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.)       

THE DILIGENT AND THE FUN LOVING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ Swimming is my passion. I am happiest in the pool,’’ Pravin Gaikwad, 55, said.

The doctor though is best known as a runner; he is also a triathlete. His parents hail from Devgad in Maharashtra (the same Devgad that is famous for its strain of Alphonso mango). Pravin is the youngest of six children. He was born and brought up in Mumbai. His father worked at Ciba Geigy. His mother was a housewife. The family originally lived in Chembur; then shifted to Ghatkopar. Ghatkopar had a swimming pool and Pravin – then a sixth standard student – began frequenting it. The youngster went as part of group of dozen boys or so but in due course, most others dropped out. Pravin continued.

Those days, swimming pools used to have their own swimming team. When he was in the ninth standard, Pravin was taken into the pool’s team. Training became systematic. In competitions that followed with teams from other swimming pools, he won a prize in the 25 m-butterfly stroke. By the time he was pursuing studies at the tenth and twelfth standard levels, Pravin was winning medals regularly at swimming competitions. At medical college which followed, he became captain of the college swimming team. However when he completed his MBBS and enlisted to do his MD, swimming had to take a back seat for work load was high.

Pravin and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati; from a SCMM gone by (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

After completing his MD, in 1988, he joined Sterling Hospital in Vashi, Navi Mumbai and moved that side. By now Pravin was married to Arati, a fellow doctor who, incidentally, had also been his student. When the Gaikwads arrived in Vashi, it was the early phase of Navi Mumbai’s growth. Vashi and other suburbs in the region were hardly the well-developed residential areas they are today. For a pool to swim in, they had to go all the way to Belapur, where the local YMCA maintained one. For eight years, Pravin worked at two hospitals in Navi Mumbai. Then in 1996, the pediatrician started his own clinic in Nerul. The Gaikwads moved to Nerul, staying first at an apartment near the local railway station, eventually moving to a proper house in the center of the fast growing township. Meanwhile the commitment to swimming continued. One of the housing societies in Nerul, Sailesh Towers, has a swimming pool. The Gaikwads headed there first. For a brief while in between they shifted to the swimming pool at the D. Y. Patil sports complex nearby; then they returned to the pool at Sailesh Towers. In 2007, Pravin resumed participating in swimming competitions (short distance ones) earning podium finishes for nearly three years.

Sometime in 1998, the Nerul Gymkhana started to organize annual cycle races. The Gaikwads were regular podium finishers in their respective categories with one year being particularly notable for the podium finishers included not only Pravin and Arati but also their children and Arati’s father. “ It was indeed a proud moment for the family,’’ Pravin said. In 2010, Arati’s brother Atul, asked her to participate in an adventure sports race in Pune called Enduro. It was a mix of cycling and hiking. Pravin, Arati and Atul registered as a team in the forty plus age category; their team aptly named Fortified. They were podium finishers at the event in all the years of participation, in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as well.

On the Kharghar Hill road (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

On Parsik Hill; (from left) Asutosh Roy, Pravin, Vijay Kalpati and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Like Mumbai earlier, Navi Mumbai too is an area blessed with enough nature to make a sports enthusiast happy, yet steadily losing that bounty to the incessant march of townships, roads and traffic. Vashi, Nerul, Belapur – they are all accessed after a sea crossing from the Mumbai side. Once you cross so, you see looming in the neighborhood, like a long wall, the stretch of Parsik Hill running north-south from Mumbra towards Belapur and Kharghar. Simply put, Navi Mumbai has quick access to both the sea and the hills. Not many places are privileged so. On the edge of Belapur, overlooking Kharghar is a wonderfully located road. It snakes its way up from near the Mumbai-Pune highway to villages at the top of the seasonal Pandavkada waterfall. An early morning visit to this ascending road – some five kilometers long one way – would yield a collection of runners, walkers and cyclists. There are other such roads frequented by walkers and runners in Navi Mumbai but this is the prince of it all. Locally, it is called Kharghar Hill Road. In 2011, the Gaikwads were out walking on this road when they met two runners – Surya Buddhavarapu and his wife Sudha, both of them, members of the group: Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR) – who suggested that they get into running. Until then, the Gaikwads had done the occasional run. They hadn’t ` taken up’ running. We use the term ` take up’ deliberately for Pravin is by nature and grooming, a diligent pursuer of what he decides to do. He believes in systematic approach and committed preparation. “ At school, I wasn’t very intelligent or anything so. I was hard working. Studying medicine may have strengthened further the need to work hard and my faith in that approach. I have also read somewhere that if you keep on doing something, then you will be amazed by what you achieve,’’ Pravin said. He speaks with care; there is little impulsiveness and much that seems to hark of thinking through his responses.

