2019 TMM / RUN MEGHALAYA SCORES AGAIN

The Run Meghalaya team, after the 2019 TMM (Photo: courtesy Habari Warjri)

Every year, soon after the Mumbai Marathon, the restaurants of South Mumbai get busy catering to families and groups of runners assembled for refreshment and banter after the annual outing.

This January 20, noon, Gaylord restaurant at Churchgate was no exception. The tables outside had their share of people in running gear; similar scene prevailed within. On the restaurant’s upper deck was a large group of runners from India’s North East. It was a group rich in fine timings at TMM. They were from Run Meghalaya, a Shillong based-initiative, regularly sending runners from the north eastern state to participate at leading Indian running events, including the Mumbai Marathon.

In life, you have to be lucky to be talented and financially strong at once. In running too, some of the best talent hails from challenged circumstances. As part of their goals, initiatives like Run Meghalaya persevere to bridge this gap. Those assembled at the restaurant included Darishisha Iangjuh, Kmoin Wahlang, Jefferson Kharnaior, Shaikupar Kharshiing, Swonding Mawlong, Tlanding Wahlang, Geoff Nongrum, David Wahlang, Clementina Lyngdoh, Kresstarjune Pathaw, Habari Warjri and Carolyne Lyngdoh. Four of them were racing at TMM for the first time. Team members were mostly from Shillong (based there); three of them were from Mawkyrwat, the region associated with some of the best runners in Meghalaya. Mawkyrwat’s running culture has been attributed to tough rural lifestyle and organic diet. Mawkyrwat also hosts an annual ultramarathon (Mawkyrwat Ultra) now.

Tlanding Wahlang (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The strongest runner from the Run Meghalaya team was Tlanding Wahlang from Mawkyrwat. At 2019 TMM, he finished second overall in the full marathon for amateurs with timing of 2:40:53. In his age category (40-44 years) he placed first. In 2018 too, Tlanding had finished second in the full marathon for amateurs (Kresstarjune placed third); at that time his timing was tad slower at 2:42:57. According to Habari, Run Meghalaya has recommended Tlanding to authorities in Delhi for potential inclusion in the Indian team for the World Trail Championships scheduled in Portugal.

Another strong performer at 2019 TMM was Darishisha Iangjuh from Shillong. She placed third overall among women in the full marathon for amateurs with timing of 3:21:07. In her age category (18-24 years), she placed second. In 2018, Darishisha had finished first overall among women in the full marathon for amateurs with timing of 3:13:45. “ We are trying for some of our runners to qualify for the elite category,’’ Habari, who is part of the Run Meghalaya management, said. Swonding Mawlong of Mawkyrwat was yet another Meghalaya runner finishing on the podium in Mumbai this year. He placed second in his age category (50-54 years) completing the full marathon in 3:13:44. But the star performer was probably his mother in law, 71 year-old Kmoin Wahlang. The septuagenarian from Mawkyrwat – she is mother of 12 children and grandmother of 30 – finished the full marathon in 4:33:55 with a place on the podium in her age category (70-74 years) to boot. Interestingly her timing is significantly better than podium finishers among men in the corresponding age category.

Swonding Mawlong and Kmoin Wahlang (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Race day was challenging for many amateur runners. While the marathon commenced under favorable weather conditions, it suddenly grew warm. Aside from speculation about weather’s impact on performance, there were no specific complaints from the Meghalaya runners on that front. They found the ambiance and crowd support very encouraging. The sight of people voluntarily offering snacks and water along the way was praised. This year, Habari said, some of the team members failed to get adequate rest before the Mumbai Marathon because their travel time got extended. The number of races runners were frequenting was also more; it has likely contributed to slower recovery. The Meghalaya team while more or less maintaining its positions on the podium in Mumbai has probably seen a dip in timing for some of the participants, Habari said.

Although the Mumbai Marathon is India’s biggest, it is a more compact team than usual which heads to Mumbai from Meghalaya. Given the distance from Meghalaya to Mumbai and the fact that some of the state’s gifted runners don’t hail from well to do circumstances with pockets deep enough to afford travel cost, bigger groups typically travel to events in Kolkata and Delhi, some of the team members said. The events next on the team’s radar are the two IDBI Federal Life Insurance marathons in Kolkata and Delhi.

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

MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME

Bharat Pannu (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

For years, Lt Col Bharat Pannu lived a bland life. Then he discovered cycling, enjoying in particular the challenge of cycling long distances. A 2016 transfer to Nashik fueled the passion further. His progression in the sport has been rapid. In 2019, he will attempt Race Across America (RAAM).

There’s a story Bharat Pannu told.

In 2016, soon after shifting to Nashik he rushed to meet Col Srinivas Gokulnath, who had that year participated in Race Across America (RAAM). RAAM is a brutal test of endurance; it stuffs roughly 4800 kilometers of cycling – from the west coast of the US to the east with all accompanying geographical and climatic variations – into a requirement to cover the distance in a maximum of 12 days. Having heard of Srinivas, Bharat wanted to meet him. “ I considered myself a cyclist because of what I did in Jammu. So I introduced myself and expressed my desire to do something in the field of cycling. He asked me what my goal is. I thought a while and blurted out: Tour de France!’’

For Bharat, it had been a long ride to Jammu waiting for the universe to show him something he could excel at. His father Ram Mehar Singh retired as a subedar from the Indian Army; his mother Sarbati Devi is a homemaker. An only child, Bharat was born May 1982 in Julana in Haryana. As with children in army families, Bharat’s education happened across towns in India; wherever his father was posted to. There was Secunderabad, Tezpur, Pathankot, Ambala; by the time he reached Pune, Bharat was studying mechanical engineering at the Army Institute of Technology. “ Throughout I was the typical good student, as defined in India. It was all about being good at studies and very little, practically no sports,’’ he said. Sole exception was a work-out that manifested as related requirement. School students in India avail tuitions in addition to regular study at school. Although minors in age, they too end up commuting like their office going-parents, traveling from one location of study to the next. In country measuring itself more and more by the capacity to afford, this is the stage when life is about you and a bicycle. Later, most people won’t sit on anything less than an engine. Bharat sometimes covered 30-40 kilometers on his bicycle – a Hero Ranger Gen X – linking the dots that were school, tuition classes and home.

Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu

Once he completed his engineering in Pune, he worked for a very brief while at Forbes Marshall, a company in the city. Then, a project he had been on for quite some time, bore fruit. Seeking to join the army, he had earlier taken the admission test for the National Defence Academy (NDA) multiple times and been rejected every time at the interview stage. Through college, he had therefore kept himself involved in activities that may improve his skills to communicate and interact. A couple of months into his first job, he got his call letter from the army and moved to join the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun. Here too, as in school, he wasn’t a cadet particularly competent at sports. He did his expected share of participating in games and physical training, wherein luckily, one strong point graced him – he turned out to be a good runner. “ In the army, there is a saying that if you are good at running then you are good at everything,’’ Bharat said. On June 10, 2006, he was commissioned as an officer in the army’s Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME).

Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu

Bharat’s first posting in the army was a stint at high altitude, in Sikkim. From there he moved to Arunachal Pradesh. Given altitude, sport for recreation was mostly chess, carom and volleyball, the last mentioned, viable only in summer months. In 2008, he was posted to Hissar in Haryana and after close to two years there, in 2010, was posted to Leh in Ladakh. From Leh, Bharat shifted to Secunderabad where he did his advanced course in aeronautical engineering. His job profile now altered to helping take care of the army’s aviation assets. All this time, Bharat’s appetite for physical activity was limited to what was compulsory under army rules – mainly the daily games parade, when officers and soldiers played together for bonding and team building. Plus he kept up that regular running, at times leading his unit to wins at cross country competitions. From Secunderabad, the army posted him to Bareilly and eventually, Jammu. His life began changing. There was a sports complex near where he stayed in Jammu. Bharat joined his colleagues to play badminton. “ Sports became a matter of interest for me in Jammu. It started with badminton. Then upon seeing others cycling, I bought a Raleigh MTB and joined them. Our camp was at Nagrota and we had good roads with rolling terrain in the vicinity. Probably because of my running, I seemed to do well in cycling too. All my rides were with colleagues from the army. Interaction with civilians has been little for me. The army is a self-contained ecosystem,’’ Bharat said.

Darshan Dubey (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

In September 2016, he was transferred to Nashik, home to the Combat Army Aviation Training School. Within days he was before Srinivas. According to Bharat, Srinivas – he knew well the hard work required to be cyclist in the proper sense – asked him how much he cycled. Bharat replied: about 100 kilometers a week. Srinivas encouraged him to cycle more; he recommended BRMs. Bharat promptly registered for one, a move that also brought him in touch with Dr Mahendra Mahajan, who with his elder brother Dr Hitendra Mahajan, had been the first Indians to complete RAAM (as two person team) in 2015. It is a bit difficult putting in perspective what drove Bharat to commit himself so to cycling. He reckons that Jammu was some sort of a late awakening in sports for him. He also admits to craving for some of the recognition that visits people accomplishing things in life. Cycling appeared a path opening up; he grabbed it. Bharat joined duty in Nashik on September 8. By October 28, he had spent over Rs 150,000 and acquired a Trek Emonda S6 road bike. “ I was in no frame of mind to stop myself,’’ he said.

At Deccan Cliffhanger (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

That November – he had taken leave the whole month to use up the holidays he hadn’t availed – Bharat cycled to Pune. It was November 5. Within the first 10 kilometers he got his first puncture. He replaced the affected tube with a spare one and carried on. Roughly 60-70 kilometers before Pune, he got his second puncture, which he repaired himself.  November 6, he rested in Pune. The next day, he returned to Nashik. By now he was part of the city’s BRM group and nursing dreams of becoming a super randonneur (completing 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometer-brevets in a year). One day after he texted seeking company for a ride to Trimbakeshwar, Darshan Dubey responded. It was the beginning of a solid friendship; Darshan, the more experienced cyclist of the two. Born 1989, Darshan grew up in Nashik. His curiosity for distance cycling was prompted by a 2014 magazine article by the Mahajan brothers on their experiences in cycling; Hitendra had written about Tour of the Dragons in Bhutan and Mahendra had written about his BRMs. “ I read that and thought maybe I too can do something,’’ Darshan said. He bought a Hercules Atom steel frame bike and for a while struggled doing long rides on the heavy cycle with no proper bicycle gear and apparel. A visit to Decathlon – the sports goods retailer – eased the apparel issue and helped extend the distances he covered. Then he stumbled on GCN network on the Internet. It showed him the predicament he had got himself into – there was more to bicycle than just buying one; there was intended application and bike suited for it, there was bike geometry, there was bike sizing. By now, he had also got to know a group called Nashik Cyclists. Although his parents were skeptical about upgrading, Darshan managed to buy a Montra Unplugged 1.1 road bike; it was the cheapest Montra road bike and had a seven speed-cassette behind. Then a move to crowded Mumbai for higher studies put the brakes on cycling. “ Still I cycled whenever I could,’’ Darshan said. In January 2016, he did a 300 kilometer-brevet; Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai.

Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

In October, he was visiting Nashik when Bharat’s text landed in local brevet circles. “ I responded not knowing a thing about Bharat. That’s how it is in cycling, that’s how you meet new people,’’ Darshan said. Also joining in for the ride to Trimbakeshwar was Venugopal Nair, Nashik based-cyclist who had done a bunch of brevets. Not long after Darshan returned to Mumbai after the Trimbakeshwar ride, he got a call from Bharat about an upcoming 300 kilometer-BRM from Dhule to Nashik and back. BRMs are not races. On that outing, Bharat was the first rider to report back to Dhule after completing the route. According to Darshan, the organizers and riders complimented Bharat. Being from the army, he had the endurance required for long rides. All he needed was being comfortable on the saddle for long durations. Darshan remarked that Bharat should face no problem completing Deccan Cliffhanger (DC), the annual race on the Pune-Goa route which also serves as RAAM qualifier (RQ). Darshan had crewed earlier for a cyclist at DC. Bharat added DC to his list of things to do, while in Nashik. The 300 kilometer-BRM was followed by a 200 kilometer-BRM on November 20 – it was Nashik–Saputara-Nashik – which Bharat completed successfully within stipulated time. A week later, on November 27, he did a 300 kilometer-BRM – Pune-Mahabaleshwar-Satara-Pune. November 2016 was a month of getting BRMs done. A stroke of luck in taking leave right then was that it was a convenient month for Darshan too. At that time, Darshan was pursuing his MBA from Wellingkar Institute in Mumbai. November suited him to join Bharat on rides. “ I got a good friend in Darshan, someone more motivated than I to ride. He was the force taking me ahead,’’ Bharat said. Post November, the routine of office returned and with it; although weekly mileage had clearly risen, Bharat’s regular riding was mostly Nashik to Trimbakeshwar and back.

