Seema Pai (Photo: courtesy Seema)

In late June 2019, Seema Pai from Bengaluru reached the summit of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. She returned with many questions in her head and the desire to rethink the projects she was working on.

It all started unexpectedly with a hike in the Sikkim Himalaya in March 2015. That was when Seema Pai and her partner, Dinesh Kaigonahalli, met Sergei Chulkov, a Russian mountain guide. They agreed to meet again; hopefully in the Caucusus Mountains, the mountain system at the intersection of Europe and Asia. A few months after the hike in Sikkim, Seema and Dinesh had an enjoyable outing in Ladakh, trying out a hiking route they hadn’t been on before, in the eastern Nubra Valley. The trek involved three passes all above 17,500 feet in elevation. At its end, the duo decided to extend their outdoor experience to the Caucusus. It seemed appropriate in another way – they were well acclimatized from their stay and hike in Ladakh. Why waste that fitness with a return to the plains?

They flew to Moscow and from there, traveled to the resort town of Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol Krai where they met up with Sergei. Given their recent acclimatization to high altitude and the fact that its benefits stay on for a brief while, Sergie recommended that they attempt Mount Elbrus (18,510ft), the highest peak in the Caucusus. A mountain guide, he kitted them out for the trip. That was how Elbrus happened. With it, rather unexpectedly, Seema found herself looking at the possibility of attempting Seven Summits. It wasn’t something she sought. Elbrus happens to be among mountains constituting the Seven Summits challenge in mountaineering. She had just traveled to Russia and climbed it. So, how about trying the rest? First accomplished by American businessman Richard Bass in 1985, Seven Summits entails climbing the highest peak on each continent. The seven peaks are: Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica) and Kosciuszko (Australia) or Puncak Jaya aka Carstensz Pyramid (Indonesia). That last choice depends on whether you view Australia as continent or tectonic plate; if latter then Puncak Jaya in Papua, Indonesia qualifies to be highest.

On Elbrus (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Belonging to Bengaluru’s early crop of woman rock climbers, Seema has been climbing, hiking and going on expeditions to the Himalaya for many years. A self-made person with multiple rebounds from testing predicaments to her credit she owned of a couple of shops selling outdoor gear in the city. In mid-August 2017, after another acclimatization trek in Ladakh, Seema and Dinesh flew to Tanzania. In less than a week they were atop Kilimanjaro (19,340ft), the highest freestanding peak in the world and the highest mountain in Africa. In early 2018, the two of them traveled to Argentina in South America, where Seema successfully climbed Aconcagua (22,841ft). All these ascents – Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua – were guided trips that were also supported (meaning – use of support staff) to varying degrees. It made the next expedition, Denali, stand out. Trips to Denali are mostly self-supported. It is only in the Himalaya and the mountains of Africa that clients are indulged with support services. In the world of hiking and mountaineering, respect is highest for people who do things by themselves. Seema was certain she did not want to be a tourist on Denali. She wanted an expedition in which, she did her share of hard work. There was also another angle at play here.

If you go through Wikipedia’s page on Bill Watterson, a sentence to remember is his observation that he works for personal fulfilment. Watterson is the creator of the popular comic strip: Calvin and Hobbes; first published November 18, 1985. Despite its success, Calvin and Hobbes had a syndicated run of only ten years, from 1985 to 1995. According to Wikipedia, Watterson stopped drawing the strip with a short statement to newspaper editors and readers saying that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium. He is also known for his battle with publishers against merchandising his characters; something he felt would render his characters cheap. Amid the comic strip’s immense popularity even today, Watterson’s take on commercialization is, arguably, not as well-known. Seema is a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes. In her childhood, she had been the strong-willed, independent sort with penchant for courting trouble. The story of the six year-old adventurous boy and his stuffed tiger had instant appeal. Among concepts that she latched on to was the idea of the transmogrifier, the cardboard box Calvin uses many times to transform himself and Hobbes into a variety of characters. She had long wanted her own cardboard box.

From the expedition to Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Alaska has been an emblem for the world’s wilderness spaces. There are other places similar to it or near similar, but when it comes to imagining vast snowbound landscapes, polar weather and animal and human existence evolved in such circumstance, Alaska easily invades the brain. It is also true unfortunately that some of the results of human intervention – like oil spills; they too enter the frame. Alaska is home to North America’s best known mountain – Denali. For many years, the mountain was also known as McKinley, called so after William McKinley, 25th president of the United States who was assassinated in September 1901. Although its height is only 20,310 feet – significantly less than many of the peaks in the Himalaya – Denali is both a big mountain, among the world’s most northerly big mountains, quite cold and capable of attracting feisty weather conditions. There is also plenty of raw ascending involved given the walk-in starts at around 7000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. According to Wikipedia, the first verifiable ascent of Denali was in 1913, by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tallum. Within the Seven Summits world, Denali is among the most demanding climbs because in addition to whatever it offers, the challenges are tackled with few of the luxuries of guided ascents. After Elbrus, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, as Seema knocked on Denali’s doors she knew a different experience waited. This would be her personal transmogrifier to become the sort of outdoorsperson she wanted to be.

