NANDA DEVI EAST / SEVEN BODIES RECOVERED

Nanda Khat, Peak 6477 and Nanda Devi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

IMF team also reaches accident spot / Please scroll down for updates

Late evening June 23, the media reported that a team of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), dispatched to recover the bodies of climbers believed to have met with an avalanche on Peak 6477 near Nanda Devi East, has recovered seven bodies from under the snow.

According to a senior ITBP official quoted in the report, the bodies were found “ on the western ridge of the peak towards the Pindari Glacier.”  Peak 6477 is on the ridge continuing from Nanda Khat towards Nanda Devi East. It is on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary; Nanda Khat is close to the Pindari Glacier.

The fully linked line shows the route taken by the IMF team, which commenced its walk-in from Khati on June 12. The dotted line shows the route taken by the ITBP team, which was air-dropped to Nanda Devi East Base Camp on the Johar side, on June 15. The Base Camp, ABC and Camp 1 mentioned on the map refer to the IMF team’s progress from the Pindari Glacier side. This map is an approximation and is not to scale (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

The bodies, including that of a woman, have not been formally identified. That will be possible once the bodies are brought down to base camp, the reports said.

It was in end-May that news broke of eight climbers (seven from overseas plus the team’s liaison officer from India), part of an expedition that had set out to attempt Nanda Devi East, reported missing following avalanche on Peak 6477. The expedition was led by well-known British mountaineer and mountain guide, Martin Moran.

In subsequent search operations, helicopter sorties by the Indian Air Force (with some of the surviving members of the expedition aboard to refine area of search) had sighted five bodies in the snow and ample evidence of avalanche.

Besides a large team composed of personnel from ITBP, State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) dispatched from the Munsyari side, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) had also sent a team for recovery operations. The latter headed up from the Pindari Glacier side.

For more reports providing background, please refer the list of articles on this blog dating from end-May.

Update / June 25: The IMF team has also reached the site where the bodies have been located by ITBP. “ They will now join the ITBP in searching for the eighth body and work out a joint plan for bringing the bodies back,” a senior IMF official informed today.

The 12 member-IMF team started walking from Khati village on June 12.  They approached the accident site from the Pindari Glacier side while the ITBP team was dropped by Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters at the Nanda Devi East Base Camp (on the Johar side accessed from Munsyari) on June 15.

“ Bad weather has given both teams a difficult time and while the ITBP team reached the site on Sunday, the IMF team got there today,” the official informed.

Update / June 30: According to reliable sources, the Indian Air Force (IAF) having identified a spot at 15,500 feet in the Lavan Valley, where a helicopter can land, carried out a trial landing. The ITBP and disaster management personnel will take 2-3 days to carry the bodies to this location on foot. From there, the bodies will be airlifted to Pithoragarh. It is also understood that the camps of the IMF team, spread over the south side in the Pindari Valley, are being wound up and the team will be moving down.

In a separate development, two media reports, one quoting the district magistrate of Pithoragarh and the other quoting a senior ITBP official, said that the search for the eighth climber has been “ abandoned.”

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

NAVEEN JOHN: TIME TO REWIRE

Naveen John (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Naveen John is among India’s best bicycle racers. More importantly, he is a pioneer; one of those early birds into the cutting edge of sport, forced to explore and find their way in the pursuit of excellence. Through the rough and tumble of race results he has kept a personal project alive – the Indian Cycling Project (ICP). There is a small but growing number of ICP alumni in the top echelons of Indian cycling now. 

Calais is a name known well to swimmers.

It is the French city closest to England.

Presiding over the Straits of Dover (the narrowest part of the English Channel) on the French side, Calais affords a view of the white cliffs of Dover across the channel, on a clear day. Many swimmers conclude their channel crossing near here. Calais falls in Hauts de-France, the northern most region of France. The origins of the Scheldt River are also in Hauts de-France, at Gouy. From here, the Scheldt flows into Belgium next door and eventually meets the sea in Netherlands. One of its tributaries is the small river called Durme. Lokeren is a Belgian town on the banks of Durme. It is in the province of East Flanders. It is unlikely that many of us in India would have heard of Lokeren.

A clutch of Indian cyclists, however, have.

In 2018, one of India’s best bicycle racers scored a podium finish here at the annual Lokeren kermesse.

“ That podium finish has been the highlight of my life in cycling so far,’’ Naveen John, former national champion, said. Naveen placed third. The event was won by Jonas Goeman. What made the Lokeren kermesse special was the result of the Belgian National Championships that took place two days later. Finishing second at the Belgian Nationals was Jonas Goeman. For Naveen, it felt fantastic to have been on the podium in Lokeren, alongside one of the leading cyclists of Belgium, a country at the heart of bicycle racing.

“ Lokeren is not one of those internationally significant races. But getting a podium finish there and knowing that the winner is one of Belgium’s best made it special for me. It will fuel the ambition of other Indian cyclists coming after me,’’ Naveen said. It wasn’t his first season in Belgium. Having decided that his route to exploring and knowing the higher levels of bicycle racing lay through the land of Eddy Merckx, he had been on Belgium’s kermesse circuit before. As had some other Indian cyclists, who were known to Naveen. It was a small, tightly knit group. News of their annual trips had been shared on social media.

“ This time, two 17 year-old cyclists from Hyderabad also showed up in Belgium. They came on their own. That is really great,’’ Naveen said.

Two pictures of Naveen before the start of the Drongen kermesse. The one on the left is from his first day in Belgium in 2015, when he was racing for KYNKYNY. The other is from a recent season in Belgium in 2018, when he raced for Ciclo. Both photos were taken by a local supporter who shared these pictures with Naveen (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

Naveen’s team for 2018 included Arvind Panwar, Gagan Reddy and Sreenath Lakshmikanth. A week after Lokeren, Arvind placed in the top ten at a kermesse in Bottelare. That was the last race of the season for the visiting Indians.