From Ultra Spice (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Around December 15, Bharat got a call from Darshan informing that Divya Tate of Inspire India was organizing a new race in January 2017 – Ultra Spice from Goa to Ooty and back – with three distance categories of 500, 1000 and 1750 kilometers and RQ to boot. Bharat estimated he was probably ready for 500 kilometers. Darshan agreed to take care of securing support crew. Later they shifted to 1000 kilometer-category because the 500 kilometer-race wasn’t assigned RQ. According to Bharat, there were only three participants in Ultra Spice that year, one in each distance category (the rider for 500 kilometers did not turn up on race day). The pre-race briefing was therefore a chat across a table. It was Bharat’s first race with support crew and he had no idea yet of what the race entailed; he had no specific strategy or nutrition plan in place. “ When Divya asked me about my race strategy at the briefing table, I had that old Tour de France-look on my face. It must have worried her for besides my personal safety she had a race’s reputation to protect,’’ Bharat said laughing. In his mind, Darshan who was anchoring Bharat’s crew, felt 1000 kilometers was ambitious. “ I was keeping my fingers crossed,’’ he said. However Bharat went on to complete the 1000 kilometer-course in 55 hours, 35 minutes with less than two hours of sleep en route. It was RQ; he was the only finisher in this first edition of the race. In retrospect, he admitted, what he did exposed the novice in him – ideally, it should be adequate sleep, recover, proper nutrition and let the body deliver. Following Ultra Spice, Bharat believes, he started to be taken a bit more seriously in cycling. He explained it so – cycling circles perceived him as rider who accomplished RQ at Ultra Spice despite no proper strategy and nutrition plan. So what would it be like if he had those in place? It hinted of potential. His cyclist friends in Nashik became even more supportive. “ After this race, a new chapter commenced,’’ Bharat said. He began thinking of attempting an ultra-cycling event outside India. Once again, the fuel driving it was need for recognition; achievements within the country are not as celebrated as those outside. He was candid in admitting that.

From Race Around Austria; cyclist is visible as small speck on the road in the left half of the picture (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Some months earlier, in August 2016, Ammar Miyaji from Nashik had attempted Race Around Austria (RAA). RAA is not as long as RAAM but within its compact proportion of a ride along the perimeter of Austria, it packs a punch with steep roads and sizable elevation gain. Divya had been part of Ammar’s crew for RAA. The original idea, Darshan said, was for Bharat to attempt RAA’s 1500 kilometer-race, which was RQ and open only to solo riders. But when they approached Chaitanya Velhal to be coach, Chaitanya was skeptical. Not one to back off, Bharat came up with the suggestion that he and Darshan attempt RAA’s 2200 kilometer-race as two-person team. Lacking comprehension of how such a team works, they consulted Dr Mahendra Mahajan. He explained the process and also recommended that they get a coach. The schedule was tight. The duo decided in March, met Mahendra in April and the race was due in August. At their request, Divya came aboard as crew chief. Chaitanya joined as coach. Of the three months available, Chaitanya effectively had two for use. July being a month of rain would be wash-out. Divya’s challenges included finding crew members who spoke German because local knowledge and ability to engage when needed are always helpful. But most important was finding someone in Austria who would make the team feel comfortable on the ground.

Race Around Austria; the team after the finish (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

On Strava, Darshan found the Moshammer family residing in St Georgen Im Attergau, where RAA starts. Having done RAA himself, Hannes Moshammer helped with valuable tips besides hosting the team at his house once they reached Austria. The race route was along the countryside. To practise for RAA’s steep climbs, Bharat had relied on the gradients around Nashik. Darashan, having been transferred to Bengaluru on work, had a tougher time. Exiting Bengaluru’s urban congestion and finding space for practice is itself time consuming. As for bikes, Bharat took his Trek Emonda fitted with new wheels for improved rolling; Darshan had his Fuji SL 2.3 (a carbon frame bike, he had used it at the Dhule-Nashik BRM). Gear ratios on both bikes were altered to suit climbing. Ahead of race, the two cyclists rode up the last of RAA’s nine mountain passes. “ Not one instance of hill training we did in India was comparable to the climbs we faced,’’ Bharat said. The highest elevation in RAA was only 12,800 feet. But the roads connecting these heights had gradients more severe than what Indian roads did. As race progressed, the Moshammer family tracked the team on a daily basis. Austria is a small country. Every day, the family drove from where they stayed to some point on the route and cheered the Indians as they cycled past. Between Darshan and Bharat, they had set a goal of completing RAA in 100 hours. At the 86th hour, they were left with roughly 350 kilometers to complete. They motivated themselves and got the race wrapped up in 99 hours, 53 minutes. Race cut-off was 108 hours. “ We finished fifth in the two-person category,’’ Bharat said. Post RAA, the cyclists got a rousing welcome in Nashik. Bharat was also commended by the army. Among those who attended the awards ceremony at RAA’s close had been Christoph Strasser, Austrian ultra-cyclist and five time winner and record holder at RAAM.

At 2018 Ultra Spice; notice neck brace (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Back from RAA, Bharat trained for the January 2018 edition of Ultra Spice and completed it. He had issues with his bike; he also suffered neck pain. “ Despite being competitor, Kabir Rachure looked out for me on this race,’’ Bharat said. On completing Ultra Spice, Bharat was firmly resolved that he should attempt RAAM. In February, he made up his mind to enroll for the race. But there was one thing to do before formally participating in RAAM as rider. He required getting a sense of the route and seeing, firsthand, what riders endured traversing the breadth of the US.

2018 RAAM; Team Sea to See (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Bharat wrote to teams attempting RAAM in 2018 for berth as crew member. Team Sea to See responded positively. Dedicated to proving that those who are blind can succeed in any field, they envisaged combination of one visually challenged rider and one with normal eyesight cycling together on tandem bikes. The team had eight cyclists participating. Bharat was accepted as navigator. “ Going with a team is better as chances of completion are higher. You get to see the whole RAAM route,’’ Bharat said. The team – Bharat included as navigator – completed 2018 RAAM successfully. “ Team Sea to See was a very good learning experience,’’ he said. Now it was time for Bharat to focus on his own preparations for attempting the race solo in 2019.

Ram Mehar Singh and Sarbati Devi (Photo: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

At his house in Nashik, to a side in Bharat’s room was a Scott road bike mounted on a trainer. It was one of three bikes acquired recently – a Scott Foil 20 and two Scott Addict 10; the former for flats, the latter for climbs. Below, on the ground floor of the house, was a wooden chest of drawers with rack on top holding three bikes; one of them being his old road bike. The chest contained bicycle accessories and tools. Bharat’s parents stay with him. “ Had it not been for their presence here, I wouldn’t be able to live as I do,’’ he said. For a long time, his parents didn’t know exactly what he was doing, disappearing every now and then with his bicycle. The turning point was RAA. Some days before leaving for Austria, he had to tell them what was underway. Now they are aware of his fascination for cycling. Ram Mehar Singh hasn’t yet crewed for his son but he hoped to be at a race one day. Sarbati Devi is set to be part of Bharat’s crew for RAAM. She will handle food in the run up to RAAM (Bharat will reach US about a month before the race to train and get used to the weather there) and once race starts, she will be in one of the support vehicles preparing homemade food for her son.  Darshan too is headed for the US as part of Bharat’s RAAM crew.

