PSYNYDE BIKES: WEATHERING TOUGH CHEMISTRY

Psynyde Dioxide (Photo: Vinay Menon)

In 2016, when Psynyde Bikes launched the Furan MTB, it was for India, a rare instance of cycling enthusiasts designing bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest numbers in the domestic market. After a promising start, the company is now in a phase of struggle. If it persists, it may be able to look back and say of now: that was a learning experience.

Roughly three years after introducing their first factory built-models capable of selling in modest numbers, brand Psynyde continues to retain the cultish feel that accompanies performance. In that time, it also experienced reversals on the business front not for want of product acceptance but things gone wrong internally in the fledgling company. The core team is back to two – MTB enthusiast turned bicycle designer and builder, Praveen Prabhakaran, and Vinay Menon who still rides hard and oversees marketing for the brand.

On the bright side, the initial 100 units-strong consignment of the trail bike they designed – Psynyde Furan – sold out in a year; as did an initial lot of 100 of the hybrid – Oxygen. Feedback was encouraging. There have been no complaints except for small issues with a plastic cap, Praveen said. However, the Chinese factory, which manufactured the bike frames he designed, fell into hard times. Praveen said he has identified alternative factories, capable of similar quality.

Vinay Menon riding at Flow Show, Canada (Photo: Vinay Menon)

According to Vinay, Psynyde’s bikes as well as the bicycle components it made featured at domestic and international competitions. The Furan was chosen steed for Psynyde sponsored-riders and some of the company’s customers, who took part in these events. There have also been a couple of podium finishes. Brand Psynyde – as component or whole bicycle – was seen at events including the 2012 FLOW Show demos in Canada, the 2013 and 2014 Asia Pacific Downhill Championships, multiple editions of the Himalayan Downhill Mountain Bike Trophy, 2016 and 2017 Bangalore Mountain Festival Downhill Race, TDRY Gui’de International Downhill Cycling Race in China, 2018 Mechuka Downhill Championship, 2018 National BMX Flatland Championship and the 2019 Bangalore Bicycle Championship (downhill race). But there was tragedy too, one that was felt deeply at Psynyde.

In July 2017, Ajay Padval, a talented mountain biker from Pune, died in an accident while biking down from Khardung La near Leh. This downhill ride, done on the road connecting Leh to Nubra valley via Khardung La, is a popular supported trip availed by many visitors to Ladakh. Ajay was no different; he wanted to taste the experience. He was driven up to Khardung La along with others set to ride down from the high pass to Leh. That day, unfortunately for Ajay, something went wrong resulting in serious injury. Found fallen on the road, he was rushed to the local hospital but passed away the next day. “ Ajay was a very important member of the Psynyde team in the little time he spent with us. Right from being a dedicated team athlete – not just mountain biking, he was excellent at slacklining too – to giving important inputs in operations and matters related to product design. Ajay’s unfortunate demise affected us a lot,’’ Vinay said. Ajay had grown up watching older cycling enthusiasts; among them Praveen and Vinay. They were all part of the same MTB ecosystem in Pune. Not long after Psynyde got into bicycle manufacturing, he joined the company. His untimely passing was therefore personal loss for Praveen and Vinay.

Ajay Padval (Photo: Veloscope)

On the product front, both the Furan and Oxygen were perceived in the market as versatile bicycles. The Furan was designed to be a hard tail MTB capable of tackling a variety of terrain and riding styles; the Oxygen known to be light weight and having geometry partial to speed has been used by customers for purposes ranging from regular commute and weekend rides to bicycle touring. In 2018, Pune-based Abhishek Iyer toured across Norway on a Psynyde Oxygen. From a second lot of Oxygen, at the time of writing, about 90 units remained in stock in Pune. The company needed to invest afresh in components if it was to assemble and sell all of them. As of July, Praveen and Vinay were looking for investors who understood Psynyde’s line of business as well as the performance image, brand Psynyde had created for itself.

Psynyde’s capital requirements are of modest dimension. But the challenge is procuring financial support without the associated baggage of altered direction for the company. Having created its narrative to date by aligning with the performance segment, Psynyde does not want to trade that image for recovery plans advising dilution of its profile. “ One potential investor asked us to change the brand name and make it more mainstream. That was unacceptable,’’ Praveen said.  At the same time, he was aware of the fact that a bicycle business can’t be founded wholly on presence in niche, performance segments. “ There is so much I wanted to do. Instead I have all this to sort out now,’’ Praveen said at his house on the outskirts of Pune. It was July 2019; annual season of rain.