In Bengaluru, along with her regular training, Seema commenced a special 24 week-program designed for the Denali ascent. The focus was cardio-vascular, core and strength training. Additionally she also pulled heavy tyres and periodically did stair workouts at an apartment block having 15 floors; her backpack loaded to almost 30 kilos. Then just before heading to the US, she and Dinesh spent two weeks in Ladakh. They hiked to two passes – Stok La and Ganda La – without much load; they carried just about five to six kilos of stuff in their backpack. The idea was to take it easy, provide a tapering, relaxed phase to all the hard work that had gone in. It was also a case of repeating the pattern they had resorted to before the previous peak ascents as part pf Seven Summits – Ladakh was ideal place to acclimatize ahead of expedition. Early June, they flew from Delhi to Seattle via Frankfurt. There they met Madhu Chikkaraju and Pranesh Manchaiah, climbers from Bengaluru who had previously been on Denali as part of faculty for a premier outdoor school. Seema had tied up with them for the Denali attempt. At Anchorage in Alaska, which they reached on June 16, they were also joined by Brian, who had come from Oregon. Seema’s birthday – her fiftieth – was celebrated at Anchorage in the company of her expedition team and friends from Sacramento, who showed up for the occasion. There was some final shopping also done at REI, Anchorage.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

A few days later, the team proceeded to Talkeetna. “ It is a rugged place,’’ Seema said.  Here, the expedition’s gear and supplies were reviewed and repacked. Given an expedition proceeds setting up camps on the mountain and a load ferry precedes each camp, the supplies had to be repacked in plastic and dry bags so that they could be buried six to seven feet deep in the snow; each such cachet is identified with markers bearing the expedition’s name. “ Since there is nobody to help you haul what you take, every unwanted gram is left behind. You orient yourself for life based on essentials and what is relevant,’’ Seema said.

Talkeetna was where the final paperwork and briefing related to the expedition got done. The rangers who interviewed the team had already seen the climbers’ biodata. They had much respect for the altitudes of the Himalaya. But that didn’t stop them from checking whether the predominantly Indian team was aware of what it took to attempt Denali. They made sure the team members knew glacier mountaineering, that they knew the basics of climbing; they even asked how many trips Seema had made to the Himalaya given Bengaluru is in South India. Their focus was more on Madhu and Pranesh, who were the more experienced members and assuming responsibility for the rest. The region around Denali is a national park. The rangers gave a Power Point presentation on dos and don’ts; they also provided an overview of the route available for the season, prevailing conditions and how many attempts had happened as yet. The park service, responsible for maintaining the environment and ensuring visitors’ safety, provided sledges (to pull gear) and poop buckets (to collect and ship out human waste). You have to pay for these. “ The park officials were professional and articulate,’’ Seema said. The private expedition was given the name: Team Bengaluru. They would attempt Denali via the popular route – the West Buttress Route.

Indicative of the ice, wilderness and far flung settlements ahead, there were plenty of planes around in Talkeetna. They do the work of ferrying people and supplies to remoteness. Alaska is among regions that birthed bush flying, wherein the tough terrain that planes take off and land on offered few prepared landing strips and runways. It called for tough pilots, tough planes and much innovation. Bush planes are characterized by their ability to operate from short landing strips, large tyres to tackle bumpy terrain, undercarriage designed to host floats and skis and high wings that permit easy loading and unimpeded gaze downward for pilot and passengers. Alaska’s first bush pilot was Carl Ben Eilson, hailing from North Dakota in the US. Bush planes, pilots – they are as much part of Alaskan stories as nature and people are, in the region. Team Bengaluru flew from Talkeetna to Kahiltna East Fork Glacier. The Kahiltna Glacier is Alaska’s longest; it is 71 kilometers long. “ You are supposed to be dressed for life on glacier and ready for it from the moment you step on to the plane,’’ Seema said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

The plane dropped off the team and their gear, took on those waiting to go back and left. It was now down to four people, their supplies and a vast landscape. Backpacks weighed over 20 kilos; there was roughly 55-60 kilos of gear per head in total. The distance from East Fork at roughly 7000 feet elevation to Denali’s summit – 20,310 feet – is 29 kilometers. Sense of work to be done, sank in for reduced to the minimalism of so much stuff, a few humans and  nothing else around, one thing was clear – none of that gear is going to move unless human being hauls it. “ I am thankful that I put my butt on fire in Bengaluru, preparing for this expedition. You have to be fit if you want to attempt Denali as part of a self-supported team,’’ Seema said. It was the evening of June 19, 2019. Aside from two metal shelters, there was no other permanent installation at Kahiltna East Fork. It was just miles of glacier. You saw the lower portions of Denali; its middle and higher reaches remained unseen. The months of May, June and July form the traditional window to attempt Denali. Thanks to global warming, Seema said, late July is not recommended while late April-expeditions have begun happening. Although flying with Seema to Talkeetna, Dinesh wasn’t part of the climbing team. He was scheduled to return to India. Dinesh is among Bengaluru’s pioneers in rock climbing, a former NOLS instructor in mountaineering and one of the original founders of India’s popular backpack brand: Wildcraft.  Before leaving Talkeetna, he went for a cruise on the river. The settlement is at the confluence of three rivers – Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. From the boat, he saw Denali in the distance. He recalls thinking how massive it seemed. Mt Foraker: Mt Hunter, Denali – they are all in the same area. But Denali towered above the rest.

Life on a giant glacier comes with its own protocols. There were assigned camping spots on Kahiltna East Fork and limits on how far you venture off the designated zone for there are crevasses. You respect the safety markers that have been put up; you also watch out for each other. Climbers heading to Denali stick to the assigned path, identifiable thanks to periodic markers and the footprints of those who went earlier. On vast, barren glacier with nowhere to hide, a pee-break or poop-break finds you going about your business while others look away to provide an illusion of privacy. Tents, easily set up on other types of terrain, can be installed on a glacier exposed to the wind only after sufficient snow has been shoveled off and a flat trough excavated for the pitching. With so much ice around, snow goggles are a must. Sleep is quite different from mountaineering in the Himalaya. The Alaskan year is divided into two halves of summer and winter. June is summer and in summer, daylight never goes off fully. “ You put a scarf on your eyes and try to sleep. I went to Denali like a student. You have to have humility. What I liked about Denali is that you can’t be competitive in this landscape. If you are still competitive, then you are spiritually zero. Nothing works here without team work,’’ Seema said. The first few days of load ferry is done wearing snow shoes, designed to prevent feet from sinking into snow. Back in Bengaluru, Seema had trained to pull sledges (that’s what the earlier mentioned tyres were for). Still doing it for real was a challenge. She hadn’t factored in how traction would be with snow shoes. On the approach to Denali, she elected to do her hauling in the backpack instead. The team used snow shoes and sledges till the fifth day. Then they were cached (buried) in the snow at Windy Corner to be retrieved on the way back. Past this point, Seem also stopped using both her trekking poles. It became a pole and an ice axe. Among the camps en route, the one at 14,200 feet was sizable. “ It resembles a colony and is just ahead of the actual climb up Denali. This camp has a medical facility with Gammo Bag to tackle altitude induced sickness,’’ Seema said.

