A PHASE OF UNCERTAINTY

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In mid-February 2020, the organizers of the Tokyo Marathon announced that the event would be restricted to elite athletes. This followed the outbreak of COVID-19 and its spread to multiple nations including Japan. Some days later, news appeared of the 2020 Seoul Marathon being cancelled.

At a press briefing of March 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. At the time of writing, the number of cases was over 220,000 worldwide. Nearly 9000 people had died. Among precautionary measures recommended has been restricting mass participation events. Contributing their bit to contain the disease outbreak, organizers of major marathons started announcing cancellation or postponement of events.

In the second week of March, the organizers of the Boston Marathon announced postponement of the event to September 14. Soon afterwards, London Marathon made a similar announcement, postponing the race to early October. Both these World Marathon Majors are usually held in April. Other major cancellations included the 56-kilometer Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa, Athens Half Marathon, New York Half Marathon. Several other marathons in Europe and the US have also been rescheduled. On March 16, the organizers of Swimathon Goa, an open water swimming race, decided to cancel the event. It was originally scheduled to be held over March 28-29.We spoke to some of those who had planned to attend the above said events; we also spoke to some currently training amid lack of clarity on what may happen to the event they are due to go for.

Deepti Karthik (Photo: courtesy Deepti)

Bengaluru-based Deepti Karthik was scheduled to run the Tokyo Marathon of March 1, 2020. Mid-February, the World Marathon Major, announced that it was restricting the race to elite athletes. Recreational runners were informed that their registration would be carried forward to the next year. Post 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) Deepti had stepped up her mileage in training aiming to go for the Tokyo Marathon. Notwithstanding the financial loss due to arrangements already made for travel and stay in Tokyo, once news of the cancellation sank in, Deepti decided to take a short break from her training.

She shifted her attention to the 2020 Boston Marathon. “ I was putting in a lot of mileage. I was running 80-85 km each week,” she said. But then, Boston got postponed. Forced to refocus her efforts and recalibrate her training schedule, she has now in her sights the TCS 10 K, slated for May 17, 2020 in Bengaluru. But past that event she is staring at a small pile-up on her plate. Deepti had also signed up for the 2020 Berlin Marathon. With the postponement of Boston Marathon, Deepti will now have to do two World Marathon Majors in two weeks.  Boston Marathon has been rescheduled to September 14 and Berlin Marathon is set for September 27.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman (Photo: courtesy Muthukrishnan Jayaraman)

“ I have no choice but to run both the marathons. I guess I will take Boston Marathon as an easy run and go strong at Berlin. Boston has a tougher route while Berlin is flat,” she reasoned. If the situation does not worsen, Deepti hopes to resume her training for the two international marathons by early June. So far, she has completed three of the six World Marathon Majors – London, Chicago and New York City Marathon. This year a good number of recreational runners from India were slated to go for the Tokyo Marathon. The news of its cancellation came as a disappointment particularly because some of them were hoping to complete the World Major Marathon series in Tokyo.

Col Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist with the Indian Army, was at the peak of his preparations for the Boston Marathon, when the year’s running calendar started to come apart. Now with news of the Boston Marathon being postponed to September, he is taking a break. “ I will go back to building my foundation and focus on strength training,” he said. “ My coach Ashok Nath has asked his mentees to do a self-assessment of their strong and weak points. Based on that we will have to work out our training plan,” he said. The army doctor hoped to resume his training in May and do one domestic marathon – either the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon or the AFMC Marathon in Pune, both scheduled to be held in August this year.

Apoorva Chaudhary is scheduled to run the 2020 24-hour Asia & Oceania Championships to be held in July in Bengaluru. Based in Delhi, Apoorva commenced her training sometime in mid-March. So far, thanks to the disease outbreak, her training has been muted. She plans to ramp it up from April though that would depend on how COVID-19 impacts the environment. “ I run solo and most of my training runs are done very early in the morning when there are few people on the road,” she said.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi had qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group Championships, which was to be held as part of London Marathon. She is also one of the runners representing India at the 2020 IAU 100 km World Championships to be held in the Netherlands on September 12, 2020. With London Marathon getting postponed to early October, Anjali has decided to give it a miss as her main event is the World Championships. At the 2019 IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships, Anjali had set a new national best with her finish in 9:22 hours. “ I have decided to opt out of London Marathon as I will not be able to recover well after the World Championships and do justice to it,” she said. She plans to resume her training for the World Championships in April.

Sunil Chainani was in the midst of his training for Boston Marathon when the news of postponement came in. Now with the date of Boston Marathon moved to September 14, Sunil will have to participate in two marathons in a period of four weeks – Boston and Chicago. Chicago Marathon is slated for October 11, 2020. He has gone back to minimum essential training. “ I run for fun. Right now my focus is to stay fit,” Sunil, who lives in Bengaluru, said.

Zarir Baliwala (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

It was not long ago that Zarir Baliwala, Mumbai-based businessman and recreational endurance athlete, decided that he will focus on swimming for a change. He decided to temporarily stop running and cycling and get ready for the Goa Swimathon, scheduled over March 28-29. He had just made the decision in his mind when the Maharashtra government acting to contain spread of COVID-19, announced closure of Mumbai’s swimming pools till further notice. Zarir was forced to reassess. Subsequently, the organizers of Swimathon also announced the cancellation of the event in Goa. “ I will now go back to running and cycling,” Zarir said.

For many Indian runners and triathletes focusing on national events, the current phase represents the quieter part of the calendar. Major domestic events have concluded and the new season will commence in three months. However for runners attempting international events – especially events under the World Marathon Majors – the calendar has turned topsy turvy. Between September and November, there are now five World Marathon Majors: Boston Marathon, Berlin Marathon, London Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon.

Ashok Nath (Photo: courtesy Ashok Nath)

Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath had signed up for the 2020 Boston Marathon. Subsequently, he also qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Major Age Group World Championships to be held as part of the 2020 London Marathon. Having completed Boston Marathon multiple times, he opted to give its 2020 edition a miss and focus instead on the London Marathon. The new revised schedule has cast a fresh spin. He feels there is a manageable gap between Boston and London but the Berlin Marathon, given it is too close to the London event may have to be run another year – that is, for those planning to attempt more than one of these events.

“ The running season in India concludes by end-February and the focus shifts to rebuilding the basics until it is time to commence race specific training. The first major race on the new calendar is the TCS 10 K in Bengaluru, in May,” Ashok said. Following that, India’s season of long runs and the now revised schedule of international marathons will unfold. Depending on how the virus outbreak plays out it may cast a shadow on how you prepare for the year ahead. The critical word is immunity. In these times, training has to be within manageable limits so as not to compromise one’s immunity, Ashok said. “ Long runs will lower immunity. Is that the right thing to do in the current situation?” he asked.

