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.)

ULTRA-RUNNING / INDIAN WOMEN MAKE THEIR MARK

From the 2019 100k IAU Asia & Oceania Championships held in Aqaba, Jordan. The Indian women’s team had placed second (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

This is an article by invitation. Sunil Chainani, marathon runner closely associated with Indian ultra-running teams, writes about the advances Indian women have made in the sport.  

  • At the 2019 100 kilometer IAU (International Association of Ultrarunning) Asia & Oceania Championships, held at Aqaba, Jordan, Anjali Saraogi set a new national best for the distance. She completed the run in nine hours, 22 minutes, breaking her previous record of 9:40:35. At the same course, debutant Nupur Singh ran the 100k in 9:36:15.
  • At the 2019 24-hour World Championships, at Albi, France, Apoorva Chaudhary notched up a distance of 202.211 km, a national best for women in this category of ultra-running event.
  • At the same 24-hour World Championships, Priyanka Bhatt covered a distance of 192.845 km.

In April 2020, RunRepeat.com published a study on trends in ultra-running. The study, done jointly by RunRepeat.com and IAU, analysed over five million results from more than 15,000 ultra-running events spread over the past 23 years.

Among the key findings was an interesting point – women runners were found to be faster than male runners in distances exceeding 195 miles (313.82km). “ The longer the distance the shorter the gender pace gap. In 5Ks men run 17.9% faster than women, at marathon distance the difference is just 11.1%, 100-mile races see the difference shrink to just .25%, and above 195 miles, women are actually 0.6% faster than men,’’ the study said.

Nupur Singh (Photo: courtesy Nupur)

The number of women participating in ultra-running events worldwide had also increased. Overall participation of runners grew steeply, showing a 345 percent increase in the last 10 years. According to the study, currently in ultra-running events, women runners account for 23 percent participation, up from 14 percent, 23 years ago.

Although running as a sport has been around for long, the modern running movement started taking roots in India only by the twenty first century. First off the mark was the craze for the marathon. Till around 2007, ultra-running was a little known sport in India. Participation in greater numbers in this endurance sport has been fairly recent, coinciding with the country’s growing passion for running the marathon. As distance running took off in big cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi, the stream of those attempting distances beyond the marathon started to rise, slowly but steadily. From only a handful of ultra-running events a decade ago, the Indian count of events in the space, have grown and we have almost 50 ultra events in the calendar now.

The number of women participating in ultra-running events has risen but continues to be low compared to global levels. Alongside, the standard of performance has improved rapidly, especially that of women. While an increasing number of women were running ultra-running events in India and participating in South Africa’s Comrades Marathon, the biggest ultramarathon in the world, very few were competing in international events till 2016. Unlike in other athletic events, there was no formal Indian participation at regional and world championships.

Priyanka Bhatt (Photo: courtesy Priyanka)

In 2017 India became a member of the IAU; the sport also came under the umbrella of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the apex body for athletics in the country. In the same year, Indian teams participated in the World Trail and 24-hour Championships.

Till early 2018, even with lower cut-off standards compared to today, India found it tough to get more than one or two women to qualify for the national team. In the last two years things have changed and now we have women competing for places on the team.

Anjali Saraogi’s performance has been remarkable in the arena of ultra-running. She fought illness and injury to keep raising the bar and stay ahead of others several years junior to her. Anjali has repeatedly proved that ‘mind over matter’ is important in ultras. She has scaled great heights in the sport despite being based in Kolkata, a city which has much less of a running culture compared to Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Anjali was the star of the Indian team that bagged the silver medal at the Asia & Oceania 100 k championships in Jordan in 2019 – the team came really close to getting gold as we finished in 30:40:33, just 19 minutes behind a strong Australian team. She set a National best of 9:22 at this championship, shaving 18 minutes of her own best time on a tough course where world class athletes were 45-60 minutes slower than their normal times. For Anjali, running is a passion. She believes that destination is but a natural outcome of being focused on the process and journey and her willingness to brave adversities have helped her immensely.

According to her, improvements in her running have always been a part of “following my heart.” Her advice to aspiring women runners is: you will face many challenges but every low is followed by a high. Sometimes, all that we need is patience, self-belief and honesty towards self. The result will be beautiful.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Stadium ultras have gained substantial momentum over the past few years and within that the 24-hour stadium runs have witnessed a surge in the participation of women. Initially, our runners were more focussed on surviving the 24 hours with not much focus on timing. But this changed from 2017 when India sent out its first team for the IAU 24-hour World Championships in Belfast.

At the Belfast event, we had the first two Indian women cross the 160 km mark – Meenal Kotak with 160.328 km and Aparna Chaudhary with 169.245 km, which was a national best for 24-hour runs at that time. Aparna’s record lasted barely one year. Meenal broke it with her run of 175.48 km in Bengaluru in August 2018. This was then bettered by Gurgaon-based Apoorva Chaudhary, who ran 176.8 km in December 2018.

Apoorva’s improvement has been truly impressive – she bettered her own mark by an astonishing 15 percent at the IAU 24-hour World Championships, held at Albi, France, in October 2019 and became the first Indian woman to cross the 200 km mark. Equally inspiring was the performance of Priyanka Bhatt, who improved her July 2019 performance of 170 km by almost 23 km at the World Championships. Nine of the top ten 24-hour performances have been achieved between 2018 and now, and we can expect our women to keep raising the bar.

Apoorva attributes her improvement to increased mileage, better nutrition, adequate rest and increased focus on flexibility and strength training. “ I changed mentally by starting to visualize my performance on race day – replacing negative words with positive words. I set challenging goals and focused on achieving them,” she said.

Apoorva Chaudhary (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

Ultra running requires long hours of training. Given the traffic and weather conditions in our cities, such training is usually possible only early in the morning. Our women athletes face several challenges including work and family pressures, safety while running, lack of training partners and limited access to coaches, sports physiotherapists and nutritionists.

It is extremely heartening to see the emergence of new runners from across the country; competition for places in the Indian teams is getting tougher. Athletes are now training much more scientifically with additional focus on strength training and nutrition.

The performance of these amazing women has led to many more women believing in their abilities and we should hopefully see continued improvement in our standards in the coming years. Provided positive conditions, it is likely that in the next 1-2 years we could see the following marks being achieved by our women ultra-runners:

  • 100 K – 8:30-8:45
  • 24 H – 220-230 km

Listed below are the best performances achieved by our women in different category of races. Almost all the records have been set in the past 12 months and some of the runners from the 2017 and 2018 teams are now finding it tough to qualify.