On Denali (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Fixed ropes installed every season for the climb, commenced from this camp. Here the team also faced their first set of serious problems. To begin with a storm was forecast. Bad weather typically entails lasting it out for a fresh window to open up. That puts pressure on the team’s supplies. Then, one of the team members became unwell, apparently caused by altitude. The medical personnel advised that the individual descend for safety. He was relocated to camp at 11,000 feet. Simple as it sounds, in reality this wasn’t easy. In the thick of an expedition with work to do and summit to gain, altitude sickness is rarely acknowledged by patients. When it is established through external intervention, there is the issue of patient buying into it adequately and descending to safety. Finally in small alpine teams, when one person is taken out of the frame, the others have to pull that much more for there are only so many to get the job done. The diagnosis of altitude sickness and descent to safe camp to park the individual – all this happened alongside responsibilities parceled out and load ferry continued to set up higher camps. By now the body clock had gone haywire; in Denali’s blurred divide between day and night sleep was happening at hours distinctly odd by the habits of lower latitudes. And so one of the timelines read like this – team members after transferring their colleague to lower camp (where his condition started to improve) got back to the camp at 14,200 feet by 3AM. They rested till 3PM and then left for high camp at 17,200 feet – below Denali Pass – which they reached by 10.30PM. The weather was starting to go bad. They rested till 8AM, then, left for the summit at 10AM. The narrative may as well have been of one long solar day; sleep – a case of badly required shut eye and not world blanketed by darkness.

The summit push is divided into three parts – there is the Denali Pass, the summit slope and a large slushy snowfield, replete with the associated risks of glacier travel. The team moved efficiently, tackling Denali Pass in under-two hours. “ Summit day was 12 hours long for us. We reached the top of Denali at 5.50PM on June 28. Luckily for us, the weather didn’t worsen that day and the next. Having gained the summit, we got back to the camp at 11,000 feet and our friend recuperating there, by around 10PM,’’ Seema said. Reunited and briefly rested, they wound up the camp at 11,000 feet and descended to East Fork at approximately 7000 feet. Having returned to Bengaluru, Dinesh had been monitoring the weather in Alaska online. He saw the storm forecast. He also saw that around the team’s previously calculated summit window, conditions were holding and not deteriorating further. “ Up and down Denali in eleven days is admirable,’’ he said.

For Seema however, there were other thoughts taking root. The whole Seven Summits journey had been triggered unexpectedly. Once she launched into it, there had been the related big expedition-rigmarole of impressing sponsors, articulating purpose and marketing it. All of that to try and raise funds. A century ago, in times vastly different from now, George Mallory could say he wanted to climb Everest “ because it’s there.’’ Now, adventure finds support because it promises relevance for sale in human collective. Empowerment; no-limits, team work – such descriptions help market adventure, when it is actually a case of nothing but because-its-there and you wanting to try it. Bucket lists by fifty are perhaps no different. Or to be more precise – there is nothing wrong in wishing for something but if you want it to be a soul-cleansing experience alongside, then it has to be just that and not what impresses sponsors and human collective. Seema had Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali in the bag. Everest, Vinson Massif and Puncak Jaya remained. Denali in particular had come after much preparation. She had worked for it. It had been mission mode. And just when it delivered results, it also posed questions. What are you on a mountain for? “ I don’t want anything in mission mode anymore on a mountain. I want it to be a fuller experience of what it is like to be out there. On a normal expedition, one is happier. You have time. Mission mode, chasing an objective or ambition, does not offer opportunity to connect deeply to the experience, ’’ she said.

From the Denali expedition (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Denali done, Seema has been questioning her pursuit of Seven Summits. “ I don’t wish to go after the remaining peaks in Seven Summits. On the other hand, Denali has given me the confidence to attempt bigger peaks. Not tick them as some objective achieved. Woh race mein nahin lagne ka….’’ she said. Not to mention – Seven Summits is an expensive proposition and the peaks remaining to be climbed – Everest, Vinson Massif (in Antarctica) and Puncak Jaya (in Indonesia) – are costly affairs owing to challenges in logistics or the commercial enterprise they come wrapped in. Is mountaineering all about measurement by capacity to afford costly expeditions and logistics? In days of commercial expeditions like today, it would seem so. “ The problem in life is that sense of accomplishment easily transforms to self-obsession. I don’t want that,’’ Seema said. Back in Bengaluru, she has been reassessing her life. Alongside her business, Seema has maintained a presence in farming. The latter’s appeal has been growing. Denali was indeed transmogrifier.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Seema Pai please try this link:                


Limitless; film poster

Every morning you see people running. Seen as movement, it is near similar. As story, each runner is different. Limitless, a film about women and running, chronicles a few of these stories. We spoke to some of the amateur runners featured in it and the team behind the film.

In February 2019, Seema Verma participated in the 50 kilometer-race at Tata Ultra Marathon in Lonavala, near Mumbai. She finished third in her age category of 18-44 years.

Currently a resident of Nallasopara, Seema, 37, was left to fend for herself by her husband. He deserted her. She worked as a domestic help for several years eking out a living for herself and her son. In the early days, she had to lock her toddler son at home and go to work. In the documentary film Limitless, she breaks down as she reminisces about those traumatic days.

The film (currently available on Netflix) features the stories of eight women and their foray into running. Seema is one of them. She started running in 2012; around the same time, she also started learning karate. Her employer introduced her to the concept of marathon.

She took to running seriously and over the years has managed to get podium positions in some of the races that she participated in. She has now stopped working as a home worker and focuses on training for middle-distance and long-distance running. She is currently sponsored by EbixCash World Money. The prize money that she earns from running races helps supplement her income.