It was close to midnight, November 12, 2018. Bharat – now a Lieutenant Colonel – had just returned from a party at his friend’s house. He was expected to continue the conversation with this blog from where he had left off ahead of party. But with work, cycling, training at the gym and socializing – all going on, he was tired; early next morning seemed better option to chat. That was when Tracy called. It was night in Nashik; daytime in the US. Until some months ago, Bharat had been training under Mumbai-based cycling coach, Miten Thakker. However Miten was unsure whether he would be able to accompany Bharat to the US for RAAM. So in April 2018, Tracy McKay entered the picture. They met on Facebook. Tracy had completed RAAM in 2002 as part of a two-person team (they took eight days, three hours, placing second overall). In 2004, he made an unsuccessful solo attempt. In 2005, he was team strategist / crew chief for Chris MacDonald who cycled solo and finished second overall besides winning Rookie of The Year.

RAAM (Image: courtesy Bharat Pannu)

Based in Birmingham, Alabama, Tracy took on the role of Bharat’s coach and crew chief for RAAM. In a brief email exchange, Tracy outlined the challenges in RAAM. An event of this dimension will see participant running after many things. Among the first challenges therefore would be getting distracted from the main task of training and preparing. “ Much time can be taken in publicity and marketing by rider. Someone must take charge of this while rider prepares…sleep, ride, sleep, ride, sleep, ride – it slowly becomes a full time job outside of what they currently do,’’ he said. Then there are the physiological challenges posed by terrain and weather during RAAM. For example, in the desert the heat must be mitigated with IV fluids and there should be a strategy on when to ride. However what makes RAAM what it is, is the mental test and introspection it throws up. While the brain is designed to keep us away from harm and pain, each pedal stroke in ultra-cycling moves rider closer to discomfort till it builds up to a level you didn’t expect. You prepared, sacrificed, friends and family are invested in you – and then RAAM brings its reality. “ There is a great deal of self-examination, self-doubt. It becomes a roller coaster; it becomes a roller coaster for the crew. There will be moments where you want to quit, where the crew may even support it. But it is not required. Everyone must understand that this is the unexpected part of RAAM you must prepare for,’’ he said. As for any benefit in RAAM aspirant having done RAA before, he said, RAA can be compared only to other races of similar distance. RAAM is much longer. There can be no comparison between the two. Asked if there is any “best’’ personal quality or trait that a rider can bring to RAAM, he said a single quality won’t suffice. Self-concept / humility, sense of humor, ability to fail and try again (not out of vanity but from what you learnt from failing) and detachment – these may help, Tracy said.

Some weeks before I met Bharat, the 2018 Deccan Cliffhanger occurred. Bharat completed it successfully in 26 hours, five minutes. At the time of writing, Bharat had Tracy’s instructions to follow, Ultra Spice (1750 kilometer-category) to tackle in January and thereafter, by mid-2019, RAAM in the US.

Update: News reports of January 30, 2019 said that Lt Col Bharat Pannu completed the 1750 kilometer-category of 2019 Ultra Spice (an annual ultra-cycling event organized by Inspire India, from Goa to Ooty and back) in record time of 95 hours. This is an improvement over the previous record of 98 hours held by Col Srinivas Gokulnath.

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

THE `PHAW’ OF FOOTBALL

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded on July 15 with France taking home the trophy. We wait another four years for the event’s next edition. Bulbul Rajagopal is a final year MA student in Kolkata, the city she grew up in. Here she writes about Kolkata’s craze for football and the ambiance that prevailed there this world cup season. Bulbul is reporting intern and contributor at this blog.  

“ Gabriel Jesus! Maybe if we all call out his name, Brazil might finally score…” groaned Tonoy Dutta as he scanned the screen hosting the group stage match against Costa Rica. Dutta, a student of class 12, was member of Dum Dum area’s Bondhu Bandhab Club in Kolkata. My quest to observe the city during the 2018 World Cup had led me to Kolkata’s outskirts where a local boys club was watching the match. Brazilian flags took much space in their club room, while the odd Argentine ones peeked out. Soon the arena was packed with more of Dutta’s friends, all fans of the Brazil national team. Bathed in the glow of the TV, their faces appeared enlightened. Watching their yellow and green-flecked gods dance on screen, they sat in revered silence before their religion – football.

Scanning the band of boys and old men – the former playing hooky from school due to the heat but mostly because of the World Cup; the latter come out of the woodwork only for the game – club regular, Rajat Basak, noted my bemused expression and laughed. “ Those who don’t even know the phaw of football [phaw denoting the phonetic ‘f’ in the Bengali script] can’t resist the charm of the World Cup,’’ he said.

Every four years, the arrival of the FIFA World Cup envelopes Kolkata – a city known for its long flirtation with the game – in an all too familiar buzz. Kolkata’s obsession with the game’s international proceedings began with what the city calls the “magic of Pele.’’ In the 1970s, television sets were scarce in the city. Communal viewings where entire neighbourhoods huddled over one TV set in a household or two, or even a local club room, were common practice. In spite of this, the 20,000-strong crowd that greeted the Brazilian football legend at the city’s airport in 1977 was testimony to their love for the game. By 2017, Kolkata had played host to both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi — the latter’s visit drove 75,000 Calcuttans to swell the ranks in Salt Lake Stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the world.

The footpath leading to Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Preparation for the World Cup is taken very seriously here. It is almost ritualistic. The altar for warm-up is the highly popular Maidan Market, which houses a collection of roadside stalls stacked high with jerseys and flags linked to teams in the World Cup fray. The occasional shirt loudly brandished with the face of Messi or Ronaldo is almost as desired. In the lead-up to the more popular matches, which in Kolkata are mostly the ones featuring Brazil or Argentina, frequent sights include parents inspecting the jerseys of favorite teams with their children, and school and college-goers rifling through the collection hoping for a decent bargain. This World Cup season, almost all store owners reported that their fastest-depleting stock were the jerseys of Argentina and Brazil. Being coveted items, these were priced the highest – about 450 to 500 rupees. For Aziz, one of the salesmen, a constant worry every season is the unsold jerseys of the less popular teams like England, even Portugal. “The public always keeps an eye out for internet updates and the original jerseys they see there. Then only do they come to us. As for myself, I am an Argentina fan,’’ he said. Asked for a reason, Aziz said laughing, “ because their jerseys sell the most.’’

Deep in the market stall upon stall catered to Kolkata’s football fever. Each hawker eyed every passerby beadily trying to guess which team they were loyal to in order to push their ware. Subhroneel Bose wove his way expertly through this maze. On acquiring a target, he studied the stock of Argentina jerseys, all bearing the number 10. Bose has been a regular here since the 2002 World Cup. Time had made him an experienced bargainer. He came away grinning excitedly with a jersey for 180 rupees. “ I’ve bought it for my football trainer, he loves Messi. I’m a die-hard Brazil fan actually. It causes frequent clashes at home since my father is an Argentina fan,” the college-graduate said. Such arguments are a regular feature when the tournament rolls in. Tushita Basu fell in love with football following the matches she played with her father. On a bad day, watching a match together kept the blues at bay. Though the father and daughter started out supporting different teams – Brazil and Spain respectively – Tushita felt “with age I’m becoming more like my dad. I want Brazil to win this year.’’