Arati in contrast, is a spontaneous person. She likes fun. Born in Maharashtra’s Dhule’s district and living since the age of two in Mumbai, she readily concedes that her approach to life is very different from that of her husband. She prepares and trains but not as devotedly as Pravin. And she isn’t above taking her chances at races, prepared or not, settling often for the satisfaction of completing a race as opposed to chasing a personal best timing or being on some trajectory of improvement.  An element of fun is eminently acceptable. “ I have always been interested in nutrition and fitness,’’ she said. Shortly after the couple moved to Nerul, she bought a bicycle. “ The attitude was that you should be active, both of us were regular walkers’’ she said. At the time she bought the cycle, Nerul was a quiet place with only a bus stop where long distance buses halted, for link to Mumbai. “ We shifted to our current residence 10 years ago. The cycle travelled everywhere with us,’’ she said.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin (lemon yellow T-shirt); from one of the editions of the Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

In April 2011, Pravin reported for a NMR organized-run on the Kharghar Hill Road. He ran up and down the hill comfortably; he didn’t pause anywhere to drink water. Arati joined in at the next such run, sometime in May. According to the Gaikwads, NMR helped nurture and bring out their potential. Swimmers, they also noticed the difference in running. “ Running provides social context,’’ Pravin said. That was remarkably different from the secluded cocoon of immediate world that is the predicament of swimmer in water. What running provided was relevant for the Gaikwads. Besides, as Pravin pointed out, by then Arati was also running well. At the first formal running event they participated in – it was at the Borivali National Park in August 2011 – both husband and wife ended up on the podium. Slowly a new ecosystem grew. The occasional podium finishes they got encouraged the doctor-couple to run, while in NMR, they had a motivated group of people to train with who were also quite egalitarian in their perspective. To this Pravin added his characteristic twist – always the devoted student, he read up on running and researched the sport on the Internet. This was blended with his tendency to push himself. I always wanted to challenge myself. The human body has considerable reserves – these were among sentences that cropped up regularly in our conversation with him. He credited that approach to his medical training. In the medical profession, one is always learning about what the body was designed to do, what the body has wrecked, how that happened, how the body repairs itself and what the body has in reserve. Pravin graduated from the early short runs to the half marathon and on to the full marathon. His transition was smooth. “ If you are a good swimmer, you don’t fight with water. You glide through it. You can do the same with running,’’ he said. All this was alongside busy days at the clinic. In 2012, the two doctors travelled to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala so that Arati could do a short course in problems concerning adolescents, at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. Now she also works with Pravin at the clinic devoted to children’s health. “ We would as pediatricians love to influence the lives of the adolescents we work with by acting as role models directly or indirectly, by motivating them to inculcate healthy food habits and healthy lifestyle with physical activity playing some role in their lives,’’ Pravin said. In November 2016, the Gaikwads were part of a group of eight doctors who conducted sexual health workshops in Dahanu tribal schools. “ We hope to do many more workshops and empower our adolescents to take the right decisions for a healthy life and a better future,’’ Pravin said.

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Life with a swimmer brought Arati seriously to swimming. She was no stranger to water and swimming. In her childhood her father had packed off his children to the pool at Shivaji Park, Dadar, so that they were acquainted with the basics of swimming. But with no proper coaching at that time, it was at her swimming sessions post-marriage that she genuinely learnt. After Pravin started going out for runs, he used to tell her that she should experience it at least once. “ He knew I would be interested. Upon trying, I found running doable. On my first run, I didn’t stop anywhere,’’ she said. She was able to complete a 21 km-half marathon in two hours, forty five minutes. Although she had the distinct feeling that she would be able to run well, she took a back seat. First of course, was her nature, which was partial to being less systematic; it was more organic and less deliberate or driven. “ I am not very focused,’’ she said. Arati for instance loves her sleep; Pravin being endurance junkie can do with much less. Pravin spends on equipment, researches what bicycles to buy. She doesn’t. Second, as she put it, “ in a family, both people being equally dedicated to running can be a problem!’’ They have two sons. She confessed to being secretly happy with the occasional injuries Pravin picked up through running, for it kept the endurance junkie at home with family. At times her happiness showed. “ He would quip: you seem to be happy with my injury,’’ she said laughing. For most of her races, Arati trained alone. Her first formal half marathon was at SCMM, the result of an event registration gifted by Pravin. After three years spent running half marathons, Arati moved up to the full marathon. “ There is a world of difference between half and full marathon. I want to try running 42 km without formal training, without the tension of going through a systematic programme. I am a different personality, he is a different personality. I cannot be like Pravin,’’ she said. Yet notwithstanding this core disparity in their individual nature and personality, the Gaikwads participated together in several events. In 2013, Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) chose them as the running couple of the year with Pravin and Arati being additionally declared second runner up in individual awards for the male and female categories.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin; from a half marathon at Durshet (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

It was his endurance cast through long association with water that provided the basic substratum for the runner in Pravin to stand on. His competence in swimming has grown to encompass both the confines of a pool and the openness of the sea. He has been a participant in sea swimming competitions with podium finishes at some. With running also added and cycling known, the triathlon beckoned. Both Pravin and Arati have participated in and completed triathlons in India. In April 2015, the couple participated in the Pune Triathlon with Arati winning in her category in the sprint distance and Pravin finishing second runner up in his category in the Olympic distance. In December that year, they also participated in the Maharashtra State Triathlon in Sindhudurg emerging winners in their respective categories. “ I can do the half Ironman, that shouldn’t be a problem,’’ Pravin reckons, “ a full Ironman will require devoted training; maybe in two to three years’ time.’’ Their passage through these disparate sports, all sharing the common thread of endurance hasn’t been without its moments of anxiety.