Welcome to the Indian Cycling Project (ICP). It all goes back to the end of a fantastic project and a corpus of money it left. A March 2018 article on Naveen available on this blog cites the roots: The kermesse is a form of Dutch bicycle race currently most popular in Belgium, especially the northern Flanders region. Europe is the beating heart of bicycle racing. Within Europe, nations like France, Belgium and Netherlands represent the home of cycling culture. In Bengaluru, KYNKYNY (bicycle racing team), after a phase of being supported by the reputed American bicycle brand: Specialized, began disbanding in 2015. “KYNKYNY aspired to be the first Division Three team from India. It was ahead of its times. We were unfortunate in that we didn’t have 12 strong riders, who were consistently good enough for that journey along with related support,’’ Naveen said. As the team disbanded it found in its possession a small cachet of funds. That money opened prospects to attempt races overseas. Naveen’s research took him to the writings of Ed Hood who had documented accounts of British racers cutting their teeth in continental racing and progressing to the top echelons of the sport. It mentioned the importance of racing in continental Europe, in shaping cyclist’s reputation. In continental Europe, Belgian cycling was noted for speed and power, France for distance and challenging terrain.

Naveen was at that time in good form. After winning the ITT at the 2014 nationals he had followed it up with a win at the 2015 National Games. There was also the fact that – amazing as it sounds – it cost less to race in Belgium than in India. Such is the disparity in economic efficiency as measured in terms of what all it costs to race. In 2015, four Indians – Naveen among them – spent 60 days in Belgium; altogether and across all of them, they participated in 20 races. Naveen managed to finish at four races. The best position he got was twentieth, secured in the last event he raced at. “The experience was an eye opener,’’ he said. It showed that the future for Indian cyclists was not to wait for the sport’s systems to emerge in India but to leverage the systems already existing outside India.

(From left) Arvind Panwar, Arvind Anirudh, Naveen, Sreenath Lakshmikanth, Prajwal Pingali, and Gagan Reddy, in Belgium in 2018. This was right after an Indian dinner the ICP Class of 2018 cooked for Arvind and Prajwal. The two 17 year-olds had followed the ICP pathway themselves (with parent’s support), all the way from Hyderabad to Belgium. They spent a month in Belgium, racing and training (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

This was the seed of the Indian Cycling Project.

In 2016, a friend who was documenting Naveen’s journey in photos, asked him: what next? Naveen struggled for a proper answer. He knew that if you have been an amateur racer for long, the obvious thing to do next is to become professional. So he blurted out that fantasy – he wanted to become a professional cyclist and do so outside India. To this end, he did a lot of cold emailing; he aimed for Division Three on the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) website. Cam Whitting, who runs cyclingiq.com, helped.

Naveen managed to connect with a couple of teams from Australia, eventually signing up with a team called: State of Matter / MAAP. It was previously known as Charter Mason Giant Racing. However there were some problems. He struggled to raise funds for the Australian foray; he was also delayed in reaching Australia. Naveen’s contract was from January 2016 to December 2016. Since he was going to race with a cycling team, he applied for a sports visa. As it turned out, aside probably from cricketers, not many athletes from India had applied for a sports visa to Australia after the Sydney Olympics of 2000. That caused delay. Reaching Australia with some of the major races already over, Naveen could participate in only amateur races in the domestic circuit. Even that was an experience for the field was strong. Naveen stayed part of the team roster for 2016. State of Matter was later disbanded.

Naveen was not part of the Belgium trip in 2016. That year he put together the ICP Class of 2016, which included Makarand Mane from Pune, Parashuram Chenji from Hyderabad and Arvind Panwar from Meerut. Naveen had to be in Australia.

In 2017, seven cyclists from India traveled to Belgium for another go at races there. This time Naveen participated in 22 races; he finished 21 and crashed at one. “The average amateur kermesse is faster than the Indian nationals. The distances are also longer. Indian courses are typically straight. Over there, you tackle bumpy, uneven roads. You don’t complain. Cobblestones are an integral part of Belgian racing. There are entire races built around it,’’ Naveen said. Visiting Belgium and racing there is now set to be an annual affair. It is the bedrock of activities planned around Ciclo Team Racing, Naveen’s new team, which is backed by 2go Activewear, TI Cycles and Absolute.

May, 2019. We were at the same outdoor café in Bengaluru that we had met in early 2018.

Arvind and Naveen after their last race in Belgium in 2018 at the Bottelare kermesse. They are seen here with Philippe, a spectator they befriended in 2017, who has been very supportive of the ICP team, handing them feeds at a lot of races. “ He does it purely because we’re there racing, all the way from India and don’t have any local support,” Naveen said (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

According to Naveen, the reason he persisted with ICP’s Belgium engagement is that it challenged a committed cyclist in all departments. It isn’t about any one skill; it is about everything that makes you cyclist. “ Belgium is the deep end of bicycle racing. It raises all aspects of your fitness. It forces you to unlock your potential as sum total of all the parts. Every aspect gets pulled up,’’ Naveen said. The kermesse season also tied in neatly with the national championships back in India. You could come back and devote a month to focus on specifics, relevant to the particular discipline you participate in at the nationals.

An unexpected summer squall sent things flying at the cafe.

We headed for the big building next door to shelter from the near horizontal rain and wait out the altered atmospherics.

2018 had been a year of realization for Naveen. The Belgium visit had gone on well. A podium at a kermesse was simply fantastic. On return to India however, there was reality check to cope with. At the 2018 National Cycling Championships, Naveen finished second in individual time trial (ITT). Gold went to Arvind (ICP Class of 2016, 2017 and 2018 and a fellow rider on the team Naveen managed – Ciclo Team Racing). There were good things happening for ICP alumni, riders on the team he was managing, those he was coaching or had coached / mentored. Aman Punjani (ICP Class of 2015, 2017 and formerly coached by Naveen) won the under-23 road race and ITT. It was a repeat of the double Naveen had achieved for the first time at the previous nationals. Gagan placed fourth in under-23 ITT; Sreenath placed fifth in under-23 road race – both had been coached by Naveen and were part of the ICP Class of 2018. For Naveen though, it was the first time in the past several years that he was ending up without gold medal at the nationals. “ It woke me up to the significance of the nationals,’’ he said. Immediate fallout of the result at the nationals was that he wasn’t in the first selection for ITT for the Indian team heading for the Asian Championships. Arvind made the cut. Naveen let Arvind know early that he wouldn’t contest the decision by seeking a selection trial, which would have affected the preparations of both the riders leading into the Asian Championships. Thanks to his second place, Naveen was however first choice for the team doing the road race at the championships. But something wasn’t right. What went wrong?