Samson Sequiera (left) with Poonam Bhatia (Photo: courtesy Samson)

The Comrades Marathon, the ultramarathon held annually in South Africa, is among major events in the running calendar. It has been steadily gathering a following in India. The organizers of the event are scheduled to review the situation on April 17, 2020, an official Comrades Marathon press note said. Indian runners attempting the 2020 edition of Comrades Marathon have been pressing ahead with their training. “ Training for Comrades is going on full steam so that we are not found lacking the training mileages required,” said coach Samson Sequiera, who heads a large Mumbai-based marathon training and fitness group called Run India Run.

Training for Comrades Marathon is strenuous. It includes three or four long runs spanning distance of 45 km, 55 km and 65 km. According to Samson, runners are practising self-restraint. They are taking care of their hydration and paying attention to rest given the current situation caused by COVID-19. A total of 35 runners from Run India Run have registered for Comrades Marathon (downhill version) this year. In all, approximately 330 runners from India have registered to run the 2020 Comrades Marathon. The race is scheduled to be held on June 15, 2020.

Satish Gujaran (Photo: courtesy Satish)

“ Runners slated to do Comrades are quite confused on how to take their training forward. Normally, April is the peak month of training for Comrades. We are scheduled to do the longest run of 65 km during the second week of April,” ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, who completed Comrades for the tenth time in 2019, said. He felt, it would be better if the organizers announce their decision early so that runners can stop training and go back to basic fitness routine.  “ One option is to scale the training down now and pick it up after April 15 depending on what the situation is on the pandemic,” Satish said.

According to Ashok, it would be prudent to cancel all sporting events including those two months away such as the Comrades Marathon and TCS 10 K. Given the training for these events happen now, postponing or cancelling them will prompt amateur athletes to stop race-training and focus on fitness-based training.

Septuagenarian Kumar Rao was well into his training for the Boston Marathon, when COVID-19 began upsetting schedules.  He was aiming for a 3:50-3:52 hour finish, an improvement over 3:59, his time to finish last year in Boston. “ I was doing 85-90 km per week. Now, I have decided to scale back. This week I plan to do 35 km. I will eventually settle for 60 km per week,” he said.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

It also appeared practical; apt for these times. “ Considering my age, I think it is better for me to scale down. Initially, I was cavalier about this and continued training. I even did a glycogen-depleted training run,” Kumar said. Boston wasn’t the only major race overseas, on his plate. He had also registered for the New York City Marathon. “ I may have to go to the US twice; once for Boston Marathon in September and then again for NYCM in November. If my wife agrees to come with me, I may stay back in the US with my son for the period between these two marathons,” he pointed out.

Although he shuttles between India and the US, Kochi-based recreational runner Ramesh Kanjilimadhom hadn’t signed up for any major international event in 2020. He did think briefly of running in Paris but then didn’t pursue it. He felt that the shifting of major races to the September-October period could make for a crammed fall season calendar, particularly in the US. On the bright side, provided the disease outbreak tapers, the additional choices emergent for the fall season may prove interesting to runners.

For now, a whole planet of major events in sport is at the mercy of the virus.

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

PORTRAIT OF A MALE TRAP

From Jallikattu. This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

“ Entheda nee cherayunnathu?’’

This question in the Malayalam language has long been a mystery to me.

Mystery would be wrong word; it is more – I know what it is but I find it hard to comprehend why it exists, several thousand years into the human species. In colloquial Malayalam, especially as spoken in southern Kerala where I grew up, the act indicates looking but not simply looking; it is looking at somebody in a manner that betrays sizing up an opponent. There is a hint of: I will show you who I am or don’t mess with me. Sometimes it establishes superiority and ends potential tussle right there. At other times, the look is challenged and the ensuing series of challenges leads to inevitable tussle for superiority. To be fair, it isn’t exclusively a Kerala phenomenon. It is there in all cultures, a sad reminder that civilization notwithstanding we are fundamentally predators.

For a long time, I avoided such predicaments because the capacity to challenge physically or counter a challenge was absent in me. Sometime in college, after my introduction to Desmond Morris and contests among humans got explained in easy to understand anthropological terms, the resultant social grid felt like a depressing jail. The rules of life seemed cast in stone. Then as the age of satellite television and Internet set in and documentaries on wildlife were easily accessed, the macho traits of human beings and its parallels in the animal world became not just clearer; they seemed amusing, even comical. Yet human society, which still respects the inherited, cares little for new insight gained by observing the world. The machismo and domination continue unquestioned as primer to cement one’s rank. Life resembles high drama. That’s why the following two Malayalam films engaged my attention.

Released in September 2019, Jallikattu is a creative tour de force. Its idiom is unforgiving in that it makes no effort to tell a story as dialogue and narrative. Its language is rooted in cinema – a procession of visuals and sounds with characters, dialogues and background score playing second fiddle to it. Threaded together they depict (rather than narrate) reflectively, the goings on when a buffalo meant for slaughter breaks free and runs amok. The beauty of this film is the shades of reflection on human behavior, it offers. Keralites, who have known for long that there is well entrenched patriarchy and mischievous matriarchy below the outer layer of modernity gracing their society, quickly grasp the scenes flashing by and the reflections embedded in them. But the real courage in Jallikattu has to be the film maker’s. Releasing a film cast in said idiom to the market is a major call. Herein, I refer not to the subject of the movie – toxic masculinity – but how it is structured. It is so unlike the regular Indian and Malayalam movie. And yet, you watch it, end to end. Sometimes, we don’t need to be told dialogue by dialogue. We just need to be reminded; shown life as it is. We get it. It is brevity Malayalam films have been consistently getting good at.

This image was downloaded from Facebook. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Roughly five months later, in February 2020, the film Ayyappanum Koshiyum was released. Here, pretty much the same subject as was seen in Jallikattu – toxic masculinity, gets analyzed in a more viewer friendly manner with story, clear characters and good acting. It tells its story by pitting against each other two generic entities well known in Kerala for their machismo-worship – the rich, feudal, land owning patriarch (and his progeny) and the state’s traditional warrior class. But this opting for easily identifiable characters is only a vehicle for narration. The core content is compulsive masculinity (often deteriorating to toxic), the battles it spawns and the specter of bluster and buffoonery it inspires when viewed through contemporary lens. You also see women; those blended into this traditional patriarchy and those confronting it. As viewing experience, the film is imbalanced; after a relatively taut first half, the second half meanders into the known and typical, the ending being quite so.

Both films have a shared quality. They have characters who roar, seek an eye for an eye; they have scenes filled with action, scenes begging for action. They also never fail to put the machismo in context by rising above the immediate and gazing at it from the larger. Doing so, the endlessness of that aggression, the abject clownishness of it; all, surface. Not to mention, very unusually for Indian movies around dominant males, here, you smell the insecurity underlying the aggression. It is portrait of a male trap.

Films like these make lab monkeys of us.

Watching us from the outside, we begin to see.

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

WHERE DO ALL THE BUFFALOES GO?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Pioneers don’t have it easy. Followers do.

Anyone who has run long distance knows the habit of latching on to another so that you are pulled along.

