JOSHUA CHEPTEGEI SETS NEW WORLD RECORD IN 5000M

Joshua Cheptegei. This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the athlete and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

The first major record in distance running amid the COVID-19 pandemic and despite it, happened on the night of August 14, 2020 with a new world record scripted in the men’s 5000 meters on track.

Six months after he set a world record in the 5-kilometers road race, Ugandan ace Joshua Cheptegei took down a 16 year old track record in the 5000m to blaze home in 12:35:36 at the Wanda Diamond League meet in Monaco. Cheptegei’s new world record (it is subject to the usual ratification procedure) improves upon the earlier mark set by Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele.

In its report, World Athletics described Cheptegei’s performance as “ the return of international athletics.’’ The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with the world of sports; the Tokyo Olympic Games had to be postponed and in athletics, many events and road races were cancelled. Worse, the advent of disease protocols, lockdown and training in the new normal had affected the regular regimens of athletes worldwide. Competitions started trickling back in very few numbers and to few spectators at stadiums, only in the past couple of months. “ It took a lot of mind setting to keep being motivated this year because so many people are staying at home but you have to stay motivated. I pushed myself, I had the right staff with me, the right coach. I’m also usually based in Europe, but being based in Uganda with my family was actually great,’’ Cheptegei was quoted as saying in the report, available on the website of World Athletics.

The Ugandan athlete tackled the 5000m track event in style. On the eve of the competition he made it clear that he looked forward to setting a new world record – and he did just that. Weather conditions were not ideal.  “ The pace was so fierce that Cheptegei had run out of pacemakers by half way and the only other man in sight was Kenya’s Nicholas Kimeli. Within a lap the genial but ambitious Ugandan was alone in his quest for immortality, pressing on remorselessly with metronomic 61-second laps,’’ World Athletics said in its report. Cheptegei now holds the world record for the distance across both track and road.

On February 16, 2020, he had clocked 12 minutes 51 seconds at the Monaco Run 5km. He shaved 27 seconds from the previous record of 13:18 set by Kenya’s Rhonex Kipruto en route to his 10km world record in Valencia on January 12. Cheptegei was gold medalist in 10,000m at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar; he won silver in 10,000m at the 2017 World Championships in London and had placed first in 10km at the 2018 World Cross Country Championships held in Aarhus, Denmark.

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

TEAM FOR IAU VIRTUAL RUN ANNOUNCED

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A second team representing AFI has also been announced

Nine men and nine women will run for India in the IAU 6 Hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run scheduled to take place from 6AM to 12PM on August 29, 2020.

The event put forth by the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), features member federations worldwide nominating teams to participate. In its outline for the event, available on the IAU website, IAU has said that athletes may run indoors or outdoors but would need to record their performances on one of the many sports platforms like Strava or Garmin. Federations or their nominated team manager would need to verify and check their athletes’ performances and then submit the tabulated results to the IAU. “ There will not be a ranking list as this is a run signifying global solidarity among the ultrarunning family,’’ the IAU write-up said.

Among other details it informed member federations, “ athletes must run at any time in one continuous six-hour block over the weekend August 29th / 30th in your own time zone. Results will not count for publication if they are done outside of these designated dates. If your country allows athletes to compete together, you may have your own race and / or virtual race with a specific start time. Otherwise athletes can compete either indoors or out in their own space but must record the activity and give your nominated team manager those results.  The results should be submitted to the IAU no later than September 1st.’’

According to a press release from the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the Indian runners selected to participate are: women – Anju Saini, Aparna Choudhary, Ashwini Ganapathi, Bindu Juneja, Darishisha Iangjuh, Deepti Chaudhary, Hemlata, Nupur Singh and Shyamala S; the men’s team includes Abhinav Jha, Amit Kumar, Binay Sah, Geeno Antony, Hemant Singh, Pranaya Mohanty, Sunil Sharma, Suraj Chadha and Tlanding Wahlang.

While IAU had offered each member federation the possibility of their run taking place in one location if required, Sunil Chainani, member of the committee appointed by AFI to oversee the selection of Indian ultra teams, said that given the ongoing pandemic, Indian runners will be running at their respective locations.  “ We decided to give priority to safety,’’ he said of the decision not to assemble in one place. COVID-19 cast its shadow in other ways too. Some runners who wished to apply and participate couldn’t do so because their locality had containment zones limiting the space available for them to run. Others were concerned about running for six hours in their respective locations because running outdoors – in the form of daily exercise – is allowed only for lesser duration during the pandemic. The selectors also did not want anyone pushing themselves unnecessarily. “ The lockdown has affected everyone’s training and we don’t want runners straining themselves. We wish to keep our athletes safe,” Sunil said.

According to the IAU website, there will be a category within the run called President’s Club. It encompasses the leadership of member federations and select personalities who have contributed to the sport.  “ The Presidents Club team signals to the global ultrarunning family that we are all in this together. It also serves as a motivation to all our athletes to see their federation leadership participating with them in this endeavor. The team also includes selected personalities who have done an outstanding job promoting the sport globally,’’ Nadeem Khan, president, IAU has been quoted as saying on the association’s website. Adille Sumariwalla, president, AFI, features in the President’s Club list.

Also running on August 29 will be a second team of ultrarunners, this one representing the AFI. The corresponding virtual event’s name is AFI 6-Hour Solidarity Run. The revised criteria for applying to the team (as available on the AFI website), was: for women – 155 kilometers covered in 24 hours, 100 kilometers done in 10:45 or 500 trail-ITRA points accumulated as of date; for men – 195 kilometers covered in 24 hours, 100 kilometers done in 9:45 or 600 trail-ITRA points (any one of these norms had to be satisfied to apply). The idea of a second team was to increase participation in the event and generate greater interest in the sport, Sunil said. As per a recent AFI press release (essentially an update to the earlier one), the members of the team for the AFI 6-Hour Solidarity Run are Ajit Singh Narwal, Badal Teotia, Manoj Kuthupady Bhat, Nishu Kumar, Sandeep Kumar, Santosh Gowda, Sikander Lamba and Velu Perumal.

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

“ PERFECTION IS MAKING THE BEST OF WHAT YOU HAVE’’

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Anjali Saraogi took up running earnestly in 2016. Less than four years later, she had made it to the Indian team, set a national record in the 100K and been chosen AFI’s woman ultrarunner of the year for 2018-2019.

The 2016 edition of the Mumbai Marathon was special for featuring both the Kipketer siblings on the podium.  Hailing from Kenya, Gideon Kipketer won the men’s elite marathon in a course record of 2:08:35. His sister, Valentine, who had three years earlier set the course record of 2:24:33 (still standing as of 2020), placed third among elite women with timing of 2:34:07. Held on January 17, the 2016 Mumbai Marathon saw 40,285 registrations overall, at that time the highest in the event’s history. Somewhere among the thousands who ran that day in Mumbai, was a woman from Kolkata, roughly a year into running at events and who secured a second place finish in her age category (40-45 years) in the half marathon. That modest distance covered in 1:44:07, betrayed little of her future; she would become one of the finest ultra-runners from India.

Born into a business family, Anjali Saraogi didn’t pursue sports at school. “ I was on the heavy side and I had developed a psychological complex around it too,’’ she said. Away from her school – La Martiniere, Kolkata – she practised yoga and swam. The habit was naturally acquired; her parents were into yoga and physical fitness. “ I grew up in that environment. So I picked it up,’’ Anjali said. Upon reaching college, she studied commerce, attending classes early in the morning and CFA (chartered financial analyst) training sessions later in the day. In the middle of this, she also got married. For a brief while after marriage, Anjali ran her own leather export business. West Bengal (of which, Kolkata is capital) is not far from the eastern sweep of the Himalaya. Between the Himalaya and the plains of India is an intermediate zone of fertile flood plains. In northern India and southern Nepal, this zone is called Terai. In north east India including the northern part of Bengal, close to the Himalayan foothills, this region goes by the name – Dooars. A major crop here is tea. Anjali’s husband owned tea gardens in the Dooars. In the years following Anjali’s marriage, a phase of downturn hit the Indian tea business. Estates in the Dooars were badly impacted. The couple decided to foray in a different direction. Anjali exited the leather business she had and together with her husband, commenced a healthcare enterprise.

From the 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Kolkata Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

“ It was a busy period. There was no time for myself,’’ she said. However she continued doing yoga; she also walked (it was a mix of walking and jogging) five kilometers every day. The combination delivered results. “ My daughter was born in 1998. Within a year after that, I shed most of the weight I had carried since childhood,’’ Anjali said. She also acknowledges that there may have been something smoldering underneath, which kept her determined to become fit. “ During my school days, we used to get television signals from Bangladesh in Kolkata. On one such occasion, the program was about the Olympic Games and it showed long distance running. Those visuals may have impressed me a lot and stayed in my head,’’ Anjali said. Room for women to pursue whatever they wanted wasn’t much those days. In endurance sports in the India, the major centers of growth have traditionally been in and around an arc from south east India to the north via the west. In its span are cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi with other cities partaking in the phenomenon (like Kochi, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad), located in the neighborhood. Kolkata was away from all this. “ In the early 2000s, women wearing shorts and going out for a run or workout was still a matter of debate in our generally conservative society. It was alright in parks but even there you got looked at like an oddity,’’ Anjali recalled.

At Tata Steel 25K, Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

In 2015, the local arm of Round Table India organized a half marathon in Kolkata. Anjali was at that time a member of the women’s wing of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI). A team of women from FICCI were due to participate in the 10 kilometer-run that was a part of the event.  Anjali weighed her options. She had been systematic on the yoga and walking front. She decided to register for the half marathon. She had no idea of running attire; she turned up for the event in a T-shirt meant for golf and leggings borrowed from her daughter. This was the start of her career in running. She covered the 21 kilometer-distance in an hour and 55 minutes; pretty good timing for a debutante. “ That first run at an event, I didn’t suffer. I enjoyed the experience,’’ Anjali said. She followed the half marathon with another, this time at the Goa River Marathon of 2015, where again she completed the course in similar time. Some months later, she was part of the thousands running the half marathon at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, where she secured a podium finish in her age category improving her timing from previous half marathons run by almost ten minutes. “ I don’t know how that happened. I didn’t know a thing about training. All I was doing was yoga and that regular walk-run of five kilometers,’’ she said. Post this 2016 event, Anjali decided to train properly. Her husband was supportive of her decision. There was one problem. Runners who are committed to the sport typically align themselves with a good coach. Located far off to the east from the busy arc of endurance sports in India, Kolkata had neither robust distance-running culture nor coaches reputed in the sport. “ I looked up the Internet for training inputs,’’ Anjali said. It wasn’t a perfect solution by any yardstick. Proper training is real life and dynamic. The coach sees his / her ward; feedback is comprehensive and realistic. The Internet on the other hand, is rich in data. “ Just data is not good enough,’’ Anjali said. But that would be her predicament for the journey ahead. Aside from the Internet and training inputs occasionally received from fellow runners, she hasn’t had a formal coach. “ It wasn’t my choice. That’s how things turned out. If there was a good coach in Kolkata I would have joined,’’ she said.