Riding to second place-finish in ITT at the 2018 nationals (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

Naveen normally speaks with precision; it is a tenor that reminds listener of the technical subject he studied once for profession – electrical engineering. In the foyer of the big building with a security guard constantly reminding us that we weren’t supposed to sit there and chat, I could sense Naveen’s search for answer. He recalled that in 2018, for some reason, he hadn’t been able to follow a pattern of training that normally graced his preparation for the nationals. There was lack of motivation. Usually, ahead of major competition, he goes into hermit mode. Late-2018, that didn’t happen. Then, he thought a bit and added, “ It is not easy to win the Indian nationals anymore. Your closest friends are your main rivals now. But that competitiveness is critical. The level of performance in the sport is rising.’’ You wonder if life smacked of mineral leaching. Everyone struggles, finds their respective key to unlocking ability through exploration, experimentation and intense personal search. Then, in that inevitable requirement to advance further – team formation – best practices and learning get shared. What you know goes to others; what others know comes to you. And as gaps get evened out, competitor needs to hone his game further to stay ahead. It is particularly true in sports where young blood is constantly snapping at your heels.

Prior to making Bengaluru his base, Naveen had the good fortune of cycling in the US. It gave him perspective in the sport; showed him how things are done. The power meter measures performance objectively. Unlike heart rate monitors, it is more instant in feedback. The wattage it shows indicates how hard you are cycling / training. In 2012 – the year he moved to India – Naveen was the only cyclist competing at national level in India who used a power meter in training. A strong votary of the device, he functioned like an ambassador promoting it. Now there are many cyclists in India – including those reporting for the nationals – using it. Thanks to such practices and others like it shared, gaps had closed. Such is life. You don’t complain. But you can’t help reflecting either.

Reflecting on the 2018 nationals (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

Post 2018 nationals, Naveen realized that he had too many things on his plate. He needed to step back from running a team (Ciclo) to focus on himself. “ Ciclo was founded with three goals in mind. We wanted to support the best riders in India to push the envelope. We wanted to develop a path ahead for young riders. We wanted to share the story of what we do,’’ Naveen said.

Cycling teams are driven by passion. Problem is – top end performers blaze a trail that opens a significant gap between them and where the bulk of the market is. This gap is sizable in markets like India where the majority is bogged down in the daily battle to survive. Premium bicycles, to which category road bikes and bicycle races belong is currently a luxury, both in terms of affordability and the ability to devote time for cycling. Not to mention – the challenging traffic environment confronting cyclist in India. The larger the gap, the tougher becomes the task of making top end performers sensible to the mass market. Across sports, companies like to support a bridgeable divide, not one that is formidable and threatens to vaporize as spectacle. For the talented, this is a major problem in the Indian ecosystem.

In India, bicycle manufacturers have traditionally moved with the market, even trailed it but almost never, stayed ahead of it. Even the push to sell premium bicycles happened after a new company having none of the traditional baggage, dared to sell upmarket bicycles. Like its predecessors and contemporaries in India, Ciclo too – it is a joint venture between Ciclo Café and TI Cycles – is limited by the nature of the Indian bicycle market. Nevertheless, it would seem that the team tried its best to meet the earlier stated basic expectations. The Belgian chapter was born from ICP but Ciclo supported it; the 2018 and 2019 teams to Belgium were almost entirely Ciclo riders. Naveen wanted to keep ICP brand-agnostic. There were instances when cyclists associated with competing bicycle brands joined the annual trip to Belgium. Ciclo didn’t say no to that.

Naveen (second from right) riding in the escape of four riders that went on to contest the win at the Lokeren Doorselaar kermesse in 2018. Jonas Goeman in the foreground of the picture (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

What was truly a moment to pause and reevaluate for Naveen, was the loss of gold at the nationals. It suddenly brought to focus two important issues – he wasn’t getting any younger; he had a few things to aspire for while age was still on his side. “ For 2019, I’m almost done bringing together a coalition of brands that see the value my sweat equity brings and trust the idea-to-execution process solely in my hands. That was something I had to let go off when I had to manage a team of riders and look after the team’s and rider’s interests first,’’ Naveen said. What is center-stage is brand agnostic ICP with the Belgium visits therein.

Sample two outcomes of the annual Belgium visits that make it feel encouraging.

“ With an estimated crowd of 300,000 lining the 190.2-kilometer route, Grewal edged Canadian Steve Bauer to claim the gold medal in the men’s road race, breaking away from the field with 20 kilometers remaining and opening up a 24-second lead after 11 of 12 laps and then being caught by Bauer with 10 kilometers left, setting up a dramatic final-lap showdown. This scene, replayed many times since, is one of the most emotional Olympic victories of the Modern Games’’ – This was the description the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame gave for Alexi Grewal’s gold medal winning-ride at the 1984 Olympic Games. Son of a Punjabi immigrant to the US, he was the first American man to win an Olympic gold medal in road cycling. After Naveen posted about a 2018 kermesse on social media, among those responding was Alexi. Apparently the American national team had followed the same path as ICP. Alexi provided a tip: ahead of race, do a recce of the kermesse route so that you weed out variables and get to focus on racing. That underscored the relevance of ICP and the route it was taking. Same year – 2018 – out of the blue, a Belgian lady had shown Naveen a photo of him from a 2015 kermesse. For Indian cyclist visiting Belgium to participate in the country’s races, it felt wonderful to be remembered so. Talent needs suitable ecosystem; one that is interested in whatever it is that talent is pursuing. If you don’t find it in place that dare not challenge market realities, then you should spend more time where realities are different. After all, it’s one life.

Finishing the Melle pro kermesse in 2018; Naveen (foreground) racing in his ASFRA Flanders team kit. This was his first prof koers start. “ I was super happy to finish the race mid-pack,” he said (Photo: courtesy Naveen John).