It is a bit like the February 2020 story about the Indian construction worker participating in a buffalo race, who got compared to Usain Bolt. It was simple, tempting math: herding a pair of buffaloes in full trot, Srinivasa Gowda sprinted 142 meters in 13.42 seconds; Bolt’s world record in the 100 meters is 9.58 seconds. Gowda was more realized than media and ministers celebrating him. After all, nobody knows as well as the practitioner. A few days after the unexpected limelight, he infused reality saying – and I quote from a published article – “ I am as good as the buffaloes that run with me.’’

In races and in life, we pick buffaloes to lead us. We also get picked as somebody else’s buffalo. Unlike the animal which runs for its safety or when prodded to race by human, we have our race-buffalo lead us and then when we overtake him or her, we feel satisfied about milestone passed. Is that the end? No. Like virus seeking next host, we start looking for the next buffalo and so on, till a half marathon or marathon resembles a necklace of buffaloes preyed upon. At the finish line, we raise our arms for photo imitating marathon greats. We spare no thought for the buffaloes we should be grateful to. Officially sanctioned pace setters; they get thanked for delivering us coveted result. But the buffaloes we pick at random from our ranks; they are forgotten.

Pace setters are officially sanctioned prompts. You choose the flag displaying the timing you are seeking and trail it as a bus. Elite runners also use pace setters. When going for a record, the pace required to get the record is maintained by the pace setters, who slow down or drop off after hand-holding runner three fourths of the way. That last quarter is in many ways more crucial than the preceding ones because eventually greatness in athletic performance is the capacity to stretch one’s endurance over the whole distance. But sometimes, even without pace setters around, competition and strategy shape certain traits. I remember the commentary of a major marathon in which the commentator seeing visual of one or two runners hanging on opportunistically at the shoulder of lead athlete, quipped, “ well that’s a convenient place to be in, isn’t it?’’ You make a buffalo of the other but don’t wish to overtake and be target yourself. Instead, you stick around at striking distance like an annoying fly and at the right juncture in the race – or when buffalo begins to tire, whichever is first – you finish him off by going ahead.

In running, which is fast but not terribly fast, this specter is still only the stuff of buffalo. Like hound on race track chasing a mechanical rabbit, you are focused on prey measured in terms of distance to cover. That’s it. Cycling is a much faster sport than running. In cycling’s peloton, the habit exceeds buffalo setting pace, to courting aerodynamic efficiency. Tucked in behind the leader, a cyclist faces less wind resistance; it is called drafting. Here, the buffalo’s worth goes beyond accidental or intentional prey driving riders on, to actually making it easier for predator behind to catch up. Sort of like authoring its own doom except, as we know, in cycling’s peloton everybody has a role oriented toward ensuring that given team’s ace cyclist is set up for the final dash. But even the final dash between fierce competitors has its opportunistic moments. They weave, sway, look around; all of them worried who should risk becoming target for the one who makes the break will be hunted.

In all of the above – from chasing random buffalo to pace setter to peloton leader – the winner gets it all. The rest are generally forgotten.

Buffaloes also remind of pioneers. Pioneers ride head on into the wind. There is nobody shielding them; none in front soaking wind resistance. The draft they create is a nice place for the rest to tuck in. Eyes on pioneer, they learn to avoid the mistakes he makes. Some in the drafting lot don’t even wish to win. They just want it easy; getting the same credit or more for easier work done. Some others, latch on behind, hanging around pioneer’s shoulders waiting for the correct moment to unsheathe their knives and strike. In human history, many pioneers have faded to oblivion because they didn’t win. Some were too early for their time; some failed to attract capital because their adventurousness troubled conservative money, some failed because in having them fail we found endorsement for our herded existence. Little by little, the failures build a case till someone drafting and making a break finds a sudden ocean of applause. We shine the light on eventual winners without asking who their buffaloes were. We even make life easy for winners rewarding them with this and that.

No such recognition visits pioneers fueled by passion, who endure hardships. As life by network and business model gains, it is strategy and scheming that have come to matter, not passion. It is the rare follower, Gowda probably one, who acknowledges the debt.

I wonder where all the buffaloes go.

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

AT A GLANCE / MARCH 2020

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Boston Marathon and is being used here for representation purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.

Boston Marathon postponed

The 2020 Boston Marathon has been postponed to September owing to concerns related to COVID-19.

A statement dated March 13, available on the event website, said, “ The Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) has been meeting regularly with city and state officials to discuss all updates related to the coronavirus (COVID-19). Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10, 2020. In consideration of this and guided by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh along with state and municipal government leaders at all levels to undertake all possible measures to safeguard the health of the public, the B.A.A. understands the city’s decision that the Boston Marathon cannot be held on April 20, 2020. We offer our full support to take all reasonable efforts to postpone the 124th Boston Marathon to Monday, September 14, 2020.’’

According to it, the B.A.A. has been cooperating with municipal leaders across the eight cities and towns through which the marathon course runs to coordinate the September 14 date for the 124th Boston Marathon. The B.A.A. 5K, which draws a field of 10,000 participants, will also be rescheduled to a later date. Registered participants and volunteers will receive additional information in the coming days. “ As this is a rapidly evolving situation, further details will be forthcoming,’’ the statement said.

Dana Zatopkova passes away

Dana Zatopkova, 1952 Olympic javelin champion and former world record holder, passed away on March 13, 2020.

She was 97 years old.

Dana was the wife of Emil Zatopek, among the greatest distance runners of all time. Zatopek died in November 2000.

Dana was the first Czech woman to throw beyond 40 meters, a report on her demise available on the website of World Athletics, said.  She was selected for the 1948 London Olympics. It was at this competition that Zatopek went over to congratulate her; in the ensuing conversation the duo discovered that they shared the same birthday.

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek secured gold in the 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon while Dana struck gold in the javelin. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, she secured silver. According to Wikipedia, Dana was European champion in 1954 and 1958; she also set a world record in 1958, aged 35.

This image is from the 2019 London Marathon. It was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

London Marathon postponed

The 2020 London Marathon scheduled to take place on April 26 has been postponed given the current predicament of several countries tackling COVID-19.

The event will be held in October.

A statement dated March 13, available on the website of the event, said, “ The 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon – The 40th Race – is now scheduled to take place on Sunday 4 October 2020.’’ It quoted Event Director, Hugh Brasher, as saying, “ the world is in an unprecedented situation grappling with a global pandemic of COVID-19 and public health is everyone’s priority. We know how disappointing this news will be for so many – the runners who have trained for many months, the thousands of charities for which they are raising funds and the millions who watch the race every year. We are extremely grateful for all the support we have received from City Hall, the London boroughs of Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, the City of Westminster and the City of London, Transport for London, the emergency services, The Royal Parks, BBC TV and many others as we worked to find an alternative date. The 40th Race is scheduled to go ahead on Sunday 4 October 2020.”

