switch to distance running from sprinting in the second half of every year. “ When I come off a sprint season and head into half marathons, my capacity for endurance is zero. Every year I have to start from scratch. It takes me at least three months to get my endurance back,’’ she said, describing her unique predicament in a city where most people are into distance running and measuring their daily training runs by the kilometer. In contrast, every morning for the first six months of the year, Khurshid is on a 400m synthetic track at PDP, typically running shorter bursts given she competes in the 100m, 200m and 400m disciplines at Masters. What makes the transition particularly challenging is that in the switch from sprint to half marathon, the time Khurshid needs to regain her endurance robs her of the ability to fully utilize the events of the marathon season. This would be simple enough if your goal is to be recreational runner; run for fun overlooking performance. It is tough when you are determined to do well. Both adequate time for training, and ramping up with enough patience to avoid injury, matter. “ It is a difficult thing to do – straddling both sprint and distance running,’’ Praful said.

At the International Meet, Brunei (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Khurshid does not hide her desire to do well. Probably realizing what she is up against in terms of risk of injury, she does not run at every event showing up on the horizon. She picks and chooses. “ Everything in training depends on what is the competition I am gearing up for. I don’t do many events,’’ Khurshid said. In sprint season – which she finds easier to handle – she usually moves through the state, national and international level of competitions under Masters Athletics. In marathon season, it is typically not more than one half marathon a month with occasional departures to two half marathons. Ever since she started going for Masters, she has been a podium finisher in her age category all the way up to the Asian championships. In April 2017, she achieved a longstanding dream – she participated in the World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand. She qualified for the final in the 100m and 200m sprint disciplines but couldn’t secure a podium finish in the final. She finished fifth in 100m and sixth in 200m. Khurshid is very happy that she could participate in the world championship. That had been a goal in her Masters Athletics journey. Since 2008, Khurshid has won gold medals in 100m, 200m, 400m, 4 x 100m relay and 4 x 400m relay at seven state level and seven national level Masters Athletics meets. Additionally, she secured one gold medal at the Asian Masters Athletics meet held in Malaysia, five gold medals at the international meet in Brunei and one gold medal and two silver medals at the international meet in Johar, Malaysia. “ Khurshid is primarily a sprinter. But she manages to run half marathons very well. The training for each of these is difficult. She does the training with much dedication.  Very few people can do that,’’ Pervin Batliwala, among the best known senior marathoners in Mumbai said.

From the Masters Athletics World Championship in Auckland, New Zealand (Photo: courtesy Khurshid Mistry)

Between sprint and endurance, Khurshid wants to focus on the former till she feels it is no longer reasonable to continue. We use the word `reasonable’ because in her case, giving what she is doing, her best shot, matters. “ Till I can do sprinting, I will keep doing it. Endurance can be pursued at any age. Sprinting is my forte. Why shouldn’t I do what is my forte for as long as I am capable of doing it well?’’ she asked. Besides, she confesses to being a bit impatient in wanting to see the outcome of a race she started. With sprint events, the result is available soon. “ I sometimes find the half marathon never ending,’’ she said. For now therefore, there is no thinking of the full marathon. If Khurshid is to do it, then, she will need to train well, train with focus; train for at least one year. “ I am a perfectionist. I do only things I am good at. Otherwise, I don’t do it at all,’’ she said. If she shifts to the full marathon in lieu of the half right now, the problem is – that will reduce her overall speed and compromise her ability in sprinting. She does not want that. She takes injuries in her stride, rationalizing, “ with time, I have learnt to take care of them.’’ As for her drive to sustain the current mix of sprinting and half marathon and excel at it, she attributed that to her innate character. “ I used to tell my father that I want to achieve something in life,’’ she said.

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

MAGIC, 32 YEARS AGO

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Remembering Freddie Mercury

July 1985.

News of the concert had been brewing for a while.

In that time, the newspapers had made Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats names to know. I knew nothing more of them. All-knowing by instant search wasn’t yet in. Google’s birth was another thirteen years away; easily accessed Internet even more. Being curious about universe and welcoming of world, I memorized the names for conversation with musically inclined friends. Geldof was the main organizer of the upcoming Live Aid, a massive rock concert to help victims of the famine in Ethiopia. It was to be held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. The event was to be broadcast live across 150 countries; India was one of them. Some of the world’s biggest bands were heading straight to our living room. Television in India was young those days; colour TV younger still. There was only one broadcaster. Single broadcaster catering to the tastes of 780 million people (India’s population in 1985) meant that something fitting your taste on screen was both fleeting and a household event. Rock concert on TV was very rare. That year – 1985 – had seen the release of Brothers in Arms, the album that made Dire Straits a phenomenon. Thanks to Thiruvananthapuram’s music collectors and the network of the interested, we used to make up for Google’s absence and somehow access the music. I liked Dire Straits; they were expected to play at Live Aid as was Led Zeppelin in a much awaited reunion. D-Day was July 13. We watched the telecast together, as a family.

What I remember best from that telecast is what has since become famous as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. We gazed in amazement at the TV screen as the people gathered at London’s Wembley Stadium (over 70,000 were present that day) raised their hands in the air and clapped in unison to Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Then Freddie Mercury put them through a few vocal improvisations and they sang as he did, note for note. By the time the band was concluding its set with We Are the Champions, the Wembley crowd was swaying like a forest in the wind. On stage, Freddie Mercury was brilliant. It would be revealed later that Queen’s sound engineer may have tampered with the volume limit assigned to speakers, making the band the loudest act of the day at Wembley. If so, the band was unrepentant about it. Unlike many of the other bands at Live Aid who reportedly took their performance casually, Queen had come prepared and rehearsed. They intended to leave an impression. They did just that. Journalists writing on rock music have since compared it to one of those defining moments a lifetime of existence gravitates to. Freddie on stage at Live Aid was in such a moment.

Live Aid is supposed to have reached over a billion people. The world’s human population in 1985 was 4.8 billion. That would put the event’s TV viewership at close to a quarter of humanity, in days preceding Internet, Facebook, Twitter and human swarms trolling to enforce `like.’  Twenty minutes of Queen was Live Aid’s undisputed high point. As many would conclude later, Queen at Live Aid is rock music’s greatest live performance yet. Rock bands connect to audience through the technical proficiency of their musicians and through their front man. Queen was well balanced in this regard. Those writing on Queen have noted that none of its four members – Freddie, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon – could dominate individually, a trend capable of destabilizing bands. Further, each of them has contributed to writing one or the other of Queen’s many hits. Yet as often happens in rock music, the charisma of the front man influences a band’s perception by the public and Queen was no exception. Freddie Mercury was an electrifying act. Born Furrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, his father hailed from Bulsar, also known as Valsad, a town 150 km north of Mumbai. His mother was from Mumbai. Freddie spent most of his childhood in India (he attended school in Panchgani, 240 km away from Mumbai) before moving back to Zanzibar and then in the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution, onward to England. On November 24, 1991, a little over five years since that day at Wembley for Live Aid, Freddie Mercury passed away due to complications arising from AIDS. He was 45 years old. In 1996, at the opening of a photo exhibition on the life of Queen’s lead singer, the band’s lead guitarist, Brian May, would say (video of quote available on YouTube),“ to be truthful I am against recreating Queen in any other form as I think without Freddie it would always be something less than what it was.’’

