IRONMAN: THE GAME BEGINS FOR INDIA

Saikhom Bishworjit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Indian story in Ironman triathlons had been one of completing it. In mid-2019, that changed, thanks to triathletes from the Indian Army’s Bombay Sappers. A finish in top ten and topping in age categories was achieved. Then in October, an Indian triathlete – once again from Bombay Sappers – won an Ironman event. This is the story of that journey and what a group of amateur triathletes did to make the podium finishes possible.

Manipur is a state in north east India.

At roughly three million people, Manipur’s population is a small fraction of India’s overall human numbers estimated at over 1.3 billion. Imphal East is Manipur’s second most populous district. According to Wikipedia, the district straddles average elevation of close to 2600 feet. It has warm summers and modestly cold winters. Naharup is a village in Imphal East. That’s where Saikhom Bishworjit was born in 1990, the eighth of nine siblings – all boys. His father, now no more, worked as a teacher; mother is a homemaker.  Two people appear critical in Bishworjit’s story. His elder brother Saikhom Mani – seventh among the siblings – is a national level triathlete. But it was “ Sushil’’ another triathlete from Naharup, who kick-started things; he organized a triathlon in the local pond. Based on his performance there, Bishworjit commenced swimming at the swimming pool in Imphal.

In 2004, when selections were held for a national sub junior level competition in the triathlon, Bishworjit finished first. At the subsequent meet held in Hyderabad, he placed fourth. Despite its small population, Manipur is a powerhouse in Indian sports. For decades India’s north east was plagued by militancy, poor connectivity to the rest of the country and a general sense of being overlooked. It resulted in economic development delayed and opportunities restricted. “ For us sports was avenue to get a government job,’’ Bishworjit said. Under the Indian system, promising athletes get employment, typically in government and with public sector enterprises. In such ambiance, fourth place may not have been personally encouraging for the youngster. After the Hyderabad event, Bishworjit dropped off the triathlon.  The person who got him back on track was his triathlete brother; in 2006, Mani joined the Indian Army’s Bombay Sappers. He began supporting Bishworjit’s training. In 2008, at the junior nationals held in Porbandar, the youngster placed fifth despite using an India-built basic bicycle for the cycling segment.

A sapper, also called pioneer and combat engineer, is a soldier who performs a range of military engineering duties.  The Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army has three groups of combat engineers under it – Madras Sappers, Bombay Sappers and Bengal Sappers. Of these, Bombay Sappers has its headquarters at Khadki, Pune. In 2009, Bishworjit shifted to Pune to be with his brother and train. Among the army’s several arms and regiments, Bombay Sappers is known to maintain keen interest in the triathlon (of late, personnel from the parachute regiment have also begun appearing on the scene, those familiar with the sport said).  Although not yet part of the army, thanks to his brother, Bishworjit was able to periodically train alongside the army’s triathletes. In 2010, after he secured fourth place at the senior nationals, he was formally accepted into the army. His longstanding wish to have a government job thus came true.

Raghunath Shivaji Mali and Biten Singh Laikhuram (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Recreational Triathletes)

However, there was gap between the worlds of triathlon as evolved within the army and as it prevailed outside. Oriented towards objective and clear plan of progression, the army’s typical long term goal is Olympics. Besides internal competitions; importance is given to military games, national competitions, continental meets and through all that, selection to represent country at the Olympics. But triathlon has a bustling world of events and competitions outside the fold of the Olympics.  There are the Ironman triathlons, leading all the way up to world championships. Further, the triathlon as essayed at the Olympics features short distances across all three disciplines – swimming, cycling and running.  An Olympic triathlon entails 1.5 kilometers of swimming followed by 40 kilometers of cycling and 10 kilometers of running. Ironman distances are more. Not to mention, beyond Ironman (half and full), there are events like Ultraman. As later events showed, the army was very aware of these events. But priority seemed Olympic dimension.

In October 2015, the World Military Games was held in Mungyeong, South Korea. Among disciplines therein was the triathlon; it was of Olympic dimension. Six triathletes of the Indian Army, including Bishworjit, participated. According to him, the team placed twelfth. The open water swim of the triathlon was held in the sea. Bishworjit remembers struggling to get going in the sea. It was his first time tackling the sea and sea swimming is very different from swimming in the pool or contained water bodies like ponds and lakes, which is what he was accustomed to. To get going at sea, you should know how to get past the oncoming waves.  He lost time negotiating the waves. In 2015, the National Games was held in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Not making the cut to represent Services (the team which represents army, navy and air force) in the triathlon, Bishworjit represented Goa following a route athletes in such predicament are permitted to take. However, after the World Military Games in South Korea, small changes in training started to happen. The army’s triathletes who trained in Pune, traveled to Mumbai and the naval facility there to practise sea swimming.

Over the past decade, the triathlon has slowly but steadily gathered followers in India. A couple of factors may have contributed to it. First, in running, which is perhaps the most easily accessed sport for fitness, the base numbers grew enormously. Running’s growth has provided a stairway for amateur athletes to explore the world of related sports. Two other verticals in endurance sports, they quickly become aware of – usually as options to cross train – are cycling and swimming. Cycling as lifestyle activity – along with committed cyclists emerging therefrom – has picked up. Second, as the economy opened up in the 1990s and sectors like IT rose in importance, a workforce more mobile than before made its presence felt. People who spent time overseas and witnessed sports there or participated in it; wished for similar pursuits back in India. The amateur sports scene in India drew much impetus from this mobile workforce. In 2014 the Goa Triathlon made its debut with 90 participants. It was of Olympic dimension. Also taking shape during this period was Internet-based groups of sport aficionados. Recreational Triathletes was one such group. Three years old at the time of writing, the online community was approximately 1200 members-strong.

Like all groups, Recreational Triathletes is sum total of the ideas and work of its many active members. Its core team includes Zarir Baliwalla, Sharada Kulkarni, Anirban Mukherji and Rajkumar Charzal. It was Zarir (a Mumbai based-businessman, he featured earlier on this blog for his relay swim across the English Channel: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/29/a-relay-swim-across-the-english-channel/), who told us of Bishworjit. My meeting with Bishworjit was at the office of an IT company in Baner, Pune. MiniOrange is a security software company set up by Anirban Mukherji, who during his student days had been a swimmer competing at the national level. An engineer by profession and now a triathlete; before he located to Pune, he had worked in Mumbai and the US. According to Anirban, an obvious truth about Indians and the triathlon was there for all to see – from being nobodies in the triathlon; Indians had got around to finishing triathlons and Ironman events overseas. But that was it – finishing. A winner was yet to emerge from their ranks. “ We wanted to see an Indian win and had come up with this slogan: jana gana mana bajwa denge,’’ Anirban said of the thinking at Recreational Triathletes (jana gana mana is how India’s national anthem begins; reference herein being to national anthem played at medal ceremonies). At the Goa Triathlon, which had quickly become the premier event in the domestic triathlon calendar and where the faithful converged (participation touched 600 in four years’ time as per event website), one man Dr Pablo Erat – he is a Swiss entrepreneur  and much respected triathlete in his age category – had been winning consistently since 2014. Where were the Indian triathletes capable of changing that?