Comrades

  1. Anjali Saraogi (2017) – 8:38:23
  2. Gunjan Khurana (2019) – 9:47:42

100 K

  1. Anjali Saraogi (2019) – 9:22:00
  2. Nupur Singh (2019) – 9:36:15
  3. Anjali Saraogi (2018) – 9:40:35
  4. Gunjan Khurana (2019) – 9:57:33
  5. Darishisha Iangdoh (2019) – 10:19:28

(Note – the performance of Anjali, Nupur and Gunjan in 2019 was on a tough course in Jordan where world class athletes from Japan were 45-60 minutes slower than their personal best timings)

24 Hours

  1. Apoorva Chaudhary (2019) – 202.211 km
  2. Priyanka Bhatt (2019) – 192.845 km
  3. Apoorva Chaudhary (2018) – 176.8 km
  4. Bindu Juneja (2020) – 176.67 km
  5. Meenal Kotak (2018) – 175.48 km
  6. Hemlata Saini (2019) – 173.177 km
  7. Deepti Chaudhary (2020) – 171.23 km

(The author, Sunil Chainani, is a Bengaluru-based management consultant and runner. He is a member of the committee appointed by AFI that oversees the selection of Indian ultra teams and has been a support member of Indian teams that participated in recent international events. This article was edited by Latha Venkatraman. The findings of the RunRepeat.com-IAU study may be accessed on this link: https://runrepeat.com/state-of-ultra-running)

VRAAM / BHARAT MAINTAINS HIS POSITION

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Please see the updates at the end of this article. Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan concludes his ride on June 28 evening with 4539.80km logged; VRAAM’s Facebook page mentions him as provisional winner.

Indian cyclist Lt Col Bharat Pannu has been maintaining his position in the top quartet of the ongoing Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM).

As of 12.30PM, June 27, he was placed third with 3526.01 kilometers covered. Except for Japan’s Hirokazu Suzuki who has stayed secure at the very front – at the time of writing he was at 4024.07km – positions have been switching back and forth in the tightly packed places from second to fourth. In second position, just ahead of Bharat was Putters29 (UK) at 3576.97km while in fourth, was Mixirica (Brazil) at 3477.15km.

In fifth place was Filipe Matos of Portugal with 3264.53km pedaled. From fifth to eighth place (3228.89km) as well, the riders were separated by narrow margin. As per revised race rules, the distance for being a finisher at VRAAM has been set at 3248km, reached latest by 11PM (Sydney Eastern Standard Time), June 28. Those aspiring for podium finish would continue riding. “ The winner will be the competitor who has ridden the farthest distance by the end of the race,’’ organizers had informed on June 25.

VRAAM has the same overall cut-off as RAAM – 12 days. Participating cyclists have said that tweaks to cumulative elevation gain – done reportedly to compensate for the otherwise comfortable setting of being at home and cycling on a home trainer – have made the race (and the shorter VRAW built into it) tougher than anticipated.

Meanwhile, from Indian cyclists attempting VRAW, Anand Verma was seen to have completed in 10 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes. Earlier, Vivek Shah had been the first Indian cyclist to complete VRAW; he placed eleventh overall. Following him were Jitendra, Major Sandeep Kumar (sandeeptrooper), Sachin Shirbhavikar and Praveen Sapkal; the latest being Anand Verma who placed 52nd overall. Arham Shaikh was at 1352.66km (as of 12.30PM, June 27). To finish VRAW, cyclist has to totally pedal 1528.20km in 12 days. Arham, who is part of Bharat’s support crew, started his attempt of VRAW much after the others had commenced.

Update 1: As at 10:07AM, June 28, Bharat had covered 3915.57km; he was continuing in third place. Potters29 (UK) was placed second at 4025.15km and Mixirica (Brazil) was fourth with 3878.29km under his belt. Hirokazu Suzuki with 4392.67km pedaled, was leading the field. In VRAW, Arham Shaikh completed the 1528.20km distance in seven days, 13 hours and 50 minutes to place 36th overall. Given the leaderboard is dynamic, the overall position of Indian finishers in VRAW at said hour was as follows: Vivek Shah (11), Jitendra (19), Sandeep Kumar (22), Sachin Shirbavikar (34), Arham (36), Praveen Sapkal (42) and Anand Verma (51).

Update 2: Checked at 7.50PM (IST), June 28, the VRAAM leaderboard showed that Japan’s Hirokazu Suzuki had concluded his ride at 4539.80 kilometers logged. He covered the distance in 11 days, 23 hours and two minutes. His time of finishing was given as 17:33 hours, June 28. Putters29 (UK) was in second position at 4148.40km while Bharat was third at 4086.28km. Mixirica (Brazil) was placed fourth with 4066.91km. At the time of writing, Suzuki was the only rider yet with a formal finish time. While as per revised race rules announced on June 25, anyone covering 3248km by 11PM Sydney Easter Standard Time on June 28 is deemed a VRAAM finisher “ the winner will be the competitor who has ridden the farthest distance by the end of the race.” The Facebook page of VRAAM said, “ the overall provisional winner who completed the full 4542km course is Hirokazu Suzuki.”

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

COMING UP: SPORTS AS PART OF CURRICULUM

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

It is a good move but keeping a few concerns in mind wouldn’t hurt

If you take the typical Indian school and college education, there won’t be a day that passes by without emphasis on academics. In the glaring divide between curricular and extra-curricular activities, the latter – even if it contributes more to shaping an individual – is distant second. You may excel at arts and sports but it counts for little, except a sprinkling of grace marks. There is also this angle of how close to academics and bolstering its luster, your chosen interest is. Things literary agree with the Indian mind. As do music and dance, if they happen to be the classical sort. Cultural tastes that are more freewheeling or innovative, and sports – they don’t count as much.

Indeed the best way to sell sports in India is to highlight how the active life helps overall, including in studies. Needless to say, back in my school and college days, someone good at sports typically meant either an average student or a straggler in academics bailed out by grace marks. It was rare to find a combination of academic excellence and excellence at sports. For a long time, we justified the academics heavy approach on the grounds of India being a third world country where career took precedence. Now however, the continued justification reeks of conservative mindset.

Liberation from this academics-centric approach has been the dream of many Indian students. Even present day parents should agree because the number of middle aged adults and senior citizens who can convincingly say that they discovered what they are and got around to doing what they like to do, are few. Maybe none of us will ever really know that. But it remains one of life’s great quests and if great quests and questions are what education is all about, then, teaching you to discover yourself and become what you think you can be (or what all you can be), should be the purpose of going to school and college. Sport is an important tool in this journey. It tells you much about what you are the first time you rendezvous with it; it goes on to tell you what you are capable of as you train and improve. By what yardstick can you say this isn’t education? Media reports of June 11, 2020 quoted the Union Minister for Sports, Kiren Rijiju, saying that sports is set to become part of educational curriculum. It was encouraging news. The details of government policy in this regard, are still not known. But viewed as promised move, it hints of benefits.