Live Aid was also an opportunity to see U2, two years before they became a smash hit (and one of my favorite bands) with the album, `Joshua Tree.’ Queen and U2 warmed up to me differently. U2 peaked with my own advent to rock music-loving age, my craving in ever lonelier world for music as companion. I fell in love with Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For the first time I heard it. It remains a favorite even now. Which seeker in the head can resist such a song? Queen on the other hand, took time to connect. Notwithstanding their popularity, I found the architecture of Queen’s music stiff and set in an ecosystem that was very European and British.  They felt like a group hang-out. You bonded over their songs. For example, it isn’t music you seek in We Will Rock You, a song so evocative of tribe; you seek belonging. Long after Live Aid, I had friends who swore by Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. I found Bohemian Rhapsody an engaging mix; it was baroque, operatic and rock. But a sucker for the traveling spirit, I wanted something less rooted. Perhaps something less grand and more portable? As a young journalist in Mumbai enjoying life’s early flush of hard earned income, I also remember sitting in pubs and singing along to I Want To Break Free. I outgrew that. More to my taste were songs like Breakthru and The Invisible Man. But over time, it was another Queen number, A Kind Of Magic, which remained in head enduring life’s ageing process. I love its barreling sense of momentum, soaring vocals and surface-skimming lead guitar; it gives me a feeling of hurtling along to somewhere and nowhere in particular, all at once. Above all I love the unbridled energy that characterizes Freddie’s rendition of this song at the July 12, 1986 concert in Wembley, a year after Live Aid. It is an image of absolute confidence. The video of the performance (available on YouTube) reminds you of Live Aid. It smacks of sensing opportunity. Just past the 45th second as Freddie launches into the song, he looks towards the audience, through the haze caused by the fog machine, tad uncertain of what to expect. A minute and couple of faint smiles later, he looks to the camera and you see that glint of acknowledgement; he knows the audience is in the mood for magic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Twenty five years after Freddie Mercury’s demise, at a book fair near Navi Mumbai’s Vashi railway station I picked up Lesley Ann-Jones’s 2012 biography of the singer. My curiosity for it was the same as for a book on running, climbing, cycling, swimming or any such activity. Why should rock music be seen differently? Its all life; its all universe. Among other details, the book noted that Freddie’s first band was the `Hectics,’ formed at school in Panchgani by a 12 year-old Freddie and his schoolmates. An artistically inclined person given to sketching, he later took a diploma in art and graphic design, in London. His idol in rock music was Jimi Hendrix. According to the book, as successful rock star, Freddie rarely elaborated on his early years in Africa and India. On the other hand, it suggests that prolonged separation from his parents at so early and sensitive a stage in life, thanks to his schooling in distant India, may have impacted Freddie and contributed to the performer and person he became later in life. For long, Queen was a favorite with rock fans in Mumbai. Now a new generation and their music have taken over. Not to mention, Bollywood. The last big act in town was Justin Bieber (he was born three years after Freddie Mercury died). Movies have been made on artistes like Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. In 2010 a film was announced on Freddie Mercury’s life. In the years since, the cast and producers underwent change. When last reported in the international media, Egyptian-American actor, Rami Malek, was set to play the role of Freddie.

Live Aid happened 32 years ago.

Had Freddie Mercury been alive, he would turn 71 years old, this September 5, 2017.

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

AFTER RAAM, THERE IS RACE

Srinivas Gokulnath (Photo: courtesy Srinivas / Facebook page)

Article on cyclist Srinivas Gokulnath, the first Indian to complete Race Across America (RAAM) in the solo category 

The car slowed down, took a second to assess safety and then continued on.

It was a move that reminded of railway level crossings. Except, this was a runway and hovering some distance from the car, to this side and that, were helicopters. It is not always that you drive across a runway in India. Where Lieutenant Colonel Srinivas Gokulnath lived and worked, it was daily ritual. We were at the army’s Combat Aviation Training School, built around Nashik’s old airport and runway. Meeting Srinivas had been on the agenda for some time.

On June 13, 2017, three Indian cyclists had been among those assembled at Oceanside, California. They were registered to compete in the solo category of the Race Across America (RAAM), one of the most grueling endurance events on the planet. RAAM requires participants to ride some 4800 km from the US west coast to the east (it ends in Annapolis, Maryland) within a cut-off period of 12 days. It is a single stage race and riders could be on the saddle for as much as 22 hours a day, repeating it day after day in a merciless grind all the way to the finish line. The race features a mix of terrain. It starts at sea level, crosses mountains and zips across the flats of the North American prairie. It also tackles varying weather conditions typical of the country side it is passing through. Simply put the race gifts the rider a battering and tests his / her determination like few events do. That day in June, Samim Rizvi attempting his fourth RAAM, Srinivas on his second outing at RAAM and Amit Samarth were all on a quest to be the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category.

Cycling at The Deccan Cliffhanger (TDC), which served as qualifier for RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas / Facebook page)

Although working in Nashik, Srinivas hails from Bengaluru. He was born in November 1980 and raised in that city. His father who was a metallurgist owned a bicycle. An active youngster who took part in games and athletics at school, Srinivas was attached to that cycle and it played host to many early outings. However there was nothing to indicate a serious interest in cycling, brewing. Srinivas went on to attend medical school and become a doctor. He worked for two years in Bengaluru; then he joined the Indian Army. The early years of an army officer’s posting are typically in areas that stretch his professional ability on the field. Srinivas was posted to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) for four years. He also served on Siachen Glacier, known as the world’s highest battle field. Following this stint, he returned to Bengaluru to do his post-graduation in aerospace medicine. He had bought himself a single speed Hercules MTB and trips on it brought him in touch with members of Bengaluru’s cycling community. One of his friends suggested that he invest in a road bike. Then, in a twist of the sort seen in the lives of interesting people, that friend – Vijay – got Srinivas a road bike and told him that he can pay him back later. The bike was a Giant TCR 3. It is a model much respected by riders; the Internet has reviews in praise of it. Srinivas felt he should do justice to the road bike. He started riding long distance, sometimes touching 200-300 km. It was during this phase from 2009-2011, spent studying aerospace medicine in Bengaluru and taking the Giant TCR 3 out on spins, that Srinivas realized he had a fondness for endurance cycling. It was also at this point in his life that he got to hear of RAAM. He heard of Samim Rizvi attempting it. The idea of RAAM attracted Srinivas. But before RAAM, he wanted a domestic challenge. For that, he picked a cycle trip from Leh to Kanyakumari. It connected India’s north tucked beyond the main axis of the Himalaya to the southern tip of the peninsula. In 2012, Srinivas was posted back to J&K.

A troubled region, army postings to J&K can be restrictive. For doctor and emergent cyclist with road bike in tow, space to practice was limited. “ I couldn’t go out and train on the road. But there was a 2.8 km-perimeter loop of the garrison which was possible and I kept doing that,’’ Srinivas said. Meanwhile the planned expedition from Leh to Kanyakumari simmered at the back of his mind. Then and later, Srinivas would struggle with a paradigm problem in endurance cycling. Endurance based-activities typically take person out of the crowd and away into solitary existence. In army and economically resurgent India with its bank of potential sponsors of sport, `solitary’ and ` solo’ attract much less than `team.’ There is plenty of buzz these days about corporate team building and team based pursuits. Attempting something that is the stuff of lone battle fetches no support.

From TDC (Photo: courtesy Srinivas / Facebook page)

Assembling the building blocks of the Leh-Kanyakumari cycle expedition was Srinivas’s first tryst with the real paradigm challenge of what he had embarked upon. He understood that nobody was going to support him. So he largely invested his own funds. Being a multi-day trip he needed a support vehicle. Help came in the form of an enterprising villager from Sharifabad. This person hadn’t ventured beyond the Kashmir valley and wanted to see India. Owner of a Mahindra utility vehicle, he agreed to bring that along as support vehicle and pitched in to assist Srinivas. On September 2, 2014, the expedition commenced from Leh. Weather in the initial phase was bad; there was rain and snow. Back in Srinagar, there was flooding; they got news of this at Manali. The expedition pushed on. Two weeks later, on September 16, cyclist and support crew reached Kanyakumari. The trip was formally recognized by the Limca Book of Records as the fastest passage yet from Leh to Kanyakumari on a bicycle. One project done, the next one – RAAM – took hold.

Shortly after the Leh-Kanyakumari expedition, the army dispatched Srinivas to do a course in Pune. There he came to know of The Deccan Cliffhanger (TDC), scheduled for November 2014. On its Facebook page, TDC describes itself as a 400 mile ultra-cycling race from Pune to Goa. According to Srinivas, if you cycled 647 km at TDC in 32 hours, then you qualified for participation in RAAM. This was an excellent opportunity to move towards attempting RAAM. Unfortunately he was in Pune to do a course; he had no cycle with him. A friend in Bengaluru sent him a BMC road bike. Additionally, he asked around in the Pune cycling community and they responded loaning him a Merida road bike. He now had two bikes for TDC; one to ride at any given time in the race, the other for back up. A bunch of college students volunteered to be his support crew. Participating in TDC, Srinivas covered the required 647 km in 31 hours. He qualified for RAAM. “ For me, that TDC is special,’’ Srinivas said. From December 2014 onward, Srinivas’s RAAM phase officially commenced. It became an obsession. To train and prepare, he requested the army for posting to a peaceful area. His choice was Pune where the Army Sports Institute with its excellent training facilities is located. In July 2015, as sought, Srinivas was transferred from J&K. The army moved him to Nashik and the Combat Aviation Training School there.

At the start of 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

Maharashtra’s geography is essentially a study of two main features – a relatively narrow coast sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the hills of the Western Ghats, and the sprawling Deccan Plateau, which lay beyond the hills. Nashik, located 167 km north east of Mumbai, is an ancient pilgrimage center and in the present times, a major center of industry and agricultural produce. It is at a higher elevation than Mumbai next to the sea. Kasara, which is one of main outlying stations of Mumbai’s suburban railway network, is at an elevation of 915 feet. The next major halt from here, en route to Nashik, is Igatpuri by which time you would have climbed over the edge of the Western Ghats and reached 2000 feet in overall elevation. Igatpuri, now famous as a center for Vipasana meditation, has always been a favorite with trekkers in Maharashtra. One of the state’s classic treks connecting the hill forts of Alang, Kulang and Madangad, is staged here. The region is also home to the state’s highest peak, Kalsubai (5400 feet). Nashik is 47 km away from Igatpuri. It has an elevation of 2300 feet and given the combination of hills and elevation, a fairly temperate climate year round.