In Nerul, not far from the town’s Ayyappa Temple, is the small bicycle shop run by Inderjit Singh Khamba. He worked for many years in the training and development line; then quit his job to begin something on his own. He loves technical stuff. The first business he ventured into was assembling computers. Currently he is fully into selling, building, maintaining and repairing bicycles. Inderjit knew that the bikes he built were only as good as they performed. So he started going for rides on them, acquiring thus a background in cycling. One of the people who dropped by at his shop was Pravin. As their mutual familiarity grew Inderjit asked if Pravin and Arati would be interested in participating in a 180 km-Veloraid, which Inderjit had taken part in twice before. It was a team event. Pravin hadn’t cycled such a long distance before. So they went out for a test ride and with the outcome looking promising, the Gaikwads said yes.

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

According to Arati, they were a team of six cyclists. The Veloraid was from Yeoor Hills to Tansa Lake and back. During training sessions, they had been on a section of the route before. On the day of Veloraid however, it rained and there was mud on the road. Roughly six to seven kilometers before Tansa, on a downhill section of the route, Arati tried to avoid a pothole and went off the road. “ I was ahead and heard something like the sound of a tree cracking or crashing,’’ Pravin said. Inderjit was behind Arati; he saw the accident happening. According to him, Arati’s perch on her bicycle wasn’t perfect; the handle bar was too close to her body. This meant, the slightest jerk while steering the bike, translated into major variations at wheel level. “ Into the descent, there were a few S-shaped bends on the road. Two things happened. First, Arati gathered speed on the descent. Second, there was an arc-shaped portion on the road’s edge, where the tarmac had totally weathered off. The wheel of her bike entered this portion and didn’t climb back up. Instead, the pothole’s edge guided it off the road,’’ Inderjit said. Arati was hauled up from the hillside, some eight to nine feet below the road. “ I was in a daze. I didn’t know what was happening,’’ she said. While she escaped with minor injuries, her helmet was a statement of what could have been – it was split open down the middle. She had a cut just above the eye, a cut on the chin, bruised elbows and knees and overall body pain from having had to be pulled up. Post-Veloraid, it took her a long while to recover from both the strain to her torso as well as the overall shock, a side effect of which was weight loss. The Gaikwads’ return to cycling has since been careful. On his part, Inderjit, noticing the mismatched positioning of the handle bar on Arati’s cycle, has built Arati a new bicycle. “ I will resume running, cycling and swimming when my body feels ready for it,’’ she said. About 10 days after we met her, Arati was among those who successfully completed the half marathon at the 2017 SCMM. It wasn’t the best of timings but true to her nature, she appeared content and happy.

Pravi and Arati with Arati's brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they used to participate in (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati with Arati’s brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they  participated in as a team (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin’s diligent training continues. Those who train with him say that he is very disciplined in his approach. He is strict in training schedules and adherence to proper diet (if he is running at a location away from home, he often brings along food suited to the diet he is observing). While training, if he is supposed to meet a certain target on a particular day, he will make sure he does, Mani Iyer, who has trained and run with Pravin, said. As combination of doctor, keen runner, triathlete and someone who reads to know more, his friends consider him well informed on the subject of running and endurance sport. An approachable person, he is known to offer tips to others on how to improve their performance. At the same time, even during his training hours, he remains available to patients. He is capable of running and discussing a medical case on the phone at once, friends who know him well, said. Pravin’s personal best in the full marathon so far, is 3:38, registered at the 2017 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). He has also done ultramarathons – he did the Javadhu Hills Ultra in Tamil Nadu in 2016 (Pravin was first runner up in his age category, while Arati who ran the shorter 25km-event was first runner up in her age group), the annual Mumbai Ultra and in 2012, a dawn to dusk run in Navi Mumbai organized by NMR. “ I don’t want to run many events. I would look at perhaps a full marathon, an ultra and a triathlon every year,’’ he said. In terms of events overseas, he has his eyes on the Boston Marathon and The Comrades in South Africa. No matter what the event, he would like to prepare diligently for it. On that, he is clear.