From the 2019 Boston Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

After the half marathon at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, she ran in the 25 kilometer-category at BNP Endurathon in Mumbai.  Then, things started to gather pace. For next event, she chose the full marathon; she picked the 2016 Chicago Marathon. Having studied in Massachusetts, her husband had friends who lived in the US. On visits to Kolkata, they had spoken of the great race in Chicago. In 2016, when the group planned a reunion in the US, Anjali decided to attempt the race for her debut in the marathon. There was also a pattern seeping into the madness. As with many runners, Anjali wished to run the iconic Boston Marathon. The qualifying time for Boston that year was 3:45 hours for her age category. It became a goal to chase and Chicago seemed ideal venue to do that. She completed the marathon in Chicago – her first formal full marathon – in 3:32. The marathon debut was followed by the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and the Tata Steel Half Marathon in Kolkata. Her Personal Best (PB) in the half marathon was by now 1:33 hours. For comparison try this: in 2017 Anjali would have been around 43 years old. That year she won in her age category in the Mumbai Marathon, covering the 42 kilometer distance in 3:29:12. It additionally placed her second overall among amateur women; the overall winner from amateur women registered timing of 3:17:15. At the same event, the winner among women in the open category of the half marathon finished in 1:32:02, not far from Anjali’s PB of 1:33. For the lady from Kolkata who came late to running, further shifts were underway.

On the Internet, the synopsis of the book, Dare to Run, describes it as the inspiring story of Amit and Neepa Sheth, a husband-wife duo who took up running as a sport in their late thirties. In a collection of essays written over five years, Amit takes the reader along on “ a journey of determination, discovery, courage, self-awareness and self-belief. He takes us with him from his first, almost fatal, 200 meter jog on a beach in Mumbai, to the finish line of The Ultimate Human Race: the 89 km Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. Along the way, Amit uses a combination of poetry, philosophy and scriptures to explain his unique perspective on life, religion, spirituality and running. This is a book not just about running but about the need to relentlessly follow your dreams and passions, no matter what they may be, ‘’ the synopsis said.

In South Africa, for Comrades (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

It was a colleague from FICCI who told Anjali about this book and sent it to her. By the time it arrived, Anjali was down with an injury picked up in the gym. She read Dare to Run while recovering. It became her window to contemplate the ultramarathon. “ Amith Sheth’s book showed me a world I didn’t know existed. His book made me fall in love with Comrades,’’ she said. One more factor inspired her to attempt the ultramarathon. In the days spanning October 21, 2015 to May 1, 2016, Michelle Kakade from Pune had run 5968.4 kilometers along the Golden Quadrilateral, a set of major highways linking India’s major metros. Kolkata was among cities she passed through. A group of Kolkata runners crewed for her at this stage and Anjali was one among them. She was impressed by Michelle and the mission she had embarked upon. It set her thinking about the prospect of distances longer than the marathon. “ There is no point in being afraid. Hard work pays and I am a workhorse. I am not scared of failure. I have no expectations to live up to except my own,’’ Anjali said. She took the plunge. In June 2017, she ran and completed the famous 89 kilometer-ultramarathon in South Africa, Amit Sheth had mentioned in his book. At the time of writing, the time she took to complete Comrades – 8:38:23 – was still the fastest time at the event by a woman from India. Her Comrades result would become a game changer for Anjali.

From the IAU 100K World Championships in Croatia (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Post Comrades, she ran the Tata Steel 25K, the 2018 Mumbai Marathon and the 75 kilometer category of Garhwal Runs, where following an incident of losing her way during the race, she placed third. The major race on her agenda that year was supposed to be the 2018 New York City Marathon; it was the goal driving her training. Meanwhile in February 2017, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) had become a member of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU). In July, having heard of Anjali’s performance at Comrades and Garhwal Runs, Lieutenant Commander Abhinav Jha, a naval officer and ultrarunner, contacted her on Facebook.  It was a call from the blue. The 2018 IAU 100 kilometers World Championships were due to take place in Croatia in September 2018. India was planning to send a team. At Abhinav’s suggestion, Anjali applied for a position on the team based on her performance at the 2017 Comrades. However, not long after applying, she withdrew. Her target for the year and the event she had been training for was the New York City Marathon. It was due in November. The call of July and the two events – in Croatia and New York – all seemed too close to each other for comfort. Anjali wasn’t sure she would be able to do justice. Peteremil D’Souza, an air force officer who is on the committee overseeing ultrarunning at AFI, then spoke to her. He convinced her that she would be able to do well at both Croatia and New York. Anjali understood her predicament better – in pursuit of good timing, she had been training intensely for New York; if she reduced the intensity she should be able to pull off the longer distance in Croatia. It put her back on track. Abhinav advised her on how to train. One week into training and with no more than a few weeks left for the event in Croatia, she had a bad attack of dengue. The disease took a toll on her body. She had high fever and eventually needed two instalments of platelet transfer. Time was lost to disease and recovery. It impacted training. That September in Croatia, the 100 kilometer run proved challenging. “ I was still feeling weak. But there was the high of representing the country. When I finished the race I was in a bad shape,’’ she said. At the event, Anjali covered 100 kilometers in 9:40:35. “ It was a lot of hard work. I could do that only because of Abhinav,’’ she said. Ten days before the New York City Marathon, she ran the Changan Ford Ultra Challenge 50 in China, covering the course in 4:22:22, ranking 35 in an overall field of 155. In November she ran the New York City Marathon, finishing it in 3:24:12. In July 2019, the AFI named Anjali their female ultrarunner for 2018-2019.

At Tata Ultra, Lonavala (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

A rather unusual thing about Anjali is her competence across distances. She still runs anything from shorter distances like the 10K and half marathon to the full and the 100K. She has had podium finishes and good timings in most of these disciplines. According to her, she considers the 42 kilometer-marathon as the foundation for her running. If you are good at it you can run the half marathon well. And if you are training systematically for the marathon, you should be able to handle the 100K as well. “ To run a 100K, you have to be good at 42. Anyone can run a 100K. But if you want to excel at 100K, then you should be good at the marathon because that is the base from which, you go longer or shorter,’’ she said. The marathon addresses all training aspects – speed runs, tempo runs, long runs and recovery runs. “ When I train for the marathon, my performance for the half and 10K improves alongside. Same holds true for the ultramarathon. When I train for the ultramarathon, I am getting better for the marathon too. People hit walls usually for a reason – typically, poor or incorrect nutrition. In a marathon, there are no mistakes. You get what you trained for,’’ Anjali said. At the same time, despite the devotion to systematic training and acknowledgement of the marathon as a process that delivers true to what effort was put in; she is not a big fan of technology. There is no great amount of math and measurement in her approach. “ I run by feel. I can only do what my body is doing. I can only run based on how I am feeling,’’ she said. In her heart, she admitted, she leans more to the 100K nowadays. That is what she would like to focus on, going ahead.

From the 2019 IAU Asia and Oceania Championships in Aqaba, Jordan (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

If it was dengue in the run up to Croatia, post-Croatia another nasty surprise awaited. Anjali was diagnosed with lumps on her breast. Given she had undergone platelet transfer not long ago, surgery was ruled out. Medical opinion initially said that she give up running. Luckily the tumor turned out to be benign. “ There is nobody who does not have a problem. I think perfection is making the best of what you have,’’ she said. In the months that followed, she ran the New York City Marathon in 3:24 hours, Boston in 3:14 and Berlin in 3:23. In November 2019, she set a national record in 100 kilometers at the 2019 IAU Asia and Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan, covering the distance in 9:22:03. Meanwhile as India’s amateur running movement penetrates deeper and deeper into the country, competition has been increasing. To remember alongside is also the angle that India has the biggest pool of youth in the world. The classic amateur running movement in India saw people discovering the active life in their working years and middle aged athletes registering sterling performances. In recent times, it has also meant an army of young people taking to the sport and setting new benchmarks. Even in the ultramarathon, a sport traditionally identified with experience and a slightly older crowd, youngsters have been making their presence felt. As of 2020, Anjali was in her late forties. She came late to running and had done much in the years since. But a question any observer would ask is – how much longer? “ I believe my best is yet to come. I feel there is a lot left in me as regards the marathon and the 100K,’’ she said.

With Sachin Tendulkar at the 2019 IDBI Federal Life Insurance Kolkata Marathon (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

In the run up to every edition of the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), the question on runners’ minds is how the weather may be on race day. In 2018 and 2019, the pleasantness of late December-early January had suddenly transformed to heat and humidity. Two days before 2020 TMM, not only was it still pleasant in Mumbai but there was also a nip in the air that evening, at the café on Marine Drive. Coffee and conversation done, Anjali left to attend a wedding reception at Trident Hotel, a short walk away. Two days later, she won in her age category of 45-49 years at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon, covering the distance in 3:24:53. Among amateur woman runners of all age categories running the marathon (the fastest of the lot was clocked at 3:16:26), she placed fourth. Roughly two months later, the running scene in India ground to a halt as COVID-19 zoomed to pandemic. The situation affected Anjali too. Hemmed in by lockdown, the need to protect her family and with her own house bordered by containment zones, she decided it would be wise to pause her running till things improved. Yoga and strength training continued. Early August, this blog asked her what the impasse – complemented by the irreversible nature of time – meant to her. “ The question is meaningless to me. I don’t run for a podium finish. I run because I like to run. It is alright if right now, I must temporarily stay off running. That is a conscious decision made in view of the prevailing times of viral disease and my desire to protect my family,’’ she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This article is based on two rounds of conversation with Anjali, one in January 2020 and the other in August.)        

TWO REALITIES: KHARGHAR AND KAUSANI

Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Located in Bageshwar district, Kausani is popular for its tea gardens.

Although tea plantation was introduced many decades ago in Uttarakhand, it didn’t catch on. According to a September 2014 article in the Hindustan Times about the erstwhile standing of teas from Uttarakhand and how they languished later, tea cultivation was introduced in these parts by the British in 1835. They chose the hills of Kausani, Dehradun and Berinag to start the process. Initially, the teas of Uttarakhand did well. Subsequently, even as plantations became big business in North East India and South India, tea production in Uttarakhand plummeted. In recent times, according to media reports, efforts have been made to encourage tea growing and restore the market profile of teas from the state.