Mid-August 2017, my train from Mumbai reached Nashik on time. On the three wheeler ride from the railway station to the area in town called CBS, three things were quickly apparent. The terrain around had a spread-out feel to it; there was a sense of space. The roads were broad and traffic, still manageable, compared to the grind and gridlock congested Mumbai tends to be. There were cycles on Nashik’s roads. With its roads, availability of space and hills in the neighborhood, Nashik looked ideal to train in cycling and running. In 2015, two brothers from Nashik, Hitendra Mahajan and Mahendra Mahajan – both of them doctors – had become the first Indians to complete RAAM in the team category. Race in mind, riding hunched down on his road bike with focus narrowed to road and cadence, Nashik’s geographical blessings appeared to have eluded Srinivas’s attention. He didn’t feel distance cyclists owe as much, to where they are from as to whether they wish to train and excel at what they do. As strange as that perspective may seem, one needs to identify that faith in self as coming from an individual who moves around the country on work. In such predicament, the stuff of roots is in oneself, not in any place.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

At the Combat Aviation Training School, work load was high for the army doctor. However he managed to find time for training and trained systematically. Srinivas is the type who likes having a goal. It helps him focus. RAAM was goal. He trained 5-6 hours daily, morning and evening. But there was a problem. It wasn’t a training regimen properly structured for the needs of RAAM. Aside from the Mahajan brothers who he spoke to and got some idea of RAAM thereby, there wasn’t anyone else to help him devise training schedules or prepare a race strategy. Besides the Mahajan brothers had participated in the team category; Srinivas had enrolled in the solo category. The two are different. Plus there was the question of raising the funds needed to go to the US, have a support crew, support vehicle and participate in the race. Attending to funds, distracts from training and preparation. Old paradigm problem haunting him, Srinivas had no sponsors. He invested his own money; he also borrowed. Given the nature and stature of the race, he acquired a new road bike – a NeilPryde Bura SL. “ It was expensive but when I saw it at a shop in Mumbai, I immediately felt a link to it,’’ Srinivas said. According to information available on the Internet, NeilPryde Bikes, based in UK, is part of a Hong Kong based sports group by the same name that had longstanding presence in windsurfing before it entered the bicycle business. The Bura SL was launched in 2012 and revamped in 2016. Made of carbon fiber, it features NeilPryde’s lightest frame weighing in at 750 gm. For back up, Srinivas had a Polygon road bike. Polygon is a bicycle manufacturer from Indonesia. Its dealer in India is Bengaluru-based Wheel Sports, whose owner Venkatesh Shivarama is a former state level cyclist and a nodal figure in Bengaluru’s cycling community.

Amid the struggle to make it to RAAM, Srinivas had one significant help. His wife, Prafulla, also works as a doctor at the army base in Nashik. She decided to be part of his support crew. Prafulla had her own reasons for joining the crew. Like Srinivas, she hailed from Bengaluru. Unlike him, she had no background in sports in her growing up years. She does not cycle. When they met for the first time, Srinivas told her of his interest in cycling. She accepted cycling as part of the overall person, Srinivas is. “ One thing I was worried about was his safety,’’ she said. In J&K, Srinivas’s cycling happened within the garrison complex and army bases are well managed. Then he briefly took leave of that environment to cycle from Leh to Kanyakumari, a trip Prafulla wasn’t part of. By the time RAAM set in as obsession, Srinivas was training regularly on the highway. This worried Prafulla. Besides, races in ultra-cycling tend to push a person to the limits of what he / she can do. She felt that rather than worry about his safety from far, it made sense to be with him on his races. That’s what prompted her to join the support crew for RAAM. A doctor – that too someone who knows you well – in the support crew, is a definite asset. Srinivas had seven people in his support crew; six who travelled from India plus an old friend from school who was based in the US.  “ My focus in 2016 was to get to RAAM’s starting line. That I did. I was relieved when the race got underway,’’ he said.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

The 2016 RAAM was an eye opener. “ My focus, which had been on reaching the starting line, wasn’t strong towards the finish. I was riding strong but not to race expectations. I didn’t have a strategy, no solid plan. I learnt by participating. In the thick of the race, I realized this is what RAAM is all about. I pushed myself to just 450 miles short of the finish. There was 26 hours remaining. But my mind started acting up and I succumbed to it,’’ Srinivas said. One of those unhappy with the outcome was Prafulla. She didn’t like the fact that they had thrown away 26 hours. She suggested that they take a look at the finish line, attend the post-race banquet and learn more. The team also decided that they would attempt RAAM again, the following year.

Gearing up for the 2017 RAAM, Srinivas and Prafulla began connecting with people who had completed the race before. One of them was Alberto Blanco, a former RAAM finisher. Back in 2011, riding a NeilPryde he had completed the race in fourth position earning the RAAM Rookie of the Year title. During this race Alberto had suffered a severe case of `Shermer’s Neck’ (complete shutdown of tired neck muscles). He cycled with a neck brace his crew fashioned from available materials, following onset of the problem. Incidentally, the history of Shermer’s Neck – a condition unique to ultra-cyclists – is strongly linked to RAAM. Michael Shermer after whom the condition is named was a finisher in the very first RAAM held in 1982 (at that time it was called Great American Bike Race). He returned for the 1983 edition and in that race, at about 2000 miles he discovered he was unable to keep his head up. He was forced to prop his chin up with the palm of his hand and keep cycling. He finished the race so. Despite enduring a great deal of pain till he finished the race, Shermer is said to have recovered fully within two days. Articles on the Internet say that Shermer’s Neck is usually reported within 300 miles to 1000 miles of a race and once it sets in, there is no way out except to cope with it. The brace Alberto’s crew fashioned, after he developed Shermer’s Neck, was meant to hold his head up because his exhausted neck muscles simply couldn’t do the job. In photos from the race, you see what appears to be a metal rod harnessed to cyclist’s waist and travelling up his spine and over his helmet, with a sling at its end to support the head. Alberto became Srinivas’s coach for the 2017 RAAM. Another finisher, Chris O’Keefe, took charge as crew chief. Chris had been a finisher in the 2016 RAAM, which he completed second in his age category. This time, Srinivas’s training had direction and a race strategy was being devised. There was analysis of the 2016 race to find out what had gone wrong.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

What remained unchanged however was sponsorship. Some brands supported but the bulk of the expense was met using Srinivas’s own money and loans provided by friends. Chris and others members of the support crew allowed Srinivas to borrow cycling accessories he needed. They also didn’t hesitate to extend financial assistance. Hired expertise is integral to many endurance events. For instance, runners going for the Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley often avail the guidance of those who have successfully completed the race or crewed in it, for a fee. Srinivas described his relation with Alberto and Chris as more of an emotional-connect than a formal arrangement; it is a description which reveals the comfort he felt. The support crew was 11-strong, including four persons retained from the 2016 attempt. “ This time we had a strong team. I felt strong and my focus was sharp,’’ Srinivas said.

A punishing race like RAAM takes a toll on bicycle. Typically, there is a lot of wear and tear that happens in bicycle racing. Bottom brackets, chain and cassette – they have to be replaced as required in the course of the race. You have to have at least two bikes for RAAM. Some participants go in with three. Srinivas decided to acquire a new NeilPryde to use as back-up for the earlier one. He got in touch with the CEO of the company, who provided it at reduced price; the bike was again a Bura SL. The team’s bike mechanic in 2016 and 2017 was Venkatesh Shivarama. Venkatesh a former state level cyclist and manager of the national cycling team, met Srinivas during the latter’s days in Bengaluru, spent getting a hang of distance cycling. Races brought them together; Venkatesh is deeply involved in races. He is not as much a fan of endurance cycling as he is of racing. Venkatesh also owns and operates Wheel Sports, among Bengaluru’s best known bicycle shops. Committed to cycling, it was his affection and respect for Srinivas as a person and faith in his ability that made him volunteer to be Srinivas’s bike mechanic for RAAM in 2016 and 2017. According to Venkatesh, when it comes to the bicycle, RAAM is not as punishing a race as say – the Tour de France, where multiple stages with tight cut-off times, repeated day after day, take a considerable toll on a bike.  Given RAAM is a single stage race, the challenge is to cycle with very little rest and make it across the USA within the cut-off time of 12 days for solo cyclists. Further, what really inflicts damage on bicycles is riding off-road. RAAM is a road race and American roads are good. “ My daily task was to check the bike’s tyres and tyre pressure; ensure the tyres are in good condition. I had to make sure all the gear combinations and the Garmin GPS were working. Then there are the bike’s lights. When you are riding on the road, lights are very important. I used to replace them every 6-8 hours,” he said.