The Brazil-Argentina divide is one that splits Kolkata in two distinct camps. It is a generational one that is marked by the rise of technology as well. Though Pele had once reigned supreme here, by 1986, with television sets proliferating, the next generation could witness Maradona in all his ‘Hand of God’ glory. By the time his protégé Messi entered the scene, the fanfare for Argentina was set in stone. Though a friendly rift highlighted by the characteristic banter the game demands, this is hardly the first football-related fissure Kolkata has seen. The formation of the historical football teams of Mohun Bagan and (subsequently) East Bengal are symbols of the partition the state underwent when it split into West Bengal and East Bengal. The former stayed with India, the latter came under Pakistan (East Bengal would eventually become Bangladesh). The heavy flow of migrants into Kolkata (then Calcutta) sparked crisis over refugee settlement, identity and communal tensions. However, the first taste of football-induced victory for the Bengalis had nothing to do with the state’s partition – it was Mohun Bagan’s win over East Yorkshire Regiment for the IFA shield.

An alleyway in the Santoshpur area (Photo: courtesy Srijan Mookerji)

Both India, specifically West Bengal, and Bangladesh find common ground in their support for Latin-American teams like Brazil and Argentina. Shahid Imam, an advocate at Calcutta High Court believed that the Latin-American circuit had a huge impact on the playing style of Bengalis: “ It is heavily mimicked, especially the dribbling style. I am a strong supporter of the Brazil team,’’ he said. Imam belonged to a football team made up of lawyers. The football tournament organized by the High Court has no age limit but is open only to members of the bar association. Last year, 16 teams took part. Though it lasts only a day, “it is intense for those 24 hours,’’ the advocate said. The World Cup was a favourite among them as well with regular screenings conducted in the High Court Club tent, situated behind the East Bengal Club’s office. “Judges and advocates all come together to watch. While most of us are Brazil and Argentina supporters, there are quite a few Germany fans since this team has been winning for quite some time,’’ Imam told me.

In my years here, I have noticed that unwavering loyalty is characteristic of the average Bengali football fan. For the past few World Cup fixtures, Brazil and Argentina – both loved by Bengalis – have either clocked out early on or come very close to victory only to be denied it (a greater loss, in my opinion). In spite of this, the city does not budge from its loyalty: the teams’ losses are taken in stride, fans mourn with them with equal fervour as they do when they win. 2018 was no different. With Germany heading home in the group stages itself and Argentina knocked out, Kolkata’s hopes rested on Brazil for the semi-finals. But this too, became dream dashed. A pall of silence shrouded the city, punctuated with the odd joke that Kolkata now had entered a state of existentialism. Alleyways and streets in the city were dotted with flags of blue and yellow. One in Santoshpur was a sea of Argentina flags and resident Srijan Mookerji dubbed it to be “as quiet as a tomb for now.’’ Setting these flags up is a locality-centric event. It happens almost in the blink of an eye. As I waded through the crowd and the waterlogged streets of monsoon, I frequently overheard that there was now no point watching the football matches. This happens every time. It is pointless to pay heed to such statements because as with all those years before; come the World Cup final and the city would shake itself out of collective sulk to huddle around the screen, sides reluctantly picked.

Kolkata boasts eclectic football teams of its own. The Kasba Up-to-Date Club (KUTDC) is one of them. Almost all of its members are above the age of 40, the oldest being 54. Forty-four year old Sudipto Banerjee, club member and supporter of Germany since 1986, ensures that he buys the team jersey from Maidan every time around. So dedicated is Banerjee to the game that he and two of his teammates went to Russia for the group stage matches. Located in the titular Kasba area, KUTDC engages in football rivalry with the neighbouring Amra Shobai Club. “ This rivalry has been going on since my school days. But we play better and are older as well given ours is a pre-Independence club [set up in 1943],” he said. His club organizes screenings in the area as well, but mostly for the semi-finals and the final.

Kolkata sweetshop Balaram Mullick & Radharam Mullick partake in festivities around the World Cup with edible trophy, stadium and players (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

These local or para clubs are deep-seated in the culture of Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal. Belonging to different localities, they make their mark for the community in two primary areas: the yearly organization of Durga puja and small football fixtures and screenings. Peppered all over the city, each has its own band of resident loyalists. Bondhu Bandhab Club usually rents out a projector for the entirety of the World Cup fixture to screen every single match. This year, however, the club had saved up enough to buy a Titan Chrome projector of their own. Bright sunny days do not deter their spirits when it comes to projection, because inside their club room is a small LCD TV they can depend on. The club is open to all and about forty people watch the screenings on an average. During the final, the number easily soars to over a hundred.

Football does not pertain to Bengalis alone in Kolkata. Going against the dominant trends in the city was the majority of the Armenian community. According to Armen Makarien, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy on Mirza Ghalib Street favoured rugby over football, as the latter has been played in their home country for the last 130 years. “But we have a formidable U-19 football team, and we follow the World Cup closely,” he said. Makarien – an Iran-born Armenian – supported the Iran national team, while most of the community in the College favoured Spain. “Armenians come to Kolkata from all over Europe and Asia. They prefer to support the countries they come from and call home. There are hardly any Brazil or Argentina fans here,” he said. N. Gopi of the Calcutta Malayalee Samajam had made football-loving Kolkata his home for the past 45 years. He hails from the equally football-frenzied state of Kerala. However, Gopi belonged to a generation that had seen Kolkata’s craze for football in better days: “That traditional spirit of fanfare is fading now, I feel. Everything has become so commercialized. The old enthusiasm is lagging. The craze everyone sees now is only half of what it used to be,” he said.

Subhroneel Bose scouting for the perfect jersey at Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Partaking in the football celebration was a typically male phenomenon and for a city where football is famously equated to life, women and girls do feel overlooked in this regard. Historically, one of the ways the British integrated the sport into Kolkata was through the setting up of football teams in colleges that were modeled on British public schools. Though the odd women’s team exists in colleges and universities here, the attention they get is minimal compared to their male counterparts. Local teams geared for women are practically unheard of. Rahman, a college student and footballer believed that women’s football “faces a vicious cycle. If you pull up statistics, you’ll find that women’s teams earn far less prize money than men’s teams. The visibility is also low since it is treated as a ‘masculine sport’.’’

When Rahman first started playing football, the primary reaction was one of incredulity. She was often branded as an attention-seeker. “Sexism and cultural barriers discourage women from taking up the sport,’’ she said. Rahman was on the lookout for amateur women’s football clubs in the city to hone her skills. Tushita too had been at the receiving end for her interest in the game: “To this day, I have male friends who would rather discuss the World Cup with another guy who is absolutely uninterested in football than ask me for my opinion,” she said. According to her Bengali women are stereotyped into being singers and dancers; the only sport assigned to them is swimming. “Maybe, if schools started coaching girls from a young age and there are at least two academies invested in women’s football, the scenario would change,’’ she said.