Kausani remains a small hub of tea gardens. As you come in from the Ranikhet side, the road ascends to the town, runs a bit on the ridge of the hill and then descends to the other side, which is when the tea gardens and their adjoining clutch of restaurants emerge to view. It is a popular halt for tourists, rewarding anyone making it to the spot at the right time on a clear day with great pictures of select Himalayan peaks. Kumaon is known for its panoramic view of the Himalaya. From the cafes near Kausani’s tea gardens, you see the peaks of western Kumaon. Late July, 2020 it was the season of rain in Kausani. It rained intermittently. The weather was pleasant; perfect for running. Some kilometers away from Kausani, is the village of Shauli. Early mornings and sometimes in the evening, a runner from here would take a route not normally taken by others around. While the general grain of economic development in the hills has been the tendency to trade walking trails for roads, this person – recently returned from big city – did the opposite. He traded Kausani’s roads for its quiet, forgotten trails. They wind their way along hill slopes sporting pine trees.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Until some months ago, Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Chan) was among those running regularly at Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. Navi Mumbai is a satellite city of Mumbai; it along with Thane is part of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). MMR is one of the biggest urban agglomerations on the planet. An important node of Navi Mumbai, Kharghar evolved on flat land set against a backdrop of hills. The flats, roads therein and connections thereof to more roads in nearby Belapur offer adequate mileage for daily running. A five kilometer-long road leading up into the hills serves as additional tool for training. Every year as the annual Mumbai Marathon approaches, this hill road sees local runners and those from other parts of MMR, come to train. Indeed Navi Mumbai is one of the better places in MMR for a runner to be in. However, it is a bustling urban center and has been gaining vehicles and traffic by the day. The overall ambiance of your daily run is thus very much that of city.

Chan hails from Kausani. After a few years of growing up there, his family moved out to ensure better education for the children. Besides, his father worked in the Indian Navy and with any job in the defence sector, transfer is an integral part of life. Eventually, Chan found himself in MMR (at Kharghar), where as an employed adult, he worked with Star Sports. As of 2020, it was around seven years since Chan took up running. The bug got to him in Mumbai. In the initial years, he did what he could, sensing his way around in the sport and keeping an annual appointment with the Mumbai Marathon. By 2015, he was training seriously and by the following year, had graduated to attempting the ultramarathon. In 2016, he won a 50 kilometer-night run, a 75 kilometer ultramarathon in Pune and covered 96 kilometers at the annual 12-hour Mumbai Ultra. In 2017, he won the 101 kilometers category at Run the Rann, an ultramarathon organized in the Rann of Kutch in western India. That year he also won the IDBI Federal Life Insurance 12hrs stadium run in Mumbai covering a distance of 105.2 kilometers in the stipulated time; he also participated in and finished the 111 kilometer-segment of La Ultra The High in Ladakh. In 2018, he won the 50 kilometers category at BNP Ultra in Mumbai but later suffered injury while training for the Annapurna 100 in Nepal. “ As a comeback run in 2020, I bettered my course record at BNP 50 by two minutes, finishing the race with a PB of 3:56:01,’’ Chan said.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

After his father retired, Chan’s parents shifted back to Kausani. The move isn’t permanent for them yet; at the time of writing his father was still undecided on whether it should be a shift for good or not. In March 2020, Chan was due to attend his Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarkashi. By then he had also put in his papers at Star Sports and was looking forward to commencing something on his own in sports nutrition.  Against this backdrop, it made sense to blend his NIM trip with a visit home after the mountaineering course. After all, Uttarkashi is in Uttarakhand and Garhwal (where NIM is) and Kumaon (where Kausani is) are adjacent regions. However, the entire plan had to be cancelled following the outbreak of COVID-19 and onset of nationwide lockdown. Chan spent the first two and a half months of lockdown in Kharghar. Then, as the strict lockdown gave way to a slightly relaxed version, in mid-June, he traveled to Kausani to be with his parents.  With lockdown continuing and working remotely now an accepted way of life, he plans to make Kausani his new base.

Plains or hills, a runner cannot stay away from running. For Chan, Kausani situated at an elevation of 6200 feet, presented fresh options, especially on the trail front. He has plans to try some of the well-known trail running events of Himachal Pradesh and South India. It wasn’t long before he started exploring the trails around Kausani as potential training routes. Every day, he picks one of two windows or sometimes both; the first is in the morning around 7 AM, the other is around 4-4.30 PM. “ There has to be natural light. That is one problem in the hills. You don’t have street lights here as in the cities. But otherwise it is a vast difference between what I do here and the running I used to do in Kharghar. The weather in Navi Mumbai was always hot and humid and capable of exhausting you fast. The air was also polluted, which is the case in most urban areas. There was traffic. Here road traffic is less but then, I am not on the roads at all. I am on trails, which are frequented by very few people. It is peaceful. Yes the elevation makes you strain more than in the plains but the air is clean; you can feel good quality air in your lungs,’’ he said. As for inclines he has tonnes of it strewn around in hill country. According to him, the trails he found are a healthy mix of enjoyable running and steep, technical slopes. Incidentally, Chan is not the only one utilizing the value of Kumaon’s trails. Around the time the nationwide lockdown started, Nitendra Singh Rawat, one of India’s top marathon runners, had shifted from Ranikhet (where the Kumaon Regiment to which he belongs is headquartered) to his village in Garur. When contacted in early April, he was training on isolated trails near his village, away from people and the hustle and bustle of life. Garur is around 15 kilometers from Kausani.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

As he continues his running in Kausani, Chan admitted to nursing a wish. Places like Garhwal and Kumaon have known running for long, possibly longer than it has been viewed as fitness movement or sport in the plains. The driving force for this widespread engagement with running was military recruitment. The Himalayan foothills have a tradition of sending people to the armed forces. Both Kumaon and Garhwal have regiments bearing their name. In the run up to every recruitment season (locally called bharti), the roads of Kumaon feature young men putting in the miles to stay fit. Same is the case in Kausani. “ The people here are good runners. They have the ability to do well. But they don’t have a year-round culture of running that is independent from military recruitment. They run to be recruited and when that reason isn’t there, they don’t have any incentive to continue running. I would like to do what I can to change that. I hope I am able to contribute in some way to creating a running culture here,’’ Chan said on the phone from Kausani.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Podium finishes and timings at races are as stated by interviewee.)

THAT YES OF 2017

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

In October 2019, two years after she took up running in a dedicated fashion, Apoorva Chaudhary was among athletes representing India at the start line of the IAU 24-hour World Championships, in Albi, France. She covered a distance of 202.212 kilometers, at the event. The distance logged was a national best in the 24-hour run for women in India. The new record was less than a year after a previous national best of 176.8 kilometers, Apoorva set at the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018. This is her story:

It was February 2020; the Delhi before COVID-19 locked down India. For runners, there was a major event imminent – the 2020 IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon. People had begun reaching the city from other parts of India for that.

Connaught Place and the café we were in, bustled with activity. Apoorva Chaudhary recalled her years at Navodaya Vidyalaya in Bijnor, roughly 150 kilometers away from Delhi. These schools were commenced by the central government in 1985-86 to bring quality education comparable to the best in a residential school system. It was meant mainly for students from rural areas. Alongside studies, Apoorva was into running a range of distances at the school – 800 meters, 1500 meters and 3000 meters. She also played basketball. She didn’t get into teams higher up in the pecking order because she never came first in school races. As she put it, “ I always ran slowly, finishing second or third. My father used to tell me that I wasn’t doing a good job of sticking to the person who was leading.’’ Still the routine of boarding school meant, she participated consistently in sports. That routine was silver lining, for Apoorva secretly disliked boarding school. She hailed from Bijnor and her home wasn’t far off; she couldn’t understand why she had to be in boarding. She took part in the 1500 meters and 3000 meters till she completed her tenth standard.

From Himalayan Crossing, July 2016; the others in the frame are Tserin Negi and Avinash Pratap Singh (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

An eldest child, Apoorva had grown up with the belief that she would become a doctor. “ My grandfather always told me that I will become one,” she said. Her desire was to be an ophthalmologist. In India, the phase of education following matriculation is when professional orientation to studies creeps in. Those couple of years leading to entrance exams for professional courses are usually intense. After completing her twelfth at Bijnor, Apoorva attended coaching classes in Dehradun, chasing the ophthalmologist-dream. The natural outcome of a life dedicated to academics was that sports got completely side-lined. Then, a setback occurred. Apoorva didn’t make the cut in the entrance exam. With her hard work gone waste and chance to study medicine denied, she slipped into depression. For a brief period, she wondered whether she should make another attempt at clearing the exam. Then she gave up on that plan and opted instead for a B.Tech in biotechnology from Kurukshetra University.

Apoorva’s college days didn’t feature much sport. She occasionally played basketball and dabbled in yoga. More importantly, in these years, she developed serious asthma. Following her studies, Apoorva secured work at a company in Bengaluru. She shifted to the southern metro. Not long into this stint, she quit her job; she found it hard relating to experiments on animals, something the work required her to do. A period of volunteer work with NGOs ensued. During this time, following links she made in the film making fraternity, Apoorva said, she was called to act as body double in a film about Kavitha Kanaparthi. Founder of Globeracers, Kavitha organized foot races of ultramarathon distances under that brand. Kavitha was pregnant at that point in time and the film makers needed a body double for shooting some running scenes. Apoorva didn’t know what ultra-running was. During the shoot, she had to run on multiple occasions, at times notching up quite a distance. “ I don’t remember getting tired from those runs,” she said.

At the annual Adidas Runtastic Ambassador Meet, Berlin, September 2019 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

Her connection with Globeracers led to Apoorva volunteering for some of the events they organized. In February 2016, she volunteered for Run of Kutch. “ I enjoyed volunteering for the event. The work also entailed marking the route before the race,” she said. In that same year, she was called to volunteer for Himalayan Crossing, another race from the Globeracers stable. A ringside view to great challenges is often the best encouragement one can have to take the plunge oneself. “ I remember thinking about the insanity of the runners doing these ultra-long distances, little knowing that I myself would opt for such mileage in due course,” she said. Her foray into recreational running commenced after the second edition of Run of Kutch. Apoorva was into running and trekking. The latter activity picked up through personal trips to Dharamshala and Shimla and the visit to Spiti for Himalayan Crossing with Globeracers, peaked on a 2017 holiday in Ladakh that saw her ascent the popular trekking peak, Stok Kangri (20,187 feet). She had set out for Stok Kangri from Leh, alone and self-supported. Along the way, that altered a bit after she met a group from the army headed to the same peak. They in turn, planted in her head the idea of doing a Basic Mountaineering Course. She applied for the course offered by the state-owned mountaineering institute in Jammu & Kashmir and upon their seats for mountaineering being full, was offered a place in the skiing course. It should have been on her agenda for 2017 but then other things happened.