Nihal Baig (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Recreational Triathletes)

In March 2017, Rajkumar Charzal happened to participate in a triathlon in Pune. Encouraged by his ability to complete it, he enrolled for the Ironman 70.3 (Half Ironman) at Langkawi, Malaysia. While he was preparing for the event, an archery coach he knew and who worked at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune put him in touch with Mani, Bishworjit’s triathlete-brother.  From there to knowing Bishworjit was a short hop. Hailing from Imphal, Manipur, Charzal is a software engineer currently working with Barclays Global Service Centre in Pune. He had worked first in Bengaluru, been in Pune briefly, moved thereafter to Mumbai and then located back to Pune. “ I have been here since 2012,’’ he said. Charzal went on to successfully complete the Ironman in Langkawi. The whole episode also introduced him to the larger triathlon community in Pune. In 2017, Bishworjit participated in the Goa triathlon. “ The decision to participate was an army initiative. They already knew of the event,’’ Charzal said.

Bishworjit’s participation in the Goa triathlon was an eye opener for Recreational Triathletes.  The sequence followed in triathlon is swimming, cycling and running. Both Pablo and Bishworjit finished their swim and emerged out of the water around the same time.  Saddled with an average aluminum bicycle the army athlete struggled in the cycling segment. But he made up for it, in running. Pablo won the event in 2:07:26. Bishworjit placed second with 2:09:52. Vishwanath Yadav – also from the army – finished third in 2:11:00. Anirban, Charzal and others from Recreational Triathletes knew they had found the talent they were looking for. But to get the army triathletes regularly challenging Pablo and his ilk at events like Goa Triathlon and Ironman, a whole ecosystem they trained in had to be engaged and convinced of the merit in new direction. First however, there was something more immediate to address – the best of these new finds deserved a damn good bicycle for it was in cycling that Pablo made the difference.

In 2018, despite the unfinished business of catching up with Pablo, Bishworjit could not participate in that year’s Goa Triathlon. He was committed to representing the army at the national triathlon championships, where for the first time he placed first completing the Olympic distance genre in 2:09:46. He was now national champion. That year he also placed second in the South Asian Championships held in Nepal. Around this time, Recreational Triathletes decided to hold a time trial in Pune. They wanted to assess how well elite Indian triathletes, used to Olympic distances in the sport, would fare over the longer distances of Ironman 70.3 – 1.9 kilometers of swimming, 90 kilometers of cycling and 21.1 kilometers of running; the increased dimensions being mainly in cycling and running. To attract participants, they dangled a carrot or two. They promised to sponsor the top performers to participate in Ironman events abroad. Also featured as carrot, was afore mentioned bicycle; a proper tri-bike. “ The trials were held on the last Sunday of every months and it lasted a few months. Those appearing for the time trial had to cycle 50 kilometers and then run 10 kilometers; do it back to back. We also kept 4:15:00 as an informal cut-off time, a sort of benchmark for deciding the top performers,’’ Charzal said. According to him, the army’s triathletes needed no coaxing to participate. They warmed up to the idea quickly. Anirban however, did mention the need to put Recreational Triathletes in proper perspective for the army triathletes to comfortably engage. They had superiors to report to and convince for permission. Recreational Triathletes was an Internet based convergence of amateur triathletes. “ There was the angle of who we are, why we were conducting the trials and explanation around that, ’’ Anirban said.

Recreational Triathletes

Post time trials in Pune – Bishworjit (he placed first in the trials with net time of 4:09:42), Biten Singh Laikhuram and Raghunath Shivaji Mali, all from the army – were selected for participation in Ironman events overseas; Bishworjit and Biten were headed to Ironman 70.3 in Bahrain. Unfortunately bureaucratic delays crept in. When the required paperwork couldn’t be wrapped up in time, Recreational Triathletes tried to get them registered for the Half Ironman in Colombo, Sri Lanka instead. That too failed because of delayed paperwork. But the group didn’t give up and continued to explore options. Eventually everything fell in place for participation in Ironman 70.3 at Bintan, Indonesia. Mali and Biten were able to proceed for the event scheduled for August 2019; Bishworjit had to stay out as he had been selected to participate in the senior national triathlon championships, the dates of which clashed with the event in Indonesia. “ Ahead of the Bintan Ironman, the army coach who was familiar with training for Olympic distances enquired about the details of Ironman 70.3 and what aspects of training mattered for the format,’’ Charzal said. Late August, encouraging results came from Ironman 70.3, Bintan. Raghunath Shivaji Mali finished first in his age category (18-24 years). Hailing from Sangli, Maharashtra, Mali had previously placed first at the junior nationals in 2015 and later, secured third place at the 2017 National Games in Kerala. At the time trials held in Pune, he had placed third with net time of 4:21:56. Biten meanwhile placed eighth overall at Bintan (field of 733 triathletes) and first in his age category; it was the first instance of a triathlete from India finishing in top ten at such an event. According to Anriban and Charzal, there have been no previous reports of two Indian triathletes topping their age categories in the same Ironman event either. Not to mention – neither Mali nor Biten were regulars at Ironman distances. In India, they specialize in the smaller Olympic distance.

Starting with a first place finish at the junior nationals held in Indore, way back in 2010, Biten had been slowly climbing up the ladder. By 2014, he had placed sixth in the senior nationals; in 2016 he finished first at the Delhi invitational triathlon and in 2017, first at the Hyderabad invitational triathlon. At the Pune time trials of 2018 conducted by Recreational Triathletes, he had placed second with net time of 4:12:41. With the results in Bintan, he and Mali qualified for the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championships due in Taupo, New Zealand. Further, one of the top ten finishers at the Pune trials had been Nihal Baig of Mumbai (an IIT Mumbai alumni, he works as Risk Associate at MSCI Inc), who had already participated in Half Ironman events. Recognizing his keenness, Recreational Triathletes sponsored his trip to Nice, France for the Ironman 70.3 there. It was now countdown to Bishworjit’s return to Goa. In the months following the Pune time trials that return had become special, for news had emerged that Goa would be hosting India’s first Ironman 70.3 triathlon in 2019.

A fortnight before the Goa event, Bishworjit – he had placed second at the nationals in 2019 – received his clearance to participate. Besides more training done (including some alone), there was a major difference this time. Recreational Triathletes had got him a top notch tri-bike, an Argon E119. MiniOrange bore the bulk of the cost; around 100 members of Recreational Triathletes also contributed. On race day at the start line in Goa, was old friend and fellow competitor, Pablo. “ My objective was to compete with Pablo,’’ Bishworjit said. The athletes were dispatched for their swim leg in lots of five each. Pablo was in the first batch; Bishworjit was in the third. But when they emerged from the sea having completed the swim, three of them – Pablo, Bishworjit and Mahesh Lourembam were almost together. Mahesh had ranked fourth at the trials in Pune. A good swimmer from his school days, he had competed at the national level in sub junior and junior categories and earned podium finish multiple times. Later, adding the triathlon as well to his repertoire, he had placed third at the senior nationals of 2017.