According to Naveen, in Belgium, there are two tiers of elite racing: Elite met contract or prof koers for riders with a professional contract (division III, II, or I) to race the professional kermesses; and elite zonder contract, for amateur riders without a contract yet. In Elite met contract, the bulk of riders are professionals – division three riders, but there are also division two and division one (the Tour de France lot) riders in the fray plus invited elite amateur teams. In the elite zonder contract, anyone from elite amateur level plus those from division three, the lowest level of pro cycling, can participate. In 2018, Naveen finished every race he started except one. The list included two prof koers. In Belgium, Naveen and Arvind ride for a club called Asfra Flanders. You have to be part of a club to be part of met contract races. At the very top echelon of met contract races are the Semi-Classics and the Spring Classics. “ I just want to keep pushing my boundaries in terms of results and for what a racer from India has done,’’ Naveen said.

His next goals include working to be in the top-20 in a prof kremesse; try and repeat a podium in a zonder contract kermesse and work towards a podium for India at the Asian Road Cycling Championships in 2020. As of April 2019, he was 33 years old. He has assigned two-three years to address the above. As he navigates all the above mentioned rewiring, the electrical engineer has to also find other means to fund his journey in cycling. In December 2018, he ramped up the number of trainees he was coaching from four to 15. In partnership with a company called Happy Earth, he also got into distributing Power2Max, a German power meter.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Thanks to Naveen for the clarity provided regarding the types of contracts in cycling. For a more comprehensive overview of Naveen’s life in cycling, read this article as well as an earlier piece called The Electrical Engineer, available in the archives of this blog. For more information on ICP please try this link: https://www.naveenjohn.com/indiancyclingproject)   

RAAM 2019 / STRASSER WINS FOR THE SIXTH TIME

Christoph Strasser (This photo was downloaded from RAAM’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Christoph Strasser has won the solo category of Race Across America (RAAM) for the sixth time.

The Austrian cyclist covered the distance – a little over 3000 miles (roughly 4800 kilometers) from Oceanside, California on the US west coast to Annapolis, Maryland in the east – in eight days, six hours, 51 minutes. The time mentioned is as per commentary accompanying live streaming of the finish, available on the event’s Facebook page and update posted on Strasser’s Instagram account.

With Thursday’s finish (Thursday, June 20, 2019 in India) Strasser, 36, has the maximum number of solo wins at RAAM in the men’s segment. Overall at RAAM, he shares that distinction with veteran woman cyclist, Seana Hogan of the US, who too has six wins to her credit. Last year’s win had put Strasser on par with the late Jure Robic of Slovenia, who won RAAM five times; in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. Strasser won in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 and now 2019; he placed second in 2012.

From his six wins at RAAM, two were in the seven-day bracket. The rest took eight days. 2019 would rank second fastest from his kitty of eight-day finishes. His previous timings were: 2011 – eight days, eight hours, six minutes, 2013 – seven days, 22 hours, 52 minutes, 2014 – seven days, 15 hours, 56 minutes, 2017 – eight days, nine hours, 34 minutes and 2018 – eight days, one hour, 23 minutes.  Strasser’s timing from 2014 remains the course record. Among the world’s leading ultra-cyclists, he also owns the record for most distance covered on a road bike in 24 hours – 556.85 miles (896.17 kilometers), set in 2015.

This year there is one Indian cyclist – Kabir Rachure from Navi Mumbai – racing in RAAM’s solo category. In the run up to the 2019 edition of RAAM, two other Indian cyclists who were expected to participate – Sundaram and Lt Col Bharat Pannu – had to pull out due to injury. At the time of writing Kabir had covered 2165 miles as per the race live tracker. In the same age category (under 50) as Strasser, Kabir was placed tenth in that group. Two cyclists from the group had pulled out (DNF – Did Not Finish).

Slovenia’s Marko Baloh (2727 miles covered), Denmark’s Jakob Olsen (2680 miles), SOLO Kiwi / Craig Harper of New Zealand (2520 miles) and Canada’s Peter Oyler (2493 miles) were the cyclists immediately following Strasser. Please note: the miles logged have been rounded off to the nearest whole number and are as seen on live tracker around the time Strasser finished.

Kabir Rachure (right) with Christoph Strasser during a ride ahead of 2019 RAAM, in the US. (This photo was downloaded from Kabir’s Facebook page)

In the case of women the leaders were Brazil’s Daniela Genovesi (2480 miles) and Leah Goldstein of Canada (2447 miles). Both these riders are from the 50-59 years age category. They were followed by Austria’s Alexandra Meixner (2236 miles), Japan’s Chieko Ozawa (2225 miles) and Switzerland’s Isa Pulver (2195 miles).

Seana Hogan was at 2042 miles. She is in the 60-69 years age category. Record holder for the most number of solo wins at RAAM in the women’s category, she won – in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998. She also holds the transcontinental record among women having cycled the distance in nine days, four hours and two minutes.

The first Indian solo finishes at RAAM happened in 2017. Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath earned the distinction of being the first Indian solo cyclist to complete RAAM. He finished in 11 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes. Srinivas was followed by Dr Amit Samarth, who became the first Indian to complete RAAM in the solo category on the very first attempt in 11 days, 21 hours, 11 minutes. The first Indian finish at RAAM was in 2015 when the Mahajan brothers – Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – completed the race in eight days, 11 hours as a two person-team.

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

ABDULLAH ZEINAB WINS 2019 TRANS AM BIKE RACE

Abdullah Zeinab at the finish in Yorktown (Photo: Chip Coutts / this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Trans Am Bike Race public group and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Melbourne-based cyclist Abdullah Zeinab has won the 2019 Trans Am Bike Race in the US.

He covered the roughly 4200 mile (6800 kilometers) distance in 16 days, nine hours and 56 minutes, a new course record. Abdullah bettered the previous record by over 10 hours, the event’s Facebook page informed in a post early today.