Personal Best (Pravin):

10km – November 2016, Navy Run – 43:50

21km – December 2016, VVMM – 1:38

42km – January 2017, SCMM – 3:38

Personal Best (Arati):

21km – February 2014, Thane Hiranandani – 2:02

42km – January 2015, SCMM – 4:48

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

VIEW FROM THE 16TH FLOOR

Praveen C. M (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen C. M (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Bengaluru’s Clarence Public School has a reputation locally in sports.

Years ago, a seventh standard student with affection for running, jumping, throwing – in short, all that qualified to be the active school life – found himself on an excursion to Bannerghata, a little over 20 km from the city. By then his interest in sports had already harvested a collection of trophies – “ you know, the small ones indicative of everyone’s school days’’ – displayed at home. The student group was headed to Tulips Resort. En route, they stopped for a rappelling session. Hariprasad, the instructor, went beyond rappelling and showed some primary climbing moves and techniques to the students. Later, at the resort, there was a challenge to climb a eucalyptus tree; the prize was a box of chocolates. Praveen C.M bagged the prize. Intrigued by the boy’s natural talent, Hariprasad made him climb a couple of trees around. That paved the way for Praveen reporting to Yavanika, a state agency dealing with youth services and empowerment. Yavanika managed a 15 m-high plywood climbing wall on its premises, the only such wall in Karnataka state at that time.  “ At a certain point, the wall was eight feet wide. In that width, we had four top ropes; in the portion of the wall below the top roped climbers, others bouldered. And of course, there were the belayers. It was congested but managed well. Looking back, I feel those were the days when climbing actually grew in Bengaluru,’’ Praveen said. We were at a coffee shop on the city’s MG Road. Close by was a branch of Canara Bank. In the days Praveen discovered climbing, his father worked as a head clerk at Canara Bank.

On his second visit to Yavanika, Praveen found a state level climbing competition underway. He said he wanted to try one of the routes. Indulging the school boy’s request, the organizers put him on the climbing route for women. The youngster topped it. Muniraju, who was a good climber then, saw this. He asked Praveen to climb again. Soon thereafter, Praveen began frequenting the wall and climbing with Muniraju. In the first state level competition he attended following this phase, he finished third in his age category. In the next zonal competition he placed second. By 1998, he was at his first national level climbing competition, held at New Delhi on the old wall of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the apex body for matters related to mountaineering and sport climbing in India. “ I still remember the crux on the climbing route in that competition. It was a move requiring considerable reach; it was at the third or fourth clip. Of the eight minutes available to climb, I spent seven figuring out what to do at this point. Eventually in desperation, I jumped for the next hold but couldn’t make it. It was a move that was tough for short people,’’ Praveen said. He is a well-built climber of modest height.

Praveen, climbing in Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen, climbing in Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

That issue of inadequate reach would survive as fuel to navigate his way through climbing. It triggered two responses – first, in due course, it forced Praveen to be a dynamic climber on sport routes, resorting to lunges and leaps wherever he was challenged for want of reach. Second, it made him notice an often overlooked aspect of climbing – route setting. In India, a country with relentless rat race, the popular instinct of any alpha male is to shape environment according to his convenience. When it came to climbing routes, they were typically designed to showcase the climber who did it. In the outdoors for example, bolting wasn’t an inclusive art that took into account different body sizes and climbing styles. What’s the fun in climbing if it is to merely have rat race endorsed and one’s failures magnified? The route at the national competition intrigued. On the one hand, Praveen was encouraged by the fact that he had reached the third or fourth clip; on the other hand, his progress thereon was challenged by a move, he thought, was rather unfair given his shorter reach. It impressed upon him the importance of route setting as an art. It seemed the heart of sport climbing’s capacity for challenge and enjoyment.

Soon after his first national competition, Praveen joined the group of climbers being trained by Keerthi Pais. The group was called `Manav.’ It was a tightly knit group, perhaps too tightly knit to be easily accepting of newcomers. “ It took me almost a year to be trusted and counted,’’ Praveen said. But the persistence was worth it for the climbers Keerthi trained, turned out to be good. It was also an interesting time in India’s sport climbing map. The north zone was dominant; their climbers were ahead of the field. Keerthi was set to tilt the balance. “ The first medal for Manav – this one within the state – was won by Geetha,’’ Praveen said. Slowly, the group made its presence felt at the nationals through such climbers like Karthik, Archana and Vatsala. Keerthi’s group trained with commitment. Praveen recalled his life from that phase; those were the years of transitioning from Clarence Public School to Bengaluru’s National College. He stayed 18 km away from the climbing wall used for training. Those days, the city’s nascent metro rumbling overhead every few minutes near where we sat on MG Road, was not even a plan on the horizon. Buses to town from where he stayed were not many; certainly none very early in the morning. He left home at 4 AM and waited on the main road nearby for a lift. Sometimes the travel was managed in one vehicle all through to town. At other times, it was a series of lifts availed. The objective – report at the wall by 5.30 AM for the morning training session. Once training was finished, he went to college straight from the wall. College over, he returned to the climbing wall. The evening training session lasted till around 7 PM. He reached home by 9 PM. “ Buses plying on the route home would be packed with people. After a day of climbing at the wall, I would again be hanging on to something, except it was on the footboard of a bus. The routine was such that I didn’t know night and day,’’ Praveen said. He trained almost every day at the wall.