Mahesh Lourembam, Bishworjit, Nihal and Pablo Erat (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Recreational Triathletes)

Runners are of different types. There is the highly focused sort, who brings to bear on their craft tons of discipline and methodical training. But there are also those treasuring running’s simplicity and primeval freedom; they transcend competition in human hive and cut a picture of peace, solitude and enjoyment.  Among the popular amateur athletic pursuits, triathlon typically smacks of focus and discipline. It is not without reason. A tough sport chasing higher and higher levels of human efficiency, details matter in it. During his 2017 shot at the Goa triathlon, Bishworjit’s transition to cycling had been less than perfect. “ In comparison, Pablo had it all worked out for maximum efficiency,’’ Anirban recalled. In 2019 however, in the transition to cycling, Bishworjit took off first. But at the 15th kilometer, with cramps slowly setting in, he was overtaken by Pablo. “ By the end of the cycling leg, Pablo had a lead of 12 minutes on Bishworjit. At this stage, we were disappointed,’’ Anirban said.  The third discipline – the half marathon – was composed of three loops of seven kilometers each. By the second loop, Bishworjit had Pablo in eyesight. At the 13th kilometer both met at the hydration point. “ Pablo told me to carry on,’’ Bishworjit said. Around kilometer-15, Nihal Baig overtook Mahesh. The final position was Bishworjit (4:42:44), Nihal (4:47:47), Mahesh (4:52:04) and Pablo (4:56:24). At last, an Indian triathlete had won an Ironman 70.3.

With their podium finishes at Ironman Goa, Bishworjit, Nihal and Mahesh also secured berths for the 2020 Ironman World Championships. Provided all goes well, at the 2020 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand, these triathletes will be representing India – Bishworjit, Nihal, Mahesh, Biten and Mali. Recreational Triathletes has its work cut out. To begin with, they plan to sponsor about half a dozen bicycle trainers (equipment that renders the bike stationary and capable of being pedaled indoors). Bishworjit for instance, currently uses a very basic model. Training indoors is essential to excel in the triathlon. Anirban felt the triathletes would also require stepping up their mileage in running and execute nutrition strategies better. Bishworjit’s fuel intake during the Ironman in Goa had been frugal. Before swimming he had a gel, while cycling he had some water and a gel and during the run he had aerated drinks and some water. Across the table, the newly crowned Ironman of Goa laughed as he said this.

Anirban Mukherji and Rajkumar Charzal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Both Anirban and Charzal believe Recreational Triathletes has only scratched the surface; there is more talent around. And critically, it is talent that cannot be viewed the traditional way with gaze partial to youth. Pablo who has been beating Indian triathletes is in his late forties. Of the five headed to New Zealand next year, Mali is the youngest, Bishworjit, the oldest (he will be 30 by then). The gap between the best Indian timings and the very best timings at Ironman 70.3 is sizable. The record for men (as per Wikipedia) set in 2018 at Ironman Bahrain, is 3:29:04 (Kristian Blummenfelt of Norway). The first question people asked this writer when told of the Indian podium finishes at Goa Ironman was: how competitive is the field? Do the best foreign athletes come to participate? These are fair questions. But in a sport where peak performance is happening even in middle age, one Ironman done is hardly indicative of Bishworjit and his compatriots knowing their potential. With good training, better equipment, correct nutrition and sustained participation at events, lot more of their strengths may be found. “ We don’t have a formal program for supporting the athletes yet; it is still one thing at a time,’’ Anirban said. Meanwhile in Pune, according to Anirban and Charzal, an atmosphere of positive engagement now prevails between the army triathletes, their coaches and the civilian triathletes. There is talk of organizing programs meant to train the trainers as next step. A journey seems commenced.

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

MORE FUNDING FOR ANTI-DOPING TESTS AT ROAD RACES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

List of platinum category races announced

At least 2.5 million dollars in extra revenue will be made available for a comprehensive integrity program for road running in 2020, under a new funding scheme announced by World Athletics and the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) last June.

World Athletics (formerly International Association of Athletics Federations / IAAF) has announced a schedule of more than 165 label road events that will be held in 2020, including the first platinum label races. Each race will contribute to the system approved by the World Athletics Council this year, by which the financial burden for out-of-competition drug testing is shared by all road race stakeholders – organizers, athlete managers and athletes.

Races will contribute according to their status: platinum marathons – 66,667 dollars, gold marathons – 15,000 dollars, silver marathons – 10,000 dollars and bronze marathons 5,000 dollars; platinum road races – 20,000 dollars, gold road races – 10,000 dollars, silver road races – 5,000 dollars and bronze road races – 2,500 dollars. The list of label events that will take place from January to September 2020 has been released; the press statement dated November 15, 2019, available on the World Athletics website said. More races will be added when their race dates are confirmed.

Their contributions, together with the fees managers pay for their athletes included in the testing pool – 500 dollars for gold status athletes and 1000 dollars for platinum – and the 1.5 per cent levy on prize money that athletes agreed to contribute, make up the bulk of the fund. In all, that means some 2.6 to 3.2 million dollars in funding will be available in 2020. The program, which includes out-of-competition testing, investigation and education, will be carried out by the Athletics Integrity Unit, the statement said. The list of gold and platinum status athletes for 2020, determined by their position in the world rankings, has also been released.

Under the previous system, the AIU and IAAF had funding to test just the first 50 athletes (the marathon and half marathon athletes) in the testing pool, which left an alarming shortfall in out-of-competition testing of athletes who compete on the rapidly expanding and increasingly lucrative road running circuit. World Athletics granted 103 races label status in 2017. That number grew to 114 in 2018 and 136 in 2019. The new platinum label races, first announced in 2018, will be introduced in 2020. Nine races have been granted platinum status thus far with up to three more late-season races to be confirmed early next year. The races announced as platinum so far are Tokyo Marathon, Nagoya Women’s Marathon, Seoul Marathon, BAA Boston Marathon, Virgin Money London Marathon, Media Maratón de Bogotá, BMW Berlin Marathon, Bank of America Chicago Marathon and TCS New York City Marathon.

Platinum label races are required to have at least three athletes with platinum status, per gender, and at least four athletes with gold status (or higher) start the race and compete with bona fide effort. The number of platinum status athletes for 2020 will be fixed at 30 per gender and determined in a two-phase process. The first, based on positions in the world rankings on 15 October 2019, will include the top 19 ranked athletes in the ‘marathon’ event group, the top three ranked athletes in the ‘road running’ event group (excluding any athletes who acquired platinum status in the ‘marathon’ group) and the top ranked athlete in the ‘10,000m’ event group (excluding any athletes who acquired platinum status in the ‘marathon’ and ‘road running’ event groups). The second phase will add seven more athletes, per gender, based on positions in the world rankings on 28 January 2020: the top four ranked athletes in the ‘marathon’ group, the top two in the ‘road running’ group and the top one in the 10,000m event group who had not yet achieved platinum status, the statement said.

