AT A GLANCE / DECEMBER 2019

Joshua Cheptegei (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Joshua Cheptegei sets new world record in 10K

Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei has set a new world record in the 10km road race, clocking 26 minutes 38 seconds at the 10K Valencia Trinidad Alfonso on December 1, a report available on the website of World Athletics (formerly International Association of Athletics Federations) said.

He took off six seconds from the previous record of 26:44 set by Kenya’s Patrick Komon in 2010.

Earlier this year at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, Cheptegei had claimed gold in the 10,000m. He is also the 2019 world cross country champion.

According to Wikipedia, in 2018, he had set a world record in the 15km road race.  At the 2017 World Championships in London, he had been silver medalist in the 10,000m.

Arvind, Naveen, Avisha; on the podium at Kathmandu (This photo was downloaded from Naveen John’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose)

Naveen John, Arvind Panwar get gold and silver at 2019 South Asian Games

Indian cyclists, Naveen John and Arvind Panwar, finished first and second respectively in the Individual Time Trial (ITT) at the 2019 South Asian Games held in Nepal. Third place went to Avisha Mawatha of Sri Lanka. The timings were: Naveen – 00:49:22.250; Arvind – 00:49:29.500, Avisha: 52:15.540.

Based in Bengaluru, Naveen is one of the most experienced bicycle racers in the country. For more on Naveen please try these links: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/03/23/the-electrical-engineer/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2019/06/22/naveen-john-time-to-rewire/.

Work on main stadium of 2020 Olympics completed

Tokyo’s National Stadium, the main venue of next year’s Summer Olympic Games and host to the athletics competition, was officially completed end-November 2019.

Construction of the stadium, which will have capacity for about 60,000, began in December 2016. It was completed in 36 months at a cost of 157 billion yen (1.4 billion dollars). Besides the athletics competition scheduled over July 31 to August 10, the stadium will also host the opening and closing ceremonies, a report available on the website of World Athletics said.

Officially called the National Stadium, it will be known as Olympic Stadium during the Tokyo Games.

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

JYOTI, JIGMET IN MARATHON TEAM FOR 2019 SOUTH ASIAN GAMES

Jyoti Gawate (Photo: courtesy Jyoti)

Jyoti Gawate, Jigmet Dolma, Rashpal Singh and Sher Singh will represent India in the marathon at the 2019 South Asian Games due in Kathmandu over December 1-10, an official statement disclosing the names of all athletes selected to the Indian squad, available on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said.

For Jyoti who hails from Parbhani in Maharashtra, this is her second outing at the South Asian Games. Earlier in 2016, she had been part of the marathon team for that year’s South Asian Games held in Guwahati. In 2011, she had taken part in the Asian Marathon Championships in Thailand and finished seventh among women with a timing of 3:17 hours. She was chosen for this event because of her win at the 2011 Mumbai Marathon. AFI had funded her trip and stay. The federation also sent her to participate in the SCO Marathon in China. “ I am aiming for timings closer to that of Tata Mumbai Marathon 2019,” Jyoti, who was scheduled to travel shortly to Kathmandu for the 2019 South Asian Games, said when contacted. At the 2019 edition of TMM, she had finished second among elite Indian women with a personal best timing of 2:45:48 (for more on Jyoti, please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/02/04/jyoti-and-the-eight-minutes/).

This is the first time Jigmet Dolma is in the Indian team headed to a major event.  For the past several years, she has been part of the group of runners from Ladakh supported by Leh based-Rimo Expeditions, that travels every winter to the road races of the plains. Over time, she has worked her way up from amateur to elite category and been podium finisher at major marathons including the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).  “ This is a fantastic development for Jigmet and Ladakh,’’ Savio D’Souza, Mumbai based-coach and former national champion in the marathon who has been involved with training Ladakhi runners, said.

Hailing from Igoo village in Ladakh, Jigmet used to run at block, school and state level. In 2012, she ran the half marathon at the Ladakh Marathon without any prior practice and emerged first. At the 2013 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (later TMM), she placed 17th in the half marathon. Same year, at the 2013 edition of the Ladakh Marathon, she finished first in the half marathon with timing of 1:50. In 2014, she improved her performance at SCMM to fourteenth position. Same year she retained her first position at the Ladakh Marathon. In January 2015, she ran her first full marathon at SCMM, ending second among women in the open category (timing: 3:45:21), her first podium finish in Mumbai. By 2017, she had graduated to finishing third among Indian women with timing of 3:14:38; two years later at 2019 TMM, she placed third among elite Indian women with timing of 3:10:43. Jigmet has never been shy of stating her wish to run for India one day. She along with fellow runner from Ladakh, Tsetan Dolkar, has been a familiar duo at various road races, particularly the annual Mumbai Marathon (for more on Jigmet, Tsetan and other runners from Ladakh, please refer the archives of this blog or type their names in the box allotted for search).