According to the statement, every runner with a place in the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon will be able to use their place in the rescheduled event on Sunday 4 October without any further payment. All runners who have a place for the 2020 event and who choose not to take part (or are unable to do so) in the rescheduled event on Sunday 4 October will receive a refund of their 2020 entry fee or, if they wish, they may donate their 2020 entry fee to The London Marathon Charitable Trust. Runners who do not take up one of the above options (with the exception of those who acquired their entry through a charity or sponsor) will be able to defer (rollover) their entry to the 2021 Virgin Money London Marathon, scheduled for Sunday 25 April 2021, on payment of the entry fee for 2021, following the standard deferment process. Runners who have already withdrawn from the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon and rolled over their entry to 2021 will be offered the option to take part on Sunday 4 October or keep their entry rolled over to 2021.

The Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group World Championships will take place within the rescheduled event and qualified runners will be automatically entered into the rescheduled event. If qualified runners cannot take part on Sunday 4 October, they will be offered a full refund. It is not possible to defer these places to 2021, the statement added.

Two Oceans Marathon cancelled

The 2020 Two Oceans Marathon slated for April 8-11 in Cape Town, South Africa, has been cancelled over concerns related to COVID-19.

Two Oceans Marathon is Africa’s biggest event in running.

A statement dated March 15, available on the event’s website said, “ Following an emergency meeting of the Two Oceans Marathon NPC board on Saturday, it was unanimously decided that all Two Oceans Marathon events scheduled for 8-11 April 2020 would be cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the global spread of the coronavirus.’’ It quoted Race Director Debra Barnes as saying, “ We have been monitoring the status of the novel coronavirus pandemic as events have unfolded internationally and locally, and we’ve consulted with public health experts and authorities. The health and safety of the competitors, staff, sponsors and the global community are paramount and an event of this scale poses far too great a risk to continue. Guided by this priority and global best practice, the TOM NPC has made the difficult decision to cancel the world’s most beautiful ultramarathon for 2020.”

Further information will be made available in due course, the statement said.

No Hyderabad Marathon as earlier scheduled

The 2020 Airtel Hyderabad Marathon slated for August 1-2 this year will not be held as earlier scheduled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a notice on the event’s website informed. According to it, a new date will be announced “ at a later time.” All those who registered for the event will receive full refund, it said.

2020 TCS 10K to be rescheduled

The 2020 TCS World 10K will be rescheduled due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

“ Procam International has decided to suspend registrations for the Tata Consultancy Services World 10K 2020 (to be held on 17th May) and reschedule the Race Day,’’ a statement available on the event’s website said. The new date will be confirmed “ over the next few days,’’ it added.

According to it, runners who have already registered will have their registrations automatically transferred to the new race date, without any payment.

Camille Herron (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the US National 24-Hour Running Team and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

2019 IAU Athlete of the Year announced: Camille Herron, Aleksandr Sorokin win

Ultrarunners Camille Herron of the U.S. and Aleksandr Sorokin of Lithuania have been chosen IAU Athlete of the Year for 2019 in their respective gender categories.

Camille received over 37 percent of votes and Aleksandr 31 percent, information available on the website of International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), said.

Camille had won the title in 2015 and 2018. In 2017, she was runner-up. For Aleksandr, this is the first time he is winning it; he was nominated in 2018.

Camille was winner of the women’s race at the IAU 24-hour World Championship held at Albi, France. She covered a distance of 270.116 km, a new world best in that category.

Aleksandr was overall winner of the IAU 24-hour World Championship, covering a distance of 278.972 km, a Lithuanian national best.

In the title selection process, Alyson Dixon of Great Britain placed second among women with 15 percent votes. Alyson was winner of the IAU 50 km World Championship. Claudia Robles of Argentina ended third with seven percent votes. Claudia had finished second in the IAU 100 km Americas Championship.

Among men, Iraitz Arrospide of Spain placed second with 19 percent votes. He was winner of the IAU 50 km World Championship. Tamas Bodis of Hungary placed third with 14 per cent votes. He had finished second at the IAU 24-hour World Championships. He was also the winner of the 2019 edition of Spartathlon.

Earlier, Mumbai’s Deepak Bandbe had been among those who automatically qualified as a candidate for IAU’s Athlete of the Year 2019 award. The nomination was based on his podium finish at the IAU 100 km Asia & Oceania Championship held at Aqaba, Jordan, in November 2019. The eventual winners of the IAU award were selected from this list.

AFI issues advisory to athletes, coaches on coronavirus outbreak

Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has issued an advisory to athletes, coaches and support staff following the increase in the number of cases of infections of coronavirus (Covid-19) in the country.

As per the advisory, athletes are not allowed to go out of the camps or attend any public or private functions. They and not allowed to train with anyone from outside the camps. Coaches have been asked to ensure that non-campers are not training with campers and separate time slot be allotted to them. Symptoms of flu or any other ailments should be reported immediately.

The AFI meeting to discuss this issue was held on March 5, 2020. The meeting was chaired by AFI President Adille Sumariwalla and attended by Dr Lalit K Bhanot, Chairman AFI Planning Committee, Pradeep Srivastava, AFI treasurer and Sandeep Mehta, Secretary Delhi Athletics Association.

Additionally, the athletes and coaches have been urged to follow World Health Organization (WHO) advisory including avoiding close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections, washing of hands frequently, avoiding unprotected contact with farm and wild animals and follow cough etiquette. AFI said that if any athlete, coach or supporting staff is joining the camp after leaving, a mandatory medical check-up has to be carried out by the medical team present at the camp before they are allowed to join the camp.

Confirmed cases cross 100,000 globally: On March 7, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, has surpassed 100,000. “ As we mark this sombre moment, the World Health Organization (WHO) reminds all countries and communities that the spread of this virus can be significantly slowed or even reversed through the implementation of robust containment and control activities. China and other countries are demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed and impact reduced through the use of universally applicable actions, such as working across society to identify people who are sick, bringing them to care, following up on contacts, preparing hospitals and clinics to manage a surge in patients, and training health workers. WHO calls on all countries to continue efforts that have been effective in limiting the number of cases and slowing the spread of the virus. Every effort to contain the virus and slow the spread saves lives. These efforts give health systems and all of society much needed time to prepare, and researchers more time to identify effective treatments and develop vaccines. Allowing uncontrolled spread should not be a choice of any government, as it will harm not only the citizens of that country but affect other countries as well,’’ WHO said in a statement available on its website.

March 11 / WHO characterizes COVID-19 as a pandemic: At a media briefing of March 11, 2020, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described COVID-19 as a pandemic. At that juncture, the number of cases had risen to over 118,000 in 114 countries with 4291 fatalities reported. “ Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do. We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time,’’ Dr Ghebreyesus was quoted as saying in the text of his remarks available on the website of WHO.

“ Just looking at the number of cases and the number of countries affected does not tell the full story. Of the 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90 percent of cases are in just four countries and two of those – China and the Republic of Korea – have significantly declining epidemics. 81 countries have not reported any cases, and 57 countries have reported 10 cases or less. We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,’’ he said.