From 2017 RAAM (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

The 2017 race was a roller coaster. Although he started strong, somewhere past the 90 mile-mark Srinivas vomited three to four times. From thereon, his intake of food and fluids started dropping. His plan had been to sleep three hours during the day, every 24 hours. He took his first break for sleep at Salome in Arizona. However from time station five onward, his average speed began to decline and he was soon at the point where he himself told his crew members that he needed IV fluids. From being in the top 10, he had by now dropped to 27th position. “ Thereafter, it took me seven time stations to recover and get back to a semblance of riding normally. I felt recovered only by time station 16,’’ Srinivas said. Recovering well was critical. In endurance races, rider and crew feed off each other’s optimism. A struggling Srinivas had ended up making his crew lose faith in him. He had to regain their confidence. Cranking up their efforts, the crew fed him 450-500 calories and a liter of fluids every hour. About 10,000 calories and 20 liters of water were consumed every day. Everything was meticulously recorded. The hard work paid off. Towards the latter half of the race, Srinivas began registering negative splits or better speed in the concluding portions of a race. That was tremendously motivating, coming as it did after a couple of thousand kilometers covered on the road. He kept his focus from time station to time station, never thinking beyond the next time station on the course. “ I knew I was getting stronger towards the finish line,’’ he said. At one point in time, Srinivas improved his position in the race to almost seventh; he also overcame challenges, among them – a crash, the result of a pothole on the road. Tricky weather notwithstanding, his strength was on the flats. He flew along the prairies of Kansas. Eleven days, 18 hours and 45 minutes after commencing the race in Oceanside, Srinivas completed the 2017 RAAM in Annapolis, the first Indian to do so within cut-off time in the solo category. That June, Amit Samarth followed Srinivas to the finish line, becoming the second Indian to earn a solo finish at RAAM. Samim had to withdraw from the race in its initial phase itself.

Most people betray a sense of themselves in how they communicate. I got my first sense of Srinivas when I texted and called him up seeking an appointment. His text messages never exceeded two or three words; the conversations on the phone were short and to the point. During the interview, conducted in his office, his recollection of his life and his association with the world of words bordered impatience, as though he needed to get down and do something. Endurance cycling is a mosaic of distance and timing. I asked Srinivas if he would be happy pushing himself merely on distance like a touring cyclist does. No – he replied firmly. He needed to be pushed. He needed to ride hard. Only then would his energy get channelized, find release. Pushing the envelope is a must for what he sought as experience. That’s why grueling endurance races attract. His family has been supportive; they endured sacrifices. His wife became part of his support crew and when she does so – as at RAAM – their child is left behind in the care of grandparents. Further his training and periodic obsession with races, robs the family of adequate time together. “ No doubt, there is an element of selfishness I carry along, pursuing projects in endurance cycling,’’ Srinivas said.

2017 RAAM; Srinivas at the finish line (Photo: courtesy Srinivas)

RAAM done, Srinivas had set his sights on the solo category at the 2018 Race Across Europe (RACE). Prafulla was planning to be in the support crew. This race covers 4722 km across six countries. At the time of writing this article, it was scheduled to start at Boulogne sur Mer in France on June 30, 2018 and end at Tarifa in Spain on July 21. The 2017 RAAM had cost him around Rs 15 lakh as race expenses (many in the crew were self-funded), cost of training extra. RACE will cost around Rs 25 lakh; Europe is more expensive than America. As usual, Srinivas’s biggest worry in cycling even after finishing RAAM was sponsorship. It was eating his mind. He needed to be sure of his position by December 2017, if he is to feature at RACE the following year. “ I don’t know how some people manage to raise funds so well,’’ he said, pointing out alongside that a disadvantage he may have in this regard, is the transferable nature of his job. You are never long enough at any one place to socialize and network, build a community of friends. Supportive community and an ecosystem aware of sports, including endurance cycling, matter when it comes to finding resources for projects. As I took leave of him, these were the thoughts bothering India’s first solo RAAM finisher.

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

2018 GOLDEN GLOBE RACE (GGR) / MEET THE THURIYA

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat, gets ready to do another solo nonstop circumnavigation in his new boat, the Thuriya.

Nearly fifty years ago, in 1968, the first Golden Globe Race (GGR) had produced the first man to complete a solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat.

That person – Sir Robin Knox Johnston – was also the only participant to finish the race. His boat, the Suhaili, was made of wood and built in Mumbai.

Many entrants didn’t make it past the Indian Ocean. One skipper, who deceptively hung around in the Atlantic, was never seen again. Only his empty boat was found; he is believed to have committed suicide. Then there was the French sailor, Bernard Moitessier in his 40 foot-ketch made of boiler steel, the Joshua. He could have given Sir Robin a fight to the finish but instead, opted to continue circumnavigating and eventually drop anchor at Tahiti, sailing a total of 37,455 miles in 10 months. The 2018 GGR seeks to recreate the ambiance of the original; 30 solo sailors, including specially invited participants –  will attempt solo non-stop circumnavigation on sail boats equipped with technology no more modern than what was available in 1968. The race will start from Falmouth in UK on June 30, 2018, and being circumnavigation, eventually end there. Talking to this blog, the evening his boat for the 2018 GGR, the Thuriya was launched at Aquarius Shipyard on Goa’s Divar Island, Commander Abhilash Tomy said, “ I am not allowed to have a computer aboard. I can carry a typewriter.’’

The last time I used a typewriter to author an article was way back in the early 1990s. Ever since, it has been the computer. And for the last several years, a computer with Internet connection, making instant reference to a world of information, possible. If forced to, I can still type an article on the typewriter. But the nature of thinking and forming sentences, the layering of a story, the ability to correct and revise on the go – all that will be different. Experientially, a journalist of the typewriter age is different from one of the Internet age. Experientially, today’s sailor working from sail boats supported by electronic devices is different from a sailor of 1968, who had none of these devices for back-up. What makes the 2018 GGR doubly difficult is that while the participants of the original GGR could equip themselves with the technology of their time, many among those heading for the 2018 GGR will need to abandon comfort zones they got used to and acquaint themselves with boats bereft of high technology.

Abhilash with the Thuriya at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa; just before the boat’s launch (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Abhilash was born in 1979. He belongs to the generation in India that grew up with computers and Internet. During the 2012-2013 solo, nonstop circumnavigation he accomplished on the INSV Mhadei – the first by an Indian – he had onboard the modern sloop (built by Aquarius), access to Internet and email, electronic maps, GPS and satellite phone. These are either absent or strictly regulated and meant for use under specified circumstances, in the 2018 GGR. According to the race website, every participant will get a standard Race Pack that will include a stand-alone satellite tracking system which the skipper cannot see but will be used for web tracking updates; a two-way satellite short text paging unit that will connect to race headquarters for 100 character-reports twice daily and a sealed box with a portable GPS chart plotter for use only in emergency. Denied access to modern technology, Abhilash will estimate his position at sea with a sextant; use printed navigation charts to plot his passage and gauge the submarine features of his neighborhood and rely on VHF and HF radio transmitters to communicate. In fact, so total is the clamp down on technology that even devices with inbuilt GPS like digital cameras, mobile phones and electronic watches are disallowed onboard in the race. Managing with the recommended alternatives is easier said than done.

Contemporary naval officers and sailors master the sextant during their training days. Thereafter it recedes to being an instrument you should know how to use; it isn’t what you use on an everyday basis for navigation, which is the stuff of computers and electronics. Abhilash, who is a naval aviator, will need to get used to the sextant again. And not just get used to it; he requires being good at it for it is all that stands between him and drifting off course in the world’s vast oceans. Further there is the question of which natural co-ordinates, usable with a sextant, the weather on a given day will allow sailor to see. Not to mention – don’t lose the sextant on small sail boat, no matter how harsh the sea. Speaking of which, no Internet onboard means no detailed weather reports from the outside world as well. Information on weather that is available as broadcast to mariners on HF and VHF radio will be the only reliable source. You can discuss weather conditions with passing vessels and fellow racers. But such meetings at sea are few on a circumnavigation route with much Southern Ocean involved. Getting weather from team managers will be unwise as it could be considered ` route-ing’ using information which is not generally available to the public. “ If the race management so decides they may give weather data to a specific boat, group of boats, or all boats. This would mostly be as a warning and not for improving performance,’’ Abhilash said. Challenges exist with the HF radio, the most easily comprehended of which is that unlike a telephone call that reaches intended person irrespective of where he / she is, radio communication is interactive only if both caller and receiver are available around their radio sets to connect. In planet of different time zones, this is not assured all the time. Similarly, the race has assigned a limit to how much fuel – for onboard engine – can be carried. The quest is to free up circumnavigation from its modern gadgetry, restore a touch of retro to it and make the ambiance match what the competitors of 1968 coped with. Doing so, you get a firsthand taste of what Sir Robin Knox Johnston and Bernard Moitessier accomplished. At the 2018 GGR, electronics are more with those overseeing the race from shore. The participants’ passage is monitored via satellite using these electronics. If things turn ugly and unmanageable at sea, Abhilash can open the sealed GPS onboard to determine his position. Doing so however, disqualifies him from the central category (the solo nonstop category) of the race. Onboard will also be a radio beacon; its activation indicating a given boat has most likely been abandoned.