Sometime in 2017, she participated in an informal 15 km-run organized by Delhi Running Group, at Sanjay Park in New Delhi. For most people, their first major project in amateur running is the half marathon. Shortly after the run in Sanjay Park, Apoorva signed up for her first half marathon – part of Adidas Uprising, due in December that year. During her training runs Apoorva heard of runners finishing the half marathon in under-two hours. At Adidas Uprising, not only did Apoorva get her sub-two-hour finish, she emerged the overall winner among woman participants. The prize was a coupon worth Rs 10,000, using which she could buy Adidas products of her choice. She bought her most expensive pair of shoes till then, she said.

Apoorva and Kanan Jain sprinting towards the finish line at the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon, February 2020 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

After the Adidas Uprising event, Apoorva signed up for the half marathon at the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon of February 2018. She finished the race in 1:56:03. “ This was my second half marathon. At this event I met Kanan Jain. Later that year I was to volunteer for the Bhatti Lakes ultramarathon and Kanan was scheduled to try the 100 kilometer-run there. He asked me if I would be interested in attempting a 24-hour run,” she said. The 24-hour run that Kanan suggested was the one to be held by NEB Sports in December 2018 at New Delhi (Kanan Jain is a young ultramarathon runner. In the months to follow he would be part of the official team representing India at the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Albi, France. He is now Apoorva’s coach drawing up her training schedules for ultramarathon races). Apoorva said she had no experience of distance running except the two half marathons she had completed. Kanan persisted; he pointed to her volunteering for ultramarathons and her interest in hiking. He asked her to consider the idea. She did. What she found difficult to overlook was how Kanan had pitched the whole thing. He had asked her if she would like to represent India in the discipline of running very long distances. That was a target too hard to ignore. Next day, she said “ yes’’ to the idea.

The ultramarathon embraces distances beyond the length of a marathon. A 24-hour run is one of the many forms of ultramarathon. It is typically held over a short loop. The runner, who covers the maximum distance during the stated period, is the winner. In India, Runners for Life is credited with commencing the 24-hour and 12-hour ultramarathons through their event, Bangalore Ultra. 2017, the year Apoorva commenced her recreational running was also coincidentally host to the last edition of the Bangalore Ultra, pioneer in that space in India. Apoorva’s first tryst with distances beyond the half marathon happened soon after that “ yes’’ to the idea of attempting a 24-hour run. In 2018, she and Kanan participated in the run from Gurugram (Gurgaon) to India Gate organized by Aashayein. At 29 kilometers, it was far from ultramarathon. But the journey had begun.

From the 24-hour stadium run in Delhi in 2018; others in the frame are Sunil Shetty, Shyamala Gopalan and Shibani Gharat (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

The 24-hour run the duo targeted was scheduled for the end of the year. Apoorva had time to build up her mileage. “ If you have a goal, it is prudent to have pit stops before you reach the goal,” she said. To create a tiered progression towards the 24-hour run, she decided to do the 12-hour run offered as part of the 36-hour Stadium Run organized by NEB Sports in Bengaluru, in August 2018. To gain entry to this stadium run, Apoorva opted to first run a 50 kilometer-race at Mashobra Tuffman Shimla Ultra. As part of her training for this event, she had managed to do just one 50 kilometer-run. At the Tuffman event, she finished the race in 6:03:56 hours. “ This was my ticket to the 12-hour run in Bengaluru,” she said.

Unexpected twists in life had seen Apoorva resurrect her interest in running from school days and take to recreational running as an employed adult. Hers was a family of five; her father who is a farmer, her mother who is a homemaker and two younger brothers. Her parents were unaware of the changes afoot in the life of their daughter who had elected to work away from home. Nobody in Bijnor knew of Apoorva’s mission to participate in the 24 hour-run. Each time she visited Bijnor, the mission manifested in the form of unavoidable training runs. “ My father was not very happy with me venturing out to run,” she said. He had his reasons. There was the question of a woman’s safety; not many people ran regularly in Bijnor. If Apoorva was running for fitness, he felt a few days of exercise missed wouldn’t inflict significant damage. He was also unaware of the full dimensions of the journey Apoorva had set herself on and why she required to train diligently. Once during a visit home, Apoorva was admonished for stepping out for a run. Even if she had revealed her plans, till tangible results are produced, plans don’t hold water – that’s the Indian approach. Unfazed by the opposition, Apoorva proceeded with what she had to do. She would slip out of her home, walk some distance, change into running shoes and commence her run. “ I cannot afford to miss my runs,” she said. Over time, Apoorva apprised her mother about her passion for ultra-running. Eventually however, to circumvent the situation, for much of 2018, she kept her visits home to the bare minimum. Her determination paid off.

The day after the 24-hour stadium run in Delhi in 2018 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

At the 12-hour run in Bengaluru, Apoorva finished first among women and fifth overall, covering a distance of 99.76 kilometers. “ I had a target of 100 kilometers. I was completely overwhelmed by this experience. I hadn’t imagined that I would have the ability to do something like this,” she said. With this 12 hour-run, Apoorva’s circle of friends in running grew. Running groups wanted her to join them on their outings. It felt good. In the days following the 12-hour run, she increased her mileage as part of training for the upcoming 24-hour event in New Delhi. “ I knew that if I am opting for ultra-running, then I am opting for pain and challenge. One is always preparing for a worst case scenario in such long-distance races,” she said. However, there is more to preparing for an ultramarathon than just the mileage accumulated in training. Nutrition and hydration are important aspects. You have to know what foods your body can hold down and utilize while it is being pushed for endurance at the same time. There is no one size fits all; each runner’s preferred nutrition during a race is the outcome of trial and error. Then there is how you race; how you pace yourself when the distance to cover is huge. All this takes time. Experience counts. In December 2018, Apoorva stood at the start line of the 24-hour run with little understanding of fuelling plan or race strategy. “ Prior to the event, during my training, I had done two weeks of 100 kilometer-mileage and one week of 90 kilometers,” she said. It was modest mileage striking a balance between adequate training and saving yourself for a race. That may have addressed the running side of things. But as regards overall experience in the ultramarathon, she was very much on a learning curve.

The 24-hour stadium run in Delhi was tough. At the end of 12 hours, she had covered around 102.4 kilometers, which was more than what she managed in the 12 hour-run of August 2018. “ I was strong for the first 14 hours. Until about the 18th hour I was holding myself well but after that it became very tough. I was dehydrated, tired and nowhere near my target of 200 kilometers,” she said. She even began to doubt whether she would touch 100 miles (160 kilometers). She remembered ultra-runner Sunil Sharma intervening to help her. Vishal Adhav, another runner, started to pace her. “ He ran ahead of me and asked me to just follow his footsteps. For the last two hours of the race I kept doing that and got into a trance chasing the feet running ahead of me,” she said. Apoorva covered a distance of 176.8 km during that 24-hour period. It was a national best among women in India. But it was an effort that left her with questions. “ During breaks in the race I used to ask myself: why am I doing this?’’ she said. There was also a valuable lesson learnt. As part of her fuelling, she had tried yogurt. It suited her.

From the world championships in Albi, France, 2019 (Photo: courtesy Apoorva)

For all athletes, there is a point when effort pays off and fortunes change. At home in Bijnor, the morning newspaper bearing reports of the stadium run in Delhi told Apoorva’s parents the full story of what their daughter had been up to. The training runs started to make sense. Neighbours who read the newspaper, asked: isn’t that your daughter? The win in Delhi also made the Indian ultra-running community take note of Apoorva. She was selected for the IAU 24-hour World Championships, due at Albi, France, in October 2019. By the time she got to Albi, Apoorva was more knowledgeable of her nutrition, hydration needs and racing strategy. “ That was my strongest 24-hour run,” she said of her experience at Albi. Running alongside Apoorva were some of the world’s best ultra-runners, including US athlete, Camille Herron, who would set a new women’s world record of 270 kilometers at the event. At the end of 24 hours, Apoorva had covered a distance of 202.212 kilometers. It was a new national best for women. And it had come less than a year after the previous national best of 176.8 kilometers she set at the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018.

Couple of days after meeting this blog at the café in Connaught Place, Apoorva filled in a gap in her progression to the ultramarathon. She ran her first marathon – the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon, held on February 23, 2020. She finished seventh overall among women and second in her age group of 18-34 with a timing of 3:28:45. Having graduated to ultramarathon from the half marathon, the classic marathon was a case of going back and catching up on a rung in the ladder, she had missed. On March 24, India slipped into a nationwide lockdown triggered by COVID-19. For almost a month, Apoorva – she now works at the Gurugram office of PeopleStrong, a technology firm in the HR space – was confined to her apartment in Gurugram. She focused on strength training. She was scheduled to represent India at the IAU 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships, slated to be held in Bengaluru over July 18-19, 2020. It therefore made sense to continue her training in whatever way she could. The Bengaluru event was subsequently called off due to COVID-19.

Training in Leisure Valley Park ahead of the world championships in Albi, France (Photo: Bounty Narula)

On May 25, Apoorva managed to travel to Bijnor, where her parents live. She resumed her running there, stepping out very early in the morning for her daily run. It is an hour when few people are out. It suits her for she generally likes to run alone and sometimes with one or two others. The morning run takes around two hours. With no races on the horizon, she does not need to train hard. Her parents are supportive. Nowadays on her return from training, her father asks her how the run was. He still worries for her safety but has his own emergent interest in fitness, which he blends into the solution. “ Today morning as I was returning home, he came cycling towards me. He wanted to make sure that I am alright. From tomorrow onwards, he says, he will be cycling alongside while I run. He says that will keep him fit too,’’ Apoorva said, mid-July. Asked if she had managed to answer that question of why she was running the ultramarathon (she had asked herself that during the 24-hour run in Delhi), Apoorva said, “ I think it has to do with wanting to get out of my comfort zone. If I don’t do that, I won’t get to know what I can do.’’ There was also another question begging an answer. Apoorva’s running had commenced in school. Despite running the 800 meters, 1500 meters and 3000 meters in that phase, she got nowhere. After a long hiatus and for no particular reason except curiosity, she took to recreational running in Bengaluru in 2017. By October 2019, she had set one national best and rewritten it. What was different about her journey in running, post 2017? “ I think Kanan gave me an engaging goal in that 24 hour-run and the prospect of representing India. I took it up but was at the same time under no pressure. I had nothing to lose,’’ she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. This article is based on two rounds of conversation with Apoorva.)