Abhishek Iyer with the Psynyde Oxygen (This photo of Abhishek was downloaded from the Facebook page of Psynyde Bikes)

Praveen is happiest discussing bicycle technology and design. He took out his cellphone to show photos of a beautiful road bike with carbon fiber-frame mated to steel joints and wireless, electronic shifters that he had built for a client. It was part of the original custom built-bicycles business that was Psynyde; the seed which eventually spawned a company selling modest volumes of cycles designed by it and factory-built in China. Psynyde’s logo sat prominently on the road bike’s head tube.

Before us in the room, was the prototype of a new Furan. In a major departure from previous models of the Furan and Oxygen, the prototype sported only one chain ring at the front. There was a nine speed-cassette at the rear. The combination changed the traditional MTB gear ratios seen in India but made the bike simpler. It also had front suspension capable of greater travel and a hydraulic seat post that adjusted remotely allowing rider to sit low on downhills and revert to regular height once such sections were tackled. Should this model proceed beyond prototype and witness production, Praveen hoped to have a more aggressive angle for the front suspension. He was also considering steel as metal to build with; potential fallout of that being frame composed of absolutely straight lines unlike the prototype with down tube slightly curved towards its junction with the head tube.

Psynyde Psymptom prototype (Photo: Vinay Menon)

Also available to see as photographs were prototypes of two downhill bikes from Psynyde – the Psymptom and Dioxide. Both sported four bar design for rear suspension set up. The Psymptom had this set up essayed in CNC machine cut-aluminum (rest of the frame was chromoly steel) while the Dioxide was wholly 4130 chromoly steel. As with the Psymptom and Dioxide, a Furan 2 made of steel was not concept, suddenly conceived. Praveen had been toying with the idea of getting back to steel tubing for a while. In the story of bicycles, steel disliked for its weight had given way to aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.  All these materials have their merits and demerits.  For instance, even as aluminum is lighter, points of welding are usually invitation to lose strength. As lighter materials gained currency in cycling, steel alloys evolved further. Today, very thin steel tubing that does not weigh a lot, is available. The return of steel is particularly visible in the MTB segment overseas, Praveen and Vinay said.

The tubes used are butted steel tubes, which have varying wall thickness. Such fabrication isn’t yet a strong point with Indian manufacturing, particularly at the dimensions (wall thickness) needed for contemporary performance bicycles. Further when it comes to modest volumes of raw materials, like that needed by Psynyde, any Indian supplier capable of making butted tubes in steel finds it unviable scale. Result – the tubes have to be imported from British, Italian, American and Japanese suppliers; often at high import duty for no better reason than that its eventual application is in cycling. The Dioxide was featured on VitalMTB, a major online portal for MTB news. “ There will be downhill riders in India appreciative of the Psymptom and the Dioxide,’’ Vinay said. Problem is – downhill is a smaller world within India’s small world of MTB. That relapse to niche category brings us back to a familiar predicament.

Psynyde Dioxide, rider: Hrishi Mandke (Photo: Vinay Menon)

If its products are meant for niche within niche, where will Psynyde’s main revenues come from to sustain its avatar of company designing own bicycles, manufacturing overseas and selling in modest volumes in India? For sustenance, versatile products like the Furan and Oxygen matter. That’s why the current capital crunch has to be somehow overcome, stocks reached to a market, which anyway liked Psynyde’s products and the momentum carried on. An additional option is to create a set of affordable products closer to mainstream interests in cycling. If so, that would probably have to be done at arm’s length making sure brand Psynyde is not diluted in the process. But there is a deeper question lurking in the backdrop.

The talent required to manage a company is very different from the creativity that goes into bicycle designing or the kick one gets from riding and testing bicycles. Praveen’s house used to be Psynyde’s old factory floor; that was when all Psynyde did was design and custom build bicycles and machine specific components. At that size, the business was easier to manage. Praveen could stay creative and Vinay could continue riding. If they can’t get Psynyde’s current avatar moving at least partly on autopilot mode with good managers in place, then at some point, after cleaning up their liabilities, there will be a question awaiting the duo’s attention: is volume manufacturing their cup of tea? Or are they more comfortable with a boutique operation similar to old, designing and custom-building bicycles?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Praveen Prabhakaran and Vinay Menon. For more on Psynyde Bikes, please try the following two links: https://shyamgopan.com/2014/02/06/the-story-of-psynyde/ and https://shyamgopan.com/2016/11/09/psynyde-alert-the-hour-of-the-furan/)

MUSCULAR AND READY TO BOYCOTT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Over the past few days, the media has reported on the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) recommending boycott of the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) because the event in Birmingham won’t feature shooting, a sport in which India has known strength.