The Thuriya‘s launch ceremony in progress; Abhilash on the boat’s deck (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Thuriya touches water (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The evening of August 7, 2017, the Thuriya stood suspended by two cranes, inches above the Mandovi River’s water, let in at the drydock of Aquarius Shipyard. Every 15 minutes or so, a thundering sound – resembling that of an approaching helicopter – could be heard; it was the sound of trains passing by on the nearby bridge across the Mandovi. Aquarius is an unassuming yard predominantly making boats for the Indian military. It also caters to orders for boats from Indian state governments. The yard shot into limelight building the Indian Navy’s iconic sail boat – INSV Mhadei. A sloop, based on a Dutch design, it took two naval officers around the world on two separate circumnavigation voyages. The first was Captain Dilip Donde (Retd), who executed the first solo circumnavigation by an Indian. The second was Abhilash, who accomplished the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian. There are few boats around that have done back to back circumnavigations plus trans-Atlantic races and other voyages, as the Mhadei did. It is a testimony of her build quality and the care with which, former skippers like Dilip and Abhilash treated her that she did both these circumnavigations without any major problems. Aquarius later built a second sail boat for the navy, INSV Tarini, which is identical to the Mhadei and as of August 2017, was expected to depart shortly on the first circumnavigation of the world by a crew of Indian women. Despite tendering process that rewards the lowest bidder, Aquarius took on construction of sail boats because it is a demanding task. While most of us get carried away by the speed and flight of motorized craft, they are generally more forgiving of error in design and construction because the brute power of the engine compensates for such shortcomings (unless the idea is to build for a specific purpose, like very high speed to set a record). Harnessing wind is a different ball game. Here design and build quality genuinely matter; room for error is less. “ Making a sail boat is more challenging,’’ Ratnakar Dandekar, who owns Aquarius Shipyard, said.

When it came to a boat for the 2018 GGR, Abhilash made three notable decisions. First, he decided to build the boat in India, at Aquarius. He knew the yard would do a good job. Besides, the earlier two circumnavigation voyages had ensured that he, Dilip and Ratnakar, became a fine team. They understand each other well. For boat to sail, the organizers of the 2018 GGR had provided participants a variety of designs to choose from. They included Westsail 32, Tradewind 35, Saga 34, Saltram 36, Vancouver 32 & 34, OE 32, Eric (sister ship to Suhaili), Aries 32, Baba 35, Biscay 36, Bowman 36, Cape Dory 36, Nicholson 32, MKX-XI, Rustler 36, Endurance 35, Gaia 36, Hans Christian 33T, Tashiba 36, Cabo Rico 34, Hinckley Pilot 35, Lello 34 and Gale Force 34. One suggestion Abhilash received was that he buy a secondhand Saltram 36 and refit it to the retro norms of the 2018 GGR. This design of boat – originally called Saltram Saga 36 and designed by Alan Pape – is a classic long-distance cruising yacht. It is double ended (the fore and aft taper in similar fashion) and sturdily built. However locating good secondhand boats of said design overseas and then refitting them is both time consuming and likely, expensive. If the refitting is to be done at Aquarius, the boat would have to be sailed in from abroad, refitted and sailed to UK for GGR. If the refitting is done overseas, you don’t get any of the cost advantages attached to work done in India. The next option was to go in for fresh construction. So for second major decision, Abhilash resolved that the boat he would sail in will be a replica of the Suhaili. “ It was the only boat I could build in India and I was keen to sail a boat built in India. I had a conversation with Don McIntyre from race management. He said that for any other design, the construction would have to happen from the original mould. The only leeway was for the Suhaili replica, which could be built, brand new,’’ Abhilash said. The Suhaili’s design is called Eric 32; it was drawn sometime in the 1920s by William Atkin. The third decision was more personal. Abhilash had always wanted to own a classic sail boat. Few boats in circumnavigation are more classic and steeped in the discipline’s history than the Suhaili. Abhilash decided that he would be the owner of the new boat. By Indian standards, owning a boat costs a lot of money. Ever helpful, Ratnakar started constructing the boat for Abhilash in 2016, using his own funds. As the boat neared completion, Abhilash liquidated some of his investments and partly repaid Ratnakar; the idea is to repay fully in time. At around 5.56 PM on August 7, the blessings of the Gods sought, the cranes gently lowered the Thuriya and she kissed water for the first time.

The Thuriya; crane slings being removed after the boat has been floated (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

All boat designs strike a compromise between stability and speed, depending on the purpose for which the boat is being acquired. So far, the bulk of Abhilash’s sailing has been on the Mhadei, which is a sloop, based on a design called Tonga 56. The Mhadei offers stability but she also offers adequate cruising speed on long voyages. Her hull made of wood core laminate; she has one tall mast and two sails. To the lay person beholding her, she has the sleek lines of a modern yacht. Her cabin with angular windows, rise prominently from the deck.  She is not double ended; her aft ends in an angled chop. She has a bulbous keel, laden with lead to act as counterweight in the event of capsize. “ The Mhadei is a big sail boat. She has lot of space within. If you load the boat, the percentage weight difference is less. Thanks to its high volume, it can ride down a wave at decent speed. Her upwind performance is also good. You can sail well into the wind,’’ Abhilash said. On the flip side, her sails are big and it is near impossible for a lone sailor to change the mainsail. Being a big boat, breakdowns are also tough to handle.

The Thuriya is a ketch. Much smaller, her Eric 32 design is roughly half the length of the Mhadei and her cabin sits sunk into the deck, rendering the cabin’s external profile almost invisible from far. The smaller size of the Thuriya made her trickier to build, Ratnakar said. She will have shorter masts. But against the sloop’s single mast, the ketch has two and between them they offer three sails. This doesn’t mean the sail area is greater; what it means is that the ketch is capable of harnessing the wind more precisely for greater maneuverability. The Thuriya’s hull is double ended and visibly squat. This aspect of the Eric 32 relates directly to design inspired by Norwegian fishing boats and which Sir Robin consciously chose when it came to the Suhaili, for his priority in the 1968 GGR was a stable, safe boat. Speed is not the forte of Eric 32; the Suhaili is a slow boat, as would most likely be, the Thuriya. Unlike Mhadei, which has two steering wheels on deck, the Thuriya is steered using a tiller. “ I prefer a tiller over a wheel. You can sit and steer the boat. Besides the tiller’s connection with the rudder is direct, unlike in the case of a wheel, which entails gears and transmission,’’ Abhilash said. Compared to the Mhadei’s two electronic and one wind driver autopilots, the Thuriya has one wind driver autopilot, donated by its manufacturer: WindPilot. Below the waterline, the Thuriya has a relatively straight keel needing less draft. The boat’s overall dimension is perfect for solo sailor venturing long distance; it is a compact ecosystem with everything at hand.

The Thuriya; view from aft, notice the small cabin, tiller and wind driver autopilot (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On the flip side, a small boat cannot take a lot of weight and when you load it, the boat tends to slow down. “ The slower the boat, the more you need to carry because your voyage becomes longer. That’s an equation I will need to manage,’’ Abhilash said. Measured for length, the Thuriya is smaller than a modern 40 foot-marine container. From the bridge of a big ship with sizable real estate of deck stretching before it, small boats are difficult to notice. In their writings, sailors on small boats have highlighted the David-Goliath relation they tackle at sea, in world of ever growing ship sizes. Not to mention, the hazard of cargos and containers floating around after they fell off unnoticed from ships. Asked if the small size of the Thuriya and her lack of electronics added that much more pressure on solo sailor maintaining a watch at sea, he said that for most part the 2018 GGR’s circumnavigation route is still devoid of busy traffic. “ For example in the voyage on Mhadei, after crossing Sri Lanka, the first ship I saw was two and a half months later at Cape Horn. The next was one and a half months later, off Mauritius,’’ he said. Watch-keeping (staying awake, alert and on the lookout) requirements go up in and around shipping lanes and one problem is – ships are no more serious with watches as they used to be.