Barcelona Marathon postponed

The 2020 Barcelona Marathon has been postponed to later in the year.

A statement dated March 7, available on the website of Zurich Marato’ Barcelona said, the event has been postponed to October 25. “ This was due to security reasons with regard to COVID 19 and following the WHO and health authorities’ recommendations on this matter for major international events,” the statement said.

2020 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships postponed

The 2020 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships scheduled for March 29 in Gdynia, Poland, has been postponed.

The event was to see participation by over 25,000 runners.

A statement dated March 6, 2020, available on the website of World Athletics said, “ It is with regret that we have agreed with the Mayor of Gdynia and the organisers of the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 (29 March) to postpone this event until October this year, due to the ongoing uncertainty created by the spread of new Coronavirus internationally.

“ The current international situation would have seriously compromised the event at this time as many countries are now restricting international travel, invoking quarantines and advising citizens and event organisers to avoid mass gatherings. First and foremost we had to consider the health and well-being of our athletes, officials and spectators in making this decision. The advice from our medical team, who are in contact with the World Health Organisation, is that the spread of the Coronavirus is at a concerning level in many countries and all major gatherings should be reviewed. This week we have worked with the Local Organising Committee to identify an appropriate alternative date for both the host city and for the elite competitors and we have agreed on 17 October this year,’’ the statement said.

It said key information pertaining to the postponement of the event, may be found on the official website.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Mumbai proposed as venue for IOC session in 2023

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board (EB) has decided that Mumbai, India, will be a candidate to host the IOC Session in 2023. The matter will be put to vote among IOC members. A decision will be taken at the 136th IOC session in Tokyo in July.

In a report dated March 4, 2020, available on its website (under the subcategory: IOC News), IOC informed that its executive board had heard a report from the IOC Session Evaluation Commission, which visited Mumbai in October 2019 to study the feasibility of hosting the IOC session in Mumbai. The evaluation commission praised the quality of facilities at the Jio World Centre, which is the potential venue for the IOC session.

The report quoted IOC president, Thomas Bach as saying, “ we have chosen India because it is the second most populous nation in the world, with a very young population and a huge potential for Olympic sport. We want to encourage and support the National Olympic Committee of India and all the National Federations to promote and strengthen Olympic sport in the country.”

According to the report, it is hoped that hosting the IOC session in India will highlight the role of sport in India and celebrate the contribution of India to the Olympic Movement. “ The year 2023 will be significant for India as it coincides with the 75th anniversary of Indian independence. Hosting the IOC Session in Mumbai would put the Olympic Movement at the heart of those celebrations,’’ the statement said.

Japan’s Olympic minister hints at room for Games postponement if required

IOC to follow WHO’s advice; says for now, athletes should continue preparations

Seiko Hashimoto, Japan’s Olympic minister has indicated that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics can be postponed if required from summer to later in the year, news reports said, March 3.

Japan is among countries tackling coronavirus outbreak. Earlier this month, as a consequence of the developing situation, the annual Tokyo Marathon was held in truncated format with participation restricted to elite athletes. For the past couple of months, the question of what may happen to the 2020 Olympic Games has hung like a Damocles Sword over the event.

According to a BBC report on March 3, minister Hashimoto said in response to a question in Japan’s parliament that Tokyo’s agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) required the Games to be held within 2020. The report said: she added, that “ could be interpreted as allowing a postponement.’’

The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled over July 24-August 9.

In a separate press release (dated March 3, 2020) available on its website, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that its executive board heard and discussed a report on measures taken so far to address the coronavirus situation. “ A joint task force had already been created in mid-February, involving the IOC, Tokyo 2020, the host city of Tokyo, the government of Japan and the World Health Organization (WHO). The IOC EB appreciates and supports the measures being taken, which constitute an important part of Tokyo’s plans to host safe and secure Games. The IOC will continue to follow the advice of WHO, as the leading United Nations agency on this topic,’’ the statement said.

It added, “ The IOC EB encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.’’

London Marathon issues statement

On March 3, the website of London Marathon (it’s upcoming edition is scheduled for April 26, 2020) hosted the following statement: “ We are monitoring closely the developments relating to the spread of COVID-19 and noting the updates and advice given by the UK Government, the World Health Organisation and other UK public bodies.

“ The Government’s current advice is that all mass events should still go ahead. There are many mass events scheduled in the UK before us and we are working closely with the DCMS (the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) and other mass event organisers to coordinate and agree appropriate advice to the public.’’

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Tokyo Marathon Foundation. No copyright infringement intended.

Defending champion Birhanu Legese wins 2020 Tokyo Marathon

Lonah Chemtai Salpeter of Israel sets new course record in the women’s race

Ethiopia’s Birhanu Legese defended his title at the 2020 edition of Tokyo Marathon, held on March 1, 2020.

He crossed the finish line in two hours, four minutes and 15 seconds. “ At first I thought I could do better than 2:03:30. However, my left hip began to hurt and the pain kept getting worse. So I made it my mission to win. I am happy to finish, the winner,” Birhanu was quoted as saying in a tweet by Tokyo Marathon Foundation.

Bashir Abdi of Belgium placed second with timing of 2:04:49 while Sisay Lemma of Ethiopia finished third in 2:04:51.

The women’s race was won by Lonah Chemtai Salpeter of Israel in a course record of 2:17:45. Berhane Dibaba of Ethiopia came in second with timing of 2:18:35 and Sutume Asefa Kebede, also of Ethiopia, finished third with timing of 2:20:30.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Tokyo Marathon Foundation. No copyright infringement intended.

According to a report on the 2020 Tokyo Marathon available on the website of World Athletics (formerly IAAF), Legese missed the course record in the men’s segment by 18 seconds. However, the men’s race saw 17 runners finish inside 2:08. This included Suguru Osako of Japan (2:05:29), who placed fourth breaking the Japanese national record in the process. He maintained his Olympic qualifying place. Of the top ten finishers among men, four were Japanese runners.

Among women, the highest placed Japanese athlete was Haruka Yamaguchi (2:30:31) who finished tenth.

The 2020 Tokyo Marathon was reduced to an elites-only affair after fears over coronavirus outbreak in Japan led to the participation of amateur runners in the event being cancelled. Amateur runners form the bulk of participants at big races. The Japanese federation and race organizers advised people to stay at home and track the marathon on TV / radio. In its report, BBC paraphrased, “ The Tokyo Marathon took place on Sunday against a backdrop of empty streets and with just a couple of hundred runners due to the coronavirus outbreak.” Japan is among nations known to harbor great interest in running. The Tokyo Marathon normally features over 30,000 runners from all over the world.

Kenenisa Bekele and Lily Partridge (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event. No copyright infringement intended.)

Kenenisa Bekele sets new course record

Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele won the Vitality Big Half Marathon held in London on Sunday, March 1, 2020.

He completed the race in an hour and 22 seconds, demolishing Mo Farah’s course record by a minute and 18 seconds in the process. Britain’s Christopher Thompson finished second while Jake Smith placed third.