Besides introducing young people to sports and putting sports on a more even platform with academics, it should provide job opportunities and job security to those specialized in physical education and coaching. Amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, Kolkata-based newspaper, The Telegraph, had carried an insightful article on the plight of those teaching non-core subjects at school, sports being one. When things shrink to essential (as in lockdown), like a drowning man reaching for a log, the Indian imagination of education instantly grabs academics to stay afloat. The rest become dispensable. If sport is part of curriculum, such injustice to the ` dispensable’ may become rare. Given the benefits of the government move can be imagined, let me focus on a couple of concerns. After all, good policy reserves vision to address concerns as well.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For most people Brie Larson is the actor who played Captain Marvel on screen. In 2017, she directed a film called ` Unicorn Store.’ Three years later, it was among films I watched during the COVID-19 lockdown. What made me click on the film when it showed up on Netflix was the presence of Joan Cusack in the cast. She is a wonderful actor. As it turned out, I found nothing remarkable about the movie. But towards the final quarter, there was a stunning piece of dialogue from Cusack’s character, addressed to her daughter played by Larson; it went: the most grown up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about. I will remember Larson’s directorial debut for that single sentence, which encapsulates an approach that is the abject opposite of what the Indian education system drills into you. Here it is all about success and winning; to the extent, very few venture into unfamiliar territory including what they actually care about. Perpetuated across the years and imposed on large populations, this authors a mental trap. It skews the imagination towards certain priorities as though nothing else matters. This tenor is present in the Indian interpretation of sport too. I never forget what I once saw at the swimming pool of a housing society. A child, who was clearly hydrophobic, being shamed in front of others by his coach as the parents watched approvingly.

In India, the drive is to excel; not become comfortable with what you are doing as prerequisite to decide in due course, how you would like to navigate further.  A good example is the popular positioning of the Olympic Games as elite aspiration in sport. That is premature strategy when exploration of sport hasn’t happened yet at the required breadth and depth in India, a country of 1.3 billion people. It is the potential panacea for this predicament, which we see in the government move to make sport part of educational curriculum as well as the realistic assessment that the 2028 Olympics and not the earlier editions would be practical goal to improve medals tally. Still if you foray with Olympics as direction, you risk putting people off through excess evangelism of one sort and search for suitable talent. Instead, can you make young people fall in love with sport? Can you make them love it such that they don’t mind failing at activities they care about and come back for more?

Opening up young minds to the myriad possibilities indulging in athletics or playing a game offers, is an engaging task. Some won’t have a mountain to climb; they are already so good that all they need to do is slide into the lake of success. It is a coach / teacher who works with average talent and takes them places that you should applaud, not the ones making a beeline to train the best primed talent.  India has too many teachers / coaches of the latter sort; it is also what parents endorse. So you see, before we make tall claims for the future, there is a way of looking at human beings that has to be put in place. Without it, we risk doing to sports what we have already done in our mainstream academic education. One approach worth mentioning in this regard is India’s amateur running movement. Except some from the corporate category who are forced into it because it is the in thing to do at offices, amateur running is a personal choice. It is also a conscious choice because for many, it is an option exercised in midlife. There is no compulsion; no coercion. Yet the performances returned by Indians in their thirties, forties and fifties – long past the energy of school and college – has been fantastic. There are now several people running sub-three marathons from these age groups and in 2019, we had the first Indian finisher in a 555km ultramarathon at altitude. Marathons and ultramarathons are not for school and college. Point is – isn’t there something for educational curriculum to learn from these cases of results gained through affection for something and not, compulsion to do it?

Second, not everyone will be good at sport. There will be those whose wiring is different. There will also be those whose wiring is neither for academics nor sports. If the intention of making sports part of the curriculum is to treat these segments the same way those inclined to sport were once treated, then, you are not educating. You merely author one more reason to rank youngsters into winners and losers. Under education, we must all be helped to find ourselves and our capabilities. Sport – and academics – should not be put on a pedestal. It must be there at the same level as any other potential, resident in the human being.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Finally, there is the issue of a blindness upon us that isn’t for want of eyes but happens because we block vision with our insularity. In sport, there is an insularity born from world view by nothing but athletic prowess and the disciplined focus which goes into accessing that prowess. When everything is focused on performance, the mind becomes dull to so many things that are critical to keeping us aware overall. That is when like art hijacked for propaganda, sport degrades to being an appendage in service of other goals, political ideology and image building being examples. Mass displays of athleticism and physical coordination – the sort seen at certain giant ceremonies – also betray this tenor. Just like money is no guarantee of brilliance and some billionaires have uttered the most stupid things, pursuit of sports holds forth promise of awareness; it does not guarantee it. If you want a mind that is conscious of existence and responds consciously, then introduction to sport and one’s rooting in it has to be an experience immersed in appreciation of freedom. Individual and freedom – these are the two fundamental building blocks of awareness. That’s why the swimming pool episode matters – that little boy’s sense of individual was crushed; forced to perform and conform he would have also lost his appreciation for freedom. Instead, doesn’t he deserve the chance to overcome his fear of water, fall in love with it and find out if a swimmer lives in him?

It is this author’s personal opinion that notwithstanding instances of excellence produced, India’s mainstream academic education has contributed little to overall awareness and appreciation of existence. We are like foot soldiers following set recipes (all reform seeks to do is replace one curriculum with another). We shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in sport. Sport should set us free.

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

VRAAM / BHARAT PANNU IN TOP QUARTET

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

Please see updates at the end of this article; revised rules for finishing were disclosed on the afternoon of June 25.

In the ongoing Virtual Race Across America (VRAAM), Lt Col Bharat Pannu was in third position overall as of 2AM, June 25. The leaderboard of the race showed that he had covered 2784.61 kilometers in the days since June 16, when the event commenced.

In the lead was Hirokazu Suzuki of Japan who had pedaled 3169.06 km. Second and fourth places were held by cyclists from the UK; a cyclist identified as putters29 at 2792.32 km and Brad Lincoln at 2748.45km, respectively. The second, third and fourth places were thus separated by narrow margin. At 10.45PM on June 24, Bharat was in fact placed second. In a Facebook post on the approach to Day 9 of the race, Bharat noted that although much distance still remained, “  I can very gladly say that the toughest sections of the race are now over.”

The virtual version of RAAM follows the cancellation of the 2020 edition of the real race, announced on April 3. The subsequent virtual race is being hosted on FulGaz, an Australian cycling app. Participants pedal on a home trainer at location of their choice, the distance they log 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 – has a cut-off of 12 days. The total distance to cover in the real race is approximately 4800km. At the time of writing, 22 riders were listed on the VRAAM leaderboard (accessed via FulGaz website) of which 15 had gone past 1000km and 11, more than 2000km.

Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

RAAM has a second race built into it – Race Across West (RAW) – which is smaller and runs along the initial portion of the race route. Major Sandeep Kumar, who is a keen cyclist and part of Bharat’s support crew, completed the virtual version of RAW – VRAW – successfully. He covered the distance of 1528km in five days, seven hours and 33 minutes. As of early June 25 on the VRAW leaderboard, he was placed 23rd overall and third among Indian cyclists (he features as sandeeptrooper). The first Indian cyclist to complete VRAW was Vivek Shah. He did so in four days, 10 hours and 33 minutes.  The second Indian cyclist at the finish line was Jitendra who completed in four days, 23 hours and 58 minutes. The fourth Indian cyclist to finish was Sachin Shirbavikar (seven days, 25 minutes). Praveen Sapkal (1342.74km) and Anand Verma (1143.37km) were still on their way. At the top of the VRAW heap was Simon Potter of the UK; he completed the race in three days, five hours and 11 minutes.

Unlike the real RAW which has a cut-off of 92 hours, the virtual race has the same duration as VRAAM – 12 days. This allows interested riders to take their shot at this smaller race any time in that duration. At the time of writing, the positions on the VRAW leaderboard were therefore still dynamic. For those supporting a VRAAM participant as member of his crew, the longer cut-off in VRAW is particularly useful.  With Sandeep having completed VRAW, fellow member of Bharat’s support crew and a former finisher in the eight person-team category at RAAM, Arham Shaikh, has since commenced his attempt at VRAW. As of 2.20AM on June 25, Arham had logged 909.18km as per the virtual race’s leaderboard. All three – Bharat, Sandeep and Arham – were cycling in Pune.

Arham Shaikh (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Sandeep said that VRAW had been a learning experience for him. “ I learnt a lot as regards managing nutrition and sleep, not to mention extended hours on the saddle. The event has raised my self-confidence and I will be looking for further challenges in ultra-cycling now,’’ he said. VRAW also gave him the opportunity to be at home and yet compete with good cyclists from around the world. “ It was the best I could reap from lockdown conditions,’’ he said. In the first 24 hours of the race Sandeep covered more than 350km. Thereafter he had a difficult phase due to an emergent knee problem that was then contained with the help of the team physio. From the third day onward things started to improve. “ It was however a grueling race for me,’’ he said. The main reason for this was the additional dose of elevation gain that the race designers introduced. It was probably done to compensate for the otherwise stationary nature of virtual racing with all that you need for support, at hand. According to Sandeep, in VRAW, the elevation gain freshly added was of the order of around 10,000m; it took cumulative elevation gain over the 1528km pedaled to around 25,000m. “ We were just climbing,’’ he said laughing. Similar tweaks have been done to the parameters of the significantly longer VRAAM too. In his earlier mentioned Facebook post, Bharat provided a break up of how the race had progressed (distance cycled plus cumulative elevation gain) till Day 8: Day 1 – 399km / 11,500m; Day 2 – 767km / 17,800m, Day 3 – 1,180km / 23,400m, Day 4 – 1,470km / 28,400m, Day 5 – 1,843km / 33,000m, Day 6 – 2,078km / 39,000m, Day 7 – 2,358km / 45,650m. The real race is known to have cumulative elevation gain of over 170,000 feet (51,816m).

According to Sandeep, he took some time to get used to the FulGaz platform. Up until the VRAW attempt, for his home-based training, he had been mostly a user of Zwift. The new technology required the group he was with, to correspondingly upgrade their computer and telecom hardware. Thus even as they didn’t leave India for a real race overseas, the virtual project wasn’t without its imprint on the purse. Then there was technology’s teething problems to sort out; primarily lags in updates registering on the app’s screen while the cycling was on. “ FulGaz listened. They were supportive and sorted the issues out,’’ Sandeep said.

Update 1: In a major revision to the rules of the race, VRAAM informed on June 25 via its Facebook page that any rider covering 3248km within the stipulated cut-off period would be deemed a finisher. The message read:

After careful consideration and a thorough review of the VRAAM course, in addition to the health and well being of all competitors we have made the decision to reduce the official race qualifying finish distance to 3248km.

To be an official VRAAM finisher competitors will need to complete the following;

Complete 3,248km by 11pm June 28th Sydney Eastern Standard Time

All results will be provisional until verified by FulGaz and VRAAM. Race Across America HQ will verify the official solo RAAM qualification distance within the next 48 hours.

The winner will be the competitor who has ridden the furthest distance by the end of the race.

When contacted, Sandeep said that the challenging parameters of the virtual race had been taking a toll on riders participating from various parts of the world. There was concern growing over how people may finish because after more than nine days on the saddle and the route proving tough, riders hopeful of finishing continued to stare at good distance still left to cover. In their urge to complete, sleep levels had been dropping. There was fatigue. A couple of good riders reported injury. It is assumed that these factors may have led to the revision of rules. “ Bharat has been fine so far. But we have to be careful because the onset of injury is typically sudden,” he said.  As regards podium finish, the understanding in Pune was that those pursuing it would have to keep riding past the 3248km currently assigned to finish. Cyclists riding the farthest by race’s close (the end of the 12 day-duration) would be best placed to claim space on the podium. As of 2.35PM June 25, the second and third positions on the VRAAM leaderboard had changed from what it was much earlier in the day. Bharat was back in second place having covered 3015.92km; a rider identified as mixirica from Brazil was placed third at 3012.28km. Putters29 had slipped to fourth (3001.14km). These positions continued to be bunched. Suzuki of Japan was way ahead at 3354.04km.

Update 2: Checked at 12.40PM on June 26, Bharat was in fourth position having logged 3326.76km. That placed him well past the 3248km, which is the revised distance to be deemed a VRAAM finisher. Mixirica (Brazil) was at 3352.45km and potters29 (UK) at 3354.59km; Suzuki was at 3573.46km. Meanwhile from among Indian cyclists attempting VRAW, Praveen Sapkal had finished in nine days, two hours and 38 minutes. Anand Verma was at 1329.96km and Arham, at 1240.03km.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Names from the leaderboard quoted in the article are as they appeared on the list. In some cases there was no gap between first name and surname; discretion had to be suitably exercised for the purpose of writing.)         

COVID-19 AND THAT DRUG IN A MOUNTAINEER’S FIRST AID KIT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A drug that is familiar to mountaineers finds mention in humanity’s ongoing tussle with COVID-19. We use the juncture as an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and the drug in question.

Dexamethasone has been part of medicines used to treat high altitude illness for several years. Notwithstanding the lives it may have quietly saved so, its moment in the limelight happened in mid-June 2020 when news reports from the UK said, it was proving to be a life-saver in the battle with COVID-19. The drug’s name wouldn’t have escaped the attention of mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts. Proper acclimatization, hydration, descent to safe altitude when beset with discomfort and having acetazolamide and dexamethasone in the first aid kit, form the classic defence against high altitude illness.