For Rimo Expeditions and Savio, Jigmet’s debut in the Indian squad – coming as it does after years of regular visits to road races – will mean a lot. “ As far as I know, after Rigzen Angmo, Jigmet is the first woman marathon runner from Ladakh to represent India,’’ Savio said. In the 1990s, Rigzen Angmo who hails from Skarbuchan village about 125 kilometers away from Leh, had been a regular podium finisher on the national circuit. Abroad, she won the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in 1994 and the Bangkok Marathon in 1995 (for more on Rigzen Angmo please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/09/28/the-spectator/). “ This is the dream we had in 2012, when we started the project of training long distance runners and sending them to races in the cities. It is heartening to see one of them make it to the Indian team. I am sure this will encourage more youngsters from Ladakh,” Chewang Motup, owner of Rimo Expeditions said of Jigmet’s selection. He also hoped that greater support would manifest for such projects.

Jigmet Dolma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

All four marathon runners selected for the 2019 South Asian Games had been podium finishers at the fourth edition of the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon held on February 24, 2019. Rashpal Singh had won the race with timing of 2 hours 21 minutes and 55 seconds. Sher Singh had finished second among men with timing of 2:23:16 followed by Manavendra Singh (2:28:27). The three men were then training at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune. Among women, Jyoti finished first with timing of 2:47:54. Jigmet placed second in 3:01:30 followed two seconds later by Tsetan Dolkar (3:01:32) who placed third.  The top two from both gender categories are now headed to Kathmandu for the 2019 South Asian Games.

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

ULTRAMARATHON: IT ISN’T JUST PILING ON MILEAGE / LESSONS FROM TWO CHAMPIONSHIPS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Kolkata-based ultramarathon runner Anjali Saraogi is comfortable training with gels and branched chain amino acids (BCAA) that help in reversing muscle loss, reduce muscle soreness and aid muscle recovery. That was her trusted recipe till Aqaba happened.

Jordan’s only coastal city – fans of Hollywood would remember it from David Lean’s masterpiece: Lawrence of Arabia – was location for the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia and Oceania Championships held on November 23. In the run up to the event in Aqaba, Anjali’s training suffered setbacks caused by health issues. All the same, she aimed for a sub-nine-hour finish.

At the championships, she was cruising along very well when the blazing sun and strong headwinds started to take a toll. “ At the 60 kilometer-mark, I felt I was sinking and actually ended up sitting on a chair. That is completely unusual for me,’’ she said.

Abhinav Jha, one of the crew members of the Indian team, came to her assistance. “ He made a drink with honey and lemon. That revived me,’’ Anjali said. She stopped consuming gels, thereafter. Anjali went on to complete the race in nine hours and 22 minutes, a new national record for women in that category. She bettered her own previous national record of 9:40 hours, set at the IAU 100 k World Championships held in Croatia in 2018.

Anjali Saraogi (Photo: courtesy Anjali)

“ When exhaustion levels are high, it is best to opt for natural foods. You can never go wrong there,’’ Abhinav, Lieutenant Commander with the Indian Navy, said. The naval officer was originally part of the Indian team and slated to run the race. But he opted to stay out due to injury and instead, joined the team’s support crew. Hemant Beniwal, the stand-by runner, was called in to complete the team taking Abhinav’s place. “ As most of us are amateur runners, we are working on nutrition and hydration on trial and error basis. But in an ultramarathon, the best plan is your own plan,’’ Abhinav said.

In an ultramarathon, crewing can be challenging. The challenge stems from the difficulty in assessing the hydration and nutrition needs of runners. At the 2019 IAU 24-hour World Championships held in Albi, France over October 26-27, Pranaya Mohanty avoided solid food for a long time and chose to stick to gel and salt tablets. But after a few hours of running he started to crave for solid food. “ I wanted either curd rice or dal rice. There was bread on offer but I prefer curd rice, dal rice or khichdi,’’ Pranaya said. The crew members arranged for the same.