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

2019 NEW YORK CITY MARATHON / TALKING TO SOME OF THOSE WHO PARTICIPATED

Anubhav Karmakar (Photo: courtesy Anubhav)

New York City Marathon (NYCM) is one of the six World Marathon Majors. It has the highest number of full marathon-participants. There were over 53,000 runners in the 2019 edition. The NYCM course passes through the five boroughs of New York city. It starts near the approach to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island. The route then goes along four other bridges – Pulaski Bridge, Queensboro Bridge, Willis Avenue Bridge and Madison Avenue Bridge – before finishing at Central Park. Kenyan runner Geoffrey Kamworor was the winner of 2019 NYCM, covering the distance in 2:08:13. Among women Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya won the race, finishing in 2:22:38. We spoke to a few of the runners from India who participated in the marathon.

Anubhav Karmakar

Anubhav Karmakar was the fastest among runners from India at New York City Marathon this time. He finished the run in 2:41:07, a new personal record. It was however tad short of his target; 2:39-2:40.

“ My training was much better than the race,’’ he said. Anubhav’s training is focussed on improving in every race. He trained 15 weeks for NYCM.

At the start of the race, there was some confusion about where the start line mat was. “ There was no space to move because of the huge number of runners. Then I found my rhythm. But around the 15th kilometer, I had to take a loo break. That once again broke my rhythm,’’ he said.

NYCM, according to Anubhav, cannot be tackled with an eye on the clock because it is a challenging course. “ The bridges are fairly long, sometimes not so steep; sometimes steep. The second half of the race can be run only through feel,’’ he said.

Anubhav pushed hard in the last leg of the marathon. “ I did not feel strong through the race. But when I entered Central Park, I found my pace and went for a very strong finish,’’ he said. Anubhav believes he may have fallen short on nutrition during the race. “ I feel, I had a stronger finish at Boston Marathon earlier this year, although I have a new personal record at NYCM,’’ he said.

In the weeks ahead, he will be racing at Tata Steel Kolkata and Tata Mumbai Marathon. He has an entry to Boston again but his decision will depend on securing a berth at the London Marathon. “ I have also been accepted for Comrades but I have yet to freeze my decision to do the race. I thoroughly enjoy the marathon format and I don’t know if I want to break the momentum and go in for an ultra-marathon at this point,’’ he said.

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal (Photo: courtesy Vijayaraghavan)

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal

Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, 44, started running well before he became the CEO of Fast & Up, a sports nutrition company. He is known to follow a stringent training plan primarily aimed at sub-three-hour finish in the full marathon.

With Fast & Up on a trajectory of growth, the CEO’s schedule has been getting tighter with work and work related travel. “ My preparation for New York City Marathon went off fairly well, though work and travel took up a lot of my time,’’ he said.

At the 2019 edition of New York City Marathon, Vijayaraghavan finished the race in 3:16:07, outside his target of a sub-three-hour finish. “ Up until 30 to 32k I was on track for a sub-three-hour finish but lost the momentum thereafter. I did not have the energy to push for my targeted finish,’’ he said.

Had he maintained momentum till 35-36k, it would have been possible to push for said finish. When he realized that he wasn’t going to get his targeted finish, he took it easy. “ I started walking, though walking a distance of 500 meters felt like 5 kilometers,’’ he said.

Among the six World Marathon Majors, the New York City Marathon’s course is relatively tough. “ It is a technical course with five bridges. Each bridge has a different level of difficulty,’’ Vijay said.

According to him, a couple of factors at NYCM can be testing for runners. The wait before the start of the race can be tiring. Runners are required to arrive at the holding area three hours before the commencement of the race. Also, NYCM has the highest number of full marathon runners. Because of the sheer number of participants at NYCM, you are constantly running with a crowd of runners from start to finish. “ During the first two to three kilometers you are running with a huge crowd of runners, something you see in the half marathon segment of Mumbai Marathon. As the miles go by you run with new groups of runners,’’ Vijayaraghavan said.

At the same time, several other factors make NYCM one of the most coveted marathons. What truly stands out at the event is the massive spectator support with loud cheering. Further in 2019, the weather was quite good with temperatures in the range of 9-11 degrees Celsius. “ It was cold and windy but manageable. There was no rain either,’’ he said.

Analyzing his performance, Vijayaraghavan said his training probably fell short of what was required for NYCM. “ The last eight marathons went as per my plan. I trained well for NYCM but probably my training fell short of requirement,’’ he said. According to him, the key is to train specifically for a marathon.

Tad disappointed with his performance, Vijayaraghavan now wants to enroll for NYCM again to ensure a sub-three-hour finish. With his schedules getting busier, training and racing for a sub-three-hour marathon is a challenge that keeps him going.

Shailja Sridhar

During her school days in Lucknow, Shailja Sridhar never lost an opportunity to participate in sports. She kept her contact with sports alive in the years that followed too. Her foray into running happened seven years ago while she was residing at Gurgaon.

“ My friends asked me to enroll for Airtel Delhi Half Marathon in 2012. Prior to the race, I had done just two runs,’’ Shailja said. In 2013, she enrolled for the half marathon segment at Mumbai Marathon. That year, she also did the Amsterdam marathon. But training was negligible. “ Then I applied for Berlin Marathon through the lottery method. I got through. At this point I realized I must train. I contacted lifestyle coach Purnendu Nath for advice on training,’’ she said. She was able to finish Berlin in 3:52 hours.

Subsequently, she heard about Boston qualifier timings and that engaged her mind. “ One thing about running is that new goals keep emerging all the time. I started training for Boston qualifier levels. I read a lot about various training methods. I also traveled to Kenya to find out how elite runners train,’’ Shailja said.

New York City Marathon went off fairly well, according to Shailja. “ I went with zero expectation. I had no plan,’’ she said. Prior to NYCM, Shailja ran the full marathon at Bengaluru Marathon and Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. At the latter race, she finished in 1:35 and that gave her confidence for NYCM.

She finished New York City Marathon in 3:20, a new personal record for her. She was also the fastest among women runners from India at NYCM. This was her fifth World Marathon Major with London Marathon being the only one left for her, to complete.

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom (Photo: courtesy Ramesh; this picture is from the New Delhi Marathon)

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom

New York City Marathon was his third marathon in three weeks. On October 20, 2019, Kochi-based runner, Ramesh Kanjilimadhom, ran the Niagara Falls Marathon finishing it in 3:28:46. The marathon starts at Buffalo, runs along Niagara River and ends on the top of the falls. “ This one is truly an international marathon. It starts in the US and ends in Canada,’’ Ramesh said. He was completing this marathon for the fourth time.

A week later, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon finishing in 3:30:38. “ Marine Corps Marathon is my favorite. I was running it for the seventh time this year,’’ he said.

The following week he was at the start line of New York City Marathon. “ I had no time target for New York City Marathon. This was the third of my three marathons in three weeks. My training was not adequate,’’ he said. But the run went off quite well for him. He finished the marathon in 3:21:41 and his splits were evenly paced.

“ It was cold at the start of the race but it did not bother me. Later it was quite sunny,’’ Ramesh said.

New York City Marathon is a huge race with over 50,000 runners, all of them running the full marathon distance. Every participant ends up running with a large group of runners all through the 42 kilometers.