Like Race Across America (RAAM – its roughly 4800km long; its 2019 edition began on June 11), Trans Am too is a coast to coast bike race. Its course stretches from Astoria, Oregon on the US west coast to Yorktown, Virginia on the east. The race passes through ten states. There is however a significant difference between RAAM and Trans Am. The former is a supported race. The cyclist has support crew accompanying him / her in a vehicle; they take care of logistics, navigation, bike maintenance, nutrition, rest and shelter. Trans Am is an unsupported (or self-supported) race with no support crew tagging along. The rider has to take care of everything.

Trans Am cyclists, journey with essential gear packed on their bicycle. Rest and shelter for them is usually a mix of camping, houses and motels. According to Wikipedia, all food, accommodation and repairs on the Trans Am Bike Race have to be purchased from commercial sources. One specialty of Trans Am is that there appears to be no rigid and fast rule on how participants should treat the event. Some take it as a race. Others take it as an opportunity to bike across the United States and see the land. As the clock keeps ticking this difference in perception, shows in the time taken to finish.

In 2018, Trans Am was won by San Diego based-Peter Andersen. He covered the route in 16 days, 20 hours, 41 minutes. At the same event, Nishant Iyengar from Bengaluru, participating in Trans Am for the opportunity to pedal across the US, had finished in 56 days, seven hours, 11 minutes. He placed 56th among 58 finishers. For more on Nishant and Trans Am please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/10/19/america-the-trans-am-way/

In 2018, Abdullah Zeinab had won the unofficial Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a 5500km bicycle race across Australia, from Perth to Sydney.

This year’s Trans Am Bike Race began early June.

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

“ SPONSORS MUST UNDERSTAND THAT RESULTS DON’T COME FAST IN ATHLETICS’’ / TALKING TO MERCY KUTTAN

Mercy Kuttan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mercy Kuttan is president of the Kerala Sports Council. An Arjuna Award winner, she is unique among Indian athletes for having excelled in the long jump as well as the 400m. At the 1981 Asian Championships in Athletics, she won bronze in both long jump and 4x400m relay. At the 1982 Asian Games she secured silver in long jump and went on to represent India at the 1983 World Championships in Athletics. Later she switched to sprinting and competed in 400m. She represented India in 400m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, reaching the second round. Continuing her contribution to sports, years later, Mercy and her husband, Murali Kuttan (he is former national champion in 400m and medalist at both Asian Track & Field Championships and Asian Games), started the Mercy Kuttan Athletics Academy in Kochi. Murali passed away in 2010 following a massive heart attack. Mercy still runs the academy. This blog met her at her residence in Kochi for a chat. Excerpts:

What made you start the academy?

It happened in 2009. We – my husband and I – had been thinking of starting a training academy from 2007. Both of us were international athletes. Plus, he was a qualified coach too. However for everything you need funds. That was a challenge. In 2009, the South Asian Games was held in Kochi. At that event, the then sports minister of Kerala, M. Vijayakumar asked me – why don’t you start the academy? As yet, only P.T. Usha’s school has come up. I said that if the government supports, we will be able to. The minister agreed. There is a process to commencing a training academy. It has to be a non-profitable charitable trust. We registered it so. The understanding was that we should begin work with our own resources and pull through for a year. Then, the government will help. We were lucky to get financial support from three-four friends in the initial stage. It cost us approximately nine lakh (900,000) rupees to get started. We took a couple of flats on rent in Kochi to provide accommodation to the students. At that time, we accepted both boys and girls. The first batch was four boys and seven girls. Within a short while, we realized that managing boys is tough especially when you have mixed batches. So we modified the batch to fully girls; eleven girls.

How was the academy imagined? Was it foreseen as a facility where students stayed, trained for athletics and then proceeded to study at school or college or was it to be an academy meant only for athletics?

We planned it as a place where they came, stayed, had their food, got sports kits, trained for athletics and also went to school from. We arranged all that. In my sports career, I went up to Asian Games and Olympics. My husband had a podium finish at Asian Games. Our goal was to see the academy’s students win laurels that neither of us could; perhaps a medal at the Olympics. That is my focus now.

Similar to the earlier question, someone starting an academy can have two options – you catch them young or you provide a facility that helps polish talent that is already acknowledged and has probably traveled some distance. Which of the two did you want and why?

We wanted to catch them young. There is a reason for it – when you catch them young, you know their foundation years. Otherwise, you end up dealing with someone you really don’t know much about. The problem today is that in the higher camps, medication is sometimes resorted to. I want natural runners. I take students between 11-13 years of age. As a school, we have reached competitions up to Asian Youth Championships and secured podium finish there. If a student already experienced in athletics is brought to me, I insist on knowing well her previous phase in terms of training, circumstances of training and performance. I assign fresh trials and on the basis of that, design the athlete’s training. In 2012, Anu Mariam Jose arrived for training in a similar fashion. In trials, she covered 400m in 57.9 seconds. The claim was that she had done 54.9 or so. I paid no attention to that. I went by my findings. In one year of training with me, she became the best in her category in Kerala. At the nationals, she finished second, gaining entry into the Indian team. In 2013, at the Asian Track and Field Championships in Pune, she ran 53:28 in the senior category. She was asked to report to the national camp. To my mind – whether she wants to go or not, that’s her decision. It is not my decision. I told her so. She told me that if she reported to that camp, she won’t be able to do anything. I then told her that if she doesn’t go, she risked losing opportunities. In competitions that followed, she secured podium finish at many places. Eventually, she made it to the World Championships. For the Olympics that followed she was assigned to the national camp. I told her to go. She refused fearing possibility of medication. She ended her athletics career. That is an example of what can happen to naturally talented runners at present. I said this to highlight the risk in running a school as finishing facility for experienced senior athletes as opposed to one that recruits beginners and knows them for long. The former, in their hunt for improvement, will ditch you and go to whichever facility promises better performance. The latter, if I take them in as beginners, stay on with me till they are 23-24 years old. Should they wish to stay on longer, they are welcome to. After that, if they want to go to national camp, they can make an informed choice. I tell them I have done my bit. Now it’s up to you. Nowadays it is mandatory that top class athletes attend the national camp.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Do you feel comfortable with the national camp being made mandatory for athletes heading to elite events?