At the event, Pranaya covered a distance of 211.956 km. He twisted his ankle in the eighteenth hour and was forced to slow down. He also suffered stomach distress and had to keep going to the rest rooms. “Binay Sah was also in bad shape. His nutrition plan did not go as per plan and he had to stop running,’’ Pranaya recalled. Fuelling for an ultramarathon event is not confined to the race alone. It starts months ahead along with the training.

Ultramarathon runner, Apoorva Chaudhary drew up her training plan for the IAU 24-hour World Championships with a target of covering 200 km. “ There are two vital elements in training for an ultramarathon – working with a target in mind and focussing on nutrition and hydration,’’ Apoorva said. She went on to cover a distance of 202.212 km, setting a new national record for 24-hour run (she surpassed her own record of 176.8 km set during the NEB 24-hour Stadium Run in New Delhi in December 2018). Apoorva not only put in all the mileage and strength training required, she also focused on nutrition. “ I prepared my body with a variety of foods – different kinds of solid foods, different gel brands,’’ she said. She also did training runs with very little hydration. “ I did a 30 km-training run without food and water just to prepare my body for a worst case scenario,’’ Apoorva said.

Priyanka Bhatt (Photo: courtesy Priyanka)

Priyanka Bhatt, who too was part of the Indian squad for the IAU 24-hour World Championships in Albi, trained with race day conditions in mind. “ I work with energy bars. Gels don’t suit me,’’ she said. Her training was focused on building endurance, running back-to-back distances that would be in the range of 130 to 160 km every week.

In August 2019, a camp was held for ultra-runners at Bengaluru. The camp helped runners with guidance on training, nutrition and hydration. Despite training with different foods and drinks, things can go wrong during a race, runners said.

At the 2019 edition of the Bengaluru Stadium Run, Apoorva’s nutrition did not go as per plan. At Albi, Apoorva’s nutrition plan went off well for the initial part of the race but thereafter it was difficult to retain food. “ I kept talking to myself to stay in a positive frame of mind. After the initial few hours, the effort to work on your pace, mileage target and nutrition intake is entirely a mind game. For the first 13 hours, I had a very strong run. After that I felt like crying. My ribs felt swollen. It was more a mental issue than a physical one,’’ Apoorva said. In fact, one of the most insightful articles following the 2019 24 hour-world championships in Albi was one on Camille Herron of the US, written by author Adharanand Finn and published in The Telegraph. While lovers of the sport worldwide noted her victory in the women’s category, the article brought out the suffering Camille underwent in the grueling race.

Both the ultra-running events – the IAU 24-hour World Championships held at Albi, France in October 2019 and the 100 km Asia & Oceania Championships held at Aqaba, Jordan in November 2019, showcased significant improvement in ultra-running by Indians despite the sport being relatively new for the country. At Aqaba, the Indian team of nine runners (three women and six men) secured gold medal in the men’s team category and silver in women’s.  In addition, Deepak Bandbe won the individual bronze medal and Anjali Saraogi set a new national record for women in 100 km.

Pranaya Mohanty (Photo: courtesy Pranaya)

“ The team did very well. There was a big jump in performance. All the six male runners finished in sub-8.5 hours and two of the women in under-10 hours,’’ Peteremil D’Souza, member of the ultramarathon committee of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said. The women’s performance was outstanding, Sunil Chainani, also member of AFI’s ultramarathon committee, said. Earlier at Albi, including Apoorva’s new national record, five athletes in all – three women and two men – had achieved new personal records. Among women, besides Apoorva, Priyanka Bhatt (192.845 km) and Hemlata (173.178 km) secured new PBs, while from the men, Pranaya Mohanty (211.956 km) and Kanan Jain (211.157 km) set new personal records. Also, five Indian runners – four men and one woman – covered distance in excess of 200 km at Albi.

According to Sunil, Indian runners are now looking at a multi-faceted approach to training that focuses not merely on building mileage but important aspects of nutrition and hydration as well. “ It is a new sport. We are constantly on a learning curve,’’ Abhinav said.