The women’s race was won by Britain’s Lily Partridge in 1:10:50.

Bekele is expected to participate in the London Marathon of April 26, 2020. The defending champion there is Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge.

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

DOES THE MARATHON IN INDIA DESERVE SEPARATE OLYMPIC TRIALS?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On February 29, 2020 as the US held trials to choose its marathon team for the Tokyo Olympics, the situation in India was vastly different. No Indian marathon runner had yet qualified for the Tokyo Olympics via the most obvious and straightforward route – meeting the qualifying time (athletes can also qualify based on their ranking). Given end-May as cut off period for qualifying, three months remained.

What stood out in the scenario, were two factors. First, the qualifying time is stiff. For men, you have to break the longstanding Indian national record – two hours, 12 minutes – to qualify; in fact, go well past it. The best Indian marathon runner since Shivnath Singh is still more than a minute and 30 seconds behind the mark Singh set over four decades ago. In the case of women, the qualifying time for the Olympics is 2:29:30; the Indian national record is: 2:34:43. Second, unlike the Olympic trials of the US, there appeared none for the marathon in India, leaving top athletes to qualify at either the country’s premier marathons or if the dates don’t fit their training schedule or they are seeking a better course, then attempt qualifying at one of the races overseas.

So far, 2020 has proved a dicey year for mass participation road races abroad. Thanks to the ongoing Covid 19 coronavirus outbreak in multiple countries, events were trimmed or cancelled. At the time of writing, the latest casualty was the 2020 Paris Half Marathon, which stood axed. Prior to that, the Hong Kong Marathon of early February was cancelled, the Tokyo Marathon of March 1 was restricted to elite athletes and the Seoul Marathon of March 22 was cancelled. Athletes who had hoped to qualify for the Olympics at the cancelled events must find alternatives. Meanwhile, the trend of disease outbreak so far, has cast a shadow on the Olympics itself.

The two major marathons in India from the standpoint of Indian elite athletes are the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) and the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon. The latter through association with the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), is also called the National Marathon. Despite not having a fast course and having crowd management issues and questionable weather, TMM has produced timings by foreign athletes that are faster than the Indian national record for men and women. As regards the National Marathon, the course is flatter and the roads decent, save for a small cobbled section. But the route has several U-turns capable of breaking momentum.

While the existence of Shivnath Singh’s 2:12 removes room for excuses in India, you can sneak in the question: do we have a course that meets required guidelines and is yet suited for a shot at breaking 2:12? In 2020, this question assumes prominence for a couple of reasons. First, if you want to qualify for the Olympics then a male athlete has to complete the marathon in 2:11:30, a real step-up for Indian marathoners. If that timing is deemed important to chase, then a good enough course in a right enough place (where weather conditions are favorable), to set your best athletes up for the opportunity, makes sense. It has to also dovetail suitably into athletes’ training schedules and the qualifying deadline of a given Olympic season. Second, even as some road races overseas are getting cancelled due to the virus outbreak and air travel to less affected regions also appears risky, India has so far (as of early March 2020) remained less impacted by Covid 19. Yet for lack of well imagined domestic Olympic marathon trials, we have this situation of our marathoners counting on overseas events with fast courses to qualify. As mentioned, some of these events have got cancelled. Besides, participating in these races entail expense while accessing them depends on the continued viability of aviation routes amid reports of the virus’s economic impact on airlines. So what stops India from having its own Olympic marathon trials? A race featuring the crème de la crème of India’s marathon talent on a suitable course approved by required authorities? It seems all the more relevant in 2020 given the unique global situation Covid 19 has got the planet in.

To the extent this blog inquired with professional race organizers, such a race in India to qualify for the Olympics is logistically possible. The race infrastructure (course length, timing apparatus etc) has to be properly approved. In terms of support and recognition by sports bodies, the backing of the concerned national federation – in this case AFI – has to be there. We have the meteorological competence to select appropriate dates for Olympic marathon trials. As for closing down a set of suitable roads (a fast course) for the purpose, please remember: city marathons are typically run on Sundays, early in the morning (not hours of peak traffic) and if the field is restricted to elites capable of coming close to the national record, you would have a very limited number of participants with the whole course restored to traffic in two and a half hours or less. Is that too much to ask, once every four years?

Such an event does not have to be the definitive platform for selection to the Indian Olympic marathon team. What it does is – it adds to available options, especially in an extraordinary year like 2020, when avenues to qualify stand restricted due to virus outbreak and India remains less impacted region. Further if established as regular practice, for amateur and elite alike, `Olympic trials’ is as much goal to aspire for as the `best,’ `biggest,’ `richest’ or whatever other attribute you may assign a regular marathon. A case worth mentioning in this context is the American ultrarunner Jim Walmsley. He qualified for the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials based on results secured at the Houston Half Marathon. At the trials of February 29, running his first full marathon, Walmsley finished in 2:15:05, placing 22nd. He didn’t make the team but it shows what Olympic marathon trials can mean. Based on what Indian elite athletes told this blog, the onus of organizing such trials is with the authorities. They have to be interested enough in the marathon to make options available in an Olympic year.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The qualification details for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics mentioned herein, is as available on Wikipedia. This article is by no means a definitive piece on the subject; it seeks to provoke thought – that’s all.)

OUR REFLECTION IN PETER

Peter Van Geit at the talk in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was a small gathering, just outside the shop floor of a major sports goods retailer in Navi Mumbai. Maybe 15-20 people at best; a couple of them were the retail chain’s staff. But that didn’t stop Peter Van Geit from speaking passionately about what he had been doing the past several months.

A Belgian national and former employee of tech giant, Cisco, Chennai-based Peter is well known in the Indian outdoors. He was among prime movers at the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), contributed much to promoting the active lifestyle, helped clean up the city’s beaches, did excellent relief work during the Chennai floods and then got villainized when an unexpected forest fire killed several trekkers in Theni. That last incident from March 2018 was a tense chapter.

At CTC, one of the activities Peter and others embraced was ultrarunning. They would run for a few days covering a couple of hundred kilometers. In 2018, Peter commenced a personal project. Over 75 days, he ran (the right term would be fast-hiked) 1500 kilometers along trails and across some 40 high mountain passes in Himachal Pradesh and the then state of Jammu & Kashmir. This venture followed an earlier one in Vietnam, wherein he ran close to 2000 kilometers over hilly terrain. Then in 2019, running from the Uttarakhand-Nepal border towards Himachal Pradesh and Zanskar, he crossed 120 passes. The number includes little known routes taken by shepherds, who incidentally are his frequent refuge for food and shelter on these trips. Later that year, in a foray to the Maharashtra Sahyadri and the Konkan coast, he ran or cycled linking some 200 forts. Active on social media with his travel posts, Peter has a fan base. In January 2020, when Peter was in Mumbai to speak at the Himalayan Club, this writer shared a suburban train journey with him. He was quickly recognized by co-passengers and selfies taken.