The bullet points are three. First, India is strong in shooting. Second, India has been gradually improving its medals tally at major sports events; at the Gold Coast edition of CWG in 2018, India secured 66 medals of which 16 came from shooting including seven gold medals. Third, if shooting is absent at Birmingham, then, Indian prospects for rich medal harvest become proportionately dim.

The anger at shooting’s exclusion is understandable.

Question is – is boycott the answer?

A threat to boycott may work as means to apply pressure on the organizers.  But beyond that what merit does it have? Especially because the battle is not over any universally prized principle breached as was the case for example, when the sporting world boycotted South Africa in its apartheid years. Here it is clearly one country’s grievance over chances to win medals limited by the absence of a particular sport it is good at. Shooting is one of several sports at large events like CWG, Asian Games or Olympics. Boycott on the other hand, applies to all Indian athletes preparing to participate. In other words, everyone from runners to cyclists to swimmers, gymnasts and badminton players – all will be benched. Why should a whole national squad suffer just because Indian shooters may or may not be going to Birmingham?

The PTI report on the proposed boycott (it is available on the Internet) quoted from the letter Narinder Batra, president, IOA, wrote to the union sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, seeking early discussion on the matter. “ We want to express our protest by not taking part in 2022 CWG in the UK to make the CWG understand that India is not prepared to take India bashing anymore and the people with a particular mindset in CWG need to understand that India got its Independence in 1947 and India is not a colony of anyone anymore and is now the fifth largest economy in the world and by far the fastest growing economy in the world,” the IOA chief said in the letter – so PTI reported. It didn’t end there. “ We have been noticing over a period of time that wherever India seems to be getting grip of the game and performing well, then somehow we find that either the goal posts are shifted or rules are changed. We feel it is time for us in IOA / India to start asking tough questions and start taking tough positions,’’ Batra wrote, adding that given the political sensitivities involved in the matter the IOA does not see itself as the expert to decide. Hence, the request to meet the minister. In June 2019, Batra was elected a member of the International Olympic Council (IOC). Earlier in 2016, he became chief of the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

Batra’s letter to Rijiju presents a contrived argument for boycott. It is hard to comprehend how the reasons (emotions would be a better description) posed – everything from India’s emaciation through colonization to its independence movement to subsequent body building by GDP – are relevant to shooting’s inclusion or exclusion at an international sports event. The letter also contrasts what the sports minister himself stated recently – that he wishes athletes heading to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to focus on their preparation, free of distractions. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to 2022 CWG as well? As regards the more legitimate concern around goal posts shifted, mentioned in Batra’s letter, they are in the domain of sports administration, not sports. Isn’t it the job of sport administrators to sort it out sparing sportspersons inconvenience? If boycott is tool towards the same end, then it must be pointed out alongside that its real effect is one of casting sportspersons into an environment of uncertainty. In other words – it is inconvenience.

According to reports, the IOA’s call for boycott found support from a variety of domestic sports federations. They valued solidarity with IOA over what happens to their athletes. Some athletes too supported. To his credit Abhinav Bindra, India’s best known shooter and the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics, spoke up against the call to boycott.

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

COFFEE, CONVERSATION AND RUNNING

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things represent post liberalization India, as the coffee shop culture which sprang up in urban areas.

Coffee shops became places to meet.

People converged to socialize, discuss business and later as wireless internet spread, at least some started using these spaces as surrogate offices.

It isn’t that places to socialize were not available before. Every region had its unique flag bearer in this regard. Mumbai had its Irani cafes and Udupi restaurants, although neither encouraged conversation over commerce. A sense of allotted time hung like Damocles Sword at these outfits. In South India, besides the ubiquitous tea shop, there were the branches of the Indian Coffee House (ICH), an enterprise founded in the 1950s and firmly identified with the working class. They were affordable coffee houses, feet planted on the ground and having no pretense to being café or coffee shop, the latter concept associated in India with upmarket appearance and menu. ICH had branches elsewhere too but its mainstay was the south.