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

THE PURSUIT OF ENDURANCE

A book you come to love is a product of how good it is and what frame of mind you were in, when you picked it up. Here’s one of the most remarkable books I read in recent times:

At roughly 3500 kilometers, the Appalachian Trail is among the longest trails in the US. Jennifer Pharr Davis’s book The Pursuit of Endurance is about the little known craze of setting the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on long distance trails like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest. These are feats of extreme endurance. The best of the lot – Pharr Davis among them – average close to 50 miles (approximately 80 kilometers) of hiking a day for several weeks. In 2011, she set the unofficial FKT for the Appalachian Trail: 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes.

There are quite a few things that are beautiful about this book. It is not cast in a how-to-do-it fashion. Instead, it provides detailed portraits of some of the record holders – their background, their eccentricities, their approach to the trail, how many times they attempted new FKTs, how they succeeded – and through that provides a view, obliquely, of what it takes to do thru-hikes and FKTs. Each of these hikers is a personality distinct from the other. But there are some common strands. Approaching its subject so, the book makes these long distance hikes less of performance and more of a way of life. The protagonists are not angels; they compete, they scheme, they do many of the things you and I carry around in our heads as we try to get ahead of the rest. The difference is – they own up their nature. Pharr Davis’s book gives you a sense of competitors bared and to that extent, humanity restored.

That said, let me add – there is strategy and performance in this book. But it doesn’t hit you the way it does in a book written with the corporate side of running in mind. This is not stuff harking of ready; set, come on team, let’s go do it-sort of approach. This book is pretty down to earth. Sample this: I believed that consistent output over a prolonged period would be more efficient than short bursts of speed followed by lengthier rests. In other words, I wanted to hike, not run. I rationalized that walking would mean less impact on my joints, a reduced risk of falling and decreased recovery time; it just seemed like a more natural way to cover more than two thousand miles. In Pharr Davis’s book, strategy and performance are tempered by humility and honesty. Things go wrong on the trail and the paragraphs devoted to it hold nothing back about how setbacks and frailties unravel. That is exactly how it is when you are out hiking by yourself, pushing your limits. Although the Appalachian Trail has facilities for trekkers to halt and replenish along the way, a hike for FKT has none of the support found in regular ultramarathons. Once in several days, you rendezvous to meet with friend or family member to resupply and take stock of progress. Else, you are alone on the trail; wilderness and other hikers passing through, for company. Unlike city marathons and staged events where the human being assumes center stage, in wilderness, nature’s presence is larger than lone hiker can hope to be. That is also what makes these FKTs interesting. You cope with yourself and whatever happens for weeks. It teaches you nuggets rarely found in other books. For example – the difference between failure and stopping.

But the best aspect of this book was something else.

Thanks to the sort of world we live in with things in clearly identifiable silos, borderlands and transition zones have lost their attraction. Running means Usain Bolt and Eliud Kipchoge; it is distilled spectacle of performance with all else conspiring to support the act. You don’t have the luxury of controlled ambiance in hiking. To that extent, for some of us, the variables nature throws our way while hiking are distraction from aspiring for peak performance. For such perspective, hiking – like walking – is distinctly less glamorous than running. Yet for those loyal to the slow lane, one truth has been evident for long. You can go to the gym and shock your muscles into shape or as seen in the case of those doing physically strenuous jobs; you can embrace a life of physical toil and be in shape without seeking it, maybe even without knowing it. Similarly you can hike enjoying the solitude and the outdoors and having done it for long, develop a bank of endurance.  But say that in the world of running and you may find your audience peeling off because as I said earlier, we live in a world in which the value of overlapping borderlands is poorly appreciated. Endurance has become firmly identified with running, cycling, swimming, triathlon etc. It takes a story about some elite athlete from Africa and how he / she walked long distance to school as a child, to remind us of the miracles walking can accomplish. Not to mention – the independence and self-reliance, hiking and the outdoors instills in you.

Pharr Davis is unapologetic of her love for the outdoors and hiking. Born to a family that valued the outdoors, she grew up around camps. Later she lived the active life. According to Wikipedia, she has hiked over 14,000 miles (more than 22,530 kilometers) on six different continents. In 2008, she set the record for the fastest Appalachian Trail hike by a woman – 57 days and eight hours. In 2011, she set the fastest time for both men and women on that trail (mentioned earlier in this review); the record was broken in 2015 by the well-known ultramarathon runner, Scott Jurek who covered the distance faster by three hours and 12 minutes. Juxtapose that improvement in timing on Pharr Davis popularly described as a long distance hiker and Jurek as an ultramarathon runner; it tells us something of the endurance levels of both. It tells us something of what hiking can be. You can’t help but commit some of Pharr Davis’s observations in the book, to memory: Hiking is not escapism; it’s realism. The people who choose to spend time outdoors are not running away from anything; we are returning to where we belong. And: I felt I was also tapping into something primal that said I am beautiful because I endure.