A special invitee for the 2018 GGR, Abhilash has rich experience in sailing and now, a boat. What he may be in short supply of is – time to get everything ready for the voyage. In the run up to his last circumnavigation, he had taken to living in the Mhadei to get used to the boat. Given shortage of time, it may not be possible to do that with the Thuriya. What he was certainly in short supply of at the time of writing this article was – sponsors. Between now (August 2017) and a month and half before commencement of the 2018 GGR, he needs to fit masts on the Thuriya (for which she has to first move past the low Panjim bridge to berths downstream from Divar), put her through her paces at sea, get a sense of her behavior, sort out teething problems, sail her to Cape Town on her first long voyage (and probably his, mimicking GGR norms), load her on a ship to the UK from South Africa and report as per schedule to the race organizers for formal introduction of boat and her skipper. Getting a sense of the Thuriya on the water is important for two reasons. First she is a ketch; there will be an element of transition to do from Abhilash’s previous experience on a sloop to handling a ketch. Second, the Thuriya is a replica of the Suhaili with one distinct difference. The Suhaili was made of teakwood. Repeating such construction in 2016-2017 would have been terribly expensive. The Thuriya is therefore made of wood core laminate, like the Mhadei. This makes her stronger and lighter. “ She could be a livelier boat,’’ Dilip, who will be the manager of Abhilash’s team for the 2018 GGR, said of the boat’s potential behavior on water. The use of wood core laminate for making a replica of the Suhaili is permitted by the race organizers. Going by the details available about participants on the race website, the most widely chosen design appeared to be Rustler 36, followed by Biscay 36, Endurance 35 and Lello 34. At one point in the run up to 2018 GGR, there were four Suhaili replicas planned, Abhilash said. As far as he knew, the Thuriya alone remains in the fray.

Expeditions go retro in a quest to relive original purity. Such instances are rare. Success in one’s time by all means possible, using everything that minimizes error and possibility of setback, is the dominant character of adventure in our crowded, competitive times. In mountaineering, alpine style climbing is an attempt to be light on the environment and also feel the challenge closer. But climbers still use the latest gear. Once in a while, in a documentary film of climbers from the past with contemporary climbers enacting days gone by, one sees the retro touch fleetingly. You could argue free soloing is retro because climbers dispense with gear altogether. But that isn’t retro; it is more defying risk. A whole expedition in retro style – that would be very rare although the rising aversion for consumerism has begun triggering a return by humans to simpler times. And as the sextant would show, simpler times are not exactly simple; they entail much work. I asked Abhilash if there are any trends emergent in the world of sailing, to go retro. According to him, current trends are all towards more and more expensive sailing. People aspire for costlier boats and yachts. Races are also getting more expensive. It is the full on, jazzed up version that sells. That said, retro allows sailing to be less expensive. It is also more challenging and given that, it may remain a niche pursuit by the adventurers among us.

From left: Ratnakar, Abhilash and Dilip enjoy a photo session onboard the Thuriya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The 2018 GGR has parameters to differentiate finishers and provide a semblance of winner. Besides the Golden Globe trophies, Golden Globe plaques and total prize money of 75,000 pounds for distribution, those finishing before 15.00 hours on April 22, 2019 will receive a Suhaili trophy and refund of their entry fee. Anyone making a single stopover or forced to break the seal on their portable GPS chart plotter can remain in the race but will be shifted to the `Chichester Class’ (named after Sir Francis Chichester, who in 1966-1967 in his ketch, the Gypsy Moth IV, became the first person to achieve a true solo circumnavigation of the globe from west to east, via the three great capes; he made one stop at Sydney). They will get Chichester trophies provided they finish within aforesaid deadline on April 22, 2019. Anyone making two stops will be disqualified. “ In 1968, only one person finished GGR and he was the winner. In a race like 2018 GGR, you are a winner if you finish,’’ Ratnakar said.

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

AQUARIUS: TALENTED BOAT BUILDER LIMITED BY MARKET

Ratnakar Dandekar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ever since it built the INSV Mhadei, Goa based-Aquarius Shipyard has become a noted builder of sail boats in India.

The Mhadei did two circumnavigations; she also participated in trans-Atlantic races and other long voyages. After the Mhadei, Aquarius built the Tarini, which is identical to the former. If all goes as planned, the Tarini is expected to sail sometime in August 2017 on a circumnavigation executed for the first time by an all-woman Indian crew. Both vessels are sloops, based on the Tonga 56 design by Van de Stadt of Netherlands. According to Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius, there is a third Tonga 56 being built by the yard; this one for a private party in India. On August 7, 2017, Aquarius floated the ketch, Thuriya, built for Commander Abhilash Tomy KC to sail in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), which will be another case of circumnavigation; a solo nonstop circumnavigation.

Each of these voyages comes with post-launch support offered by Aquarius. While the 2018 GGR is a case of retro sailing with very low electronic technology onboard and strict race regulations in place, in the previous two circumnavigations of the Mhadei – India’s first solo circumnavigation and first solo nonstop circumnavigation – Ratnakar as builder, was available for online consultation whenever anything went wrong aboard. The yard is thus a rare repository of knowledge and experience on building a sail boat from submitted design and supporting long voyages at sea.

Yet this does not translate into bright market opportunity for Aquarius.

The main reason is that a market for sail boats and yachts is so nascent in India that it is almost nonexistent. Potential buyers are growing in tune with India’s rising GDP and increase in the number of wealthy individuals. But sense of adventure and genuine appreciation of sailing is lacking. Most people who can afford a yacht prefer to buy it from overseas as the intention is to own a vessel one can brag about. Brand and cost matter. As Abhilash, who will sail next year as part of the retro styled 2018 GGR, pointed out, Indian buyers seek expensive yachts and brands they can boast of. While that is the state of buyers, any hope of kindling a popular market for sail boats with appropriate models – similar to what the Maruti 800 did for motoring in India – is checked by the very limited interest in sailing in India despite the country’s 7500 km-long coastline. Sailing is still mostly a privilege of the navy, an organization with vast resources and the ability to own and deploy boats. In several countries, civilian sailing has acquired scale and respect with reputed sailors from the civilian domain. In India, the scene is completely different.

The Thuriya, just before her launch on August 7, 2017. This ketch, the latest sail boat built by Aquarius, is slated to do a circumnavigation over 2018-2019 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Developing the local market is important for sailing to take off. Globally, the big sailing markets are Europe and US, of which Europe is closer to India. But India is not geographically as close as Turkey and the Middle East are to Europe. Builders from there have been doing a good job, exporting sail boats. Lack of scale also impacts Indian builders. According to Ratnakar, because he builds with skilled craftsmen, some of the low cost advantages associated with India are lost. On like to like comparison – that is if you compare a one off build overseas with similar work by Aquarius – he will be cheaper. But the problem is, his cost for a boat tends to be high when compared to boats coming off serial production overseas. Serial production cannot happen without a market in sight. Finally, the segment of yachts he can service – basically the middle category placed between cheap boats and the truly expensive ones – has not been doing well internationally. Turkish and Middle East builders were well placed to cash in on the recessionary trend that hit the market, Ratnakar said.

Notwithstanding this predicament, Ratnakar wished to continue building sail boats. Economically it doesn’t make much sense. Given the sort of clients he caters to – mostly the Indian military and the country’s many state governments – winning an order is based on being lowest bidder. Economics takes precedence. What still attracts him to sail boats is, the challenge in building them. When a boat is powered by wind, the requirement for good design and excellent craftsmanship in construction rises to the fore. When the risk is further compounded by circumnavigation and solo sailing, the requirement for these attributes is even stronger.

“ There is more challenge in building sail boats,’’ Ratnakar said.

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

PORTRAIT OF A PREDICAMENT

Hema Menon (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Article on distance runner Hema Menon with a look alongside at what’s happening in Thiruvananthapuram, the southern-most capital city with a movement in amateur running.

Meals Ready – the board outside the teashop said.

I wasn’t exactly hungry. But given dietary restrictions rising elsewhere in India, my visits to Kerala had come to smack of guiltless indulgence in the cuisine I grew up with. I dove into the teashop, joining a small clientele of executives and techies who loved their food to be defiantly local or naadan, as you would say in Malayalam.

Twenty minutes later I had a full stomach; it was past 2 PM, there was a bus to wait for and not a tree for shade on the by-pass from Kazhakoottam to Kovalam. Perhaps I could walk, keep moving? Walk? Where you wish to go is some distance away. Who will walk in the blazing afternoon sun?-the waiter at the tea shop quipped, tucking up his mundu for added emphasis. How about hiring a three wheeler? They will fleece you. Why spend two hundred rupees when a bus will take you there for much less? Several minutes in the hot sun later, a bus appeared. It didn’t stop. The second one did. I got off at the assigned stop simply called `Infosys.’ Next to it was the building I required to go to – the office of UST Global. I was at Technopark, inaugurated in 1990 to welcome India’s IT revolution to Kerala; not to mention – winds of change to the state’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram. In the 27 years since, Technopark has become a sprawling entity.