There are several hydration points along the route but because of the huge crowd of runners you may miss them. The fact that the next hydration point is not far off keeps you going, Ramesh said. Also, there are crowds of spectators all along the route except at the bridges. “ As you get off the bridges you can see the crowds along the route ahead,’’ he said.

Ranjini Gupta (Photo: courtesy Ranjini)

Ranjini Gupta

Bengaluru-based Ranjini Gupta went through a perfect training plan of 18 weeks in the run-up to New York City Marathon. The training plan was executed to perfection with intervals, tempo runs, fartlek and long runs including hill runs along with strength training. Hill runs were critical for NYCM, according to her.

“ I wanted to train well because the distance should not be a challenge. I initially did most of the runs at base pace and then ran at race pace closer to the event,’’ she said.

But she suffered hamstring tendonitis barely six weeks ahead of the race.  “ I had to do away from hill runs as they were aggravating my injury. I had to rework my training plan,’’ Ranjini said.

New York City Marathon starts on a bridge. “ As soon as I started running uphill, I felt the pain but I was mentally prepared to manage it well. I held my pace and when the pain got worse I would slightly ease my pace but not drop it drastically,’’ she said. She ended the race in 3:39:32 managing a negative split in the process. This was her fourth World Marathon Major with Boston and London Marathon next on the cards.

Sunil Chainani (Photo: courtesy Sunil)

Sunil Chainani

A member of the Ultra Running Committee of Athletics Federation of India, Sunil Chainani, had travelled to Albi, France, along with a nine-member Indian team for the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships, held on October 26 and 27. Sunil was part of the support team.

Once done with his work at the championships, Sunil travelled to New York to participate in New York City Marathon.

A former national level squash player, Sunil’s training for the marathon was not adequate because of his tight schedule. “ I came to New York with no expectations whatsoever. I haven’t had a good marathon run in a while because of my Achilles injury,’’ he said.

Though his training was inadequate, Sunil put in a lot of time in strength training. New York City Marathon was his third World Marathon Major. He has run Berlin Marathon twice and Chicago once.

“ At New York, the weather was great and the atmosphere was fabulous. It was a perfect running day. My approach was to run easy. I did not want to put any stress in terms of timing,’’ Sunil said. He cruised along fairly well for much of the distance but started to get cramps in the last 7-8 kilometer-stretch. He then opted to walk and run the remaining distance. Sunil surprised himself with a personal record of 4:12:53 hours. He had improved his timing by 90 seconds.

“ I am pleased with my run. My confidence is back,’’ he said.

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

A FINE BIT OF CYCLING AT IRONMAN GOA AND A PODIUM FINISH TO REMEMBER IT BY

Photo: courtesy Nihal Baig

Mumbai-based triathlete, Nihal Baig, is not new to Ironman 70.3. The Goa edition of this triathlon – it was held in October 2019 – was his fourth outing in that line. He finished second overall including second place in his age category, 25-29 years.

Less than a month before Ironman 70.3 Goa, Nihal participated in Ironman 70.3 World Championships, Nice 2019. Prior to the event in Nice, he participated in Ironman 70.3 Bahrain and Ironman 70.3 Colombo. Of the three disciplines forming the triathlon, Nihal’s strength is in running. Earlier this year, Nihal had finished overall ninth and second in his age category of 18-24 years at Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

Here he recounts the training for Ironman 70.3 Goa and how things unfolded on race day.

During my B.Tech and M.Tech days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, I was part of the athletics team. I used to participate in races over distances ranging from 400 meters to 5000 meters.

I finished my M.Tech in 2016. But I did not stop running. I continued it on the IIT Mumbai campus thanks to my being alumni. I moved to exploring longer distances, starting with half marathons. Around this time I took up employment in Mumbai. I work as Risk Associate at MSCI Inc. I started cycling to work, a distance of about nine kilometers from where I stay. Over time, I started to go for long rides.

At that time, I had heard about the Ironman triathlon. I was keen to explore it and began learning to swim. In October 2017, I did my first half Ironman distance-triathlon in Hyderabad.

What attracted me to the triathlon was that I got to do three sports in it instead of the usual one. And triathlon is all about fitness and endurance. I love how I get to push myself in these three disciplines. I have a lot to learn. I will keep doing that and try to get better with time.

The Ironman 70.3, also known as Half Ironman, is one of a series of long distance triathlon races organized by the World Triathlon Corporation. Following the event in Hyderabad, I went on to do Half Ironman in Bahrain and Colombo.

Less than a month before Ironman 70.3 Goa (it was the first Ironman event in India) I took part in the Ironman World Championships, held in Nice, France on September 8, 2019.

Photo: courtesy Nihal Baig

I started my training for Nice Ironman in March focusing mainly on swim technique. I trained under coach, Ashutosh Barve. Our weekly training sessions were done at the pool at IIT Mumbai in Powai. Swimming is my weakest sport in triathlon.

I also had to do most of my cycling sessions indoors. I did a couple of outdoor sessions in Pune. My priority for Nice World Championships was building power and learning technical bike skills. After the World Championships, I had all of five weeks to train for Goa Ironman. Of these, the first week was lost to recovery. In the available time, I decided to concentrate on getting more comfortable riding in aero-position. I had struggled with using the aerobars on my bicycle in previous races.

Running is my strong sport. I put in a lot of volume though I was not able to do track sessions because of rain. I was also unable to do speed workout because of a hip abductor injury. I acquired the hip abductor injury ahead of the Nice World Championships. Few weeks before the event, it was quite unbearable. However I recovered considerably as the world championships drew close. The cycling segment was tough, very technical and hilly. There were many sharp turns along the route, not to mention much elevation gain packed into the 90 kilometer-distance. I finished the World Championships in 5:29:02.

I did my training runs for Goa at the IIT Mumbai campus. I am aware of the road conditions there. So it was not difficult training outdoors during monsoon. In Goa, on the day of Ironman 70.3, I woke up early to have my breakfast two hours before the start of the race. At 7:30AM, the race commenced. When we got into the water for the swim segment, we realized there was a lot of sideways current. We were getting thrown towards the rope. Also, it was so crowded that our limbs were getting entangled with the rope. For quite some time I was stuck in one place. The swim segment of 1.9 kilometers was split into two loops. During my second loop I fared better. I did get stuck but I was prepared. During the first loop my pace was 2.35 minutes per 100 meters. In the second loop, the pace improved to 2.12 minutes per 100 meters. I finished the swim segment in 45 minutes and 16 seconds against my target of 40 minutes.

From the swim to the bike segment, the transition distance was about 900 meters. We had to sprint to get to our bikes. But the crowd and volunteer support was so good. Many of them were calling out my name and cheering me. That helped me a lot. I was in a positive frame of mind when I got on to the bike. Suddenly, the disappointment of the swim seemed like a distant past.