LOCKDOWN & ME / DAYS OF CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Seema Yadav (Photo: courtesy Seema)

Across cities, with the gradual easing of lockdown norms, runners and cyclists have been stepping out for their daily dose of physical activity. That has brought happiness. However with the number of COVID-19 cases rising, there is trepidation in being out; not to mention – amid relaxation of lockdown rules overall, there has been stringent local lockdown happening. Select states, metros and townships have relapsed to tight lockdown of short duration. Given the lack of clarity, amateur athletes are cautiously optimistic about what lay ahead.

Just four days before India’s nationwide lockdown commenced in March, Faridabad-based Seema Yadav decided to head to Bhiwadi in Rajasthan. She wanted to spend a couple of days with her father, who was there on work. Seema took her son along on the journey.

Although worries over the virus had been brewing, the descent to lockdown was sudden. Soon after Seema landed in Bhiwadi, the one-day nationwide curfew was announced followed in no time by the 21-day lockdown. With the lockdown only getting extended thereafter, Seema was held up in Bhiwadi for close to three months. “ We led a minimalist life. We had the clothes we had brought with us. There were no amenities such as fridge and washing machine. We had a very basic television set and a not too good internet connection,” she said. Committed to running she had however carried her running and workout gear. During the first phase of lockdown, as there was no question of venturing out, she confined herself indoors doing strength training and stair workout.

When the lockdown eased a bit, she was able to step out of her house to the compound of her housing society in Bhiwadi and do slow runs around a 400 meter-loop. The lockdown came at a time when Seema was preparing for a long break to recover from a series of running injuries that had been plaguing her for some time. The focus therefore, was on strength training and yoga.

After being held up in Bhiwadi for 85 days, Seema has since shifted back to Faridabad and been venturing out for her daily run. “ Very early in the morning, I drive to village roads outside the city limits. The roads are empty and the villagers are just about getting ready to go about their daily chores,” she said of her current routine in running. At the time of writing her weekly mileage was around 50-55 kilometers.

Kavitha Reddy (Photo: courtesy Kavitha)

Kavitha Reddy’s last run before the lockdown commenced, was sometime in mid-March. She did not run for the first 40 days of the lockdown. “ There was worry all around. Everything was new about the pandemic. I decided to take it easy. It was a good break for a change,” the Pune-based runner said.

In the absence of running events to focus on (events were cancelled due to pandemic), the hiatus was welcome. Besides it came against the backdrop of increased workload on the home front. However, she found time to do workouts otherwise relegated to the backdrop amid hectic training seasons. Sometime towards the end of April, Kavitha started running inside her housing complex. With a 700 meter-loop possible there, she ran twice or thrice a week.

Every total lockdown treads a thin line between people staying safe and the impact their retreat indoors has on the economy. For a population to survive, the economy has to function. Slowly the lockdown rules began to relax. In the next phase, Kavitha was able to run on the road outside her building. That gave her a slightly longer loop of 900 meters. “ On weekends, I run longer distances. Group runs are out for the moment. Also, with whoever I meet during a run, I try to maintain physical distance,” she said.

Given no races on the horizon, her current priority is building and maintaining baseline fitness. Consequently, for now Kavitha’s training does not include speed runs. “ We are running to keep ourselves going until we get back to conditions where races are possible,” she said. Notwithstanding the increase in strength training and other home-based workouts, she admitted, there is the lingering question of whether one can get back to previous levels of endurance.

Brijesh Gajera (Photo: courtesy Brijesh)

Not running for a long period of time does impact aerobic fitness, Brijesh Gajera, Bengaluru-based amateur runner, told this blog. An employee of an IT company, Brijesh has been kept busy by work-from-home. He followed a fitness program that incorporated strength training, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and yoga. The house arrest of lockdown also unexpectedly gifted him the luxury of sleeping longer hours.

“ Early June, I started running outside wearing a bandana to mask my face. My weekly mileage is around 40-45 km a week compared with 70-80 km during pre-Covid-19 days,” he said. He has also been cycling once or twice a week. “Runners have stopped hugging and shaking hands when they meet. Also, during long runs they maintain distancing while at the same time, staying in sight of each other,” Brijesh said. As it is prudent to run closer to home in these times of uncertainty, Brijesh has been exploring new routes in the area where he resides in Bengaluru.

Brijesh had signed up for Silk Route Ultra, a 122 kilometer-run organized by Ladakh Marathon and scheduled for September 2020. He doesn’t know what its fate will be. On July 2, the event organizers informed that the main Ladakh Marathon had been cancelled owing to COVID-19 but the two elite races in its fold – Khardung La Challenge and Silk Route Ultra – were under “ review” with final decision expected by end-July.

Lourdes Bosco (Photo: courtesy Bosco)

In Chennai, amateur runner Lourdes Bosco pursued a mix of running and working out at home through the period of lockdown. As he put it, mobility was quite restricted in the first two months of the lockdown. But even then, he was able to steal a few small runs in the neighborhood. Bosco’s rationale was simple – with people gone indoors, the small roads in the vicinity of his house cleared up. An early morning jog was therefore possible. As the original nationwide lockdown progressively relaxed, its administration became more accommodating (it tightens in accordance with calibration at state and district levels). Some amount of running has resumed although not to the distances of before. Group runs are avoided and adequate physical distancing is maintained. “ Work outs – I do it sometimes in the house; sometimes at the playground or on the pavement outside,’’ he said. He does these work outs roughly three days a week. Bosco devotes anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half for his running and related exercises.

Shilpi Sahu (Photo: courtesy Shilpi)

Bengaluru-based runner Shilpi Sahu was visiting her in-laws in Kannur, Kerala, when the lockdown was announced. She was held up there for seven weeks. And that meant no running.

For a runner, the absence of running can result in some loss of endurance. According to her, there is no substitute for running. Not running for an extended period of time leads to muscle tightness and niggling aches and pains, she said.

Shilpi started running towards the end of May, stepping out for short runs of about 40 minutes. Obviously, she is nowhere near her pre-COVID-19 level of running. “ I am trying to run 70-80 per cent of my peak mileage. I am also running at much lower pace,” she said adding that she steps out for a run alone or with her husband, who is also a recreational runner. She has been avoiding running in groups. Pandemic isn’t the time for that.

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

The lockdown worked positively and negatively for Mumbai-based runner and triathlete, Zarir Balliwala. These are tough times. For the businessman (Zarir manages Balliwala & Homi, an ophthalmic products company), the lockdown brought corresponding financial worry. The closure of swimming pools was another negative.

But otherwise, the lockdown has helped him pursue a fitness regime that entails a variety of physical activity – walking, strength training and stair workout; not to mention, catching up on much needed rest.

“ I have utilized the lockdown period well. I have been able to walk in my building complex, on a 300-meter loop. At home, I have been doing some dumbbell exercises, some bit of stair climbing, eating home food for every meal and catching up on sleep,” he said.

Sometime in May, Zarir took up the challenge of accumulating elevation gain equivalent to that of Mt Everest (8848 meters) in his building, over a period of 20 days. Zarir lives in South Mumbai, in a tower sporting 32 floors. In all, he climbed 3073 floors to cover 8848 meters. In June, he started running and cycling. His home workout and stair climbing made it easier for Zarir to get back into running and cycling with ease despite the long break that happened in between.

Vivek Pophale (Photo: courtesy Vivek)

It was in mid-June that Vivek Pophale resumed his running. By then lockdown norms had begun easing. Running alone was not a problem for him. Earlier too, he had generally trained by himself.  Vivek made his foray into recreational running in 2007, running half marathon races. After he joined the running group Life Pacers in 2017, he attempted his first full marathon in 2018.

The Navi-Mumbai-based amateur runner utilized the lockdown period to focus on an online workout schedule drawn up by his coach, Dnyaneshwar Tidke (Don) of Life Pacers. “ I was involved 100 per cent with this workout,” he said. He enjoyed that indoor exercise regimen. “ I would like to continue running, at least three times a week. Running events are unlikely for the next one year. My plan is to run at an easy pace without compromising my immunity,” Vivek said.

Embracing what you like to do and trying to make a career from it is not easy. There are challenges; not to mention – it is a lonely path with little of the comfort and belonging walking with the majority brings. As a young cyclist trying to make a livelihood from the sport, Sreenath Lakshmikanth has seen his share of ups and downs. It was in early March 2020 that he – Sreenath normally splits his life between Kochi and Bengaluru – shifted to Ooty (7350 feet elevation) to manage a bicycle store there. Ooty had seemed a good place to work and train. Three weeks after he reached the town in the Western Ghats, India courted nationwide lockdown.

Sreenath Lakshmikanth (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Sreenath stays alone. In retrospect, the shift to Ooty appears God sent. Even under normal circumstances, the hills are not as heavily populated as the plains. With lockdown, things thinned out further; the traffic on roads faded. Sreenath didn’t have a home trainer with him. Elsewhere in India, what has kept cyclists occupied is the home trainer. They either pedal away on it or they connect it to virtual reality apps and experience a digital version of being out on the road and racing with others. Viewed so, Sreenath should have been terribly handicapped, parked in Ooty with no home trainer for relief. But things panned out differently in the hill town.

“ I have been lucky. If you remember, we had a one-day curfew that preceded the nationwide lockdown. That day was diligently observed everywhere. On that day, I too did not venture out at all. But otherwise, I have been able to train regularly. My training schedule did not suffer because of lockdown. The only alteration I did was to reduce the length of my endurance rides. That is because we don’t have any races happening at present and so I don’t need to train intensely. Overall, I would estimate that I maintained my training at 70 per cent efficiency,’’ he said. Shorter endurance rides must have also ensured that Sreenath’s outdoor forays remained closer to home and containable.

Worldwide, cycling has picked up as a safe and healthy mode of transport amid pandemic. The bike store Sreenath works at is the only one of its kind in Ooty. The lockdown has encouraged local interest in cycling. People have begun using the opportunity to take to their bicycles, Sreenath said.