It is difficult to agree. But what can you do? That is the rule. For example, two of our students went for Asian junior championships. Both had medal prospects. They were required to report at the camp, a week and a half before departure. That is the time to perfect them, when training brings them to their peak. I couldn’t do that given they were expected at the camp. So, I said go to the camp and continue what you have been training here. Now these are junior athletes. They are 16-17 years old. They are attached to their coaches. They need our support. When they suddenly work with another coach and are told to do things differently, the tension gets to them. Then there is the angle of whoever trained and mentored them for long, knowing best what their state on a given day is and how to motivate them. We know when we see them running, what their condition is at that point. Ideally, when big events happen it is the longstanding coach and mentor who should accompany the athlete. That doesn’t happen. But you can’t do anything. It is their turf. I am not interested in intervening because I have been part of the national squad and I know that world. So I train my students as best as I can and tell them: I have done my bit, now it is up to you.

How do you select your trainees?

We advertise in the media seeking candidates in the age group of 11-13 years. I hold the trials in different places in Kerala. We have a panel of coaches. They sit together and decide who to invite for the next stage. This is followed by an eight day-training camp at the academy which will give me further insight into specific details about the candidate. The final selection happens after that. Currently, we can accommodate 14 students at our hostel. We train for a few select disciplines – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m; up to 3000m I can handle. We also look at long jump and triple jump. Having said that, the students also indulge in other disciplines but that is typically as a component of overall training, not specialization. We have students who participate in hurdles. But if hurdles turn out to be that person’s forte and there is a strong case to specialize in it, then I won’t hang on to that student. I will pass that student on to a coach who is competent to instruct in that discipline.

You said you recruit your trainees when they are 11-13 years old and they are free to continue at the academy till they are 23-24 years old. What is your retention rate? How many students stick on that long?

It depends on their attitude. Some lack the required commitment and motivation. There is little you can do with such people. In cases of that sort, I recommend that they move on. The training atmosphere is austere and disciplined. I don’t allow use of cellphones at the academy. I am very strict about it. Parents are allowed to call only on Sunday. Every month they can visit the student. After every competition, I allow the students to go home for 3-4 days. The students have to study well. Some are stronger at studies than in sports. They are better off pursuing academics. We have students who completed five years at the academy. The longest a trainee stuck around so far is six years. Seven students from the academy have represented India to date in their respective discipline and age category.

Do they pay any fees?

Nothing; I am not collecting a single paisa. Even when they get an award, I don’t take anything from them. It is tough to run the academy. If the government supports me, that year goes smoothly. Else, it is difficult. We know of government support only from year to year as part of annual budgetary allocation. I didn’t get anything from the last government. The one before that gave me 25 lakh rupees and 20 lakh rupees. The current government gave me 50 lakh rupees in the first instance; with that I was able to manage for two years. Then I got 20 lakh rupees but I was unable to withdraw that in time. At present, we incur an expense of approximately 1.75 lakh rupees for every student. Then there is the infrastructure cost, rent for buildings etc. I have asked the government for land to set up the academy properly. I spoke to Sports Authority of India (SAI) and they said that if I have land, they will assist in building infrastructure. I have sought seven acres of land in Ernakulam district. If the government gives it on lease, we can plan on a bigger scale. If not, I continue on rented premises. That will be a challenge as I don’t have many sponsors.

Ideally what should be the expense per student, if for instance, they are to also travel and participate in good competitions as needed?

Ideally, it should be at least two lakh rupees.

Can you give an overview of the training infrastructure the academy currently has?

We started the academy by using the infrastructure that was available at Sacred Hearts College at Thevara in Ernakulam. There is a ground there. It is not up to the mark. But that is where we train. Some mornings we train at the Maharajas College ground, which has a synthetic track. Sacred Hearts has a grass track. Three to four days a week, we go to Maharajas. We have a vehicle and driver. We travel to do sand and hill-running. We have an assistant coach, a warden for the hostel and two cooks. I appointed the assistant coach last year. After my husband passed away, I was doing the coaching alone. I used to stay at the hostel along with my students. It is only off late, after people said I shouldn’t leave my house locked, that I have begun spending days here again.

You commenced the academy with your own funds and contributions from friends. Could you find any sponsors?

In the initial stage it was friends who helped along with sponsors that came in periodically through their network. Then, the government helped. Paul Raj of Kochi based-Alpha Group is the secretary of the academy. He assisted much financially. In 2013, Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI) contributed 15 lakh rupees. That helped me manage things for a year. After that CREDAI’s state unit helped with some small contributions. We are hoping that the relation with CREDAI at the national level evolves into a more sustained support. I have also got funding of 15 lakh rupees this year, from the state budget. A lot of the government support was used for equipment, kits and infrastructure including gym facilities. But there has been no interest in long term support shown by companies. The challenges in funding are among reasons why I cap the total number of trainees at 15.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Why do you think athletics finds it hard to find sponsors?

The typical game – like cricket or football – lasts a few hours. That is time, useful for sponsors to obtain return on investment. In contrast, athletic performance is over in minutes, sometimes seconds. To my mind, this is the main problem. I think the government must do what it can to support athletics because more than games, it is athletics that brings glory for state and country. That said; there is also the strange issue of not finding students who are dedicated and committed towards athletics. My generation had nothing and yet we rose in competence to compete at elite levels. I had national records at the school and university level before setting records at the senior national level. We wanted to reach some place in athletics and when we got there, we aspired for a higher goal. My journey to the Olympics began after my son was born. I told my husband of my dream. He was a sportsman; he said he will support me. I resumed training when my son was three months old. By nine months, I was national champion again. That’s how I trained and made it to the Olympics. Today, it is difficult to find such drive in our youngsters. Now the aspiration is getting a job. This situation is despite facilities in general being more, salaries being higher. More and more youngsters are not walking to college. They have two-wheelers. When they get a job, they make sure they buy still better two-wheelers. Their life has taken a different trajectory. There is no room for athletics in it.