Seema Verma (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Going ahead, she was slated to run the 2019 edition of Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon and the 2020 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon. She is on the constant lookout for running events where the possibilities of podium finish are high.

Kolkata-based Anuradha Dutt started running in 2011. “ Running is the best thing which happened to me after our son came into our lives. It keeps me positive, sane and most importantly it has made me fearless,’’ she said. Encouraged by her husband, she was one of the early women in town to take to wearing sports bra and shorts for running. Women would often come up to her and compliment her for her fit body and attire. “ A couple of years ago at a race in Mumbai an unknown lady came up to me at the finishing line and praised me for carrying my stretch marks so gracefully,’’ she said.

Anuradha wants to train harder and ensure that she stays injury free in the process. She is the Project Co-ordinator of Interlink Calcutta, an institution for the differently abled. “ Running is a form of therapy for differently abled students and more students taking to running keeps them positive and strengthens their self-belief,’’ she said.

Viji Swaminathan, a Chennai resident, was worried about her weight, which led to confidence issues. “ I weighed over 100 kilograms. I decided to start walking. While walking I would run from one lamppost to the next and slowly got into running,’’ she said. Running was the best thing that happened to Viji, a classical dancer. She was never into sports. Her first running event was Bengaluru 10K, held in May 2012. Two months later, she participated in Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM).

Viji Swaminathan (Photo: courtesy Viji)

“ My best running years were during 2012-2014. After 2015, I have been plagued by injuries,’’ she said. Nevertheless, running is an integral part of her life now. She also has a fitness group, UNIS (Unleash your Inner Strength) Running, aimed at a lifestyle focussed on being fit.

Anuradha and Viji are among the other women featured in the documentary film, Limitless, which showcases stories of women from varying backgrounds; the challenges and triumphs they faced during their foray into running. The other woman runners featured in the documentary are Karishma Babbar, Mandira Singh, Monica Becerril Mehta, Sharada Venkataraman and Saloni Arora.

Limitless was conceptualised and funded by IART (Indian Amateur Runners Trust). The finance for the film was arranged through an informal crowd-funding approach. IART put out a call across India to women to write in their stories about running. Women from across the country wrote in to share their experiences and these were curated in a manner that showcased a diverse mix of stories from different cities and socio-economic backgrounds, said Vaishali Kasture, amateur runner, corporate executive and trustee of IART.

Vrinda Samartha (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

“ Women face a lot of constraints and challenges in everything, especially in running. Every time a woman gets out on a training run, she has to manage many things on the home front – plan food, manage school-going children or adolescents and sometimes elderly parents, not to mention – manage their own employment,’’ said M.S. Dileepan, amateur runner and trustee of IART. Shooting the film was a logistics challenge as the team had to work on a shoe-string budget with hired equipment. “ Each of the shooting schedules had to be completed in a limited time,’’ Vaishali said.

IART did most of the work for the production and exhibition of the film, said Ashok Nath, Bengaluru-based running coach and trustee of IART. The trust arranged for all approvals, organised fall film premiers and media meets. The production work was assigned to Believe Films, a film production house. The film has found fresh momentum after its debut on Netflix in October this year, its director Vrinda Samartha said.

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


Adam Ondra (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Adam Ondra, among the best sport climbers of his generation and one of the most widely recognized athletes from the field, has secured an invitation to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

He qualified at the top of the table at the Combined Qualifier held by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) over November 28-December 1, 2019 in Toulouse, France. This qualification took him into the finals at the event. As far as the Olympics is concerned, the crux was the qualifying round with the top six scheduled to get Olympic invites. News reports said that with Japan already filling its slots via results at the Combined World Championships held earlier in Hachioji, the two Japanese climbers – Kokoro Fujii and Meichi Narasaki – who were among top qualifiers at Toulouse wouldn’t get Olympic invites and most likely instead, see their results considered internally by the Japanese team. This left Olympic invites for the remaining six climbers.

Ondra who represents Czech Republic, had earlier failed to get an invitation to the Olympics following his disqualification at the Combined IFSC Climbing World Championships at Hachioji, Japan, where in the sub category of lead climbing, he was found to have accidentally stepped on a bolt resulting in his score being whittled down.  In the qualifying round at Toulouse, he placed first in lead climbing, second in bouldering and fourteenth in speed climbing. In the combined final, Ondra finished second ahead of Meichi Narasaki and behind Kokoro Fujii. Others qualifying at Toulouse for the 2020 Olympics, as per IFSC, were YuFei Pan (China), Alberto Gines Lopez (Spain), Jan Hojer (Germany), Bassa Mawem (France) and Nathaniel Coleman (USA) in the men’s category. Among women, the new names aboard from Toulouse are: Julia Chanourdie (France), Mia Krampl (Slovenia), Iuliia Kaplina (Russia), Kyra Condie (USA), Laura Rogora (Italy) and YiLing Song (China).

On November 30, Chinese news agency Xinhua had reported that Song should be getting her Olympic invite. The Chinese climber was placed ninth in the qualifying round. Xinhua based its conclusion on the fact that Japan’s Ai Mori who led the overall rankings and advanced to the eight-woman final together with compatriot Futaba Ito, who finished fifth, were both ineligible for Olympic invites given Japan already guaranteed full representation as the host of next year’s Olympics. Additionally, Lucka Rakovec of Slovenia, who placed second overall behind Mori in the qualifier at Toulouse, had already obtained an Olympic spot by finishing in the top seven at the world championships, Xinhua said. In its report dated December 1, on the women’s combined final results from Toulouse, IFSC has noted that it was a close battle between Slovenians, Lucka Rakovec and Mia Krampl.

At the time of writing, the names of those qualified post-Toulouse were yet to be added to IFSC’s confirmed list of athletes heading to Tokyo. IFSC has mentioned on its website that all qualification places are provisional until confirmed by each athlete’s National Olympic Committee (NOC). Formal invitations will be sent by the IFSC to the relevant NOCs within five days of the conclusion of the Combined Qualifier. The NOCs will then have two weeks to either confirm or decline the quota places.