Colonel (Dr) S. P. Singh (Retd) is currently Additional Professor, Department of Physiology, All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS), Rishikesh.  He runs India’s first course in High Altitude Medicine there. A product of the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC), Pune, Dr Singh has been working in the field of high altitude medicine and physiology since 2008 when he was posted to the Indian Army’s High Altitude Medical Research Centre, in Leh (Ladakh). He has a number of publications in the field and was a member of the team that wrote the latest edition of the army’s guidelines for prevention and treatment of high altitude illness. Dr Singh responded to questions posed by this blog.

“ Dexamethasone is a medicine that is used for treating a large number of illnesses, including those due to inflammation (within that, auto-immune diseases where the body’s immune system attacks its own cells; for example: rheumatoid arthritis) and allergy; for example: skin allergies, eye allergies etc. It is also used as a life-saving drug when severe inflammation threatens dire consequences. The body produces corticosteroid hormones (better known to doctors as glucocorticoids) which are essential for life and continuously regulate a host of functions including energy production, water content of the body, immune regulation and behavior. An important function of glucocorticoids is to help us overcome stress. The term stress implies any shift in the environment that changes or threatens to change the existing optimal state of the body. Thus, extreme heat, cold, low environmental oxygen ere all examples of stress. Large amounts of glucocorticoids are secreted by the adrenal glands of the body to help overcome stress, ‘’ he said.

Dexamethasone in the context of AMS

In mountaineering, dexamethasone is spoken of in the context of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).  According to Dr Singh, AMS is the most common illness to occur in un-acclimatized sojourners arriving at High Altitude (>2700m/9000ft). It consists of a constellation of symptoms viz., headache, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, giddiness / dizziness and weakness / fatigue. Most people who develop these symptoms recover spontaneously or with symptomatic therapy (pain killers, anti-vomiting drugs and rest) within 2-3 days. Thus, AMS is a harmless illness, in terms of no threat to life and limb. Yet, it is important that people with AMS not ascend higher till their symptoms resolve completely. This is so, because we believe that approximately one per cent of people with AMS will develop High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) if they ascend higher while symptomatic. HACE involves collection of excess water in the brain (brain edema) and can kill a person within hours of onset.

Hypoxia (the condition in which, the body or a portion of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply at the tissue level) is the direct cause of AMS. It leads to an increase in the pressure of Cerebro-Spinal Fluid (CSF – a derivative of blood in which the brain and spinal cord float) inside the skull. This is associated with increased leakiness of brain capillaries, which allows excess water to enter the brain from the blood causing very mild brain edema (in contrast to the florid edema of HACE). The cause of the increased leakiness of capillaries might be mild inflammation due to low oxygen at high altitude. Dexamethasone appears to prevent / treat AMS / HACE by inhibiting inflammation, preventing / reducing capillary leakiness and improving blood oxygen levels by salutary effects on the lungs. Because steroids have a general action to help us overcome stress, dexamethasone helps overcome the stresses of high altitude in the first few days while the body responds to and settles down in the new environment.

Since dexamethasone decreases capillary leakiness and has positive effects on the lungs to improve blood oxygen levels, it is of benefit in the prevention and treatment of AMS, HACE and HAPE. However, dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid. “ It is important to remember that much higher doses of (synthetic) corticosteroid are given, than are naturally present in the body, to suppress inflammation and allergy. These high doses also carry the risk of significant adverse effects. For instance:  when given in the case of pneumonia due to a bacterial infection, dexamethasone will suppress fever and symptoms of lung infection but if the infection is not treated simultaneously with antibiotics it will spread throughout the body. Therapeutic doses must, therefore, be given with great caution, under strict supervision, along with other therapy,’’ Dr Singh said.

Descent is the definitive cure for all high altitude illness

The other major drug for AMS is acetazolamide (Diamox). According to Dr Singh, acetazolamide creates a mild acidosis in the body. This counters the alkalosis (the normal pH of blood is 7.35 – 7.45. pH<7.35 is acidosis and pH>7.45 is alkalosis) that is inherent on ascent to altitude. As a result of the acidosis caused by acetazolamide the rate and depth of breathing increases and the water content of the body reduces (due to excess urination). These effects are bound to be beneficial because more breathing means more oxygen in the body. Also, since AMS / HACE / HAPE are all conditions of excess water in the brain / lungs; maybe less water in the body helps. Acetazolamide also has a mild direct effect of decreasing the pressure inside the skull by reducing formation of CSF. “ Acetazolamide is best known for preventing AMS / HACE and has a smaller role (as dexamethasone) in the treatment of these conditions too, although dexamethasone is far superior for treatment. Clinical experience and some scientific studies suggest that acetazolamide may have a role in the prevention of HAPE too. This is, however, not yet established,’’ Dr Singh said.

High altitude; from an expedition to Denali (20,310 ft) in Alaska (Photo: courtesy Seema Pai)

In the context of AMS, both these drugs – acetazolamide and dexamethasone – are typically talked of as prophylactic treatment. Dr Singh explained it. “ Prophylaxis means to administer a drug before the occurrence of an illness, when the chances of the illness occurring are high, to prevent the occurrence of the illness. For example: hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) has been touted for prophylaxis / prevention of COVID-19. As already brought out, dexamethasone is effective in the cure of AMS but is usually not necessary. AMS is amenable to symptomatic therapy (pain killer for headache, anti-vomiting drugs for nausea / vomiting) and if needed some oxygen supplementation for a short period (usually 30-60 minutes helps significantly). Descent is not necessary for the treatment of AMS, but the decision must be guided by local conditions, tour itinerary and logistics. For example: if the rest of the team has no option but to ascend and the person with AMS can’t be left alone, it is better to send him down with one more person rather than risk HACE by ascent. Cases of HACE and HAPE must descend as soon as possible, unless, of course, institutional care is available at the altitude of occurrence. For instance: people arriving in Leh, who develop HAPE or HACE are treated in the hospitals there. After recovery, the patient with HACE should not ascend further but the person with HAPE may, with exercise of due caution. Descent is the definitive cure for all high altitude illness,’’ he said.