However, Kolkata also houses a team that uses football as tool to banish such stigma. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, located in the Sonagachi area of Kolkata, is an organisation that fights for the rights and upliftment of sex workers. “Children of sex workers are stigmatized because of their mothers’ occupation. To counter this, we started the Durbar Sports Academy where football teams of U-13, U-15 and the second division thrive,’’ Chief Advisor Dr. Smarajit Jana, said. Avid World Cup fans, the children regularly watched matches in their club room with their trainers and coaches who explained team strategies to them. Their practice sessions at Baruipur drew the attention of local radio channel Red FM during the 2014 fixture; they organized an awareness programme called ‘Baruipur to Brazil’. For Jana who has seen numerous children being taunted and abused by others due to their mothers’ line of work, the progress these teams had made spoke volumes of how far they had come. They plan to integrate the teams with girls as well. In my interaction with the young footballers here, 18 year-old Milan Sarkar caught my eye. A player for the second division team, Milan was discovered by the Academy when he was nine years old; when a “footballer dada noticed me playing in a nearby field.’’ His mother was a sex worker and for the past few months, the family had been financially hard up. But Milan’s dedication to the game was impressive: “I work as a food delivery boy from 6:30 to 11 PM. I go for practice thrice a week,’’ he said. Practice for them started at 7 AM. It was not an easy feat given his schedule. However, the young right-back managed to see the positive side of the situation: “My shift ends just in time for the 11:30 match, those are the good ones, anyway,” he said. This year, both the U-13 and U-15 teams qualified for the I-League which shares the top spot in the Indian football system with the Indian Super League (ISL).

A section of the Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Even if the World Cup is a phenomenon that takes the city by storm only once in four years, football is a celebration enjoyed all year round. Come rain, hail or the beating rays of sun, there are very few entities deemed obstacles here in one’s quest to play football. Kolkata never faces a dearth of matches to participate in or even to simply watch from the periphery of its numerous playing fields. As the World Cup rolled in during the monsoon, numerous rounds of hot tea or pints and pegs of beer and rum were counted on by Calcuttans everywhere when matches proved to be nail-biting. With crowd favourites like Argentina, Germany and Portugal by way of Ronaldo knocked-out of this year’s fixture, an unusual silence pervaded the city. Entire stretches of roads had been painted with Messi’s face and club houses acted as shrines to Brazil and Argentina. Fanaticism has always been present in Kolkata and the decorations for the World Cup proved it. The tea shop and living quarters of Messi fanatic Shib Shankar Patra was doused entirely in Argentina colours, earning it local fame as ‘Argentina Tea Stall’. The reason was simple: love makes one do crazy things. The silence was merely the lull before the storm. Even if the preferred teams do not end up playing in the final, it was tough to pry the people here away from the screens because ultimately it is their love for the game that roars through the din.

In the lead-up to the Croatia-France final, viewing parties and outings were the talk of the town. As luck would have it, my TV at home gave out a few hours before kick-off. I was not too worried. Kolkata – Jadavpur University to be precise – came to my aid. University screenings are common in the city, and the camaraderie they trigger well known. I was welcomed that night by a crowd of 200 college students, a few street dogs that frequent the area and the perfume of rum and beer that pairs characteristically with a football game. The constant drizzle did not dampen spirits. The cloth screen and projector were well-protected and banter was on the rise. When the weather turned worse, the usual grumbling was absent; the students merely opened a festoon of umbrellas and life went on. It was almost midnight in Kolkata when French team began their festivities, but the former was awake as well. It was not the victory the city was hoping for, and remnants of its love for Argentina and Brazil remained as their flags were still flying in some areas. That Sunday night was the last vestige of the city’s final hurrah before the waiting period of another four years commenced, Monday morning.

(The author, Bulbul Rajagopal, is a final year MA student in Kolkata. She is reporting intern and contributor at this blog. On her own relation with the game, Bulbul says: I do not actively support any team or club, but I enjoy studying the styles of play. Often, I am biased towards certain teams based on a few players, which would explain my irrational support for Argentina during the 2018 World Cup. Irrational, only because the team was running on the fumes of glory past and the lion’s share of the pressure was weighed down on the shoulders of Lionel Messi. Even while I study the game, I consider it important to look beyond the touchline, towards the people who observe football. To my knowledge, no sporting situation triggers banter as amusing as football does. The game has a history of friendly banter becoming ugly, even morphing into racism. But true ribbing in football is infectious and when done correctly, it is witty. I find it fascinating when minor arguments break out amongst people in this regard. I also thrive on the camaraderie that football offers and demands. I grew up in Kolkata and in my 22 years here, believe this city is right up there on the global list of cities that make the phrase ‘football frenzy,’ real.)

BARKLEY 2018

Grant Maughan (This picture was taken at the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High. Photo: Shyam G Menon)

This is an article by invitation. The author Grant Maughan is a seasoned ultramarathon runner and adventure racer.

Many of us in India know Barkley Marathons through that wonderful documentary film: The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It is an ultramarathon of approximately 100 miles (with a “fun run’’ of 60 miles) happening in late March or early April every year in Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg, Tennessee in the US. The race – it has 54,200 feet of accumulated climb – is limited to a 60 hour-period. Only 40 runners get to participate.

The Barkley course was designed by Gary “ Lazarus Lake’’ Cantrell. According to Wikipedia the idea of the race was inspired by the 1977 escape of James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr, from the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Ray covered just eight miles (13km) after running 55 hours in the woods. Mocking Ray’s low mileage, Cantrell told himself that he could do at least 100 miles. He named the race thus born, after his longtime neighbor and running companion, Barry Barkley. It is an event with unique traits. For instance, besides running, runners are expected to find a certain number of books placed along the course and remove the page corresponding to his / her bib number as proof of completing a loop. Each loop comes with a new race number and therefore the need for another page from all those books. The race – you have to complete five loops of the course – was first run in 1986. In all these years – 33 as of 2018 – it has been completed 18 times by 15 runners. The 2018 edition saw no finishers.

Among those in the fray in 2018 was Grant Maughan. Hailing from Australia, Grant is a freelance super yacht captain who also keeps a busy schedule as endurance athlete. Veteran of many races and a regular at Badwater, in 2016 he was joint winner with Serbian ultra-runner Jovica Spajic in the 333km-category of La Ultra The High, the ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. Ten days before the 2018 Barkley, he finished the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race across winter Alaska (pulling a sled). Post Barkley, he heads to Tibet to attempt Everest from that side. At the time of contributing this article, he had his calendar packed till September, all the way to Tor Des Geants with yet another Badwater in between.  