Following the initial flush of entrants in the coffee shop business, some of the players scaled back. It was Café Coffee Day (CCD) that eventually went nationwide in a prominent way, in the segment. V. G. Siddhartha’s business group had a major presence in coffee estates and coffee trading; CCD was in some ways its most visible retail face. The first CCD outlet opened in Bengaluru in July 1996. Notwithstanding costly fare (compared to the cafes and coffee houses of previous decades), CCD’s branch network spread to India’s cities and towns. This new space for coffee and conversation touched many of us, whose careers / adult years coincided with the India brewed afresh by liberalization. As of July 2019, CCD was India’s biggest chain of coffee shops by a significant margin.

On July 30, 2019, twenty three years after the first CCD appeared on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, the media reported that Siddhartha had gone missing from the bridge over the Netravati River near Mangaluru. The next day his body was recovered from the river. News reports in the wake of the tragedy, pointed to a business under stress. The episode was tracked by many of us. We paused to reflect on Siddhartha’s demise because the number of us who visited a CCD outlet or passed by one in our daily lives, was not small. Quite a few of the conversations with runners and cyclists featured on this blog, happened at one CCD outlet or another for they represented space to sit and talk. Wikipedia’s page on the company says that in 2010 when CCD’s current logo was designed, it was to “ showcase the chain as a place to talk.’’

The coffee estates Siddhartha’s company owns have been location for the annual Malnad Ultra. It is a trail run involving ultramarathon distances. There is a September 2016 report in the Economic Times (available on the Internet) on the subject. The report precedes the event’s first edition. According to it, “ the coffee baron has offered a 10-year access to his plantations, which stretch across 13,000 acres of the Western Ghats.’’  The Malnad Ultra has since become an event with distinct fan following.

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

2020 TOKYO OLYMPICS: ENGAGING ROUTE FOR MARATHON ON THE CARDS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is now less than a year away.

The Games span July 24-August 9, 2020.

According to a report on the website of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the event will break from tradition by having the Olympic cauldron not in the main stadium “ but on the waterfront at the Yume-no-Ohashi Bridge, near the urban sports cluster.’’ There will be a temporary cauldron in the stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies.

The Olympic stadium will be formally opened in December 2019. It has cooling systems given the Games will be held amid weather conditions expected to be warm.

Of particular interest to those tracking endurance sports, should be the description of the Olympic marathon route available in the report.

“ The marathon route starts and finishes at the stadium, passing the landmarks of Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate, which is guarded by the deities of wind and thunder), the Imperial Palace, home of Japan’s new emperor Naruhito, Tokyo Station, the Zojoji temple, Tokyo Tower and the Nihombashi bridge.

“ But none of these milestones is expected to be as decisive as the hill that rises steadily from 37km to 41km on the course. It is not steep but it is relentless, rising 30m in elevation, from five meters to 35 meters on an otherwise almost flat course.

“ At that stage of the race, given the expected hot conditions, even a mole hill is likely to feel like a mountain to whoever is left in contention,’’ the report said.

Women athletes will hit the course on August 2, 2020; men on August 9.

“ The race walks will be held on the part of the marathon course that crosses the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace, using a one-kilometer loop for the 20km events and a two-kilometer loop for the 50km events,’’ the report said. The men’s 50km walk will have the earliest start among disciplines at the Games to escape the worst of the heat and the humidity.

According to the report, heat acclimatization strategy will be important for all endurance athletes.

So far, more than 3.22 million tickets for the event have been sold in Japan, the report dated July 24, 2019 said.

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

AFTER BADWATER, FLASHBACK: JAPAN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2019 edition of Badwater 135 was won by Yushihiko Ishikawa of Japan. Two years earlier, in 2017, the race was won by Wataru Iino, a Japanese engineer and runner, posted on work to Chennai, India. Across men and women, as of 2019, Japanese runners had triumphed on four occasions at Badwater with Sumie Inagaki winning in the women’s category twice, back to back. Scan the results of another famous ultramarathon – Spartathlon; there are several Japanese runners among podium finishers over the years. Plus, who can forget Yuki Kawauchi’s gritty run at the Boston Marathon in 2018? Japan is a powerhouse in distance running, not that well known outside. Here’s a peek into an ecosystem for running in Asia’s Far East.

Most runners and fans of running study Africa.

The highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia are famous for the runners they create. Over the past few decades, podium positions at major races worldwide have gone to athletes from these countries. This dominance wasn’t always the case. Following his much appreciated book from 2013: Running with the Kenyans, author Adharanand Finn, turned his attention to the Japanese. The result was 2015’s The Way of the Runner. It dwelled on the running culture in Japan, a country that was churning out performances in long distance running next only to the Kenyans and Ethiopians. “ Before the running boom in the west; before the Africans, the Japanese completely dominated marathon running in the world,’’ Finn explains in an interview posted on YouTube by publishers, Faber and Faber in May 2015. According to that video, in 1965, around 11 of the top 12 runners in the world were Japanese.  Next year, it was 15 of the top 17.

“ They were dominating like the Kenyans dominate now, partly because they were one of the only countries running marathons on a large scale. It’s not very well known that Japan has got this obsession with running. Part of the reason for that is that the biggest races are all internal races. They have these huge long distance relay races which are called ekidens. They traverse quite large distances; from 200 kilometers, 300 kilometers….the longest one is around 1000 kilometers,’’ Finn says. Ekidens are very popular in Japan. The biggest ekiden – the Hakone Ekiden –spans two days and is a much watched telecast. “ Everybody watches it, even people who have no interest in running the rest of the year. This is real passion for running,’’ Finn says in the video, about the Hakone Ekiden. But because it is all happening within the country, ekidens are not that well known outside Japan.

According to Wikipedia:  The first ekiden was held in Japan in 1917 as a 3-day, 23-stage run from Kyoto to Tokyo for more than 507 kilometers, in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tokyo’s establishment as the nation’s capital (from its previous status as the shogunate Edo while Kyoto was capital city). Eki means “station” and den translates as “to convey”. It was the name given to the old Japanese transportation system for government documents and officials by relay of horses or men. At the heart of the modern relay race is a sash carried by each runner (it is slung from the shoulder and worn across the body) and passed on to the next. This sash is everything. You run to ensure that it is passed on. Should a runner fail to pass it on, then a whole team risks being disqualified. In turn the devotion to sash and runners trying their level best to not fail, are seen to directly complement team building and obliquely, evoke imagery of the warrior spirit. To put things in perspective, the Japanese take sports seriously. It assumes importance at high school level and by university the importance given to training and coaching is quite high. There are ekidens featuring high school and university teams.

Yuta Shitara, who placed second at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon in a remarkable late stage surge. In July 2019, the Japanese runner – he is a former national record holder – set a new course record at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Gold Coast Marathon)

Sample this observation in Wikipedia about the 2010 (86th edition) of the Hakone Ekiden: Of the 380 athletes representing the 19 universities, 328 have run under 14:40 for 5000 meters; 150 at 14:20 and 33 under 14:00. Stepping up to the 10,000 meter distance, the same sources show that these 19 Tokyo universities list over 190 runners with personal bests under 30:00. For comparison: as of 2019, the Indian national record for men in 5000 meters is 13:29:70 and for women, 15:15:89; in the case of 10,000 meters, it is 28:02:89 and 31:50:47. The Hakone Ekiden’s course starts in central Tokyo, goes out of the city and up the mountains to the base of Mount Fuji. The next day, the event reverses direction and runners race back. Wikipedia pegs the first day distance at 108 kilometers and the second day at 109.9 kilometers. Each day’s run has five sections. In a write-up on the Hakone Ekiden in January 2014 in The Guardian, Finn himself noted that the event’s 10 stages are close to half marathon distance with over the two days, 30 students running a “ half marathon-equivalent time of under 63 minutes’’ excluding timings on the race’s fastest sixth segment, which is mostly downhill. In the whole of 2013, only one runner in UK – Mo Farah – ran a half marathon in under 63 minutes, Finn wrote highlighting the quality of runners at the ekiden. It doesn’t stop there.

Suguru Osako; as of July 2019, he held the Japanese national record in the marathon – 2:05:50 – set at the 2018 Chicago Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page. It is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

Large Japanese companies maintain ekiden teams. A February 2018 article by Martin Fritz Huber on Japanese runners, available on the website of Outside magazine, mentioned that some five dozen corporate teams existed, each having at least 20 full time, paid runners. That is a pool of 1200 elite long distance runners. There are leagues for these teams; there are corporate championships. The interest of corporates in ekidens has also opened another angle. Professional athletes survive on the strength of sponsorship, appearance fee and prize money. As Finn points out in the video, typically, if a professional athlete is injured or is past his / her prime, the challenges are many.  You have to make a new beginning, find new means to survive. At companies having ekiden teams, a good athlete gets backed by regular salary. When such an athlete retires from the sport, he / she settles down to a job in the office. Finally, going by what multiple sources on the Internet speak of the ekiden, the human drama associated with the event ranging from team spirit to ensuring the sash is passed on at all cost, make races interesting for telecast. Videos of ekidens show spectators lining up to cheer. In the case of ekidens featuring corporate teams, spectators include company employees and their families.