In general, acetazolamide (Diamox) would seem more popular with the outdoor fraternity as a means to check AMS. It is a good drug for prevention of AMS / HACE and may be of benefit for prevention of HAPE too. “ More importantly acetazolamide is a safe drug. It is given to some patients with eye problems (glaucoma) for months and years with minimal adverse effects. So, we know it is safe. With dexamethasone one must be careful of the dose and duration it is taken and even so, some people might develop adverse effects at lower doses or shorter durations,’’ Dr Singh said. He feels that a first aid kit for mountaineering should contain both the drugs. “ Acetazolamide is our old friend that will prevent all three acute high altitude Illnesses – AMS, HACE and HAPE; whereas dexamethasone is the life saver in an emergency situation. No medical supervision is required for ingesting acetazolamide. If you know you have no drug allergy to sulfonamides (an antibiotic with structural similarity to acetazolamide) go ahead and take acetazolamide. A dose of 125mg (Diamox) twice a day or 250mg sustained release preparation (Iopar) once a day, starting the day before you ascend to altitude and continued to the second day there, is a great way to prevent / reduce the severity of AMS / HACE. If you intend to continue climbing and know you are prone to AMS, continue acetazolamide to the second day of reaching your target altitude. Should you find the benign side-effects such as a metallic taste in the mouth or tingling of the lips, hands and feet troublesome you could shift to dexamethasone tablet 4mg twice a day. But it would be good to not take dexamethasone in this dose for more than 10 days. A combination of both drugs in the same doses may also be used if you want to go high (from sea-level to >3500m in one day) very fast and have to indulge in strenuous activity there without time to acclimatize. Given in these doses for the recommended duration, medical supervision is not needed, provided the cautions mentioned above are adhered to,’’ Dr Singh said.

None of this however takes anything away from the merit in patiently acclimatizing to high altitude. That is the safest method. Patience – respecting the time needed for the body to gradually acclimatize – is, key. “ In my experience, there is nothing that can replace natural acclimatization,’’ Dr Tsering Norbu of Ladakh Institute of Prevention (LIP), said. Based in Leh, the retired physician is known well to visiting mountaineers. “ If you are not allergic to sulfa drugs, then we prescribe Diamox. We don’t approach dexamethasone in a similar fashion because it is typically used as a life saver in cases of AMS where the situation is bordering HACE,’’ he said. Being a tourist destination 11,500 feet up from sea level, Leh gets its fair share of high altitude illness. LIP is a NGO working in the domain of health. When patients require formal medical intervention, he refers them to the district hospital, Dr Norbu said.

COVID-19 and dexamethasone

On June 16, 2020, amid world battling COVID-19, BBC reported that dexamethasone “ cut the risk of death by a third for patients on ventilators. For those on oxygen, it cut deaths by a fifth.’’ This was a finding from the UK. What made dexamethasone significant beyond its stated life-saving ability was the fact that it was available in good supply and was affordable. The name of the drug must have struck a bell immediately with mountaineers worldwide. Asked what likely made dexamethasone relevant in the treatment of COVID-19 patients on ventilator support and whether medically there is any parallel in the stress the body underwent with what happens during AMS, Dr Singh said, “ since dexamethasone helps combat stress it could possibly help in COVID-19 pneumonia or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). COVID-19 involves inflammation which damages the lungs even as it fights the virus. Dexamethasone can suppress inflammation and because it reduces capillary leakiness it should reduce the severity of the symptoms caused by ARDS. The caution that needs to be kept in mind, I believe, is that dexamethasone is not the definitive cure (it does not kill the virus) and by suppressing inflammation which controls the infection even as it causes symptoms, it might worsen the infection. If, however, adjunctive therapy to kill the virus is available then dexamethasone could help tide over the critical time in ARDS when inflammation does more harm than good to our body. The disease process of ARDS in COVID-19 involves increased capillary leakiness. Other than that, there is little in common with HAPE. Having said that, I believe a respiratory physician may be able to help you better with this question,’’ Dr Singh said.

Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman is an endocrinologist with the Indian Army. A regular runner, he has contributed in the past to articles related to health on this blog.  “ Dexamethasone in COVID-19 is as an anti-inflammatory to counter the cytokine storm that happens especially in the more severe forms of the disease,’’ he said. Further on June 17, BBC followed up with another report explaining how dexamethasone works in the case of COVID-19. “ This drug works by dampening down the body’s immune system. Coronavirus infection triggers inflammation as the body tries to fight it off. But sometimes the immune system goes into overdrive and it’s this reaction that can prove fatal – the very reaction designed to attack infection ends up attacking the body’s own cells. Dexamethasone calms this effect. It’s only suitable for people who are already in hospital and receiving oxygen or mechanical ventilation – the most unwell. The drug does not work on people with milder symptoms, because suppressing their immune system at this point would not be helpful,’’ the report said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For a pulmonologist’s view, this blog reached out to Dr Jacob Baby, Lead Consultant (Pulmonology), Aster Medcity, Kochi. “ Dexamethasone is a synthetic corticosteroid; they are naturally occurring chemicals produced by the adrenal glands located above the kidneys. Corticosteroids affect the function of many cells within the body and suppress the immune system. They also block inflammation and are used in a wide variety of inflammatory diseases affecting many organs. Dexamethasone is 20-30 times more potent steroid action than naturally occurring cortisol. It reduces inflammation by blocking an enzyme named phospholipase A2, which breaks cell wall phospholipid and releases inflammatory mediators. Glucocorticoids function through interaction with the glucocorticoid receptors by up-regulating the expression of anti-inflammatory proteins and down-regulating the expression of pro-inflammatory proteins. It is cheap and easily available and used as effective anti-inflammatory in many inflammatory diseases like asthma and rheumatological disorders like inflammation of muscles, inflammation of blood vessels, chronic arthritis, and lupus. It also exerts excellent anti-edema (reducing swellings) action enabling its use in cancerous conditions, brain swelling and also swelling in the spinal cord,’’ Dr Baby said.

On how dexamethasone works in the case of COVID-19, he said, “ Recovery Trial in the UK – for treating COVID 19 – had an arm investigating dexamethasone. Oxford researchers announced the results of the dexamethasone trial, in which 2104 enrolled patients were administered 6 mg of the drug for 10 days. Dexamethasone reduced deaths by one-third in ventilated patients and by one-fifth in patients receiving only oxygen. One death would be prevented by treatment of around eight ventilated patients, or around 25 patients requiring oxygen alone. The drug reduced the 28-day mortality rate by 17 per cent with significant benefit among patients requiring ventilation. COVID-19 causes accumulation of cytokines mainly IL-6 in the lungs. IL-6 increases inflammation in the lung cavity which causes the production and accumulation of fluids in the lungs. Dexamethasone reduces inflammation and suppresses immune activation of immune agents. The drug induces anti-inflammatory effects by reducing the secretion of cytokines into the lungs.’’

(Compiled and edited by Shyam G Menon, freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

SPORT AND THE SHADOW OF RULE 50

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On January 14, 2020, the website of Time magazine carried an article by Melissa Godin listing the instances when athletes brought political protest to the Olympic Games.  The incidents range from support for Irish independence to fists raised in Black Power salute, protest against the erstwhile Soviet Union and declining to compete against Israel as means to highlight the plight of Palestinians. What prompted the compilation was – earlier that month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) disclosed new guidelines regulating protest by athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which guards the political neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games already deals with this subject.  But it was vague about what constitutes protest. Time magazine noted that the new guidelines, which mention examples of what count as protest, coincide with rising activism among athletes, especially those from the US. In August 2019 two US athletes had been placed under probation for a year after one knelt and the other raised a fist during medal ceremonies at the Pan American Games (they were protesting against gun violence, racial injustice and the recent acts of their country’s president). The report cited the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, saying that the Olympic Games must never be a platform to advance political or any other divisive ends. He maintained that the political neutrality of the Games is undermined when the occasion is used by organizations and individuals “ as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.’’