I had got myself a Cervelo P4. During the cycling segment, I chose not to use any HR or power devices to track my effort. I just went by feel. We had to cover the distance of 90 kilometers in three loops. I pushed a lot on the bike segment. I stuck to a uniform pace for most part of the race though the road condition was not great. For about 30 kilometers at the end of the bike leg race, I rode with only one aerobar. But the cheering by volunteers and the crowds was awesome. I finished the cycling segment in two hours, 31 minutes and 57 seconds. Although I had done better at Colombo Ironman earlier this year, I would rate the cycling I did at Goa my best so far. Further, Colombo was a flat route with roads in much better condition. My training for Nice certainly helped me at Goa.

Photo: courtesy Nihal Baig

When I finished the swim portion, I was 15th in my age category and 118th overall. At the end of the bike segment, I was second in my age category and seventh overall.

I decided to go hard on the run segment. I was confident of maintaining my position. I started at 3:55 pace and when it started to get hot I slowed down slightly. My pace was between 3:55 and 4. We had to cover the half marathon distance of the run segment in three loops and in each of these loops we had to negotiate a steep and a long climb. At the start of the third loop, I was in fourth position. The person who was leading had to slow down as he had hit the wall.

I finished the Goa Ironman in 4:47:47, placing second overall and second in my age category of 25-29 years.

Going forward, my focus will shift to training for the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon.

(Nihal Baig spoke to Latha Venkatraman, independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

2019 NEW YORK CITY MARATHON / KAMWOROR, JEPKOSGEI WIN

Geoffrey Kamworor (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of New York City Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Kenyan runners took top honors at the 2019 New York City Marathon held on November 3.

In the men’s category, Geoffrey Kamworor triumphed covering the distance in 2:08:13. He was followed to the finish line by fellow Kenyan, Albert Korir (2:08:36). Girma Bekele Gebre of Ethiopia placed third with timing of 2:08:38. Also finishing in the top ten were Tamirat Tola of Ethiopia (2:09:20), Shura Kitata of Ethiopia (2:10:39), Jared Ward of US (2:10:45), Stephen Sambu of Kenya (2:11:11), Yoshiki Takenouchi of Japan (2:11:18) Abdi Abdirahman of US (2:11:34) and Connor McMillan of US (2:12:07).

Defending champion, Lesisa Desisa of Ethiopia, pulled out at mile seven owing to tightness in the hamstring, a report in New York Post said. Less than a month before, he had become world champion winning the men’s marathon at the 2019  IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha; a race held in very warm conditions and therefore likely physically draining. Kamworor is the current world record holder in the men’s half marathon, a mark he set at the 2019 Copenhagen Half Marathon in September. He had won the New York City Marathon in 2017. Interestingly, according to news reports in September, he consciously traded participation at the Doha world championships for a shot at the half marathon world record in Copenhagen.

Joyciline Jepkosgei (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of New York City Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Among women, Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya emerged victor completing the race in 2:22:38. Mary Keitany, also of Kenya, placed second at 2:23:32. Ruti Aga of Ethiopia finished third with timing of 2:25:51. Other runners in the top ten segment included Nancy Kiprop of Kenya (2:26:21), Sinead Diver of Australia (2:26:23), Desiree Linden of US (2:26:46), Kellyn Taylor of US (2:26:52), Ellie Pashley of Australia (2:27:07), Belaynesh Fikadu of Ethiopia (2:27:27) and Mary Ngugi of Kenya (2:27:36).

Jepkosgei’s win was noteworthy for the fact that it was her first attempt at the full marathon at a major event. She has been a world record holder in the women’s half marathon and, according to Wikipedia, is the current record holder in the women’s 10 kilometers. Fellow Kenyan, Mary Keitany, who she beat to second spot, was racing for a fifth title in New York.

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

2019 IAU 24-HOUR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS / A NATIONAL BEST AND FIVE IN 200KM LEAGUE FOR INDIA

Apoorva Chaudhary (File photo: courtesy Sunil Shetty / NEB Sports)

Apoorva Chaudhary’s performance a new national best for women

Early days yet in the discipline, the Indian team’s participation at the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships over October 26-27 at Albi in France was a case of improved outcome featuring new personal benchmarks and learnings.

In the men’s category, India finished in 13th position at the championships; among women, the team placed 15th. “ The team’s performance was reasonably good, overall,’’ Sunil Chainani, member, Ultra Running Committee of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said. He had accompanied the team to Albi as part of the support crew.

Prior to the 2018 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Taipei, only one Indian athlete – Ullas Narayana – had covered a distance exceeding 200 km. At the Taipei event that grew to two – Ullas and Sunil Sharma. This number grew further at Albi besides new mark set for women.

At the 2019 World Championships in Albi, among Indian women runners, Apoorva Chaudhary covered a distance of 202.212 km, creating a new national best. She beat her own record of 176.8 km set during the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018.

Further, five athletes – three women and two men – achieved their personal bests at the Albi Championships. Apart from Apoorva; Priyanka Bhatt (192.845 km) and Hemlata (173.178 km) among women and Pranaya Mohanty (211.956 km) and Kanan Jain (211.157 km) among men, achieved new personal bests. Altogether five Indian runners – four men and one woman – covered distance in excess of 200 km at Albi.

According to Sunil, Pranaya twisted his ankle but continued to run despite the pain. For Kanan Jain, this was his first international event. Twenty one years old, he did very well for his age and limited exposure at the international level. Sunil Sharma ran very strong at the end of the race though he finished tad short of his personal record.

The 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships course at Albi, France (This photo has been sourced from the IAU website and is being used here for representation purpose)

Prior to the 2018 Taipei Championships, Ullas Narayana was the sole runner from India covering distance of over 200 kilometers. He had finished with 250.3 km to his credit had secured a bronze medal, India’s first international medal in ultra-running. Unfortunately at Albi, Ullas experienced some difficulties towards the last part of the race. He ran very strong for most of the race and was in 13th position till he had to stop during the last two hours due to cramps. Binay Sah too had to stop running half-way through the race after he felt unwell. “ In a 24-hour race, the possibility of things going not as per plan cannot be ruled out. Other international runners also faced similar issues,’’ Sunil Chainani said.

“ Two of the women runners – Apoorva and Priyanka – were outstanding. Our women athletes garnered much attention from international participants and coaches with their strong running,’’ he said.

At Albi, the runners were required to run in loops of 1.5 km as opposed to 400 meters. “ This had its advantages as well as disadvantages. The larger loop meant that participants did not have to stop often and there was space between runners. But the loop had many sharp turns,’’ Sunil said.

Overall, the Indian team’s performance has been encouraging. Focussed approach to training, nutrition and a camp for ultra-runners held earlier this year may have contributed to the improved performances. Still, there are lessons to take home from these international events. Going forward, a scientific approach to nutrition during the training phase is one element that needs to be looked into more seriously, Sunil said. Also, race strategy must be planned and executed well to improve performance, he felt.

“ In 2019, the presence of Tobias Lundgren, Swedish ultramarathon runner, as a member of the crew supporting the Indian team, helped a great deal in planning the race strategy,’’ Sunil said.