Post Hachioji, those in the first list of qualified athletes (as available on the IFSC website; the list was titled: Sport Climbing’s First Olympic Qualified Athletes), were Janja Garnbret (Slovenia), Akiyo Noguchi (Japan), Shauna Coxsey (Great Britain), Aleksandra Miroslaw (Poland), Miho Nonaka (Japan), Petra Klinger (Switzerland) and Brooke Raboutou (USA) from the women’s category;  Tomoa Narasaki (Japan),  Jakob Schubert (Austria), Rishat Khaibullin (Kazakhstan), Kai Harada (Japan), Mickael Mawem (France), Alexander Megos (Germany) and Ludovico Fossali (Italy) from the men’s category. An updated list (dated November 11, 2019) available on the IFSC website also includes Sean McColl (Canada) and Jessica Pilz (Austria). Those qualified at Toulouse will join the above lot.

The final opportunity to qualify for the Olympics will be five IFSC Combined Continental Championships due to take place in 2020. The schedule as available on the IFSC website is – Africa, 1-3 May, Johannesburg (South Africa), Asia, 18-24 May, Morioka (Japan), Europe, 16-18 April, Moscow (Russia), Pan-Am, 27 February-1 March, Los Angeles (USA) and Oceania, 18-19 April, Sydney (Australia). Climber hoping to qualify should head to his / her respective continental championship.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will mark sport climbing’s debut at the Olympic Games. One of the biggest impacts of the move has been the introduction of combined climbing championships, wherein the best climber across the sport’s three disciplines – lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing – emerges winner. Altogether 40 climbers – 20 men and 20 women – will compete at the Olympics.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on sport climbing’s selection process for the Olympics, please try this link:


Jyoti Gawate (Photo: courtesy Jyoti)

Jyoti Gawate, Jigmet Dolma, Rashpal Singh and Sher Singh will represent India in the marathon at the 2019 South Asian Games due in Kathmandu over December 1-10, an official statement disclosing the names of all athletes selected to the Indian squad, available on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said.

For Jyoti who hails from Parbhani in Maharashtra, this is her second outing at the South Asian Games. Earlier in 2016, she had been part of the marathon team for that year’s South Asian Games held in Guwahati. In 2011, she had taken part in the Asian Marathon Championships in Thailand and finished seventh among women with a timing of 3:17 hours. She was chosen for this event because of her win at the 2011 Mumbai Marathon. AFI had funded her trip and stay. The federation also sent her to participate in the SCO Marathon in China. “ I am aiming for timings closer to that of Tata Mumbai Marathon 2019,” Jyoti, who was scheduled to travel shortly to Kathmandu for the 2019 South Asian Games, said when contacted. At the 2019 edition of TMM, she had finished second among elite Indian women with a personal best timing of 2:45:48 (for more on Jyoti, please try this link:

This is the first time Jigmet Dolma is in the Indian team headed to a major event.  For the past several years, she has been part of the group of runners from Ladakh supported by Leh based-Rimo Expeditions, that travels every winter to the road races of the plains. Over time, she has worked her way up from amateur to elite category and been podium finisher at major marathons including the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).  “ This is a fantastic development for Jigmet and Ladakh,’’ Savio D’Souza, Mumbai based-coach and former national champion in the marathon who has been involved with training Ladakhi runners, said.

Hailing from Igoo village in Ladakh, Jigmet used to run at block, school and state level. In 2012, she ran the half marathon at the Ladakh Marathon without any prior practice and emerged first. At the 2013 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (later TMM), she placed 17th in the half marathon. Same year, at the 2013 edition of the Ladakh Marathon, she finished first in the half marathon with timing of 1:50. In 2014, she improved her performance at SCMM to fourteenth position. Same year she retained her first position at the Ladakh Marathon. In January 2015, she ran her first full marathon at SCMM, ending second among women in the open category (timing: 3:45:21), her first podium finish in Mumbai. By 2017, she had graduated to finishing third among Indian women with timing of 3:14:38; two years later at 2019 TMM, she placed third among elite Indian women with timing of 3:10:43. Jigmet has never been shy of stating her wish to run for India one day. She along with fellow runner from Ladakh, Tsetan Dolkar, has been a familiar duo at various road races, particularly the annual Mumbai Marathon (for more on Jigmet, Tsetan and other runners from Ladakh, please refer the archives of this blog or type their names in the box allotted for search).

For Rimo Expeditions and Savio, Jigmet’s debut in the Indian squad – coming as it does after years of regular visits to road races – will mean a lot. “ As far as I know, after Rigzen Angmo, Jigmet is the first woman marathon runner from Ladakh to represent India,’’ Savio said. In the 1990s, Rigzen Angmo who hails from Skarbuchan village about 125 kilometers away from Leh, had been a regular podium finisher on the national circuit. Abroad, she won the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in 1994 and the Bangkok Marathon in 1995 (for more on Rigzen Angmo please try this link: “ This is the dream we had in 2012, when we started the project of training long distance runners and sending them to races in the cities. It is heartening to see one of them make it to the Indian team. I am sure this will encourage more youngsters from Ladakh,” Chewang Motup, owner of Rimo Expeditions said of Jigmet’s selection. He also hoped that greater support would manifest for such projects.

Jigmet Dolma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

All four marathon runners selected for the 2019 South Asian Games had been podium finishers at the fourth edition of the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon held on February 24, 2019. Rashpal Singh had won the race with timing of 2 hours 21 minutes and 55 seconds. Sher Singh had finished second among men with timing of 2:23:16 followed by Manavendra Singh (2:28:27). The three men were then training at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune. Among women, Jyoti finished first with timing of 2:47:54. Jigmet placed second in 3:01:30 followed two seconds later by Tsetan Dolkar (3:01:32) who placed third.  The top two from both gender categories are now headed to Kathmandu for the 2019 South Asian Games.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Kolkata-based ultramarathon runner Anjali Saraogi is comfortable training with gels and branched chain amino acids (BCAA) that help in reversing muscle loss, reduce muscle soreness and aid muscle recovery. That was her trusted recipe till Aqaba happened.