At the same time as the magazine article appeared, COVID-19, which would characterize 2020 in a defining way, was only weeks into being reported. It would be another two months before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic and the question of whether the 2020 Olympic Games would be held or not would haunt the IOC. On March 24, the Games were eventually shifted to 2021. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died as a result of police excess in Minneapolis, USA. It was a horrific incident, one that sparked a wave of protests in the US with reverberations elsewhere. In the mood of protest following Floyd’s death, Bach’s observation from January and Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter attracted attention afresh. Early June, the IOC confirmed to the Daily Telegraph that it stood by Rule 50. Days later, Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics told the Independent, that he wouldn’t discourage athletes from expressing their views as he felt the current generation is more willing to speak out than previous generations were. “ There is nothing in World Athletics’ Integrity Code of Conduct to prevent athletes from protesting as long as it is done in a respectful manner, considers other athletes and does not damage our sport,’’ Coe was quoted as saying in the report by Lawrence Ostlere. For proper perspective, it must be mentioned here that Coe, a former world record holder and Olympic champion, who also anchored the organization of the 2012 London Olympic Games, has been nominated to the IOC. World Athletics hasn’t had a member on the IOC since 2015. To be admitted, Coe needs to first step down from other private business responsibilities he holds which constitute potential conflict of interest.

Over the last decade or so, the factors that contribute to social justice have taken a beating in many parts of the world. Governments have veered to authoritarianism, there is a general feeling that justice is partial to capital, inequality in wealth distribution has grown and those left out feel marginalized. Simply put – topics for protest are many. So are governments with trumped up public image and skeletons in the cupboard, who will be sensitive to protest. Amid this, 2020 will be remembered as the year of the virus. As COVID-19 swept across a planet devoid of vaccine to combat it, the best solution we had was to break the chain of transmission. Hygiene protocols and physical distancing became primary defence. Above all, it demanded that we accept a cardinal truth – the virus exists. If you don’t accept that it exists then all the hygiene protocols, physical distancing; even the frantic search for a vaccine – they lose relevance. The protests over George Floyd’s death happened because people acknowledged that the problem at its core – the virus causing it – exists. Compared to that, Rule 50 sanitizing Olympic venues of protest is the equivalent of pretending that the world’s problems don’t exist in the first place. Athletes may be elite by virtue of being at the Olympics. But they hail from mainstream society and many of them have experienced firsthand, discrimination based on race, gender, economic and social inequality. How can you pretend that society beyond the stadium doesn’t exist? It is what you come from; it is what you go back to.

To its credit, Rule 50 does not altogether ban protest. A document called Rule 50 Guidelines Developed by the IOC Athletes’ Commission, available on the IOC website, explains the details. According to it, Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter provides a framework to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games. It states that no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas. “ It is a fundamental principle that sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.  Specifically,  the  focus  for  the  field  of  play  and  related  ceremonies  must  be  on  celebrating athletes’ performance and showcasing sport and its values,’’ the document said. For emphasis, it pointed out that even the head of state of the host country gets to utter only a preset sentence declaring the Games open. Neither they nor any government official is allowed any further comment on any occasion during the Games. Besides no government official can appear in a medal ceremony. “ While respecting local laws, athletes have the opportunity to express their opinions, including:

  • During press conferences and interviews, i.e. in the mixed zones, in the International Broadcasting Centre (IBC) or the Main Media Centre (MMC)
  • At team meetings
  • On digital or traditional media, or on other platforms.

It should be noted that expressing views is different from protests and demonstrations. It should be noted, too, that these guidelines are also applicable to any other accredited person (trainers, coaches, officials, etc.)’’ the document said, adding, “ Here are some examples of what would constitute a protest, as opposed to expressing views (non-exhaustive list):

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.’’

The problem here – it would seem – is one of comparative mileage. Since protests seek public attention, the proverbial valve on the pressure cooker that Rule 50 provides is only worth its weight in visibility and media coverage. At any Olympic Games, the most watched footage probably relates to the opening and closing ceremonies, the competition at various sport venues and the medal ceremonies. Who watches press conferences and interviews? Only journalists go there and reports filed subsequently are allotted due significance by editors depending on the overall news flow from the larger sport event. Consequently, someone could ask this question and it would seem relevant: what matters more in a stadium – the advertisements of sponsors selling this and that or a black band on an athlete’s arm reminding us of social injustice the world is yet to comprehensively address? It goes to the heart of human existence: what are we alive for? Having said that; it must be mentioned, protesters too need to keep a few things in mind. Just as advertisements become irritating through excess, an overdose of protest can progressively leave us indifferent to calls for social justice. That’s the danger in world by trend and perception management, which is what our times have become. So perhaps there is relevance in leaving sport alone?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Although rarely said as such, one strong motive for keeping sport free of controversy is that it helps sport events happen by making available a sanitized platform sponsors can support. To be precise, it isn’t total no-no to controversy; it is opportunistic leverage with partiality to clean slate as best bet for sustaining long term. On the other hand, money’s aversion for conscience and its appetite for opportunism catches the goat of anyone with a conscience. Notwithstanding this tussle, fact is, political neutrality has its benefits. Cast so, sport becomes an avenue for engagement among people when other options more easily lost to politics, are exhausted. Neutral sport is an important instrument in humanity’s tool box. It brings us to the question: what if you have a grievance but don’t protest? What if you let your performance in sport, do the talking instead?

Jesse Owens is among the biggest icons of the Olympic Games. He came up the hard way. Although a successful university athlete, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. He enjoyed no scholarship and worked part time jobs to pay for his education. On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten meet in Michigan, he rewrote three world records and equaled another in a span of 45 minutes. Next year he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. The world sat up and took note. However on return home, his life continued to be a struggle. He had difficulty finding work given the social environment of that period. He filed for bankruptcy in 1966, hitting rock bottom before his predicament improved. Despite his personal struggles, he didn’t initially support the protest on the podium at the 1968 Olympics (according to Wikipedia’s page on Jesse Owens, he became more sympathetic of the incident, later); he tried to convince President Jimmy Carter that the US shouldn’t boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics as sport is politically neutral. Yet eighty four years after the Berlin Olympics, with more sterling performances by athletes to show and more social fissures and inequalities added worldwide, we are left wondering: will Olympic triumph alone suffice to focus the world’s attention on social justice delayed or do we need to sport a black band on prime time as well? How different is 2020 from 1936? Or is it not different at all? If things haven’t changed significantly, what kept it so? Those are the questions. The answers won’t be easy for IOC or anyone, to handle.