At the Albi Championships, ultramarathon runner from the US, Camille Herron, set a new world best of 270.116 kilometers in the women’s category, breaking her own previous record of 262.193 km. “ Herron’s performance was absolutely outstanding. She was just over eight kilometres short of the winner in the men’s race,’’ Sunilsaid. Aleksandr Sorokin of Lithuania won gold in the men’s race covering a distance of 278.972 km.

Among Indian runners in the men’s category, Ullas Narayana was at 40th position covering a distance of 229.717 km. Sunil Sharma placed 63rd covering a distance of 213.744 km. Pranaya Mohanty finished at 67th position with a distance of 211.956 km and Kanan at 68th with 211.157 km. Binay Kumar Sah finished at 178th position with a distance of 123.856 km covered.

The Indian team at the world championships in Albi (Photo: courtesy Sunil Chainani)

From Indian women runners, Apoorva Chaudhary finished 47th covering a distance of 202.212 km. Priyanka Bhatt finished 59th with a distance of 192.845 km. Hemlata finished 85th with a distance of 173.178 km and Shyamala Satyanarayana 106th with 154.577 km.

In the team championship, US took gold in both women’s and men’s categories. In the women’s category, the US team covered a distance of 746.132 km to secure gold. Poland took silver with a distance of 721.124 km. Bronze went to Germany with a distance of 696.846 km. In the men’s category, the US team covered a total distance of 799.754 km to win gold. Silver went to Hungary with 782.241 km covered while France (779.076 km) took bronze.

According to IAU, the 2019 edition was the biggest championship so far with 45 member federations participating in the event.

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

“ DON’T STOP ME NOW!’’

Corina (Cocky) Van Dam (Photo: courtesy Corina)

This is an article by invitation. In October 2019, Corina Van Dam, popularly known as Cocky, took part in her first triathlon. Held in Goa, the event was India’s first from the Ironman series. Here she writes about her training for the event and how things actually unfolded on race day.

I may not be the typical endurance sportsperson. Trained as a sports instructor in the 1980s, I indulged in many of the sports of that time – football, basketball, tennis, swimming, fencing, boxing, gymnastics and jazz ballet (long before zumba, aerobics existed). I liked all sports (but most off all ball games!) and managed to pass practical exams in several, even dance. I am clearly an all-rounder. You can invite me for any sport; I am happy to join.

My colleague Vivek Gaur – of Naz Foundation (India) Trust and based in Delhi – suggested I join the TCS 10K run in Bengaluru in 2018 when we both happened to be there on work at the foundation’s Bengaluru office. We had a great weekend with our Bengaluru team as cheering squad. The event was avenue for us to bond. I even finished third in my age category. We decided to do the whole Procam Slam (TCS 10K, ADHM (21km), Tata Steel 25K and TMM (42 km). After that, work-calls and meetings with Vivek always started with updates about preparations. While in Kolkota, we started thinking about our next project after the Procam Slam. Vivek, who had done a few Olympic triathlons didn’t have to waste a second: it should be the first Ironman 70.3 in India. As for me, since you can invite me for any sport: Ironman 70.3 Goa it was.

The mental preparation started in January 2019.

I thought that with my swimming skills, experience in riding bicycles and love for running, a half triathlon should be doable. Although I am trained as a sports coach, I haven’t really kept myself up to date with the new training philosophies and techniques. My 30-year work experience focuses on using sport as tool for social change and has a more sociological and psychological approach than technical. I based my training on my intuition and experience as sportswoman. I think I know my body quite well. I know when to push and when to stop. I am aware that not everybody thinks that’s a good idea.

So I started working on my general endurance through what I love most – running. In the meantime, I continued playing football in the Adidas Creators Football League and became champion with my team Wolfpack FC. It was then that I decided I must leave football for what it was – at least for a while – since I had started prioritizing not getting injured during the game. That is not the right mindset to play football. But there was a triathlon to do.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Until June, I swam when I got the opportunity (I couldn’t find a proper pool, so relied on a friend’s club membership) and cycled every now and then. In June, I found the swimming pool in Dharavi where I got a time slot of 45 minutes to train. My goal became to swim as much as I could in those 45 minutes. The pressure on time helped me do 1.9 km in 46 minutes. I cycled to and from the pool and did a swim test at Aquaman in between to qualify for their triathlon. This gave my fellow swimmers the impression that I was a “ professional.’’ All the time I was wondering why they were not talking to me. Unfortunately, they were in awe based on their own misconception.

Most of my training to cycle, I did with my hybrid bicycle, a very heavy XL specimen. In Mumbai, I pushed the bike, pedaling hard around Eastern Express Highway, Gorai, Madh, Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and Malabar Hill. Finally in August, I bought a road bike. It was quite an investment. As someone born in the Netherlands, cycling has been (and is) for me more ‘transport’ than ‘sport’. Cycling has brought me all my life (and still does) from point A to point B. Cycling for leisure included long coffee breaks and / or camping. In the run up to my first Ironman, I found myself cycling at 4AM during the monsoon on Eastern Express Highway, without coffee break….. I built my rounds up from 30 to 60 to 70. It became easier when I had my road bike. Or so I thought, because during my second ride I got a puncture and had to take a three wheeler back home. I continued to practise on my robust hybrid bike. In this period, I attended a workshop led by Abishek Adhav; it was very interesting and informative. The workshop was also a great place to meet others headed to Ironman Goa. What I learnt in this period was that cycling is the odd one out in the triathlon – it is expensive (even when you buy a cheap bike) and your Ironman can fail because of technical problems (or your inability to solve a technical problem). Cycling remained the discipline that scared me the most.

Running was the discipline that I planned for the least. From June onward, I participated in and won a 10 km run, two 21 km events, one of 50 km and then, I ran the longest distance among women at the six-hour Dil Se night run and the 12-hour Mumbai Ultra. All the time, I was trying to figure out where my strength lay: short distances or ultra.

I read posts on all the WhatsApp triathlon groups and started attending forums where people shared their triathlon experiences. Most of the presenters scared the hell out of me. One day I was at a meeting of those into endurance sport. In the morning I had cycled 75km (on my hybrid) to and from Mira Road and done the MRB Gorai 21 km run. During the meeting, I had to tell myself that that morning I had already put in much of the effort, which goes into an Ironman 70.3 and hence shouldn’t get upset over the horror stories being shared. Another topic which made me insecure was nutrition: the calories to replenish, how to refuel while cycling, taking gels etc. You seemed to require higher skills in mathematics to get this right. Here too, I had to calm myself down. I can run 12 hours, 82 km on sheera, bananas and whatever the hydration stations offer. So relax!!!

With Vivek (Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam)

At the end of the monsoon and a few weeks before D-Day, Yoska – the Ironman organizer in India – held sea swimming practice sessions at Juhu Beach, the dirtiest place you can imagine and I loved it. Here we were, shivering because we were either nervous or cold in our tri-suits or both. I loved the quietness of water. Where can you be alone and not hear anything, anytime in Mumbai? I felt happy when in between two of my strokes, I saw the sunrise. Needless to say, I participated in all further training, necessary or not.