Sunder Nagesh (Photo: courtesy Sunder)

Lower pace and easy running appeared the general story in many towns and cities, this July. Hyderabad-based Sunder Nagesh is back on the roads for his regular quota of running. But these days he is running at a reduced pace. As he is running after a gap of some months, he wants to be careful.

He had registered for the Comrades Marathon and also got through to the Chicago Marathon. Comrades Marathon, the ultra-marathon held in South Africa annually, was cancelled and a virtual event was held in its place. With several major races cancelled or postponed, question mark graces the Chicago Marathon too, particularly given the spread of infection in the US.

During the lockdown, Sunder was an active participant in the online workout sessions held by Hyderabad Runners. “ My plan is to continue with these online sessions and also run outside. But I wish to do more than running and start cycling as well,” he said.

Satya Tripathi (Photo: courtesy Satya)

Satya Tripathi resumed his running and cycling in early June after being confined indoors for over two months. But there has been no reliable direction in lockdown; the situation is fluid. Relaxations have relapsed to stringent local lockdown. By early July, that was the case in Navi Mumbai where Satya lives. Just when people breathed a sigh of relief with relaxed rules taking effect, the region went into a strict lockdown originally meant for 10 days and now extended by another six.

Overall the lockdown has impacted the momentum of endurance training, he said. Lack of space to move about is an issue. Running inside the apartment is not advisable as it can lead to injury. Satya stayed engaged with a range of indoor workouts and climbing the stairs of the 13-storey building at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, where he lives.

Satya has enrolled for ` Run to the Moon,’ a virtual run organized by NEB Sports, Participants are required to run a minimum of 65 kilometers and a maximum of 300 kilometers during the one-month period starting from June 20 and ending on July 20, 2020.

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / THREE PROJECTS FROM ALIBAG

Image, courtesy: Sumit Patil

When this blog met Mumbai-based long distance cyclist Sumit Patil for a chat in February 2020, COVID-19 wasn’t yet the stuff of lockdown in India.

The disease was somewhere between worry and real worry; there was what it did in China and Europe and it had made its presence felt in the country. But mask to every human face, deserted roads and loss of livelihood didn’t seem hinted at for immediate future. Shops and cafes at Prabhadevi in the city were busy; people were out, traffic was heavy – there was little pointing to gathering storm, except that sense of uncertainty lingering within. Sumit had projects in mind for the year. The following days indicated need for course correction. The disease was quickly gathering momentum. It was clear that cycling projects in far off locations and travel to those places had become a shaky proposition. Originally a resident of Alibag near Mumbai, the cyclist shifted out from the city to his home in the coastal township, where his parents lived.

Alibag is known for its farmland, beaches and resorts. Not one to idle, Sumit’s first project upon arrival was to get the people around interested in a ride designed such that the aggregate elevation gain of participants would match the elevation of Mt Everest (8848 meters). The project design was clear. This wouldn’t be about people tackling inclines and logging great doses of elevation gain for individual milestone. On the other hand, it would be about keeping personal milestones modest and spreading the effort around so that sense of community is strengthened through goal achieved collectively. The place Sumit chose for the project was Karli Khind in Alibag where a loop of 1.4 kilometers entailing elevation gain of 96 meters (figures are approximate) was possible. That meant close to 95 repeats of the loop would be needed to equal the height of Everest. Sumit had done this on March 13, 2015, a date he recalls as a Friday the 13th. “ For 2020, we decided to restrict the number of loops per head to a maximum of three so that people of varying ability can participate,’’ Sumit said. On the appointed day – March 13 again and a Friday to boot – fifty four people turned up on their bicycles to attempt the project. Riding from 4AM to 7AM, they accumulated in all, 150 loops. Everest and more, was in the bag. A little over ten days later, India slipped into nationwide lockdown. From then till the time of writing, the virus and its capacity for havoc would dominate people’s imagination.

Sumit Patil on his home trainer in Alibag; riding to raise funds for Prabodhan Trust (Photo: courtesy Sumit)

The initial part of the nationwide lockdown was strictly enforced. Those loving the active lifestyle were reduced to working out at home and trotting around in their courtyard or the space around their housing complex. This was the case with Sumit too in Alibag. He ran a bit. Further, among the classic endurance trio – swimming, cycling and running – cycling was best placed to tackle lockdown. Not all cyclists therein, but those with access to home trainers. With a trainer you could do a stationary ride at home. Connect it to one of the emergent virtual reality apps and you could do a ride with self as avatar on computer screen and even have others – represented by their avatars – join you on the ride. Sumit has a home trainer in Alibag. But he is also the sort who can’t shut himself out entirely from reality. It wasn’t long before the pains of the outside world got to him. A major tragedy unfolding through April-May was that of migrant workers. They are the manpower – often overlooked – building big cities and keeping them running. As cities shutdown in panic, these workers were left in the lurch. Thousands of them began trying to get home from the cities and towns they were stuck in. With no public transport available due to lockdown, people walked and cycled long distance to reach their villages. Concerned citizens responded. But given the scale of the problem, the initiatives were often inadequate. Yet for those with a conscience, what little intervention they could do, mattered. The migrant worker issue troubled Sumit. As he put it, if you have been a cyclist, hiker or runner pushing your limits, you would have known what hardship is; you would have also known what a food stall operated by utter stranger or some such relief in the middle of nowhere means to exhausted human being.

Already on Zwift and with the virtual riding season underway, Sumit moved to fashion an initiative around his home trainer. He would ride on the trainer, spread the news of his pedaling on social media and seek contributions. He wanted to ensure that there would be no leakage in the pipeline delivering the funds raised to those in need. A friend introduced him to the Dhule-based Prabodhan Trust. They were already working on the migrant workers issue. Sumit structured his initiative such that people wishing to contribute could do so directly to the Trust. The basic unit of the contribution was fixed at Rs 100 per kilometer ridden.  It was intended to discipline monetary inflows. The hundred rupees could be split as required by those wishing to donate; that is their choice. On May 20, pedaling on his home trainer from Alibag, Sumit covered 644 kilometers in 30 hours. As the ride unfolded on Zwift, some of his friends from the cycling world occasionally kept him company.  “ We raised close to Rs 190,000,’’ Sumit said.

The BRO signboard (Photo: courtesy Sumit)

Virus wasn’t the only challenge nature had in store. Cyclones usually lash India’s east coast washed by the Bay of Bengal. Depressions forming in the calmer Arabian Sea to the west rarely bloomed to cyclone proportion and when they did, generally tended to move north or north-west. The Indian state of Maharashtra had been spared damage by cyclone for long. Thanks to climate change, the behavior of the Arabian Sea has altered in recent years.  Some ten days after Sumit’s ride to raise funds for migrant workers, on May 31, an area of low pressure developed over the Eastern Arabian Sea. In the next couple of days it evolved into a deep depression and by the noon of June 2, it had become a cyclonic storm christened Nisarga. On the afternoon of June 3, it made landfall at Alibag leaving a trail of destruction in the region. “ It was bad, really bad,’’ Sumit said. People rallied around in their respective localities to clean up the damage.

For the past several years, Sumit has been a regular visitor to Leh (Ladakh). He has cycled much in the region and been a guide multiple times for the classic Manali-Leh bicycle trip. The Border Roads Organization (BRO), which maintains important roads in these parts, is known for its memorable signboards. One such board had stayed in Sumit’s memory; it said: Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India Is One. Around mid-June the process of relaxing the nationwide lockdown commenced. Among the rights restored in part during this phase was the freedom to exercise outdoors. A modest amount of running and cycling became possible. Alibag has a young outfit called Alibag Cycling Club. When the idea of a group ride was proposed, it was soon realized – this social tradition loved by every riding club wouldn’t be ideal amid pandemic. Protocols recommend no bunching of people. The paradigm shifted to riding with masks on, maintaining adequate distancing and dispensing with the socializing over refreshments `group’ typically implies. Next you needed an objective that respected above mentioned mode of riding and yet stayed interesting.

Members of the Alibag Cycling Club; this photo was taken on an occasion preceding pandemic and lockdown (Photo: Dr Akshay Koli)

The club picked on Sunday, June 21 – the year’s longest day (summer solstice) – as occasion to host every participant’s longest ride. Once again, the emphasis wasn’t on a few strong riders logging 100-200 kilometers. “ What we wanted was just longer than your longest yet. That could be any small amount. We also suggested ways to make the strain less. In a sunrise to sunset endeavor, you could cycle some hours in the morning, go home for lunch and then cycle again a few hours in the evening,’’ Sumit said. To make the whole thing even more engaging, the imagery in that BRO signboard was invoked and the aerial distance from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, which is roughly over 2500 kilometers, pointed to. It would be wonderful if the aggregate mileage of all participants matched or exceeded that figure. By now, some of Sumit’s friends in cycling sought that the affair not be kept exclusive to riders from Alibag. They should be able to pitch in with rides at other locations. The June 21 ride saw 172 people take part. Their cumulative mileage was in excess of 7000 kilometers. The youngest cyclist participating in the initiative was five year-old Ovi Pathre, who cycled 20 kilometers. Riders from Pune, Panvel and Uran brought in some 200 kilometers. The rest was met by cyclists from Alibag.

At the time of writing, the lockdown was still going on (its severity depending on location and level of infection) and Sumit was still in Alibag.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Photos of the rides of March 13 and June 21 couldn’t be had; according to Sumit, pandemic related protocols and participants cycling on their own meant no opportunity for group photo.)                     

SWIMMING’S PHASE OF WOES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The closure of swimming pools has meant tough times for swimmers, coaches and support staff

While COVID-19 has been a setback for sports at large, it has been particularly harsh on swimming.  And within that the impact has been hardest on competition swimmers.  “ Pools have been shut since around March 19. In competition swimming, there is no real replacement for the swimming pool. Dryland work outs cannot fully substitute training in the pool. It will be difficult for swimmers to get back to earlier performance levels,’’ Zarir Balliwala, President, Greater Mumbai Amateur Aquatics Association (GMAAA) said. The prolonged closure of pools has derailed this year’s district and state level competitions. Question mark graces the nationals too.

According to Zarir, the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) is seized of the matter and it has spoken to the government. But with no response that can be acted upon available yet, the closure continues. With it, elite swimmers training for events like the Olympic Games, endurance swimmers who have crossed channels and straits worldwide as well as recreational swimmers – all have been left high and dry. The tough situation was brought to focus when ace Indian swimmer Virdhawal Khade tweeted mid-June that he may have to consider retiring from the sport if pools stayed shut. Virdhawal is the current national record holder in 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle events and the 50m butterfly. He represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. “ Regaining form will be an uphill task if elite swimmers don’t have access to the pool for long,’’ Sebastian Xavier, former national record holder in swimming who represented the country at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, said. On June 30, 2020, espn.in carried a report by Jonathan Selvaraj on swimmer Sajan Prakash, the only Indian elite swimmer who is currently training, thanks to him being in Thailand. Sajan who is still recovering from injury described his return to the pool after the virus triggered-lockdown. “ Going back to the water, I felt as if my body was made out of stone,” he was quoted as saying in the report.