Jordan’s only coastal city – fans of Hollywood would remember it from David Lean’s masterpiece: Lawrence of Arabia – was location for the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia and Oceania Championships held on November 23. In the run up to the event in Aqaba, Anjali’s training suffered setbacks caused by health issues. All the same, she aimed for a sub-nine-hour finish.

At the championships, she was cruising along very well when the blazing sun and strong headwinds started to take a toll. “ At the 60 kilometer-mark, I felt I was sinking and actually ended up sitting on a chair. That is completely unusual for me,’’ she said.

Abhinav Jha, one of the crew members of the Indian team, came to her assistance. “ He made a drink with honey and lemon. That revived me,’’ Anjali said. She stopped consuming gels, thereafter. Anjali went on to complete the race in nine hours and 22 minutes, a new national record for women in that category. She bettered her own previous national record of 9:40 hours, set at the IAU 100 k World Championships held in Croatia in 2018.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

“ When exhaustion levels are high, it is best to opt for natural foods. You can never go wrong there,’’ Abhinav, Lieutenant Commander with the Indian Navy, said. The naval officer was originally part of the Indian team and slated to run the race. But he opted to stay out due to injury and instead, joined the team’s support crew. Hemant Beniwal, the stand-by runner, was called in to complete the team taking Abhinav’s place. “ As most of us are amateur runners, we are working on nutrition and hydration on trial and error basis. But in an ultramarathon, the best plan is your own plan,’’ Abhinav said.

In an ultramarathon, crewing can be challenging. The challenge stems from the difficulty in assessing the hydration and nutrition needs of runners. At the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Albi, France over October 26-27, Pranaya Mohanty avoided solid food for a long time and chose to stick to gel and salt tablets. But after a few hours of running he started to crave for solid food. “ I wanted either curd rice or dal rice. There was bread on offer but I prefer curd rice, dal rice or khichdi,’’ Pranaya said. The crew members arranged for the same.

At the event, Pranaya covered a distance of 211.956 km. He twisted his ankle in the eighteenth hour and was forced to slow down. He also suffered stomach distress and had to keep going to the rest rooms. “Binay Sah was also in bad shape. His nutrition plan did not go as per plan and he had to stop running,’’ Pranaya recalled. Fuelling for an ultramarathon event is not confined to the race alone. It starts months ahead along with the training.

Ultramarathon runner, Apoorva Chaudhary drew up her training plan for the IAU 24-hour World Championships with a target of covering 200 km. “ There are two vital elements in training for an ultramarathon – working with a target in mind and focussing on nutrition and hydration,’’ Apoorva said. She went on to cover a distance of 202.212 km, setting a new national record for 24-hour run (she surpassed her own record of 176.8 km set during the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018). Apoorva not only put in all the mileage and strength training required, she also focused on nutrition. “ I prepared my body with a variety of foods – different kinds of solid foods, different gel brands,’’ she said. She also did training runs with very little hydration. “ I did a 30 km-training run without food and water just to prepare my body for a worst case scenario,’’ Apoorva said.

Priyanka Bhatt (Photo: courtesy Priyanka)

Priyanka Bhatt, who too was part of the Indian squad for the IAU 24-hour World Championships in Albi, trained with race day conditions in mind. “ I work with energy bars. Gels don’t suit me,’’ she said. Her training was focused on building endurance, running back-to-back distances that would be in the range of 130 to 160 km every week.

In August 2019, a camp was held for ultra-runners at Bengaluru. The camp helped runners with guidance on training, nutrition and hydration. Despite training with different foods and drinks, things can go wrong during a race, runners said.

At the 2019 edition of the Bengaluru Stadium Run, Apoorva’s nutrition did not go as per plan. At Albi, Apoorva’s nutrition plan went off well for the initial part of the race but thereafter it was difficult to retain food. “ I kept talking to myself to stay in a positive frame of mind. After the initial few hours, the effort to work on your pace, mileage target and nutrition intake is entirely a mind game. For the first 13 hours, I had a very strong run. After that I felt like crying. My ribs felt swollen. It was more a mental issue than a physical one,’’ Apoorva said. In fact, one of the most insightful articles following the 2019 24 hour-world championships in Albi was one on Camille Herron of the US, written by author Adharanand Finn and published in The Telegraph. While lovers of the sport worldwide noted her victory in the women’s category, the article brought out the suffering Camille underwent in the grueling race.

Both the ultra-running events – the IAU 24-hour World Championships held at Albi, France in October 2019 and the 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held at Aqaba, Jordan in November 2019, showcased significant improvement in ultra-running by Indians despite the sport being relatively new for the country. At Aqaba, the Indian team of nine runners (three women and six men) secured gold medal in the men’s team category and silver in women’s.  In addition, Deepak Bandbe won the individual bronze medal and Anjali Saraogi set a new national record for women in 100 km.

Pranaya Mohanty (Photo: courtesy Pranaya)

“ The team did very well. There was a big jump in performance. All the six male runners finished in sub-8.5 hours and two of the women in under-10 hours,’’ Peteremil D’Souza, member of the ultramarathon committee of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said. The women’s performance was outstanding, Sunil Chainani, also member of AFI’s ultramarathon committee, said. Earlier at Albi, including Apoorva’s new national record, five athletes in all – three women and two men – had achieved new personal records. Among women, besides Apoorva, Priyanka Bhatt (192.845 km) and Hemlata (173.178 km) secured new PBs, while from the men, Pranaya Mohanty (211.956 km) and Kanan Jain (211.157 km) set new personal records. Also, five Indian runners – four men and one woman – covered distance in excess of 200 km at Albi.

According to Sunil, Indian runners are now looking at a multi-faceted approach to training that focuses not merely on building mileage but important aspects of nutrition and hydration as well. “ It is a new sport. We are constantly on a learning curve,’’ Abhinav said.