Praveen (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

In 2000, Praveen secured top honors in the junior category at the national climbing competition held in Darjeeling. With Keerthi’s wards beginning to perform well, it was now increasingly evident that the center of gravity in competitive sport climbing was shifting to Bengaluru in south India. Sport climbing was small in the country but its aficionados had a rather even geographic spread. In 2003, Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, organized an open sport climbing competition – the first time it did so. The small annual event would grow to be a much loved one, held without break thereafter for over a decade. It became the seed for the 2016 IFSC World Cup held in Navi Mumbai. The geographic distribution and prevailing status of sport climbing in India was clear in the turnout of the competition’s initial years; climbers came from Delhi; Bikaner, Darjeeling, India’s north eastern states, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Davengere and Bengaluru with Bengaluru as rising powerhouse.

Around the time Praveen won his first medal in the junior category at the national climbing competition, speed climbing made its debut. In 2001, at a competition (not the national one) held in Delhi, Praveen won in both lead and speed climbing disciplines. From roughly the next year onward he proceeded to become a regular fixture among toppers at the national climbing championship. According to him, he placed first for 16 years in one discipline or the other, including in one or two years, first place across all three disciplines – lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering. Praveen said he does not view these disciplines as disparate and instead sees them as interlinked and synergic. Helping this embrace of all three disciplines, was the solution he had evolved to compensate for his physical size in climbing – his affection for dynamic moves. In his years in competition climbing, Praveen has represented India at international climbing competitions in several places; among them – Malaysia, China, Macau, Korea, Indonesia and France. His most recent appearance at the national climbing championship was in 2015, where he placed second in bouldering, fourth in lead climbing and qualified for the final in speed but didn’t take part. The names you hear as he recollects his years as a competition climber spans the who’s who of Indian sport climbing – Mohit, Karthik, Pranesh, Prashant, Norbu, Ganesh, Ravinder, Archana, Vatsala, Shanti Rani, Dasini, Kala, Vaibhav, Mangesh, Sandeep, Aziz, Tuhin, Somnath; all names that strike a chord with anyone who has known the sport in India for a while. He has also noticed how the larger environment in which the sport nestles, has changed.

At work, setting up a route on natural rock (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

At work, setting up a bolted sport climbing route on natural rock (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Recalling the time when potential candidates for an Indian team headed to compete in Macau were shortlisted and training was underway, he said, “ if I finished climbing a route, I would think of how I can make you do that route. Each person used to think of helping the other build competence. Such bonding is much less at present. The team spirit has faded although we have strong individual climbers,’’ he said. Distractions have also multiplied. With everyone competing to attract sponsorship, social media has become important. The emphasis is on advertising oneself, not climbing. In the process, you have more and more attitudes and impressions / illusions of self to deal with. “ I never had a sponsor. As part of a national team, yes you got the support of whoever sponsored the team. But as an individual climber, I never had a sponsor; there was nobody for the long haul,’’ Praveen said.

There were also other trends, which Praveen touched upon as he reflected on the nearly two decades he has been in climbing, 16 years of that as regular topper at the national climbing championship. In Indian competition climbing, he said, both authorities and athletes have gone wrong in equal measure. “ When you go abroad to compete in an international competition, you are initially overwhelmed by what all you have heard about foreign climbers. You may also be a bit rattled by first impressions. But on closer look and after climbing with them at a competition, you come back realizing that you can bridge the gap. You also set for yourself what must be addressed to bridge the gap,’’ he said, adding, “ a big problem is – in India, we don’t invest long term. We support sports from event to event or we support an individual for one event expecting the world from him or her. When we don’t get that performance immediately, we say the person has failed; we discard that person and take someone else. That is not how it should be. Support must be sustained and long term. The result of this erratic approach is that by the time we manage to get back to an international competition, the overseas climbers have progressed by leaps and bounds from where they were when you first met them. They have a continuous calendar for competing and systematic training to back it up. We don’t.

In Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

From Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

“ The other thing is we don’t strive to make a good impression. Making a good impression is important for an athlete’s self-confidence. If let’s say, your home federation is so indifferent that they send you to an international competition in ill-fitting dress or don’t adequately back you up in paperwork, support and facilities, you automatically come across to event organizer and other competitors as disowned by your own people. Why would anyone else then give you a damn? That should not be the case. In one of the international competitions organized years ago, I remember, each overseas competitor had a chauffeur driven car for the ride from Delhi to the venue, some 380 km away. The Indian team went to the local bus terminus in Delhi, boarded a regular state transport bus, ate at dhabas along the way and reached the venue. I am not demanding special treatment; all I am saying is – if you don’t respect your athletes, none of them will respect you in return. Rather sadly, in the competition climbing set up in India, the ones who count the most are the judges. It must be appreciated that the people who create a competition are the athletes and the route setters. One climbs; the other challenges the climber with climbing routes. That is the basic competition climbing ecosystem. Judges intervene, when you have a tough decision or choice to make. Theirs is perspective meant to provide clarity in crunch situations. When imagining sport, it should be the sport and its ecosystem first, only after that, how to decide outcome. Please remember – if athletes are not there, none of the others will be there.’’