Aquaman was supposed to hold its triathlon in Goa in September. I was to accompany a friend who missed the Ironman registration and do a trial. When it was postponed due to the prolonged monsoon, we decided to do an “IM recce” since hotel and tickets were already booked and paid for. We did the full cycling route (three times), running to collect the bicycles from CyclingZens and then back again. We spent Saturday evening looking for a proper swimming pool in Panaji (Panjim) and failed. I managed to cycle 90 km and run 21km. I thought I was ready.

Getting my bicycle without damage to Goa was a headache. The WhatsApp groups couldn’t stop talking about it: cycle bags, boxes etc. I managed to get my bicycle to Goa without problem in the back of a bus. The Ironman party started when I reached Panaji. While I cycled with a backpack and a bag (discussions on WhatsApp groups led me – a person usually traveling light – to carry all kinds of stuff that I didn’t need), I met the first co-participants from Mumbai. During the rest of the day, it was one big party of meeting people I knew from the Mumbai running scene, the WhatsApp groups, swimming and triathlon meetings / workshops and loads of people I had never interacted with before. The excitement built up during the transition briefing and bicycle `racking’ (you need to have your bike checked and parked at the transition area a day before the race).

We spent the night in a hotel close to the start (my colleague Vivek always manages to get this done!). I could sleep without being nervous about getting late. The hour before the start was exciting; meeting the other participants in my age category and wishing all my old and new acquaintances good luck. That bonding over shared nervousness and the excitement of what was due to come is my best Ironman experience.

Finally, on race day – October 20th, we started.

Swimming was hell! The river that ends in the sea near the swimming course caused enormous drift. With us being inexperienced sea swimmers, that was hardly manageable. We were supposed to start with five people but most lines consisted of seven. We had to run about 200 meters before we could start swimming. I had heard about the ‘washing machine’ (the splashing effect and churn caused by many triathletes running into the water to commence their swim at the same time) and promptly fell into a tumble. While trying to get into rhythm I was hit on my head, arms and legs and pushed onto the ropes tied to the buoys. Luckily, I was not stung by jellyfish as many of my co swimmers were. Though I was trained to do the full 1.9 km freestyle, I soon decided to do breaststroke since it is easier to navigate and keep people at distance. Despite resorting to breaststroke I finished in 48 minutes; the swimming part was over before I knew it. When I reached the beach, ‘Don’t stop me now’, a fantastic song from the band Queen, was being played. It was so relevant that I shivered with happiness and sang out loud ‘coz we’re having such a good time, we’re having a ball.’

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Cycling was my biggest fear. I knew that I had to cycle faster than I had ever cycled before in my life. I did just that despite the fact that I felt almost every other participant overtook me and I overtook only a few people. Most of the cyclists pedaled at similar pace. So we kept meeting each other. Keeping in mind what I had learnt in the groups / workshops, I started hydrating after 15 minutes. I was also hoping that I would get through the race without a punctured tyre. Then I neglected the rule of ‘never trying something new in a race’ and enjoyed the hospitality along the course. For the first time in my life I had a ‘gel’. I also learned how to take a banana at 25km speed from a volunteer at the hydration point. I was as happy as a child when I mastered the art at stations that followed. During the third loop, I thought: perhaps I’m a real endurance athlete. I had commenced enjoying cycling after 60km. Coldplay’s song `Nobody said it was easy’ surfaced from my subconscious mind and I sang “No one ever said it would be so hard. I’m going back to the start’’ (which I changed to not going back). There had been a lot of chatter about the bike course. I had seen the route, so knew where the road was bad and where the inclines were. But since all of us face the same situation, I never found these discussions interesting. Given we raced without our phones, I had no idea how I was doing. My Garmin said that it had taken me 3:18:39 (as usual I started my device when I was already on the course) and thought that it was not bad.

I was looking forward to running. I dedicated my participation in the Ironman 70.3 to all the women of Pinkathon; 20th October was also Pinkathon Day and I had to miss the celebration in my locality: Tilak Nagar, Mumbai, where I am Pinkathon Ambassador. During the run in Goa, volunteers and audience responded to my Pinkathon t-shirt. Although I’m a runner and had done a few brick training sessions, running hit me hard. I got cramps in my vastus medialis (I didn’t even know that this was possible) but overcame that soon. I really enjoyed the hospitality along the course and discovered the joy of racing on Coke and chips (again I flouted the never try something new on race day-rule). The ice baths and cold sponges helped me finish in what was however, my worst 21 km time ever – 2:38:13. It was only after I got the armband upon completing the first lap (you receive an armband after every lap run) that I was able to place myself in the competition order. I didn’t notice that another participant in the P-category (women, 50-54 year) had overtaken me during the run.

At the award ceremony I realized that Vivek and I had accomplished what we set out to do. In my age category there was a participant who finished as the fastest woman in the race with 5:18:49. At ten participants, my age category was easy to oversee but just before the start, one of the women told me that the person in question was participating and we could forget winning the event. When I asked who that was, I was told she was a “six time winner in Hawaii.’’ I thought that it might be stupid to ask what happened in Hawaii. About an hour after the event (I was in the recovery zone), someone who had tracked me told me that I had finished third (in 6:57:27) and that Natasha Badmann, six time World Champion in Ironman had won the overall race and first position in my age group.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Eventually during the award ceremony, I got the trophy for the second place. Assuming that there was a mix up, I said that I had secured the third position. It turned out, Natasha Badmann didn’t claim her’s so I got away with the trophy for second-position. Placed second, I had qualified for the World Championship slot for foreigners! Since the event had started half an hour late, there was change in the day’s schedule. One of the volunteers told me that the “ roll down ceremony” (where the places for the World Championships are given to those present) would start at 5PM. I was busy with friends who came all the way from Manipal to cheer me. I also spent time talking to other finishers. I thus arrived late at the roll down ceremony and the opportunity to participate at the Ironman World Championships went to someone else. Although I didn’t expect anything, I came to Goa with all the credit cards I had, just to stay prepared. In the end I could only be angry with myself. The feeling disappeared when I celebrated our finish with Vivek and his family.

Once I settled in my bed in the sleeper bus back to Mumbai, I realized what had happened and how many people had followed me that day: my family, my Pinkathon group, friends and colleagues. It was heart-warming to see all these people so engaged, enthusiastic and happy for me. The feeling continued for days. I was the center of parties and a flood of congratulations on WhatsApp and social media. I also realized that my timing was not bad and that I had completed the course faster than many of the other participants that I had got to know in the period prior to Ironman 70.3 Goa.

I spent two days celebrating, one day washing all my clothes, another day getting all Ironman stuff out of the way and then longed for running. During the first two rounds at Sahyadri Ground in Tilak Nagar, my body shouted at me: what are you doing? But once I got into rhythm, thoughts started creeping up: why don’t you upgrade to 100 miles for Aquaman 70.3? With Goa in your pocket, you’ve met their criteria. So, on the fourth day after Ironman 70.3, I arranged for my next adventure to be the Aquaman 100 miles triathlon.

I might be more of an endurance athlete than I thought, after all.

(The author, Corina Van Dam, works with Naz Foundation (India) Trust in Mumbai. For more on her please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/08/06/making-a-difference-with-sports/)