Most people linked to swimming realize that with the virus sparing little room to argue their case, one has to simply hope for the best amid existing challenges. “ You have to look at the positive side,’’ Kaustubh Radkar, former national level swimmer and now a well-known triathlete and coach, said when asked how swimmers may tackle the predicament. He suggested that the best option would be to treat lockdown with its lack of access to pools, like a period of injury. “ Take it as if you are addressing injury. If I dip into personal experience, I had shoulder surgery in 2009 and was out of action for three months. You have to make the most of what is available. What you can do right now is indulge in shore based exercises and keep a positive attitude,’’ he said. With shoulder injury, Radkar estimates the dip in fitness levels he experienced over those three months at about 50 per cent. Without injury – which would be the apt way to estimate for the current situation – he felt the dip in swimmers’ fitness levels should be 25 per cent.

The above encapsulates only the physical aspect of how swimming is missed. Most people see the pool as a fun environment. That is typical landlubber perspective, one in which swimming is the exception and activity on land is the norm. This isn’t necessarily the perspective when you are a committed swimmer who is very comfortable in water. In that predicament, the way you miss swimming is more visceral. Asked how a dedicated swimmer may miss water, Radkar said that the question cannot be answered generically as the nature and extent of impact varies from person to person. Speaking for himself, he said, “ for me, water is very calming. When I am in the water, it is a perfect state of existence. There is no distraction. It is meditative and positive,’’ he said.  Zarir too recalled tranquility as the essential quality of water. This should give an idea of what exactly those embracing water as preferred medium of sport must be missing in these times of pools shut due to pandemic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Swimming pools have been studied in the past for how they spread disease. The National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI) is part of the United States National Library of Medicine. There is a study titled “ A Review and Update on Waterborne Viral Diseases Associated with Swimming Pools’’ by Lucia Bonadonna and Giuseppina La Rosa, published January 9, 2019, available on its database. The introduction to its abstract says:  Infectious agents, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and molds, may threaten the health of swimming pool bathers. Viruses are a major cause of recreationally-associated waterborne diseases linked to pools, lakes, ponds, thermal pools/spas, rivers, and hot springs. They can make their way into waters through the accidental release of fecal matter, body fluids (saliva, mucus), or skin flakes by symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. In its concluding remarks, the study noted: In light of the health hazards posed by swimming pools, it is essential to constantly monitor water quality in swimming pools and to assess the effectiveness of treatment and disinfection processes and compliance with standards. Specifically, appropriate chemical and microbial evaluation of water quality should be carried out, especially when large numbers of bathers are expected to use the pools. Overcrowding should in any case be prevented. Since the behavior of swimmers may affect water quality, strict rules of behavior in the pool should be followed and enforced, including shower before entering the water, wash hands after using the toilet, take children to bathroom before swimming, and, importantly, avoid swimming while sick. This study provides an overview of the health risks associated with swimming pools. In other words, you can’t pretend risks don’t exist. However the study precedes the COVID-19 pandemic by almost a whole year.

Similar studies specific to our COVID-19 times, were hard to locate. On May 15, 2020, www.covid19facts.com, a website hosted by Reckitt Benckiser (in India, their best-known brand is Dettol) posted an analysis by EIU (Economist Intelligence Unit) Healthcare on the risk of contracting COVID-19 from swimming in the pool or the sea. According to it, the biggest risk with swimming is likely getting too close to other people, for example in enclosed pools, changing rooms or on beaches, rather than infection from the water itself. Citing a report from the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Higher Council for Scientific Research), the analysis said that its authors concluded: it was “highly unlikely” that people would be infected from contact with water. However, they warned, leisure swimming tends to involve a loss of social distancing, which is the major risk from using pools or beaches. In swimming pools, the authors say, “the use of disinfecting agents is widely implemented in order to avoid microbial contamination of the waters” by users. They say that “the residual concentration of the disinfecting agent present in the water should be sufficient for virus inactivation.” They admit there is “currently no data” on what happens to SARS-CoV-2 in seawater, but say that “the dilution effect, as well as the presence of salt, are factors that are likely to contribute to a decrease in viral load and its inactivation.” They say this is based on what happens to other, similar viruses. Rivers, lakes, and untreated pools are riskier, they say, and are “ the most inadvisable aquatic environments” for swimming. The report authors stress that the most likely way people could get infected while swimming “ is through respiratory secretions that are generated by coughing, sneezing and person-to-person contact” in busy spaces. The analysis also cited what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to say on the subject. It quoted CDC: “ There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas. Proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) of these facilities should inactivate the virus in the water.” They also advise that the salt in the sea and dilution effects make it unlikely the virus would survive. CDC’s recommendations in full may be viewed on this link:  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/parks-rec/aquatic-venues.html

In March, when nationwide lockdown was announced in India, the total number of COVID-19 cases was around 500. By July 6, that had changed to a total count (since the disease appeared in India) of almost 700,000 cases; third highest in the world. The original lockdown had relaxed but with relaxation of norms leading to further spread of infection in some places, stringent lockdowns were happening at local level. Such imagery stacks the cards against adopting a kinder view towards swimming pools. The people this blog spoke to agreed that the reopening of pools would have to be a well thought through decision; one that authorities may take only when they are absolutely sure of allowing it. At least one senior coach this blog spoke to said he was anticipating another couple of months of closure. He explained the reason. “ At the complex where I work, during busy hours, we may have around 100 people in the water and almost double that number on land. You can’t have that in a situation like the present. Only when infection numbers have dropped significantly, can we examine possibilities of return to swimming with new protocols in place,’’ he said. Pools have opened in some countries and the general practice seen there is not allowing use of shower rooms, changing rooms and locker rooms. You come ready to swim and once you finish your session, you put your clothes on top of wet swimsuit and go. Asked if it would be possible to open pools just for elite swimmers (so that their training isn’t damaged beyond repair), they felt it should be possible to do that with above said restrictions and strict lane discipline in place. The report on espn.in provided insight on how Sajan Prakash is training at Phuket’s Thanyapura Aquatic Centre. “ Among the rules we have to follow since the opening of swimming pools has been to train in separate lanes. In the past, because we had to share the pool with other members of the centre, we would all have to swim in a single file in the same lane. Very often you’d find someone’s hands touching your toes. It’s much less distracting to have your own lane,” Sajan, who represented India at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, was quoted as saying, in the report.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Athletes are only one aspect of sport. When sport is an industry, there are many others dependent on it. Their livelihood is hit when pandemic strikes and sports goes for a toss. With pools shut, there are swimming coaches and support staff finding it difficult to make ends meet. As with any industry, vulnerability depends on how secure your employment was. “ Those working for big institutions that run swimming pools and those located in major metros, may not be affected severely. But freelancers and the employment ecosystem around pools in smaller cities and towns would have been affected,’’ the head coach at a school in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, reputed for its strength in swimming, said. Sebastian Xavier is among those trying to raise resources to help. He forwarded to this blog information on the fundraiser Lets Pool In, which seeks to support 100 persons from the affected category with a one-time financial grant of Rs 10,000. “ It is a good move,’’ the earlier mentioned coach also said, adding he wished the amount per capita was more. Resident in the emergent livelihood problem around shut swimming pools is a little remembered detail. India’s lockdown started in March, just as summer vacation was approaching. The warm months of summer are when pools are at their busiest; Lets Pool In estimates that the summer months contribute as much as 60 per cent of annual revenues for this industry. So in 2020, the business of swimming pools and coaching therein has already lost its best earnings season. Not to mention – the coaching camps of summer play a role in scouting the next generation of the talented young.

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

LOCKDOWN & ME / F.K.T IN INDIA GETS A BOOST, COURTESY KIEREN D’SOUZA

Kieren D’Souza; from the run up Friendship Peak. He is seen here a few hundred meters below the summit (Photo: 4Play / provided to this blog by Kieren)

It was in early June 2020 that Kieren D’Souza approached the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of Manali with a request, strange for the times in which it was being tabled.

An ultra-runner with affinity for the mountains, it is now some years since Kieren made the tourist town in Himachal Pradesh, his base to train and live. The local mountaineering institute had been where he did his Basic Mountaineering Course years ago; the course had proceeded for training in the direction of Friendship Peak (17,352 feet). A non-technical peak, it is generally recognized as an easy climb. However a mountaineering course unfolds accommodating the wishes and abilities of a large number of students. Kieren’s batch completed their training successfully but did not climb Friendship. The desire to summit it, stayed in his head.

In the years that followed, the young man was acknowledged as a promising ultra-runner. A lover of the outdoors, it wasn’t long before he veered off the distance runs of the cities and embraced trail running and the ultramarathons of altitude. Besides polishing off a clutch of such runs in India, he completed Spartathlon and races within the UTMB fold. All this exposed him to emerging trends in the sport, one of which was the gradual but steady ascent of the mountain athlete – an athlete at the confluence of diverse disciplines like running, hiking and mountaineering.  It was this fancy that Kieren indulged, training and living in Manali, a town at 6725 feet offering quick access to several peaks of modestly high elevation in the neighborhood. He didn’t want to climb them in the regular expedition way or the comparatively lighter alpine style. Instead what fascinated him was the paradigm of fast ascents where the skills of running, hiking and mountaineering blended.  Plus, he wondered about the possibility of commencing the walk or run, right from Manali and ending it there with no car or hired transport in between. Away from the minimalist format, he also thought of attempting peaks in winter.

Challenging as these parameters may seem, fact is – dedication to the task at hand can prepare a person for the demands of aforesaid light, quick raids at altitude. A midnight in August  2016, this writer had seen Kieren running up Khardung La (17,582 feet) in shorts and T-shirt as part of the 111km-race of La Ultra The High. It was quite cold but he managed well. Roughly three years later, Peter Van Geit, hailing from Belgium and based in Chennai, would run across many passes in the Himalaya of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, often clad in nothing but shorts and T-shirt; a small daypack bearing essentials slung from his shoulders. Manali afforded views of several peaks ideal for the minimalist style. None attracted Kieren as much as Friendship, playground of the local mountaineering institute and climbed by many during tourist season. The peak located close to Beas Kund is part of a handful of peaks in the area regularly visited by climbers; other prominent ones in the vicinity of Friendship include Shitidhar (17,224 feet), Ladakhi (17,536 feet) and across the valley – Hanuman Tibba (19,625 feet). Kieren’s first attempt on Friendship was a winter climb. In January 2018, he and Aditya Pandey tried a fast ascent seeking to polish off the peak in under-two days. “ We failed, we didn’t reach the summit. We didn’t have the right gear for climbing in winter,’’ Kieren said over the telephone from Manali. A winter ascent is still on the agenda. It’s a different ball game entailing not just physical fitness but also investment in right gear.