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


Ashish Kasodekar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A basketball player from school days, Ashish Kasodekar started participating in running events in 2013. He also forayed into long distance cycling. In August 2019, he became the first Indian to complete the 555k category of La Ultra-The High.

“ I believe that when people call you mad, you are on the right track. It means you are doing something nice for yourself,’’ Ashish Kasodekar said.

It was September 2019. We were at his office in Pune.

Weeks earlier, the unassuming travel consultant had become the first Indian runner to complete the 555 kilometer-category of La Ultra-The High, the challenging ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. In retrospect, it had been a busy six years to where he was now, for Ashish commenced running at events only in 2013. Till then he had been a basketball player; someone who played competitively, was part of the state team and had played at the 1992 edition of Federation Cup. “ Team games teach you to relate to others and be positive,’’ he said. Basketball remains his first love and he is active in Masters Basketball. But alongside, there is this streak in endurance sport building up.

Born 1971, Ashish grew up in Pune, the middle sibling among three brothers. He took to basketball while at school itself. Following college, he worked with a travel agent for a year. Then he became General Sales Agent (GSA) for the Italian airline, Alitalia. He was happy to work for the airline; there was travel as part of work and the airline was a strong brand that sold without need for much marketing. “ I was getting into a comfort zone,’’ Ashish said. About seven to eight years ago, he therefore started his own travel consultancy – Edgeover Holidays. It is a proprietary concern; no partners, which is how he prefers it.  There was also a twist. Recognizing his need for personal time, he restricted clientele to friends. “ I don’t have any corporate clients. If you have corporate clients, it will interfere with the time you need to train for pursuits like endurance sports,’’ he said.

That conscious choice likely set in because around three years before he commenced his own business, Ashish participated in an adventure race in Pune called Enduro organized by Prasad Purandare. It was a team event – two men and one woman formed a team. “ I really enjoyed it,’’ Ashish said. The event also got him into a bit of endurance cycling; for Enduro, he borrowed his nephew’s bicycle. The attributes of the outing, distinctly different from a game of basketball, interested him. Basketball was competitive. Enduro was more about finishing. “ You have to learn to push yourself. It is a stronger body experience,’’ he said. Ashish found himself spending more and more time with people from his new found area of interest.

In 2011, there was a numerically special day: November 11, which folded neatly into 11/11/11, a series of ones.  Ashish decided to do something equally special for the occasion. He cycled from Pune to Goa on his Bianchi hybrid, reaching the coastal city in 21 hours. The following year, there was 12/12/12. For that, he walked 100 kilometers from Pune to Panchgani. In 2013, there was 11/12/13; this time he rode his Harley Davidson Iron 883 from Pune to Madurai and back, covering 2400 kilometers in 36 hours. In 2013, he also participated in his first running event. He did a 15k; it was executed with no prior training. In January 2014, he did his first half marathon in Mumbai. This time he trained for it. “ I really enjoyed that,’’ he said. In July-August of the same year, he participated in the London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) bicycle race. There were eight participants from India. None completed. However on the bright side, he had to train for LEL and that included a 1000 kilometer-ride from Pune to Hubli and back. Slowly but surely, endurance was creeping into his system and world view of things. In 2015, Ashish and Balakrishna Desai cycled from near the Gulf of Khambat in Gujarat to Khardung La in Ladakh. The project spanning sea level to one of the highest motorable passes around was called 0 to 18. They covered the distance in 24 days. Ashish used a friend’s MTB. In September 2015, he did his first full marathon; he elected to do it in Leh as part of that year’s Ladakh Marathon. Following this run, a friend asked him if he had heard of La Ultra-The High. Ashish hadn’t. But a spark was lit.

Photo: courtesy Ashish Kasodekar

In 2016, at the Mumbai Marathon, Ashish met the qualifying time for the Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa. To be eligible, you had to run the full marathon in less than five hours. However, post qualifying he didn’t train diligently for Comrades. In South Africa, he cleared all the stage cut-offs of the race in time and the on the final stretch relaxed. Just as he was reaching the stadium – the finish point – he heard the officials announce that the overall 12 hours cut-off had passed by. It was a wake up-call. “ That last 200 meters taught me a lot about what to do. It told me I had to take things seriously,’’ Ashish said. The previous year at the Ladakh Marathon, he had seen the event’s ultramarathon segment – Khardung La Challenge. When his Comrades attempt ended in that disappointing final stretch, Ashish decided to try the Khardung La Challenge.

In the run up to the race, he came down with chickengunya. On the other hand, he had arranged a tour package for 13 people to Ladakh for the year’s Ladakh Marathon. On recovering from his illness, he decided to proceed with the group. He reached Leh, four days ahead of Khardung La Challenge. At the bib collection point, the race organizers were checking the oxygen saturation level of participants. His turned out to be 99, pretty good. “ I said, let’s try this race. If anything goes wrong I can hop into the ambulance,’’ Ashish said. On race day, the flag-off from Khardung village was at 3AM. “ There was a point when I felt I may have to quit. I had arrived in Ladakh only some days earlier and I felt I wasn’t acclimatized well,’’ he said. A doctor in a passing ambulance checked his oxygen saturation level. It was 72. He asked Ashish to pause for 5-6 minutes. The level recovered to 85. This was just ahead of North Pulu. Ashish took it slowly thereon. Eventually he finished within the assigned cut-off of 14 hours. “ That race was a great boost for my confidence,’’ he said. Next day, at the Ladakh Marathon, he hired a cycle and pedaled 55 kilometers up and down with the runner’s group he had brought for the race. In 2017, He returned to South Africa and completed Comrades in 11 hours, 38 minutes. The changed perspective helped. He was now focusing on the target and training diligently. “ I am a good listener. I also accept tips,’’ he said. Following successful completion of Comrades, Ashish settled down to consider La Ultra-The High, 2017 edition.