Contrary to popular belief, the infamous Barkley Marathons isn’t that hard…. it’s freaking unbelievably hard! It’s a psychological thriller wrapped in a survivalist’s apocalyptic daydreams.

Having just completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile foot race pulling a sled across winter Alaska only 10 days before, I had a simple ambition: turn up at the yellow gate and see if I could make one loop in the allotted time and find all 13 books.

After check-in, the sorry souls who were about to embark were allowed to view the master topographical map and draw the route on their own maps, as well as the general locations of the books that each runner was required to find so as to rip the page out of each that corresponded to their own race bib number. These were to be handed back to Laz, the RD, at the completion of the loop to confirm that you had been to each location. Each runner also received a few pages of navigation notes, which at first, second and third reading appeared to be a cryptic scroll to hidden treasure. They would take considerable time to decipher and apply to finding our way.

Barkley is a thinking event. You can’t zone out too much, like in “normal” races where you just lift your head long enough to spot the next marker or course flagging. You are continually evaluating where you are, because if you don’t know where you are, you can’t get to where you’re going. I have worked at sea for more than 35 years so navigation is a daily occurrence. But doing so in the bush is a different story. At sea, you plot Rhumb Lines or Great Circles to skirt around land, but in the mountain bush it is difficult to see exactly where you are even if you are trying to find a spur that leads to a ridge line high above. You need to actually feel the ground contour and correlate that to your map and compass, then try to analyze if you are on the correct section of the mountain. As soon as you drift off into a reverie, you may miss a critical landmark confirming – or otherwise – that you are on the “loop”.

Virgins at Barkley usually cling to a veteran for at least the first loop to try to learn the navigation so as to make it back in time to start the next loop. I figured this was excellent advice and hung with Aussie veteran Nicki Rehn. It was her fifth start at Barkley, so she had a good feel for the bush and a better nose for the navigation. I can’t imagine having to do the first loop by map and notes alone. The night before I had jotted down compass bearings and distances of most of the legs of the route to find the books. But the time to keep stopping and correlating everything while underway would be all consuming and probably lead to timing out on the loop.

Grant at the Barkley Marathons race venue (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

The majority of the course is off marked trails, and runners find themselves sliding and stumbling down precarious topography, clinging to trees and rocks while trying to find an important watercourse at the bottom to direct them to an equally steep and precarious ascent. Torrential rain assisted in making Frozen Head State Park a quagmire of soap-slippery mud. Climbing up the notorious Rat Jaw was a lesson in frustration of trying to find enough grip per step to make any headway. Coming back down was like sliding down the face of a giant Hawaiian wave of mud. Time on your feet was marginal as one fell, rolled and cartwheeled to lower elevations. Much of the climb and many sections of the loop are mired in brier bushes whose thorns stab holes in grabbing hands and shred clothing to flapping ribbons.

Cantankerous weather gave us sheets of cold rain, windblown summits and fog, making navigation and book finding even more fun. At the final summit of the first loop, with all pages in hand, the fog was so thick I could hardly see my feet, which meant the long slippery descent was literally done by feel. I got back into camp in good spirits but shivering in soaked clothing. It had taken about 12.5 hours to do one loop. The distance is supposedly 20 miles, but most would agree that it’s a bit more than that. To finish 3 loops is called the “Fun Run”. To finish all five loops in 60 hours is almost incomprehensible and, indeed, in 30 years only 15 persons have managed to accomplish that, which will give you a general idea of how “out there” the Barkley Marathons event is. Which is exactly how abnormal and brutal the race director, Laz Lazarus, envisioned it to be.

In an age where one can find a 100 mile ultramarathon on any given weekend, the Barkley stands out as an eccentric tour-des-punishment as quirky as its long-standing race director, and after the release of a number of documentaries about the event there is a steady stream of masochists, male and female, knocking on the door to get invited. That’s if you can work out how to apply…

(The author Grant Maughan is a freelance super yacht captain and ultra-endurance athlete. For more on Grant please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/10/13/living-the-interesting-life/ For a detailed account of the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/)

MUMBAI MARATHON: 15 YEARS OLD AND EVOLVING

Indian elite runners Gopi T (center, blue T-shirt) and Nitendra Singh Rawat at 2018 TMM; they finished first and second respectively in their category (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

The 2018 edition of the Mumbai marathon was significant for the change in title sponsorship. The era of association with Standard Chartered Bank ended. In early August 2017, it was officially disclosed that the Tata Group had signed a ten year-deal to be title sponsor of the event.

Both Standard Chartered and Tata have a history of sponsoring marathons. A London headquartered-bank with operations mostly in Asia, Africa and Middle East, Standard Chartered sponsored a string of marathons spanning the above mentioned regions. In March 2017, news reports said the bank’s financial woes had prompted it to pull out of the Mumbai marathon. This January as the 2018 Mumbai marathon was underway there were seasoned runners trading the annual pilgrimage of running it for a shot at the Dubai marathon, which incidentally remains sponsored by Standard Chartered. The two events are separated by less than a week. However Tata is bigger fish in the world of marathons. The prime mover within its fold as regards marathons is IT major, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS); the TCS website has a section devoted to sports sponsorship. Peruse it and you will see the company associated with a clutch of major international foot races. It is title sponsor for the marathons of Mumbai, New York and Amsterdam. It is title sponsor of the world’s largest cross country race in Lidingoloppet, Sweden, the presenting and technology partner for The Australian Running Festival and technology partner for the marathons of Boston, Chicago, London and Singapore.

Thanks to the ascent of city marathons, the number of recreational runners in India has been growing steadily. For the 2018 edition of the Mumbai marathon (the first time it was sponsored by Tata), some 45,000 people registered successfully. Standard Chartered did valuable service supporting the Mumbai marathon through its early years but as one among several foreign banks operating in India, its footprint is modest. Tata is household name in India. The above reasons – Tata’s familiarity with the world of marathons and the name being well known in India – made the title sponsorship deal of August 2017 interesting and couched in possibilities.