According to Praveen, athletes too have their share of emergent faults. The old dedication in training has become less. The bonding between athletes is less. Earlier, climbing was in focus. It was the only thing that mattered. Now, climbing as sport struggles to preserve its priority for athlete, in the growing matrix of smartphones; social media, fame and head-strong attitudes. Success goes to the head too quickly these days. Praveen is among those who felt disappointed by how the Indian team fared at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai. He believes that the attitude of some of the athletes and the impact that had on training, played a role in the outcome. An angle often discussed by rock climbers and sport climbers is whether the IMF with its greater familiarity of mountaineering, has what it takes to empathize sufficiently with sport climbing. Praveen said that in all these years, he came across only one senior official at IMF, who grasped the nuances of competition climbing and understood what support the athletes were looking for. Yet for all its flaws Praveen believes it is still the IMF that is best placed to manage sport climbing matters. Internationally, sport climbing moved out from the erstwhile umbrella body for all types of climbing (the UIAA) and formed its own distinct federation (the International Federation of Sport Climbing – IFSC). In India, there have been suggestions to mimic this move domestically. “ The problem in anyone trying so here is that, as yet, I have no reason to conclude anyone else has a better agenda than the IMF or will be different,’’ Praveen said.

On the subject of a vigorous domestic calendar for competition climbing, he welcomed more competitions including those driven by prize money. A series of local competitions (instead of one zonal competition), strong zonal teams and all of it feeding into a national championship or a rolling series of national competitions felt wonderful to his imagination. I asked if hypothetically, leagues – on the lines of what is happening in other sports with teams composed mostly of local athletes and a few foreign athletes to improve standards, made sense. He was supportive of the idea of a league but not as supportive of foreign athletes because the gap in climbing competence between here and overseas is at present, significant. Too glaring a gap and support for domestic athletes may wither. “ What makes greater sense for me is spending the money you have for these fancy competitions, on excellent training overseas. That way you bring up the quality of local talent and reduce the gap in competence before featuring any league with foreign climbers alongside. I have a dream in sport climbing. One in which, India has a good sport climbing team that athletes wish to get into and to do so, they compete in the sport. Once they are in the team, they should feel they are part of it and that they are set to perform well. I say this because I experienced the pain. Aside from the ecosystem Keerthi created which I was fortunate to be part of, I didn’t have a dedicated coach or a sponsor despite being on the podium at the national level for 16 years,’’ Praveen said.

In Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

From Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Some time back, Praveen decided to address the old questions he had grappled with about climbing routes. He went to do a route setter’s course in Kazakhstan but on arrival there, found that the course had been cancelled. However he helped out with the Asian youth championship in climbing, which Kazakhstan was hosting. The competition’s route setter was impressed and invited him to join the route setting team for a competition in Korea. Following this stint, he did his international route setter’s course in Iran. For the two stints of work he had to mandatorily put in thereafter as aspirant route setter, he worked with a competition in Indonesia and later in May 2016, as part of the route setting team for the IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai. Some years ago, he also floated a company – Sportclimbing India. As of now it builds climbing walls; it is also distributor for Flat Holds, a Swiss manufacturer of climbing holds and Discovery, the Korea-based manufacturer of climbing walls. Additionally, he is training a team of climbers from Badami, Hubli, Davangere and Chitradurga. According to him, they are good, strong climbers who should soon be securing podium finishes. He is training them at his own expense.

Now 31 years old, Praveen hopes that at some point his climbing wall / holds business and the team he is grooming, become synergic; that a mutually complementing ecosystem in climbing, forms. Asked why he did not explore a regular job in some other more predictable, stable field, Praveen said, “ I was so much into climbing that I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t have a back-up plan.’’ There have also been forays into other branches of climbing. In 2015, Praveen had embarked on an expedition to climb Mt Everest. He was on the mountain when the devastating earthquake of that season struck Nepal killing thousands, including damage and casualties at Everest Base Camp. The expedition had to be aborted. The seed for this digression from sport climbing into a mountaineering expedition came from a little known trip in 2012. According to Praveen, that year, a 10 member-team composed of eight army personnel and two civilians and led by a civilian – Keerthi Pais – had recorded the first ascent of a rocky peak called Zambala on Ladakh’s Siachen Glacier. “ I was the only one who climbed all through. It is now a bolted climbing route at altitude,’’ Praveen said.