I found this book on the shelves of Modern Book Centre, that wonderful bookshop in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Anoop, who oversees the shop, remembered my taste in reading and pointed it out to me. It is a great book to have and lovely antidote for sport in present times lost to measuring and achieving. Its narrative has the quality of an embrace; just what you wish for from nature when you veer off human hive and step on to the trail. It makes endurance, relevant.

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

LAYUP TO 555K

Ashish Kasodekar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A basketball player from school days, Ashish Kasodekar started participating in running events in 2013. He also forayed into long distance cycling. In August 2019, he became the first Indian to complete the 555k category of La Ultra-The High.

“ I believe that when people call you mad, you are on the right track. It means you are doing something nice for yourself,’’ Ashish Kasodekar said.

It was September 2019. We were at his office in Pune.

Weeks earlier, the unassuming travel consultant had become the first Indian runner to complete the 555 kilometer-category of La Ultra-The High, the challenging ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. In retrospect, it had been a busy six years to where he was now, for Ashish commenced running at events only in 2013. Till then he had been a basketball player; someone who played competitively, was part of the state team and had played at the 1992 edition of Federation Cup. “ Team games teach you to relate to others and be positive,’’ he said. Basketball remains his first love and he is active in Masters Basketball. But alongside, there is this streak in endurance sport building up.

Born 1971, Ashish grew up in Pune, the middle sibling among three brothers. He took to basketball while at school itself. Following college, he worked with a travel agent for a year. Then he became General Sales Agent (GSA) for the Italian airline, Alitalia. He was happy to work for the airline; there was travel as part of work and the airline was a strong brand that sold without need for much marketing. “ I was getting into a comfort zone,’’ Ashish said. About seven to eight years ago, he therefore started his own travel consultancy – Edgeover Holidays. It is a proprietary concern; no partners, which is how he prefers it.  There was also a twist. Recognizing his need for personal time, he restricted clientele to friends. “ I don’t have any corporate clients. If you have corporate clients, it will interfere with the time you need to train for pursuits like endurance sports,’’ he said.

That conscious choice likely set in because around three years before he commenced his own business, Ashish participated in an adventure race in Pune called Enduro organized by Prasad Purandare. It was a team event – two men and one woman formed a team. “ I really enjoyed it,’’ Ashish said. The event also got him into a bit of endurance cycling; for Enduro, he borrowed his nephew’s bicycle. The attributes of the outing, distinctly different from a game of basketball, interested him. Basketball was competitive. Enduro was more about finishing. “ You have to learn to push yourself. It is a stronger body experience,’’ he said. Ashish found himself spending more and more time with people from his new found area of interest.

In 2011, there was a numerically special day: November 11, which folded neatly into 11/11/11, a series of ones.  Ashish decided to do something equally special for the occasion. He cycled from Pune to Goa on his Bianchi hybrid, reaching the coastal city in 21 hours. The following year, there was 12/12/12. For that, he walked 100 kilometers from Pune to Panchgani. In 2013, there was 11/12/13; this time he rode his Harley Davidson Iron 883 from Pune to Madurai and back, covering 2400 kilometers in 36 hours. In 2013, he also participated in his first running event. He did a 15k; it was executed with no prior training. In January 2014, he did his first half marathon in Mumbai. This time he trained for it. “ I really enjoyed that,’’ he said. In July-August of the same year, he participated in the London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) bicycle race. There were eight participants from India. None completed. However on the bright side, he had to train for LEL and that included a 1000 kilometer-ride from Pune to Hubli and back. Slowly but surely, endurance was creeping into his system and world view of things. In 2015, Ashish and Balakrishna Desai cycled from near the Gulf of Khambat in Gujarat to Khardung La in Ladakh. The project spanning sea level to one of the highest motorable passes around was called 0 to 18. They covered the distance in 24 days. Ashish used a friend’s MTB. In September 2015, he did his first full marathon; he elected to do it in Leh as part of that year’s Ladakh Marathon. Following this run, a friend asked him if he had heard of La Ultra-The High. Ashish hadn’t. But a spark was lit.