At two presentations I attended this year, there was a slide that always drew laughs. It showed a small child sitting naked on a beach. “ That’s me. I was minimalist even then,’’ Peter would quip. He says traveling light makes him fast. On the trail, that means less stuff hauled around as he manages to either reach known shelter or camp light at lower elevation having already got past the high crux. That’s utter contrast with the regular. Consider this: a typical photograph of Peter from the Himalaya shows him in running shorts, a small backpack, a thin T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. The backdrop is high altitude; steep, snow clad, at times glacier, clearly cold. Other speakers at the same venue may have just presented slides of them and others in similar environment clad in multiple layers, armed with gear and heavy backpack. That would be the Himalayan experience of most in the audience too.

In the mutual admiration society we are, people flock to similar others. Peter gets applause but you wonder – was he accepted into the tribe? Much of the establishment sitting in judgement came up in a more structured fashion with outdoor courses done and rigid views of what defines a particular sport. They seem organization-builders; lovers of hive and the politics of the hive if we were all bees. Corporate – you could say, for imagery. Peter seems an activity-lover, happiest outdoors, happy to be afloat afterwards in a people’s durbar. In his heart warming short film, Peter stumbles, slips, gets his face liberally licked by a buffalo, does some sketchy river-crossings. Those formally trained in outdoor techniques will question some of his actions. Yet there he was, up in the mountains, doing a hybrid of running and high altitude hiking, most of the time solo. Solo is something few Indians like. Indians are all about groups. Further, where most of us make a whole annual trek out of one pass, he was polishing off a pass a day. For now in India’s world of hiking-mountaineering and running, the Peter-way is an outlier.

Here’s another vignette – Peter is a runner but now nurses little appetite for the organized marathons, ultramarathons and stadium runs that the majority of runners favor. He likes to be away from cities and crowds. When out in the Himalaya, he lives and eats with shepherds and at houses along the trail; he likes that simpler life. He navigates with digital map and GPS co-ordinates on his smartphone used offline and set to battery saving-mode. On the Konkan coast, confronted with the fort of Suvarnadurg located on an island a kilometer out in the sea, he just swam across to access it. The central values of his excursions appear freedom, solitude and living the life he wants. Accessible and easy to talk to, Peter may impress as anything from celebration of the outdoor spirit to bull in a china shop unintentionally smashing our gear laden surrogate commando self-image, with his minimalist approach.

Peter, in a Mumbai suburban train, en route to a lecture (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To be fair, Peter’s journeys in India fell in a list of projects headed to the body of work he achieved. Long before digital became commonplace in India, in 1997, a team of Indian women completed a trans-Himalayan trek from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh to the Karakorum Pass. They crossed 39 passes above 3000m, 15 passes above 2000m and covered 4500 kilometers in 198 days. In the years that followed, at least one seasoned outdoorsman anchored a project seeking to thread a hiking route from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border, replete with GPS co-ordinates for independent hikers to use. More than five years ago, when the Himalaya was yet to be run as Peter did, this writer spoke of the project in waiting to an Indian ultrarunner. Nothing happened. Over August-October 2018, a team of three young Indian mountaineers hiked from Ladakh to the Uttarakhand-Nepal border crossing 27 passes (please try this link for their story:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/13/a-long-walk-traversing-the-western-himalaya/). Then over 2018 and 2019, in two tranches, Peter crossed around 160 passes in the western part of the Indian Himalaya, visited 200 forts in Maharashtra and made the journeys available as digital resource. His own project, Peter has said, was initially spurred by data from a blog by Bengaluru-based trekker Satyanarayana; in the blog Satya used to document with GPS logs, the passes he visited.

It was two years ago that Peter resigned his job, did an Airbnb with his house and embarked on a new life of running around. At the February 2020 talk in Navi Mumbai, he spoke of young Indians he met during his long stay in the country, who were stronger athletes than him but whose promise faded with marriage and corporate life. The young people in the audience laughed. Peter’s face remained expressionless. “ It is not a laughing matter. Life is short and you live only once,’’ he said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/; https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/)             

“ IT MAKES YOU FEEL ALIVE, COMPLETELY OPPOSITE OF DAILY ROUTINE’’

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

It was in 2018 that Chennai-based ultrarunner, Peter Van Geit, first stitched together several passes in the Himalaya, doing an extended spate of fast-hiking. In 2019, he took that up another notch, journeying across 120 passes in about as many days. Then he shifted his attention to the state of Maharashtra and ran or cycled to some 200 forts. In January 2019, Peter was in Mumbai for a talk. He spared time to speak to this blog. Excerpts:

How was your trip of 2019 to the Himalaya different from the one of 2018?

This was longer. I was there for almost four months – from May until September – covering about 120 passes in four months, almost doing one pass a day. This time I had to plan more carefully because in the month of May you still have snow in areas above 4000 meters. I started from the Kumaon-Nepal border and worked my way towards Himachal Pradesh. During the whole of May I was traversing from east to west in Uttarakhand. In the beginning of June the snowline started retreating. At that time I was in Himachal, where I spent some time in the Great Himalayan National Park; very dramatic landscape with steep slopes. From there I proceeded to the Dhauladhar and the entire range from Dharamshala to Palampur, which separates Kangra plains from Chamba valley. By the end of June, monsoon kicked in. I had to retreat and cross the Pir Panjal range towards Lahaul. I crossed over to Zanskar, Ladakh and Lahaul where I spent all of July and August. I went to Hemis National Park, where I covered many passes. I had to plan it carefully as there was lot of snowfall last winter and much meltwater in the summer that followed. In peak summer there were strong currents in the streams, it was very difficult to cross these streams. In 2019 too, probably due to climate change, sometime in mid-August there was flooding in parts of the Himalaya – Chamba, Manali. Manali-Leh Highway saw heavy landslides. At that time I was somewhere in Zanskar and got stuck. I managed to come down and for another couple of weeks explored a lot of valleys around Bada Bhangal and places like Kalihani Pass. I explored the Chamba valley fully. It was an amazing journey.

In the first phase you had been minimalist traveler with little gear. This time did you make any alternations to your gear?

Actually this year I reduced my gear further. I did not carry any tent, just a small bivy sack. Also, I had a light weight sub-zero sleeping bag, which was very comfortable. My ration plan was minimalist and optimum. I would just carry enough food to get to the next village. First few days I mostly carried fresh food. But then in Ladakh-Zanskar where you have 5-6 days trek, I had to cook some food. I carried a very minimalist stove. But I decided to give up that stove. Instead, I would collect dry cow dung and yak dung and horse dung and sprinkle that with kerosene and make a cooking fire. I would cook white oats which is easy to prepare with some water. That way I only carried a 4-5 kilogram backpack.

Photo: courtesy Peter

You mentioned taking an ice axe in 2019. Was that only for a portion of the trip?