Sixteen floors up, Praveen’s tryst with climbing continues.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Details of competitions are as recollected by the interviewee. All the photos used in this article are taken by Jyothy Karat. They were provided for use with this story, by Praveen.)     

LIVING THE INTERESTING LIFE

Grant Maughan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Grant Maughan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ I am just trying to fill my time with life and keep it all interesting’’

Grant Maughan, 52, is among the top endurance athletes and adventure racers in his age category worldwide. A seafarer from Australia, he took to running rather late. But in the time since, he has run nearly 60 races including some of the world’s toughest ultramarathons (a few of them several times), a clutch of triathlons and a much smaller number of marathons. He is also into surfing and mountaineering and loves to ride long distance on his motorcycle. In August 2016, he was joint winner in the 333 km-race of La Ultra, held in Ladakh (for that story please try this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/). 

This interview, done by email in October, was triggered by Grant’s penchant for a packed calendar in running, in particular the July-September 2016 period when he completed the Badwater Ultramarathon in California in sixth place overall, completed La Ultra in record time in Ladakh, completed the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado, did a solo self-supported crossing of Badwater (from Death Valley to Mt Whitney Portal, pulling a trolley filled with supplies) in record time and completed Spartathlon, the famous ultramarathon in Greece. Why does he follow a packed schedule? Does it always work? What is its impact? Grant explains in this Q&A:    

Is the packed calendar one saw during July-September 2016, a regular pattern for you or is this stretch tad unusual?  Can you explain what drives you to do this?

It has been a regular pattern over the last couple of years; mainly because there have been a bunch of events I wanted to participate in and they happen to be around the same time. Last year, I had a similar schedule with Keys 100 in May, Ronda Del Cims (Andorra Ultra Trail) in June, Badwater in July and UTMB in August, finishing with Spartathlon in September. My main reason for doing this is that I love to race and cannot wait to spread events out over years. So I just get in and do them.

From the Leadville Trail Invitational (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Leadville (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Some people argue that the other side of maintaining a packed calendar is that you may not have optimum performance at every event you participate in. Is this true? If it is true, does that matter to you?

I would imagine this is very true. I have felt tired and worn out in many events that I probably could have performed better at. However, sometimes I am more intent on seeing if I can get through this sort of grueling schedule as an endurance event within itself. Some people do a Grand Slam in the US containing a number of tough 100 milers. I think my self-made Grand Slams are way tougher. I certainly like to do as well as I can at any event. But I always say that I don’t go out looking for the podium. I prefer to put in a performance that I can be proud of.

Would you say you were fully recovered from each event for the races you ran in the 2016 July-October period? What are the consequences of poor recovery in races of this magnitude? How do you handle it?

Definitely not fully recovered. However I find that doing these tough races back to back helps keep me on some fitness plateau. It allows me to keep going. If I stop too long in between events, then I seem to lose some fire. So it’s better for me to keep on attempting challenges. Generally, poor recovery is outlined by sickness from immune system breakdown, lethargy and / or injury. I have had great success with keeping my crazy schedule, but like anyone, I have occasionally suffered bad flu type of sickness, which I could also associate with a heavy travel schedule, flying and not getting enough rest. My immune system has been definitely tested but I think I would have also gotten sick at times, racing or not. Generally, if I get sick, I stop all physical activity and try to nurture myself with good diet and rest.

From Iditarod (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Iditarod (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Iditarod Trail Invitational (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Iditarod (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

This blog is familiar with La Ultra including its 2016 edition. Its 333 km-segment, which you ran and completed in record time (along with Jovica Spajic), is a demanding race involving distance, a range of temperatures and above all, altitude. How tired were you after that? How long did it take for you to recover?

That was a tough race. No doubt about that. Just the distance alone with no other factors would be enough to require a long rest period afterwards. I felt beat down after the race but not to the point of not being able to continue my schedule. I think the incident on Khardung La when I got pulmonary edema slowed me somewhat but I didn’t feel any residual effects that would make me stop. When I got to Leadville, Colorado, I felt tired for want of sleep. My body actually felt okay but I knew I would feel fatigue during the race. I was determined to take it easy and just make it through. Eventually during the race my body seemed to come back alive somewhat and I managed to do a sub-24 hour finish. I think during this whole period from July to September I didn’t recover at all but just maintained a level of fitness and health that allowed me to pull it all off. Now after Spartathlon, I am taking a few months off from running (or impact at least). I will maintain a fitness base by doing other things like biking, swimming and other outdoor activities.

Grant, during Badwater 146 mile solo, self supported crossing he did in the days after the 2016 edition of La Ultra (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Grant, during Badwater 146 mile solo, self supported crossing he did in the days after the 2016 edition of La Ultra (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From the 333 km run at altitude in La Ultra you moved to Leadville and then, the Badwater solo crossing, which you did, pulling a trolley laden with the supplies you need, all the way from Death Valley to Mt Whitney Portal. While physical recovery is one thing, how do you handle your mind, moving from one demanding experience to another? What happens to your mind in the middle of any of your endurance events? Does it speak, rebel or does it switch off?