On June 14, 2020, Global Athlete – it calls itself “ an athlete-led movement that will inspire and lead positive change in world sport, and collectively address the balance of power between athletes and administrators” – put out a statement claiming that recent statements of the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) proposing banning of athletes who take a knee in solidarity with the anti-racism movement, constitutes “ a clear breach of human rights.” The statement which said that the “ collective voice” of athletes had “ pressured the IOC to pivot on its position and now consult with athletes on Rule 50,” also called upon the IOC and IPC to abolish the rule.

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

GEARING UP FOR VIRTUAL COMRADES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Runners from around the world including India will be attempting the virtual race of the Comrades Marathon – Race the Comrades Legends – on Sunday, June 14, 2020.

The 2020 edition of the ultra-marathon, held annually in South Africa, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organizers of the Comrades Marathon decided to hold a virtual race on the same day as the real race was scheduled to be held.

The virtual race offers various distance options – five kilometers (Couch2Comrades – Fun run), 10 km (Comrades Sprint), 21.1 km (Comrades Legends Half Marathon), 45 km (Half Comrades) and 90 km (Comrades Legends Ultra). Participating runners are expected to upload their race data at the end of the day. Finishers will be couriered the Race the Comrades Legends medal.

Among overseas events, Comrades has a dedicated following in India. Preparations for it are different from taking a shot at one of the World Marathon Majors. The route at Comrades links Durban and Pietermaritzburg in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province. Besides distance, the route features elevation gain and alternates each year between an uphill and a downhill run. The event is actually an ultramarathon lurking behind the name of a marathon. Participants therefore court an extended period of training. In Mumbai, those who sign up for Comrades usually graduate through regular long distance training runs (and events therein) to several group runs including in places like Lonavala for a feel of hilly terrain. This long duration of engagement with the event and fellow runners headed to South Africa, builds an ephemeral sense of community. The onset of pandemic and the eventual cancellation of the real event in South Africa would have brought inevitable disappointment. June’s virtual Comrades will offer some consolation.

“ I guess the attractive part is that it will probably be one of those few chances to run virtual Comrades Marathon. Also, the medal will be unique,” said Mumbai-based ultra-runner Satish Gujaran. Satish is the first and the only Indian runner yet to complete Comrades Marathon ten times consecutively. At the time of writing, nearly 80 runners from India had enrolled for the virtual race, of which nine were scheduled to run the 90 km distance. In India, recreational runners have not been able to get out for training runs as the lockdown was stringent. “ Without much training, it may not be possible to run 90 km, especially for runners from Mumbai,’’ Satish said. He has opted not to run the virtual race. Instead, he may pace some runners on Sunday.

Dr Anand Patil (This photo was downloaded from the runner’s Facebook page and is being used here with his permission)

Notwithstanding Satish’s observation, among those attempting the 90 km virtual race is Mumbai-based ultra-runner and triathlete, Dr Anand Patil. He is a surgeon by profession. “ This was to be my ninth Comrades,’’ he said referring to the now cancelled 2020 edition of Comrades. He has run the ultra-marathon for eight years in a row.

Dr Patil is attempting the virtual race despite not having done any training during the lockdown so far. He was hoping to resume running after the latest round of relaxation to lockdown. That would still leave him only a week or so to the virtual event. A recreational triathlete, Dr Patil said he has completed the Ironman triathlon 19 times. He also did the Ultraman in Australia in 2017. His background in endurance sports, including a past featuring back to back long distance runs, is what has given Dr Patil the confidence to try the 90 km-run without any dedicated training done recently.

“ I have worked on a training formula called fitness pyramid. At the base of this pyramid is stamina. The other elements of this pyramid are endurance, strength and speed. Even if I don’t train for a couple of months, I will be able to do an ultra-distance event,” Dr Patil said. Further, according to him, a diet that is abundant in micronutrients and is devoid of supplements is good to build immunity.

It is generally said that during exercise and for some time thereafter, the body experiences a dip in immunity. Consequently, in these times of pandemic and need to preserve immunity, debates on exercise have been partial to avoiding extreme strain. Asked of this angle, Dr Patil said he is not worried about his immunity dipping during the 90 km run. Immunity, according to him, is a function of many factors. “ Factors such as hereditary attributes, diet – these are important for building Immunoglobulin G, an antibody, in the human body. Any physical activity releases cortisol, which is also good for the immune system,” he said.

For Sunday’s virtual race, Dr Patil is contemplating routes in two places – Lonavala and Mumbai. He sought approval from CMA (Comrades Marathon Association) to start his run at 5:30PM on Saturday to enable him to run in Lonavala. “ CMA replied saying that I can start my run at 1AM on Sunday. That does not work for Lonavala,” Dr Patil said. He will therefore be running in Mumbai. He has sought approval from local authorities in Mumbai to start his run at 1AM as there is a curfew from 9PM to 5AM due to the ongoing lockdown.

Manisha Srivastava (Photo: courtesy Manisha)

If all goes as planned, on Sunday, Dr Patil will commence his run from Gateway of India; move to Colaba, Metro Cinema, Mantrayala, NCPA, Babulnath and onward to Haji Ali, Worli Sea Face, Mahim, Bandra Sea Link toll naka, Mela junction at Worli and end the route at Shivaji Park. The distance required for the virtual event will be completed using repeated short loops within the larger route.

Gurgaon-based ultra-runner Manisha Srivastava has also opted for the 90 km distance for Sunday’s virtual race. She will be running inside her apartment – it is a fairly big one, and on the stairs of her building to accumulate the required elevation gain.

For the entire period of lockdown, she focussed on home-based workout and did not step out for a run. “ Until the lockdown was announced, I was training for Ultraman Canada,’’ she said. Confined to her apartment for the past two months, Manisha decided to do the virtual race as a means to reconnect with her training.

Ultraman Canada, originally slated to be held in July 2020, has been postponed to July 2021. Ultraman is a three-day triathlon stage race. The first day starts with a 10 km swim followed by a 145 km bike ride. The second day has a 275 km bike ride and on the third day there is an 84.4 km run. Each of the disciplines must be completed in 12 hours.

Update: Dr Anand Patil completed his 90 km run in 14 hours, two minutes and 32 seconds. Having secured permission from the authorities, he commenced his run at 12:05AM from Gateway of India. He finished the run well although Mumbai’s humid weather and heavy vehicular traffic did weigh him down. Manisha Srivastava completed her run in 11:29:45 hours. Running inside her house was a challenge as it caused the GPS device to work with a lag, she said. At last count over 300 people from India had registered to run the virtual Comrades Marathon. In all, some 43,000 people from all over the world, participated in the event.

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