Snow and ice were new to me. Previously, I had only gone in the months of July and August. In Uttarakhand I did not carry an ice axe. I just had some light carbon hiking poles, which were very useful. Snow is easy to tackle if it is on a flat surface but when it’s on a gradient, then you need poles. Poles are also essential for stream crossing especially over uneven river bed. Stream currents in some of the canyons in Ladakh can be dangerous. In July I was near the Dhauladhar. There I was lucky I met a person who had an ice axe. We trekked together for a week. It was a light weight Black Diamond axe. That became my main tool. By mid-August the ice axe was not required. But I continued to carry it because I was going to new places.

Are you going back again this year?

In addition to the May-September period, I am planning a new mission. I am planning a winter mission from February till April not to the passes but some remote valleys. Some of the valleys have beautiful hamlets. I want to go in winter and experience how it is. But I will have to be careful. I know snow can be dangerous. I will have to see how I can optimize my luggage. I will have to carry warmer stuff.

Will you be attempting a higher elevation this year than what you have done so far?

More than elevation, I would say traversing shepherd routes across Pir Panjal, Waru and the Kali-Cho Pass. In 2019, many passes opened late because of the heavy winter. Across many of the lesser known passes I was able to follow the shepherds; otherwise it is impossible to know these places. These are not regular hiking routes.

Is east of Nepal on your cards?

Nepal and Arunachal Pradesh are there on my mind.

When you chose places do you prefer to go to places which are not frequented by people?

The contrast between commercial versus unknown is striking. Visiting an unknown place is so much more enriching, both in terms of natural beauty and the absence of plastic waste and garbage. You don’t meet visitors there and the shepherds who are there – they also don’t see many people. They are surprised to run into me, a solo traveler. They receive you with such heart-warming hospitality. In commercial places you are treated as a customer and in other places they see you as a guest.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

What took you to the Sahyadri?

The Sahyadri was unknown to me. This place is unique; almost 300 ancient forts, many of these are in ruins now. That; combined with the unique geography. Last February when I was this side for a talk at the Himalayan Club, I stayed with a couple of guys in Pune and they took me on a trek. That’s how I got a feel of it. I did about 20 forts. After my 2019 Himalaya trip, I was looking for a place where I could spend a couple of months. I considered the southern states of Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala. But access to places here is restricted by the forest department. Both the Himalaya and the Sahyadri are like paradise, you are not restricted by anyone. I was already following a couple of people on Instagram who would post beautiful pictures of the Sahyadri. I started searching for names of forts and checking with Google maps, GPS logs. There were some specific websites which gave detailed information. I was able to get proper routes for almost 200 forts. For other forts I started studying satellite maps, finding the trails myself. Then I started to work on how I could do this in the quickest way. I was in that ultra-running mode – light and fast. I visited many of the hill forts, running or fast-hiking. The forts of the Konkan coast – those I visited on my bicycle.

That way I was able to wrap it up within two months. I used to put up photos on Instagram and within no time my followers grew from 6000 to 20000. For many people, I was not visiting forts but temples of Chhatrapathi Shivaji who fought invaders.

What do you hope to do with all the information you have gathered?

I am a little bit privileged in the sense that people can hardly take a week or a weekend off. For somebody like me who has quit his full-time job I feel privileged to spend an entire month out. In the Himalaya, I acclimatise once and then go very fast. Those 120 passes were done in four months, which is roughly 120 days. Planning these long journeys is not simple because you have to spend quite a few weeks to put together a 3500 kilometer-route with so many passes which in my case includes many non-touristy places that are remote.

There was a lot of study. All the data I collect and the maps I create by studying the terrain are compiled in my blog www.ultrajourneys.org to make it easy for people to follow in my footsteps.

So, is it possible for those who want to do a few passes to just download the digital information and proceed with GPS co-ordinates?

Yes. I have documented all the passes; I rate them on the basis of elevation, distances, duration and scale of difficulty. Novices can start with easy passes. I also have a column for dangers. Some passes are risky in terms of stream crossing. People can start with conservative, safer options.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

The same digital information is available for the Sahyadri too?

Yes.

You had a full-time job at Cisco and now you are a full-time explorer, runner etc. How do you sustain this activity monetarily?

I have a home in Chennai. When I am not in Chennai I do an Airbnb with it. Financial is one aspect. If you live in cities you end up spending a lot of money. When I get to a remote place, I cannot spend money anymore. I carry my tent, I don’t stay in hotels, don’t use private transport, always commute in buses. In the end I eat two meals a day which is like Rs 60 per plate of momos in the Himalaya, Rs 50 per plate of bhakris in the Sahyadri.

Are your social media accounts fetching you anything monetarily?

I am not looking at that. Now I have some 22,000 people following me. I am giving talks and doing some workshops. I am not looking at monetizing them. I feel very uncomfortable charging people for it. This is my passion and I want to inspire as many young people as possible. In every talk I am able to reach out to 200-300 people.

While you were doing the passes you were burning a significant amount of calories. Is it possible for you to match the two – significant burn of calories and frugal lifestyle?

I have done it now for two years. In the Himalaya, the elevation gain and very challenging terrain can be exhausting and you can easily burn 6000-8000 calories a day. These need to be replenished. Many times you end up with members of the Gujjar community and other mountain people. They cook fresh food. They typically source local organically grown stuff. You get a lot of nutrition from their food. High altitude cereals are high in nutrition. Also, living in these remote places is like detoxing your body because the air and water are unpolluted. All of these keep you in good shape. Also in the mountains your sleeping pattern gets aligned with the solar cycle. You will always settle down by sunset. You get up automatically when sun hits your face. That rest makes you mentally and physically fit to do the next day’s traverse. Further when you are exploring new places you are mentally engaged.

Photo: courtesy Peter Van Geit

At the start of the season when you have drawn out plans to do a certain number of passes, it is a task sustaining yourself that long. Does the goal feel formidable at the start of the season?

I never think of the numbers, I just take one day at a time. Although you plan your journey the actual journey can be different because you could get stuck somewhere due to some unexpected snowfall. Of the 120 passes, 2-3 of them were quite dangerous to traverse and I have had to take a mature decision and make a U-turn. Some of them are quite technical. Sometimes you get on top of the pass and then you realise that it is impossibly steep to get down on the other side. You don’t want to take unwanted risk. Sometimes it is like trial and error. You have to take a call.

Why do you do this?

People ask that question. I don’t have an answer for that. It is more like an internal drive. I have always been very excited and feel very alive when I go there. Even when I was working I used to go to such places and feel the freshness of nature, waterfalls, streams, jungles, birds and wildlife. The forest gives you so much of positivity, both physically and mentally. Also, it gives you internal peace. Climbing up 3000 meters and not seeing anybody for two days, there is total peace all around you. It makes you feel alive, completely opposite of daily routine. Probably that connection is what drives me.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used with this interview were downloaded from Peter’s Facebook page; they have been used here with his permission. For more on Peter please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/03/22/running-in-the-himalaya-75-days-1500-km-40-mountain-passes-talking-to-peter-van-geit/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2017/02/28/i-dont-have-time-isnt-a-valid-excuse/)