I don’t have any issues with my mind on these types of things. In fact, part of my mind is looking forward to all the pain and suffering of trying to get through to the end. I think I get this type of strength from being a loner, a hard worker and deep thinker. Like anyone I have my moments during these events when I ask myself: why am I bothering to put myself through this type of purgatory? But it’s usually fleeting and is always overridden by other parts of my mind urging me to go on and complete the job at hand. Other times, the mind just switches off. I seem to have the capacity to do that, sort of like a self-imposed meditation.

From Marathon Des Sables (Photo; courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Marathon Des Sables (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

People always ask what I think of out there and I tell them that I think of many things and sometimes, absolutely nothing. I believe that the toughest thing for some people while trying to finish an ultramarathon or such events is the time. When they look at the watch and realize they may be out there for another 10, 15, 20 hours or more, I think that is the hardest part for some to accept; the actual measurement of time and how much longer they need to keep moving and feeling uncomfortable. It happens to me sometimes. But I can just shut off my mind to let the time go by. I can do this driving or riding a motorcycle long distance. I can drive across a country non-stop without a problem by just shutting off time perception to deal with the boredom of holding on to the wheel or handlebars, hour after hour. It is similar to working at sea, when you are crossing a featureless ocean for weeks at a time. The horizon is just a line with the sky and water. I believe seafaring has really helped me do long distance endurance events.

From Spartathlon (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Spartathlon (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

You had posted on the Internet that your 2016 Spartathlon experience was quite trying. You went into the race unwell and then endured some really hard moments. Can you tell us what happened? Do you suspect that your packed race schedule may have had something to do with your condition ahead of the race? Is Spartathlon reason enough for you to rethink your affection for packed schedule?

I actually wasn’t looking forward to doing Sparty. I ran it last year and wasn’t that impressed with the course; smog filled Athens and then industrial areas. When I got out into the country, I thought it would be pristine but it was garbage strewn and that really disappointed me. Last year, I turned up tired from another heavy schedule and battled through it even though I had run that distance before in the Coast to Kosci race in Australia in under 27 hours. This year, I again turned up after my crazy amount of races and felt tired of course but additionally, the day before the race, got swollen glands and tight larynx that made swallowing very painful. On the morning of the race I had a lot of mucus and felt very under the weather. I knew I shouldn’t start and should go back to bed but as happens, the vibe makes you want to have a go anyway. I figured on taking it easy and really didn’t have a choice. I wanted to quit so bad at the 50 mile checkpoint and at 100 miles but for some reason left the checkpoints before my saner side could take over. In the end I finished, passing many runners on the last big mountain range before going down to Sparta like last year, but my overall pace was slow. It was a very miserable experience getting through the race. I just didn’t feel like being there but I like to finish what I start; so I made myself go on.

In such physical states, time does seem to get elongated. An hour seemed like ten. So I really needed to put my brain to bed during the race and shut it off from reality. I can’t describe how relieved I was to stop at the finish line. Spartathlon is not a race you should finish a heavy season of events with. It is a fast, long ultra with no-compromise time cut-offs along the way. Sometime in the future, I may like to turn up there fresh and fit and see what time I can pull of when in a better physical state than the two times I have run it.

From Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc - UTMB (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – UTMB (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

What are you seeking in all this? Is there anything you seek from universe through what you endure? Given you have experience of mountaineering, seafaring and love surfing and riding motorcycles, not to mention good enough at music to be a one man band, what do you describe yourself as?

Some people have described me as a renaissance man. I like that. I enjoy many variables in my existence. I think it keeps me alive and kicking. I also like the hybrid nature of all my hobbies. I feel they cover a wide span of things. I think of myself as a doer. I like to try new things and become competent at them. I don’t feel I am searching for anything or running away from anything. I am just trying to fill my time with life and keep it all interesting. I am very curious about many things and like to see the world in colour; not black and white.

Training, pulling a tyre (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Training, pulling a tyre (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

How do you relax after your races? What do you do to unwind?

I am as good as anyone at lounging around, drinking a beer or eating chocolate while watching movies, playing guitar or just looking at the sky.

What are your next plans?

The next few months will be dedicated to recovery of my body and immune system before 2017, when I hope to start another year of exploring, traveling and racing. I have applied for the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota in January (I did this event a couple of years ago). It is a winter race pulling a sled with mandatory survival gear in it. There are usually only three aid stations along the route, so you must carry a lot of fluids and calories. This year, they may be offering an unsupported class, which means you cannot stop at aid stations. I am interested in this. Then, in February I have the Iditarod 350 mile winter race in Alaska, which is a similar format though it also requires some navigation. I don’t have any firm plans after that but intend to keep busy.

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