Now over a decade old, La Ultra-The High has a course that straddles the Nubra valley-Leh-Tanglang La region; all of it, Ladakh. A union territory since August 2019, Ladakh has an average elevation of around 10,000 feet. While climate change is happening in Ladakh too, it has traditionally been a high altitude cold desert. By day, the clear skies of altitude, renders the sun a blazing orb. The combination of weather conditions and altitude makes La Ultra-The High, a tough ultramarathon. As runners depart the start line in Nubra, the first major challenge to overcome is Khardung La (17,582 feet).  Into the longer race categories, they also have to tackle Wari La (17,224 feet) and Tanglang La (17,480 feet); in the 555k category, the last two passes are repeated on the return.

“ I like to run in Ladakh,’’ Ashish said. He stayed at a home-stay for 10-15 days and then proceeded to attempt the 111k segment of La Ultra-The High. He finished 111k successfully; at 19:48 hours taken to complete the task, he was among the last of the finishers. The race was won by Tsering Stobgias in 12:32. Having collected his medal, Ashish hung around to see how the race was unfolding for those trying 222k and 333k. “ The main organizer of the event, Dr Rajat Chauhan, always spoke of 111k as baby run. I felt angry. I told him that I wanted to try 333k next. He said: hold on; you are getting excited,’’ Ashish said. That year there was only one finisher in 333k – Matthew Maday of the US. Ashish registered for the 333k. He didn’t wait to graduate through the 222k. That takes time; it also consumes that much more money.  In fact for the 333k, he had to seek crowd funding. It provided 70 per cent of the funds needed.

He commenced training in November 2017. In April 2018, he completed the 160k run at Garhwal Runs, which is positioned as stepping stone to La Ultra-The High. Closer to the event in Ladakh, he did a mix of run-walk from Manali to Leh. He ran around 30 kilometers every day on that passage through altitude. That year, five Indian runners participated in 333k, the first Indians to do so.  Ashish was among those who completed. “ Up to 222 kilometers it was good. Close to the finish I was dealing with delirium,’’ he said. He finished the race in 71:59:29 to place third. His support crew included Balakrishna Desai, Mangesh Shinde, Prasad Shett, Amit Kasodekar and Dhananjay Apte. The race was won by Munish Dev in 71:30:28. From 333k to 555k was natural progression.

Photo: courtesy Ashish Kasodekar

In 2019, the flag-off was in the rains. It was minus 12 when Ashish reached North Pulu. He was advised to change his attire. He borrowed. “ I was lucky there were athletes around who were willing to loan their spare clothing,’’ he said. The 2019 edition of La Ultra-The High was noted for its tough weather conditions. Ashish reached Wari La rather late but happy in the head.  In both 333k and 555k, the real challenge is Tanglang La. In 333k, it looms after Khardung La and Wari La have taken their toll on you. In 555k, the pass is done twice and the problem as Ashish pointed out, is that on the return leg tired runner loses elevation slower than before. He completed 555k within cut-off time to place third. He suffered no cramps, blisters or frostbite. “ Self-care was damn good,’’ he said. The time taken was 126:18:00. The race was won by Jason Reardon of Australia in 120:19:00; Matthew Maday finished second. Ashish’s support crew featured both his brothers – Anil and Amit Kasodekar; Arvind Bijwe, Hari Dammalapati, Venkatesh Kashelikar, Sushil Dhende and Swaroopa Bhadsavle.  This time Ashish experienced no hallucinations. “ We took good care of sleep, nutrition and hydration,’’ he said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more on La Ultra The High, please refer this blog’s archives.)


Deepak Bandbe (This photo was downloaded from the Twitter feed of IAU)

Indian men’s team secures gold

Indian women’s team takes silver

Anjali Saraogi finishes fourth among women

Ultramarathon runner from Mumbai, Deepak Bandbe, finished third, winning the bronze medal, at the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia & Oceania Championship held at Aqaba, Jordan, on November 23, 2019.

Deepak finished the race in eight hours, four minutes and 16 seconds. According to Peteremil Dsouza, member of the ultramarathon committee of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and who has accompanied the team to Jordan, Deepak’s performance is a new best for India. The previous national was 8:09:30 set in 2012 by Vinodkumar Srinivas. In the women’s category at Aqaba, Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi finished fourth in a new national best of nine hours, 22 minutes (provisional figure), Peteremil said.

The timings of the other Indian runners are as follows: Hemant Singh Beniwal – 8:12:11, Vikas Malik – 8:22:34, Suraj Chadha – 8:27:20, Sandeep Kumar – 8:36:06, Tlanding Wahlang – 8:40:49 (all men) and Gunjan Khurana – 9:57:33, Darishisha Mukhim – 11:21:01 (from women).

Sunil Chainani, also member of AFI’s ultramarathon committee, informed that the Indian men’s team had secured gold in their category with cumulative timing of 24:40:00. Jordan (31:14:21) placed second. The Indian women’s team placed second in their gender category (30:40:33). The winning team in the women’s category was Australia (30:21:40).

IAU stands for International Association of Ultrarunners; it is the apex body for ultrarunning worldwide.

The overall winner of the championship at Aqaba was Hideaki Yamauchi of Japan. He crossed the finish line to win the gold medal in 7:11:42 hours. The silver medal finisher was Brendan Davies of Australia. He crossed the finish line in 7:49:16 hours, as per information on IAU’s Twitter feed.

The winners in the men’s category (This photo was downloaded from the Twitter feed of IAU)

According to IAU’s Twitter feed earlier on race day, at kilometre 95, Tatsuya Itagaki of Japan was leading in the men’s category followed by his fellow countryman Hideaki Yamauchi and Brendan Davies of Australia. The lead position changed after this juncture.

Similarly, in the Twitter update six hours into the race, India’s Anjali Saraogi was in fourth position among women. Gunjan Khurana, also of India, was in sixth position and Darishisha Iangjuh in seventh. Mai Fujisawa of Japan eventually won the women’s category in timing of 8:20:44. Finishing second was Amelia Griffith of Australia (8:57:02). Konoka Azumi of Japan finished third (9:03:22).

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