2018 TMM (Photo: courtesy Yogesh Yadav)

In the world of sponsorship, marathon falls in the category of participative sport. A big share of sponsorship money in our times flows into spectator sports. Conceptually, they are descendants of the old Roman arena. You have immediate arena and extended arena afforded by broadcast media, mainly television channels and live-streaming on Internet. The cumulative audience here is enormous, running into tens of thousands and in some cases, millions. Cast at the deep end of competition, spectator sports tend to stay distanced from viewer. Like a mountain climb, the few that make it to the summit become the stuff of everyone else’s admiration. You relate to the excitement vicariously. Participative sports attract in a different way. They invite you to participate, experience directly. Unlike in spectator sports where teams and team members are famous and the rest stay anonymous viewers, in participative sport everybody participating has an identity. Once you have registered for a marathon, there is a run-up to actual event, which may be anything from a couple of weeks to couple of months. During this time, there is periodic correspondence between organizer and participant. There is acknowledgement of registration, confirmation of participation, reminders, invitation to pre-race expo and finally the expo, where many of the sponsors known until then as digital images in correspondence, manifest physically. The exercise provides a dimension of interface rarely found in spectator sport; the engagement in participative sport resembles direct marketing, closer perhaps to discreet direct marketing. It even graduates to real involvement for with products like running gear and shoes; the participant has a personal need he tries to satisfy given race approaching. Equally as regards services like registration process, app based-tracking (which allows runner’s progress to be tracked by family and friends), result and timing details wherein technology partners matter, efficiency is quickly felt and appreciated. Repeat registrations make the relationship with event, stickier. While this is the architecture of engagement, sponsors of marathons rarely – probably never – talk of it as a marketing exercise. Corporate backers of running – given health benefits associated with running and the satisfaction participants draw from completing a race – position it as avenue to give back to workforce and community. Gains to brand profile accrue obliquely.

On the street, there were expectations when Tata assumed title sponsorship of the Mumbai marathon. Besides the familiarity Tata has with marathons in US and Europe, their sponsorship of the Mumbai marathon was seen as homecoming. Tata’s headquarters are in Mumbai. For some runners this blog spoke to, the change in title sponsorship wasn’t significant because event implementation is by Procam. In their eyes, the title sponsor was funds provider. Many others though sensed potential for change. But they couldn’t gauge what is realistically possible and not. The feedback we got from a mix of runners and marketers we spoke to on the change in title sponsor for the Mumbai marathon, was that these are early days. The January 2018 edition of Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) was mere months after Tata assumed title sponsorship. The 2018 TMM saw a new timed 10 km-race, introduced. Also debuting was the `inspiration medal’ for full marathon finishers. Going ahead, best practices from Tata-backed races overseas, could be infused into TMM, those we spoke to felt.

This image was downloaded from the TMM website. It is being used here for representation purposes only.

The 2-in-1 `inspiration medal,’ one for finisher to keep, the other for potential gifting to someone who mattered in runner’s journey to completing the full marathon (Photo: courtesy Mani Iyer)

At the Nariman Point office of Chlorophyll Innovation Lab, Chitresh Sinha CEO & Head Innovation shared the story behind the `inspiration medal’ introduced in 2018. Different from the standard advertising agency or consultancy, Chlorophyll Innovation Lab is a brand innovations collective that works with brands, evolving technologies, art and social impact to “ bring alive innovation in integrated ways.’’ Procam, organizers of the Mumbai marathon, is one of its clients. According to Chitresh, between 150,000-200,000 people apply for TMM, which is also the single largest platform to raise funds for charity in India. “ Brand value is more at the human level than as return on investment for association with a running event,’’ he said. Studies have shown that people decide to attempt a marathon for factors ranging from the health benefits of running and sense of achievement to the meditative quality of running. “ Why do they wish to repeat it? That is the interesting part – they do so because it changes their life,’’ he said quoting examples of runners who kicked addictions and bad habits, grew closer to their families and found time for their children because their life transformed through training to run. For such reasons, it is not possible to benchmark the dazzling world of spectator sport with participative sport. “ Spectator sport is all about eyeballs. Its real impact on people’s lives is limited,’’ Chitresh said. If you want visibility and have a specific window of time assigned for gaining it, then investing in spectator sports makes sense. With participative sports, you stay invested longer but you reap an enduring bond. Currently India has around 1-1.5 million runners and 800 odd timed races. Chitresh said, Procam wishes to see the overall number of runners (across India) grow to 20 million in the next five years or so. That means the idea of running must spread quietly and convincingly. The social aspect of running was the premise from which Chlorophyll Innovation Lab recommended the `inspiration medal,’ a composite of two medals in one. A typical city based-runner, balancing work and life, is often seen off to training by wife and children. An early breakfast for instance, requires more than one pair of hands in Indian households. An early departure for training is a team effort by family. If you have a medal that is a composite of two separate medals and you can peel one off to gift it to somebody who played a pivotal role in making you a runner, then it helps endear running to more people.

As with many sports events, TMM straddles a fine divide between participation and performance. It takes both to shape an event’s stature. Not all runners we spoke to in Mumbai were enthused by the `inspiration medal.’ Some of them wished that improvements to TMM stay focused on running and runners’ needs, a view that is also partly fueled by Tata’s international presence in marathon events. If you imagine down running’s alley, the possibilities one can speculate, are dime a dozen. Which of the lot is practical enough to implement? That challenges. Consensus among those we spoke to was that improvements to how TMM is arranged and managed plus infusion of technologies relevant to running could be a realistic expectation over the next few years. Anything more, likely takes more than just Tata.

Elite runners at 2018 TMM (Photo: by arrangement)

TMM is recognized as the flagship running event in India. “ A distant second to the Mumbai marathon would be the one in Bengaluru,’’ a leading amateur athlete (name withheld as we promised him anonymity for this conversation) said. “ There is a depth of awareness about the annual marathon in Mumbai that you don’t find in other Indian cities. When I landed in Mumbai to run the 2018 TMM, even my taxi driver knew that the marathon was due. Among major marathons, this is without doubt the best organized race in India. But if you are talking of positioning Mumbai in the same category as Boston and New York because Tata is now involved, then we are a long way off. First those events are far older than TMM. They have evolved that much more. Second, those are cities which view their annual marathon as an important fixture in the annual calendar. Over there, the civic apparatus works in tandem with runners and organizers to make a city’s annual marathon happen successfully. That is running culture – and in that, India is far behind,’’ he said. Major cities overseas get their marathon act together because running is integral to how they imagine lifestyle. Will Tata’s assumption of title sponsorship, make the collective effort to host Mumbai’s annual marathon more convergent towards its goal of a good experience, year after year? Will Mumbai formally identify itself with running and its annual marathon?

Cheering is a critical component of any marathon’s ecosystem and when it comes to city marathons, it is a window to meeting the host. The Boston Marathon, world’s oldest annual marathon, began in 1897. That makes it 121 years old. Indians who have run in Boston speak of it as a memorable experience, cheering playing no small part in it. At 15, TMM is definitely past infant stage. On January 21, 2018, just beyond the Mumbai marathon’s finish line, I met a city based-full marathoner who felt that cheering along the marathon’s route had come down. That is hard to believe given so much said day in and day out about the spirit of Mumbai. It is a fact that while running, runners dwell in a `zone’ in the head; cheering doesn’t register always. Still did this runner notice something many of us didn’t or preferred to overlook in our affection for the city? Can there be initiatives that make spectators and non-runners feel invested in the annual outing? A city that loves its marathon must never stop exploring how the experience can be improved for success can stagnate and novelty can fade.

Fifteen years old and growing, the evolution of the Mumbai marathon will be worth watching.

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