Photo: courtesy Ashish Kasodekar

In 2016, at the Mumbai Marathon, Ashish met the qualifying time for the Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa. To be eligible, you had to run the full marathon in less than five hours. However, post qualifying he didn’t train diligently for Comrades. In South Africa, he cleared all the stage cut-offs of the race in time and the on the final stretch relaxed. Just as he was reaching the stadium – the finish point – he heard the officials announce that the overall 12 hours cut-off had passed by. It was a wake up-call. “ That last 200 meters taught me a lot about what to do. It told me I had to take things seriously,’’ Ashish said. The previous year at the Ladakh Marathon, he had seen the event’s ultramarathon segment – Khardung La Challenge. When his Comrades attempt ended in that disappointing final stretch, Ashish decided to try the Khardung La Challenge.

In the run up to the race, he came down with chickengunya. On the other hand, he had arranged a tour package for 13 people to Ladakh for the year’s Ladakh Marathon. On recovering from his illness, he decided to proceed with the group. He reached Leh, four days ahead of Khardung La Challenge. At the bib collection point, the race organizers were checking the oxygen saturation level of participants. His turned out to be 99, pretty good. “ I said, let’s try this race. If anything goes wrong I can hop into the ambulance,’’ Ashish said. On race day, the flag-off from Khardung village was at 3AM. “ There was a point when I felt I may have to quit. I had arrived in Ladakh only some days earlier and I felt I wasn’t acclimatized well,’’ he said. A doctor in a passing ambulance checked his oxygen saturation level. It was 72. He asked Ashish to pause for 5-6 minutes. The level recovered to 85. This was just ahead of North Pulu. Ashish took it slowly thereon. Eventually he finished within the assigned cut-off of 14 hours. “ That race was a great boost for my confidence,’’ he said. Next day, at the Ladakh Marathon, he hired a cycle and pedaled 55 kilometers up and down with the runner’s group he had brought for the race. In 2017, He returned to South Africa and completed Comrades in 11 hours, 38 minutes. The changed perspective helped. He was now focusing on the target and training diligently. “ I am a good listener. I also accept tips,’’ he said. Following successful completion of Comrades, Ashish settled down to consider La Ultra-The High, 2017 edition.

Now over a decade old, La Ultra-The High has a course that straddles the Nubra valley-Leh-Tanglang La region; all of it, Ladakh. A union territory since August 2019, Ladakh has an average elevation of around 10,000 feet. While climate change is happening in Ladakh too, it has traditionally been a high altitude cold desert. By day, the clear skies of altitude, renders the sun a blazing orb. The combination of weather conditions and altitude makes La Ultra-The High, a tough ultramarathon. As runners depart the start line in Nubra, the first major challenge to overcome is Khardung La (17,582 feet).  Into the longer race categories, they also have to tackle Wari La (17,224 feet) and Tanglang La (17,480 feet); in the 555k category, the last two passes are repeated on the return.

“ I like to run in Ladakh,’’ Ashish said. He stayed at a home-stay for 10-15 days and then proceeded to attempt the 111k segment of La Ultra-The High. He finished 111k successfully; at 19:48 hours taken to complete the task, he was among the last of the finishers. The race was won by Tsering Stobgias in 12:32. Having collected his medal, Ashish hung around to see how the race was unfolding for those trying 222k and 333k. “ The main organizer of the event, Dr Rajat Chauhan, always spoke of 111k as baby run. I felt angry. I told him that I wanted to try 333k next. He said: hold on; you are getting excited,’’ Ashish said. That year there was only one finisher in 333k – Matthew Maday of the US. Ashish registered for the 333k. He didn’t wait to graduate through the 222k. That takes time; it also consumes that much more money.  In fact for the 333k, he had to seek crowd funding. It provided 70 per cent of the funds needed.

He commenced training in November 2017. In April 2018, he completed the 160k run at Garhwal Runs, which is positioned as stepping stone to La Ultra-The High. Closer to the event in Ladakh, he did a mix of run-walk from Manali to Leh. He ran around 30 kilometers every day on that passage through altitude. That year, five Indian runners participated in 333k, the first Indians to do so.  Ashish was among those who completed. “ Up to 222 kilometers it was good. Close to the finish I was dealing with delirium,’’ he said. He finished the race in 71:59:29 to place third. His support crew included Balakrishna Desai, Mangesh Shinde, Prasad Shett, Amit Kasodekar and Dhananjay Apte. The race was won by Munish Dev in 71:30:28. From 333k to 555k was natural progression.