You mentioned the short duration of athletic performance and how it limits media attention and room for sponsor to get mileage. The flip side of high media attention and engagement by sponsors is increased pressure on athlete to perform, which is among reasons triggering malpractices like doping. How do you deal with that?

What we need is enough sponsorship to have adequate events so that upcoming talent gains exposure to competition.

What is your vision for this academy?

If the government gives me land, I would like to run this academy like a proper school with male and female students and with overall numbers that is more than the 13 we have now. We will have good staff. I would also like to make the model transferable so that the school continues after my time.

How do you picture the ideal sponsor?

An ideal sponsor should understand how a school like this works. They must understand that results don’t come fast in athletics.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This interview was done in late March 2019. At that time, Mercy Kuttan was vice president of the Kerala Sports Council.)

SENIOR POLICE OFFICER FROM INDIA COMPLETES RACE ACROSS WEST IN THE US

Krishna Prakash (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Senior police officer from Mumbai, Krishna Prakash IPS, has successfully completed Race Across West (RAW), the 930 mile (1496 kilometers) ultra-cycling race held alongside the much longer Race Across America (RAAM), in the US.

According to information available on the event website, he covered the distance in three days, 16 hours and two minutes, placing fourth in the under-50 age category for men racing solo.  Of nine cyclists in this age category, four had pulled out (DNF – did not finish) while a fifth person was still on the road, when Krishna Prakash completed. The official confirmation on the website happened evening of Saturday, June 15 in India.

The person finishing first in Krishna Prakash’s age category was Andres Rodriguez of Mexico who covered the distance in two days, 23 hours and 58 minutes. Rodriguez is also the 2019 RAW solo male champion. In 2018, he had been the first solo racer from Mexico to complete RAAM.

Krishna Prakash is currently Special Inspector General of Police (Admin), Mumbai.

At the same time as Krishna Prakash finished RAW, Kabir Rachure, cyclist from Navi Mumbai, attempting the 3000 mile (approximately 4800 kilometers) RAAM was around 928 miles (1493 kilometers) into his race.

Andres Rodriguez (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of RAW. No copyright infringement intended.)

Winner of RAAM multiple times, Christoph Strasser of Austria, was leading in the RAAM solo category with around 1450 miles (2333 kilometers) covered. Among others, veteran woman cyclist and an unforgettable part of RAAM, Seana Hogan, was at 982 miles (1580 kilometers)

This year’s RAAM commenced on June 11.

RAAM entails cycling from the US west coast to the east; from Oceanside in California to Annapolis in Maryland.  RAW is a segment carved out of the initial stages of RAAM. According to information available on the World Ultracycling Association (WUA) website, RAW starts from Oceanside, climbs up the Coastal Range, crosses the deserts of California and Arizona, ascends again into the mountains surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona and proceeds into the Rocky Mountains. The race finishes on the Animas River in Durango, Colarado.

Krishna Prakash, who is also a triathlete, was in the news last year for completing Ultraman Australia. For more on him please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/top-cop-aims-high-does-an-ultraman/

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

2019 COMRADES: SPEAKING TO INDIA’S SUB-9 FINISHERS AND THAT 7:43:34

Deepak Bandbe (Photo: courtesy Deepak)

The 2019 Comrades is over. For most participants, race day would have been the culmination of a few months of preparation. This year five runners from India secured sub-9 hour-finishes. We spoke to them.

In June 2019, Mumbai-based Deepak Bandbe was among the 200 odd runners from India attempting the Comrades Marathon, held annually in South Africa. Close to 25,000 people had assembled to run Comrades, the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon masquerading as a marathon.

Deepak covered the distance of 86.83 kilometers from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in seven hours, forty-three minutes and thirty-four seconds, emerging the fastest runner from India in 2019.

Fellow Mumbaikar Amitkumar Yadav was the second fastest from the pool of runners from India. He crossed the finish line in 8:53:02; an hour and 10 minutes behind Deepak. Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath finished third from this lot with a timing of 8:54:14.

Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of around 87-89 kilometers run between the cities of Durban on the sea coast and Pietermaritzburg in the hills, at an elevation of 1955 feet.

The race alternates each year between uphill and downhill versions. The event was first held in May 1921.

This year’s event was an uphill run commencing from Durban with runners having to complete a total distance of 86.83 kilometers within 12 hours overall with multiple cut-offs in between. The race held on June 9, 2019, started at the Durban City Hall and ended at Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg. The overall winner was Edward Mothibi of South Africa who completed the race in 5:31:33.

Five runners from India finished inside nine hours and received the Bill Rowan medal. Apart from Deepak Bandbe, Amitkumar Yadav and Ashok Nath; Ramashish Maurya and Deepak Budhrani were the other two runners to end up with the medal.

The Bill Rowan medal was introduced in 2000 and is named after the winner of the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. The medal is awarded to runners finishing in 7:30 hours to sub-9 hours.

Ashok Nath, who finished third among runners from India at Comrades Marathon, was earning his fourth Bill Rowan medal in four finishes at the event. The heat did impact his running to some extent during the second half of this year’s race, he said.

In the same event, Mumbai-based ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, earned his green number for running and completing Comrades Marathon for the tenth time. Green number runners are allowed to retain their Comrades Marathon bib number in perpetuity.

Deepak Bandbe, who was the fastest among runners from India, started running about four years ago. A resident of Borivili in Mumbai, Deepak would take time out to do some bit of walking and jogging, primarily with the aim of staying healthy.

An employee of Wasan Motors, Deepak spends a lot of time on his feet talking to potential buyers of vehicles. He, therefore, felt the need for some element of physical activity. Noticing his speed during these workouts, runners from the Borivili National Park – Green Runners (BNP-GR) took him aside and urged him to take up running seriously.

Amitkumar Yadav (Photo: courtesy Amitkumar)

Over time, the group helped him with every aspect of running from registering Deepak for events to incurring his costs for matters related to running.

As part of his training for Comrades, Deepak had participated in Tata Ultra 50k in February 2019 and ended up winner with timing of 3:43:06 hours.

In January 2019, Deepak attempted his first full marathon at Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). He finished third overall among amateur runners and first in his age group of 25-29 years. His timing was 2:41:37.