Hema with daughter Lakshmi and husband, Subhash, after their first run at an event – the 2013 Kochi International Half Marathon (Photo: courtesy Hema Menon)

The first time I ran some distance, was almost 30 years ago in Thiruvananthapuram. Good friend, Rajagopal, would come by early morning with Afzal and the three of us would run towards the city’s zoo and museum, where morning walkers congregated on a small circular road to walk in a furious whirl of flying fists, erect spines and thrust out-chests. Runners were very few. Thanks to their association with the National Cadet Corps (NCC), both Rajagopal and Afzal could jog well. Nerd on chicken legs, I soon dropped out. In my mid-forties and back to running, I was happy to see a runners’ group from Thiruvananthapuram at the half marathon in Auroville, Puducherry. Then one day, on a visit home, I decided to go running on Thiruvananthapuram roads and was delighted to see a modest number of runners, out early morning. Maybe those winds of change did blow after all, I thought as I walked past security to the UST Global office. Hema Menon was already there in the spacious lobby. Born 1969, the youngest of three children, she was from Thrissur. Her father worked at State Bank of Travancore (SBT-now merged with State Bank of India [SBI]); her mother was a science teacher. She studied in Thrissur; St Paul’s Convent, St Mary’s College and eventually, the government engineering college in that city, from where she passed out, a civil engineer.

For a few years, Hema worked with a housing development firm in Thrissur. In 1993, she got married; her husband Subhash had been a student of computer science at the same engineering college she studied at. Subhash worked initially with the IT company, Wipro in Thiruvananthapuram, and later, in Bengaluru. Work as civil engineer required Hema to liaison locally and she found that hard In Bengaluru given she spoke no Kannada. So she became a bank officer working with Federal Bank in the city. At that time, when things appeared to settle, Subhash was dispatched to France. Then he was sent to the US. Soon the family – they had a son by then – realized they needed to make a choice if they were to be together. Quitting her job and shifting to the US, Hema found that the mix of civil engineering and work at bank which she possessed, was irrelevant in that country. Meanwhile, the couple had another new arrival – a daughter. Against this backdrop, Hema commenced her masters in software engineering at the University of Texas, Dallas. She graduated with a job at Intervoice (now called Convergys). Starting out as a trainee, she rose to manage the line of business division in R&D. In January 2008, her mother suddenly took ill; her kidney was failing. Two weeks after Hema reached Kerala to be with her, she passed way. It was a shock. Hema had all along thought that between her father and mother, the former was delicate. In May 2008, she moved back to Kerala with her children. Both Hema and Subhash secured jobs at UST Global. The return to Kerala provided her three quality years with her father. In 2011, he passed away. “ I treasure those three years,’’ Hema said. But that wasn’t the end of such sorrows. Her father-in-law slipped into dementia. It was a condition that progressively deteriorated. A few years later, he too was gone. Subhash’s brother is Ramesh Kanjilimadhom, one of the founding members of the runners’ group – Soles of Cochin. Hema used to call him Forrest Gump. The brothers come from a family with history of diabetes. Subhash had diabetes; Ramesh was the only person in the family free of it. Then Ramesh had a terrible accident with fractures to his leg. “ The way he came out of it was amazing. That’s when I paid attention to his running,’’ Hema said. An Onam season, she joined Ramesh and his wife, Seema, for a run. It was fun running in the rain. But then, Hema was based in Thiruvananthapuram and Soloes of Cochin was in Kochi.

At the Chennai Trail Ultra (Photo: courtesy Hema Menon)

Thiruvananthapuram, previously known as Trivandrum, encourages curiosity for the world. Libraries, book shops, film societies, music societies, centers teaching foreign languages – they all exist. Decades ago, when Siddharth Basu’s iconic program Quiz Time was a national craze on television, the city had stunned the country putting two of its teams in the final rounds. One of Thiruvananthapuram’s book shops – Modern Book Center – is easily among the best in India. The variety of books it offers would delight any mind that refuses to be contained within the walls of ` native place’ or finds the market driven choice of books at stores elsewhere, boring. The unpretentious capital city with its state Secretariat besieged by half a dozen protests on any given day, is also home to one of India’s most talented rock bands – Avial. Yet notwithstanding this serious quest for universe, the city is so set and sure in its ways that if you returned there after seeing the world, it won’t be to breathe world into the city, it would be to live as Thiruvananthapuram does. This is a city that will stretch intellectually to accommodate an earthquake of an idea in the head. What it doesn’t wish to see is – the same manifested externally; there can be no ruffling the social fabric or established attitudes. There is a traditional perception of itself by itself that Thiruvananthapuram is reluctant to let go. In Kerala history too, while commerce dominated the proceedings of the northern kingdoms, it is the state’s southern kingdom – Travancore – that provided a sense of enduring state. When the north was invaded, it was the south that helped defend. On each visit to Thiruvananthapuram, I find it an enigma. I struggle to explain how a place that resists change shapes riveting minds. I knew quite a few. It is almost as if, the fuel for excellence is the unyielding environment. It exists to provoke the urge to rebel, search and thereby, excel. Which in turn I suppose, justifies the rigidity. It isn’t an exclusively Thiruvananthapuram story. Arguably this is true for Kerala – at once modern and conservative – with Kochi being to Thiruvananthapuram, what Mumbai is to Pune. “ Even though I lived here the past nine years, I am yet to understand the heritage of Thiruvananthapuram. There is a calmness here compared to other places,” Hema said.

At the 2014 Spice Coast Marathon (Photo: courtesy Hema Menon)

Around the time Hema did that first run with Ramesh and Seema, moves were afoot in Thiruvananthapuram to form a runners’ group. Abhayakumar N. S (Abhay) is an architect who is also partner at The Cinnamon Route, a restaurant on Pattom-Kowdiar road in the city. Until a few years ago, he was on the visibly heavy side, weighing 115 kg. His family has a history of cardiac problems. That weight had to go. He used to talk to people walking on that circular road at Thiruvananthapuram’s zoo and museum to know what their experience was in terms of weight loss and fitness. He also had a friend on Facebook who was a keen runner. This was how Abhay got into running; he jogged regularly at Mannanthala, a suburb on the MC Road linking Thiruvananthapuram with Kottayam. He complemented running with a vegan diet, making exception for fish. He shed 35 kg in three to four months. Abhay was a classmate of Seema, Ramesh’s wife. In Thiruvananthapuram, Abhay understood that to sustain his running he needed a helpful ecosystem of people, perhaps a runners’ group. Initially what he catalyzed stayed a circle of close friends. In November 2013, Trivandrum Runners’ Club (TRACS) commenced activities with a weekly 10km-run every Sunday from Kowdiar. In December 2013, Abhay ran the first Cochin International Half Marathon; this was followed by the full marathon at the 2014 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM – now set to be called Tata Mumbai Marathon [TMM]). “ In March 2015 TRACS organized its first event in Thiruvananthapuram – a half marathon plus 10km-run. In November 2015, we hosted our first full marathon,’’ he said. The second edition of the Trivandrum Marathon was held in November 2016. Local authorities were supportive when it came to arranging these events, Abhay said. The next edition of the Trivandrum Marathon is planned over two days, with runners tackling the shorter 10km distance doing so on the first day; 21 km and 42 km will be on the following day. “ I can say TRACS started the sport at a popular level in the city,’’ Abhay said.

From the Chennai Trail Ultra or what Hema loves to remember as “ the one moment she got ahead of the boys” in that race (Photo: courtesy Hema Menon)

Among those who reported for TRACS’s first run in November 2013, was Hema Menon. “ I couldn’t run much but I remember saying that I plan to come every week. I went every week,’’ she said. Every Sunday, she drove from Kariavattom where she lived, to Kowdiar, to run 10 km. In December 2013, she participated in the 7 km-segment of the first Cochin International Half Marathon, the first event she was taking part in. By 2014, she had signed up her entire family for an event in Ohio, USA, with herself doing the half marathon. She completed the run in 2:31.