Photo: courtesy Ashish Kasodekar

In 2019, the flag-off was in the rains. It was minus 12 when Ashish reached North Pulu. He was advised to change his attire. He borrowed. “ I was lucky there were athletes around who were willing to loan their spare clothing,’’ he said. The 2019 edition of La Ultra-The High was noted for its tough weather conditions. Ashish reached Wari La rather late but happy in the head.  In both 333k and 555k, the real challenge is Tanglang La. In 333k, it looms after Khardung La and Wari La have taken their toll on you. In 555k, the pass is done twice and the problem as Ashish pointed out, is that on the return leg tired runner loses elevation slower than before. He completed 555k within cut-off time to place third. He suffered no cramps, blisters or frostbite. “ Self-care was damn good,’’ he said. The time taken was 126:18:00. The race was won by Jason Reardon of Australia in 120:19:00; Matthew Maday finished second. Ashish’s support crew featured both his brothers – Anil and Amit Kasodekar; Arvind Bijwe, Hari Dammalapati, Venkatesh Kashelikar, Sushil Dhende and Swaroopa Bhadsavle.  This time Ashish experienced no hallucinations. “ We took good care of sleep, nutrition and hydration,’’ he said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. For more on La Ultra The High, please refer this blog’s archives.)

INDIA’S DEEPAK BANDBE GETS BRONZE AT IAU 100K ASIA & OCEANIA CHAMPIONSHIP; MEN’S TEAM GETS GOLD, WOMEN SILVER

Deepak Bandbe (This photo was downloaded from the Twitter feed of IAU)

Indian men’s team secures gold

Indian women’s team takes silver

Anjali Saraogi finishes fourth among women

Ultramarathon runner from Mumbai, Deepak Bandbe, finished third, winning the bronze medal, at the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia & Oceania Championship held at Aqaba, Jordan, on November 23, 2019.

Deepak finished the race in eight hours, four minutes and 16 seconds. According to Peteremil Dsouza, member of the ultramarathon committee of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and who has accompanied the team to Jordan, Deepak’s performance is a new best for India. The previous national was 8:09:30 set in 2012 by Vinodkumar Srinivas. In the women’s category at Aqaba, Kolkata-based Anjali Saraogi finished fourth in a new national best of nine hours, 22 minutes (provisional figure), Peteremil said.

The timings of the other Indian runners are as follows: Hemant Singh Beniwal – 8:12:11, Vikas Malik – 8:22:34, Suraj Chadha – 8:27:20, Sandeep Kumar – 8:36:06, Tlanding Wahlang – 8:40:49 (all men) and Gunjan Khurana – 9:57:33, Darishisha Mukhim – 11:21:01 (from women).

Sunil Chainani, also member of AFI’s ultramarathon committee, informed that the Indian men’s team had secured gold in their category with cumulative timing of 24:40:00. Jordan (31:14:21) placed second. The Indian women’s team placed second in their gender category (30:40:33). The winning team in the women’s category was Australia (30:21:40).

IAU stands for International Association of Ultrarunners; it is the apex body for ultrarunning worldwide.

The overall winner of the championship at Aqaba was Hideaki Yamauchi of Japan. He crossed the finish line to win the gold medal in 7:11:42 hours. The silver medal finisher was Brendan Davies of Australia. He crossed the finish line in 7:49:16 hours, as per information on IAU’s Twitter feed.

The winners in the men’s category (This photo was downloaded from the Twitter feed of IAU)

According to IAU’s Twitter feed earlier on race day, at kilometre 95, Tatsuya Itagaki of Japan was leading in the men’s category followed by his fellow countryman Hideaki Yamauchi and Brendan Davies of Australia. The lead position changed after this juncture.

Similarly, in the Twitter update six hours into the race, India’s Anjali Saraogi was in fourth position among women. Gunjan Khurana, also of India, was in sixth position and Darishisha Iangjuh in seventh. Mai Fujisawa of Japan eventually won the women’s category in timing of 8:20:44. Finishing second was Amelia Griffith of Australia (8:57:02). Konoka Azumi of Japan finished third (9:03:22).

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

IRONMAN: THE GAME BEGINS FOR INDIA

Saikhom Bishworjit (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

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

Manipur is a state in north east India.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recreational Triathletes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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