“ I heard about Comrades Marathon from Mahesh Nagwekar, who is one of the main persons at BNP-GR. The group offered to fund my stay and travel. They took the complete financial responsibility for my participation at this event,’’ he said.

He trained well following a plan provided by his coach Daniel Vaz. The training was aimed at finishing the run in around seven hours, 30 minutes.

“ Unfortunately, I fell short of it by about 13 minutes. I finished the run in 7:43:34 hours,’’ Deepak said.

In South Africa, there were rains two days prior to race day. Runners were, therefore, hoping for good weather. At Durban, the starting point, race day morning was quite cold.

“ I was in A group, just ten meters from the start line-up. It was great fun running the event. There was a feeling of festivity in the air,’’ Deepak said.

“ Up until 45 kilometers, I managed to keep my pace at around five minutes per kilometre. The uphill portions of the run were quite steep. There are five to six major hills but in addition to these big hills there are about 15-20 small ones,’’ he said.

At around kilometre 67, he started to feel cramps in his left leg and had to slow down his pace.

“ I gave all I had to get a 7:30 finish but the heat and the hills got to me as the kilometers went by. It was quite humid,’’ he said.

Deepak said that he was amazed by the amount of support all along the route. “ It was great fun. I would love to do the downhill next year, if possible,’’ he said.

Once the recovery period is over, Deepak will be cutting back on mileage and focussing on training for the marathon. His immediate plan is to run Hyderabad Marathon later this year.

Amitkumar Yadav, who was the second fastest runner from India at Comrades this year, fell short of training because of setbacks at home. His father passed away in April following illness for some time.

“ For the last few months, I had been travelling to Kolkata to be near my father during his difficult days. I almost considered cancelling my plan of running Comrades,’’ he said.

As part of his training, he did a full marathon each in Delhi and Chandigarh and one 70 kilometer-training run at Lonavala, near Mumbai.

Amitkumar had participated in the 2018 edition of Comrades Marathon, the downhill version, finishing the run in 9:28 hours. “ Last year, I started the run very fast and lost steam halfway through. I ended up with cramps and had to slow down,’’ he said.

This time around he opted to be prudent. He went through a nine-hour pace plan offered at the race expo and decided to go slow. Nevertheless, he aimed for sub-nine hour finish.

A sprinter in his younger days, Amitkumar moved to long-distance running in 2012 when he was posted to Mumbai. A civilian employed with Indian Navy, he has now moved into ultra-distance running.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok)

For Bengaluru-based Ashok Nath, this was his fourth Bill Rowan medal. All his four finishes at Comrades have been within nine hours, the mark that qualifies you for the Bill Rowan medal.

In his previous uphill version of Comrades in 2015, Ashok had finished the run in 8:54:01, thirteen seconds ahead of his 2019 finish of 8:54:14.

“ I run at a pace that is comfortable for me to maintain through the distance. If you chase a pace you may end up doing something silly,’’ he said.

Though he uses a GPS device, he prefers not to pay too much attention to it.

Ashok’s training for Comrades was limited to a period of five weeks after his return from Boston Marathon in mid-April. “ A sub-8:30 finish would have been in order. I miscalculated the heat. I am not used to training in the heat as I often finish my long runs by around 7 AM in Bengaluru,’’ he said.

The morning of race day was cool. But as the hours went by the heat intensified, the runners this blog spoke to, said.

“ This time the race started in the city of Durban. For the first 30k you pass through townships and then you come to the mountains. But in the last 40k, the route is an open highway with barren land around. The weather changes are very palpable,’’ Ashok said.

“ I am not a natural long-distance runner. I prefer the shorter distances. I have to be cautious when I run the longer distances,’’ he said.

Ramashish Maurya (Photo: courtesy Ramashish)

Mumbai-based Ramashish Maurya was running his third back-to-back Comrades Marathon this year.

In the previous editions, Ramashish was unable to get a sub-nine hour finish. In 2017, he finished in 9:56:09 and in 2018 in 9:29:09 hours.

“ I wanted to complete Comrades within nine hours. I also wanted to rectify the mistakes I did in the previous two runs,’’ he said. His training for the race was not as extensive as expected but the quality of his training was good. He also paid a lot of attention to hydration.

“ I did some hill training in Lonavala and Malabar Hill. But I took care not to over-train. I have a hectic routine at work and at home. Further, my daughter was appearing for an important examination,’’ he said.

On race day, tackling Comrades in South Africa, he approached the uphill sections very sensibly. “ I think the hills should be respected. I moved faster on the flat and downhill sessions,” he said.

After Polly Shortts, the last cut-off point, he sped to the finish line completing the race in 8:54:46 hours.

Deepak Budhrani (Photo: courtesy Deepak)

In 2019, Deepak Budhrani too was running Comrades Marathon for the third year in a row.

This year, he finished the run in 8:55:10 becoming one of the five runners from India to finish the race within nine hours.

In the 2017 edition of Comrades (up run), he had finished in 10:28:23 hours. In the down run of 2018, he crossed the finish line in 9:31:28 hours.

“ My training for 2019 Comrades was very good. I did not want to make the mistakes I committed last year,’’ Deepak said. He trains with Run India Run, under Coach Samson Sequeira.

“ I followed the training plan meticulously,’’ he said.

“ I had a chat with the nine-hour bus pacer at the expo but on race day I decided to go ahead of the bus. I finished the first half of the distance in 4:23 hours. For the second half, I followed the nine-hour bus until the last cut-off,’’ Deepak said.

The last seven kilometers, he chose to run at a fast pace. After Polly Shortts, the last cut-off, Deepak’s speed increased to 5:37 minutes per kilometer. Up until Polly Shortts, Deepak’s pace ranged from 6:09 to 6:40 minutes per kilometer. The spurt in speed helped him cross the finish line well within nine hours, he said.

According to him, the idea of running for the Bill Rowan medal seemed realistic after he met Bruce Fordyce, nine times winner of Comrades Marathon, earlier this year at a meeting organized by Amit Sheth, Comrades Ambassador for India.

 

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