TRACS has its group run just once a week. Abhay put this schedule in perspective. “ Our message from day one has been: let’s try and get people to run 10 km. The focus is becoming healthy through running; it isn’t about timing and distance. We remain a very basic running group and we will continue to be so. We mentor to initiate people into running,’’ he said. He acknowledged that TRACS is different from Soles of Cochin, which has never hesitated to push the envelope. For those determined to push the ante, the TRACS-schedule / approach won’t suffice. For Hema, there was also another angle to address. She was driving perhaps 15 km into town to run 10 km. Alongside marking her attendance at the weekly Sunday runs at Kowdiar, Hema began running at Kariavattom and on the highway near Technopark. In due course, much of her running shifted that side. But there was a larger branching off happening at TRACS, which Abhay accepts as needed and normal. Dr Shankar Ram, a specialist in physical medicine was among those at TRACS wishing to push their limits. He and others commenced a break-away offshoot called Iten, named after the town in Kenya famous for its distance runners. Iten now hosts three practice runs every week – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, with the latter reserved for a long run. Compared to the 10 km-weekly run TRACS stuck to, Iten ventures farther. They have run the 50 km from Thiruvananthapuram to Varkala. Once a month they also run 14 km to 21 km on the slopes of Ponmudi, a 3609ft high hill with forest and tea gardens, some 56 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. It is accessed by a steep road with 22 hairpin bends on it. Few cities have what Thiruvananthapuram offers; the proximity to Ponmudi for hill running, being only one example.

Finishing the 75km-discipline of the 2016 Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy Hema Menon)

According to Wikipedia, the 2011 census pegged Thiruvananthapuram city’s population at slightly short of a million. Runners in Mumbai, a city of around 20 million people, speak in the main of two stadiums in the metro that have synthetic track for athletics – the University Stadium in South Mumbai and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) sports complex in Kandivili. The two locations are separated by approximately 30 kilometers. Mumbai with paltry infrastructure for athletics probably has the biggest amateur running movement in the country. It puzzles over why a large amateur base isn’t translating into strong presence in elite athletics. In contrast, in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city and in tune with Kerala’s strength in elite athletics, you find synthetic track at two stadiums within hailing distance of each other – the University Stadium and the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium. The latter’s track, easily visible from a city bus negotiating the adjacent road, hosted none every time I passed by. It was always an empty stadium. Roughly 15 kilometers away (no distance by Mumbai standards), at Kariavattom, is a big brand new stadium with synthetic track – Trivandrum International Stadium, legacy of the 2015 National Games held in the city. Where there used to be one Olympic sized pool open to the public years ago, there is now an entire swimming complex that has come up at Pirappancode, 22 km from Thiruvananthapuram. Kariavattom is also home to the Lakshmibai National College of Physical Education (LNCPE) which has its share of grounds for athletics, a swimming pool; it even has a velodrome for cycling. All these places are well connected by public transport. Yet they haven’t sparked a larger movement in amateur sports or pronounced desire to lead the active life. There are running and cycling groups and there is now a city marathon but it is happening so late and on a scale that is small compared to the size of some of these sports assets and how long they have been around. Just like all that you read and saw of wider world remains within the head, the idea of sport contained in these stadiums doesn’t move the city.

Unlike Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram’s puzzle would be why so much sports infrastructure hasn’t inspired an interest in sport at large. On the other hand what I found freshly added to Kerala’s depiction on hoardings of gold, marriage, real estate, home appliances and similar images of settled success; was a rash of posters showing every locality’s topper in some exam or the other. Academics remain exalted. That plus, the state’s ageing demographic profile may partly explain why the amateur running scene is still nascent. But it can only partly explain, for a lot of the participation in amateur running, even in a city like Mumbai, is from the 30 plus age group. Meanwhile, the physical energy of the state’s youth, which can easily be channelized into endurance sports, continues to be spent on political clashes and such. Perhaps more worrying is that despite its known strength in sports and athletics, what is most visible in consumerist Kerala is a steep rise in that runners’ woe – privately owned automobiles. My Sunday visit to mist laden Ponmudi included a traffic jam on top.

With Soles of Cochin runners after an edition of the TCS 10K (Photo: courtesy Hema Menon)

Hema is a piece of Soles of Cochin, living 220 km away in Thiruvananthapuram. Her best memories in running are interwoven with Soles. Post Ohio, she did the Dream Runners’ Half Marathon in Chennai, completing it in 2:38. In 2014, she did roughly six half marathons. In October 2014 she did the half marathon in Bengaluru and despite a niggling pain she picked up at its end, went on to run the full marathon at Spice Coast, Kochi. Among those she met at Soles, were Paul P.I and A.P. Kumar. Signing up for a 50 km-run at the Chennai Trail Ultra, she ran it in the company of Paul, Kumar and Mathew Mapram. “ These guys made the run interesting for me. It was my first ultra,’’ she said. She ran the full marathon at SCMM in 2015 and 2016, following up the 2016 run (5:18) with the full marathon at Dubai (5:02) and the full at Wipro Chennai Marathon (5.30). “ Surprisingly I had no problem with recovery,’’ she said. But things did go wrong at the next event, a full marathon in Delhi. It was a nice course but she didn’t get it right. “ I nearly broke down,’’ she said. In July 2016, Hema signed up for the 75km-race at Javadhu Ultra. She practised with Soles of Cochin at Kulamavu in Idukki district. At Javadhu, she finished her race within cut-off time. “ Trail running is so peaceful. The problem in cities is traffic. I am not a fast runner and by the time slow runners are finishing at events, traffic begins to hit you. Trail makes the experience very different,’’ she said.

In October 2016, she signed up for the 80km-segment of Malnad Ultra. Then Paul and Kumar called up to inform that Mathew was attempting 110 km. So why shouldn’t they? The cut-off was 24 hours. All four committed to 110km. But on the day of the ultra, Kumar reported sick, Paul was injured and Mathew deciding to focus on a marathon in Bengaluru cut his distance short at Malnad. That left Hema alone for the full 110km with none of her friends for company. Malnad is a roughly 100 km-wide corridor running north-south in Karnataka’s west, sandwiched between the state’s sea coast and the Bayaluseeme region. It spans both the western and eastern slopes of the Western Ghats. These are richly forested hills; Karnataka’s highest peak – Mullayanagiri (6316ft) – is located in this belt. “ It was an amazing place,’’ Hema said of the ultramarathon’s route. Nevertheless, it was a tough run and at sections, where the route was through forest, she had to find somebody to run along with. At 5 AM with an hour left for cut-off, she completed the assigned 110km. “ Malnad changed a lot of things for me,’’ Hema said. She was due to run the full marathon at Bengaluru soon thereafter. But she withdrew from the full marathon so that the Malnad experience would linger longer. “ Peter Van Geit of Chennai Trekking Club does a lot of trail running away from cities. After Malnad, I understood what he was talking about,’’ Hema said. In January 2017, she ran the 71km-race at Munnar Ultra. According to her, ultras allow her to be at peace. “ You are not always running, you are with nature,’’ she said. She attributed her running to her ringside view of Ramesh’s recovery from accident, the infectious passion of Soles of Cochin, the influence of Seema and her hope that if she keeps running, so would Subhash; running helps check his diabetes. The time I met her at UST Global, Hema’s family was based overseas. Her son, having graduated in physics and math from Ohio State University, now worked in the US. Her daughter was studying cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. ` It is time to make a choice again – India or US?’’ Hema said. Looking ahead, she said she would like to get a sub-five in the full marathon, eventually maybe a sub-four. She would also like to run the Boston Marathon after qualifying for it. None of this is to be confused with competitive instincts. “ There is plenty of competition at work anyway. Why bring that to running?’’ she asked.

With the Race Director of Malnad Ultra after finishing the 110km-run (Photo: courtesy Hema Menon)

On the way back from UST Global, I passed the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium. I asked Abhay and Shankar about Thiruvananthapuram’s empty stadiums and the fledgling dimension yet, of the city’s interest in amateur sports. They felt it may have something to do with the local tendency to attach purpose to what we do. Elite athletics are so because they come with defined purpose. Your goal is to achieve, be the best. Amateur athletics have no purpose beyond recreational value. Pursuits without a purpose and trajectory to be the best, find little empathy in the state. I thought of those posters of rank holders. Most of them will be unheard of later. But right then with ridiculously high marks they fit society’s notion of achievement. “ In none of our passions, do we follow it for what it is,’’ Abhay said. The question is frequently posed: what’s the purpose? At his office within the Jimmy George Indoor Stadium, Shankar searched for more explanations to the mental wall denying as much social encouragement for the amateur athletics movement as elite athletics. He pointed out that in the recent past even as a larger amateur movement in sport eluded Thiruvananthapuram there has been an explosion of shuttle courts. Bengaluru owes a lot of its amateur running movement to the IT wave. That city has marathons and the Sree Kanteerava Stadium hosts extended endurance runs. Did Technopark and much travelled IT workforce make a difference to amateur sports movements in Thiruvananthapuram? – I asked. Neither of them felt so. Abhay in fact, had an interesting observation: those who shift to Thiruvananthapuram do so for the city and what it represents; not to question it.

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