Kieren D’Souza; from the acclimatization run of June 4, ahead of attempting the FKT on Friendship Peak (Photo: 4Play . provided to this blog by Kieren)

Two years later, by February 2020, Kieren was resolved that a run to the summit of Friendship and back should be attempted. Then COVID-19 brought everything to a grinding halt. By late March, all of India had slipped into a nationwide lockdown to check the spread of infection. Sporting activity came to a halt; even the morning jog disappeared as people withdrew indoors. In Manali, Kieren was reduced to working out at home and cycling on his home trainer. This he did, diligently. From late April, the town started allowing two and a half hours of morning exercise. “ I ran as much as I could in that duration,’’ Kieren said. Friendship Peak returned to focus. A young man trying to make ends meet through career in sports, Kieren’s fast ascent project was cast as a mix of athletic performance and media; there would be a film crew to document his journey.

Given lockdown, he needed permission from the authorities. That was how in early June, amid lockdown now relaxed a bit, he ended up at the SDM’s office talking about trail running and a shot at Friendship. He was asked to provide a window of choice for the attempt. It wasn’t hard to zero in on one. The effects of the approaching monsoon would begin to manifest in the region by around June 20. It would be best to wrap up the attempt before that. “ We asked for June 14, 15, 16 and 17,’’ Kieren said. While the process of obtaining approval was underway, on June 4, he essayed a foray up to an elevation of 4000 meters (13,123 feet) on Khanpri Tibba, a nearby mountain, to acclimatize. Once permission was sanctioned by the SDM, on June 14, Kieren did a recce of the trail to Friendship. That too would have contributed some bit to acclimatization.

Kieren started his run on June 16 at 1.02AM from Mall Road, Manali. He ran from Manali to Solang and onward to Dhundi, from where he took the true left of the Beas River and proceeded upstream. That is the path hikers take to reach Beas Kund. However Kieren didn’t require reaching this alpine lake. Much ahead of it is the deviation to the base of Friendship. The mountain’s real ascent starts at a long ridge called Lady Leg. From here onward there was snow. Kieren continued in running gear with one addition for this stage on, being micro-spikes fitted to his shoes. Some ways up, is a col. Members of the film crew were already in place at these points. At the col, he changed to slightly warm attire and traded his running shoes for proper mountaineering boots and crampons. He also left the small backpack he had been running with, there. Roughly three and a half hours later, he was on the summit of Friendship. Altogether, it had taken him seven hours and fifteen minutes to reach there from Mall Road, Manali. The film of the climb shows him running on the return too, all the way to Manali. Kieren told this blog that the GPS data from the trip has been submitted to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) to be officially ratified. The IMF is the apex body for mountaineering in India.

A July 2 report in the South China Morning Post quoting Kieren, positioned the run up Friendship as an exercise in Fastest Known Time (FKT). It is a culture that is quite strong overseas but is yet to catch on in a big way in India. Compared to the institutional scrutiny characterizing records in mainstream outdoor disciplines like mountaineering, FKTs started in the comparatively diffuse regions of outdoor sports – like the overlapping zones of running, hiking and mountaineering. They are actually loved for their informality as regards verification and the organic evolution of new quests. Perhaps you could call them the paradigm adopted till given activity becomes mainstream and formal.  “ With a dwindling number of outdoor milestones to be achieved first, top adventurers are trying to achieve them fastest. Trails of every length and mountains of every size are increasingly becoming racecourses for those lured by the challenge of the F.K.T,’’ an article by John Branch, in the New York Times of August 5, 2015, said. Commissioners in the space are unofficial. In the US, the article said, that position belonged to ultra-runner and former atmospheric physicist Peter Bakwin and the website he commenced. Claims of record timing are naturally accompanied by questions from competition. Bakwin has stepped in occasionally to settle some such disputes. It is a dynamic world in which quests crop up; records are claimed, some record holders specify rules and others question it. “ Trickier questions surround the degree of support the athlete receives: unsupported (carrying all supplies from the beginning), self-supported (collecting additional supplies along the way) and supported (having a team that provides everything from pacesetters to nightly shelter and food). Bakwin lists them all. It is left for readers to decide which is most impressive,’’ the article said. According to it, FKTs have no governing body. On the other hand, as Bakwin points out, the existence of questions and suspicion, indicate how passionately people in the field track FKTs. One of the best known FKT pursuits in the US is trying to be the fastest on the roughly 3500km-long Appalachian Trail (for more on this please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/11/28/the-pursuit-of-endurance/).

Kieren D’Souza; from a run in winter in Manali. The town can be seen in the distance (Photo: Nitish Waila / provided to this blog by Kieren)

In his earlier mentioned piece in the South China Morning Post, Mark Agnew wrote, “ D’Souza hopes that other runners will be inspired to set their own FKT and he has already received messages from other interested mountaineers or runners. But more importantly, he wants to show those who are apprehensive about starting mountaineering that it is not all-consuming. “ I’m not saying they will do it in one day, that’s not the point, but definitely over a shorter time,” D’Souza said.’’ There hasn’t been a culture of documenting FKTs in India. In the past, for instance, a speculated FKT would surface periodically around Stok Kangri (20,190 feet), the popular trekking peak in Ladakh. Outdoor clubs in Maharashtra harbor stories of people who did fast hikes in the Sahyadri. Same holds true for Friendship Peak as well. Kieren told this blog that he was aware of earlier attempts by some of his friends to climb the peak fast but a precedent on Friendship essayed in the specific style he did was unknown to him.

With COVID-19 causing cancellation of major events in running worldwide, Kieren has all of 2020 and likely a chunk of 2021, to focus on projects similar to the one he accomplished on Friendship. There is also the chance to sample the virtual versions of some iconic trail races. UTMB for instance, has said it will be informing of developments in this regard. Kieren can do such runs from Manali.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The heights of peaks and elevation of towns quoted in the article are as available on multiple websites on the Internet.)

VRAAM / BHARAT PANNU FINISHES THIRD

Bharat Pannu (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page)

Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan is first to the finish line

Indian cyclist Lt Col Bharat Pannu was placed third on the leaderboard at the close of the Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM), at 11PM Sydney Eastern Standard Time, June 28. He logged 4086.28 kilometers.

“ After 12 days of hard work, day in and day out, WE DID IT. Successfully finished vRAAM with a total mileage of 4086km! According to the provisional leaderboard – WE MADE IT TO THE PODIUM! Kudos to all the other riders and crew. vRAAM is a race to remember,” an update on Bharat’s Facebook page said. It is understood that official confirmation of race result is awaited.

The event’s Facebook page announced Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan as provisional winner. “ The overall provisional winner who completed the full 4542km course is Hirokazu Suzuki,” the page said. Suzuki cycled 4539.80km in 11 days, 23 hours and two minutes, the leaderboard showed. His time of finishing was given as 17:33 hours, June 28. In second place on the leaderboard was putters29 from the UK. He had covered 4148.40km by race’s close.

At the time of writing, the VRAAM leaderboard was yet to formally specify the time taken to cover whatever distance they did, for riders other than Suzuki. “ All results will be provisional until verified by FulGaz and VRAAM,” the race organizers had said on June 25, while disclosing revised race rules that set the distance for being a finisher at 3248km. Cyclists have attributed the revision of race rules to the event being tougher than expected thanks to increases effected in cumulative elevation gain, probably to compensate for the otherwise contained nature of cycling on a home trainer with required support at hand. According to the revised rules, the winner is “ the competitor who has ridden the farthest distance by the end of the race.’’

Hirokazu Suzuki has participated in RAW and RAAM before (RAW – Race Across the West – is a race over a shorter distance built into RAAM). In an interview with Suzuki during his VRAAM attempt, available on the YouTube channel of ohioraamshow.com, the Japanese cyclist said that riding a trainer for this many days is harder than riding outside. Asked whether he planned to participate in the next edition of RAAM, Suzuki said it would depend on his ability to put together the required budget. The record for the fastest time to finish in the physical format of RAAM is held by Austrian ultra-cyclist Christoph Strasser. In 2014 he covered the race’s 4860km-route in seven days, 15 hours, 56 minutes. Strasser has won RAAM six times.

Hirokazu Suzuki (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of RAAM and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

A post about Suzuki available on the Facebook page of RAAM said: “ He’s done the Race Across the West twice (DNF in 2015, finished in 6th 2016), he was in the 2017 24-Hour Worlds where he finished 9th in the 40-49 group with 392 miles, and the following year he gave it his all in RAAM as only the second from his nation to attempt solo RAAM — the first was Kaname Sakurai who raced four years consecutively in the late 1990s.” It further added, “ As with many of us, Suzuki’s saddle time in recent months has been indoors, “I rode a bicycle 7365 km (4576 miles) by May—all on the indoor trainer (Zwift and Fulgaz). I was thinking of giving up riding a bicycle, but when I heard about the VRAAM, I suddenly decided to resume training.” The disappointment of his RAAM DNF has evidently weighed heavy on Suzuki, “I thought my challenge was over, and I never thought I’d have a chance to get revenge like this. The preparation time is short, but I will do my best. I want to continue cycling.”

The virtual version of RAAM followed the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the real race, announced on April 3. The subsequent virtual race was hosted on FulGaz, an Australian cycling app. Participants pedaled on a home trainer at location of their choice, the distance they logged appearing on screen as movement across the US. RAAM – its route runs from the US west coast to the east – is one of cycling’s toughest endurance races. Bharat, who is a familiar face in ultracycling in India, had been training for RAAM for the past couple of years. His 2019 attempt was prematurely terminated following an injury he sustained while training in the US. The subsequent 2020 attempt appeared lost due to pandemic till it found an extra lease of life in VRAAM. The virtual race – like the real one – had a cut-off of 12 days. The total distance to cover in the real race is approximately 4800km. Bharat did VRAAM in Pune. He had a crew to support him; two of them – Major Sandeep Kumar and Arham Shaikh – took the opportunity to complete VRAW (the virtual version of RAW).

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