Wataru Iino,winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, at the production facility of Daimler India Commercial Vehicles in Chennai, India (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

So how does this ecosystem translate into performance at elite levels? The earlier quoted observation from Wikipedia provides overview of performance parameters at university level. The Outside magazine article – the expert consulted therein was again Adharanand Finn – offered similar perspective with a major marathon for backdrop.  In 2018, Yuta Shitara secured second place at the annual Tokyo Marathon; he finished the race in 2:06:11. What impressed was that Japan had six runners in the top ten in the men’s category and altogether nine, including those outside the top ten, who ran quicker than 2:10 – all this from one race (the data is still there among archived race results, on the event’s website). When the author of said article looked up the fastest times in marathon history, he found that in contrast, only 17 American runners had managed sub-2:10. Restricted to record eligible-courses, the number shrank to 11. At several major races, Japanese runners finish in the top ten but amid highly competitive sport with narrative seeking African runners, they get overlooked. The world’s best timings reported by the Association of Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS), is usually a list awash in names from Africa. Among a spattering of names from other regions, the Japanese also feature. In 2018, the fastest Japanese marathon runner was Suguru Osako; his third place finish at the Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:05:50 (at the time of writing it was Japan’s national record in the discipline) placed him 27th on the list. The current world record, set by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge in September 2018 in Berlin, is 2:01:39.

Yoshihiko Ishikawa, winner of the 2019 Badwater Ultramarathon (This photo, downloaded from the Facebook page of Northern Ireland Running, is from the 2017 Belfast 24 Hour World Championships. No copyright infringement intended)

As with any ecosystem, there are stories around the ekiden too. One such is about a man often described to have taken the longest duration yet to complete a marathon – 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds. In that time, Shizo Kanakuri got married, had six children and ten grandchildren. His story started in the early years of the 20th century. According to Wikipedia:  During the November 1911 domestic qualifying trials for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, although the length of the course was probably only 40 km (25 miles), Kanakuri was reported to have set a marathon world record at 2 hours, 32 minutes and 45 seconds. He was thus selected as one of only two athletes that Japan could afford to send to the event. Kanakuri had to travel 18 days to reach Stockholm from Japan; first by ship and then by the Trans-Siberian Railway. He took five days to recover from the journey.

That year, the Olympic marathon was plagued by unexpected warm weather conditions. More than half the field suffered from hyperthermia. Kanakuri, already weak from his long journey and having issues with the local food; lost consciousness midway through the race. He was looked after by a farming family. Embarrassed by his failure he returned quietly to Japan without informing race officials. Swedish authorities recorded him as “ missing.’’ Although he competed at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp (where he completed the marathon in 2 hours, 48 minutes, 45.4 seconds to place 16th), it seems to have missed Sweden’s eye. Decades went by before Swedish authorities found out that he was alive in Japan. In 1967, Swedish Television invited him back to complete the race he had begun in 1912. According to Wikipedia, Kanakuri who is celebrated as “ the father of marathon’’ in Japan, played an important role in establishing the biggest of the ekidens – the Hakone Ekiden.

Yuki Kawauchi aka Citizen Runner and Civil Services Runner, at the 2018 Boston Marathon (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Boston Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.)

Given its reputation for discipline and industry, conformation would seem prized in Japanese culture including the culture around running. Ekidens are an important aspect of Japanese running culture; as are corporate teams. You would think they are unquestioningly followed as ideal progression for runner. That isn’t always the case. There are those who navigate differently. In the video, Finn mentions one such athlete – Yuki Kawauchi, among Japan’s best runners in recent years. Kawauchi worked at Kuki High School in Saitama Prefecture. He was not on any corporate team. In fact, Wikipedia mentions that after graduating, Kawauchi did not receive much interest from corporate running teams. “ He is one of the top runners and yet he has completely shunned the entire Japanese system. So he is very rebellious in that way and people love him for that,’’ Finn says in the 2015 video. Kawauchi – he is often called “ Citizen Runner’’ and “ Civil Services Runner’’ – is best remembered for winning the Boston Marathon in 2018, a year when the race had its coldest start in three decades and was run amid tough weather conditions. That said, news reports after the 2018 edition of the Boston Marathon said that Kawauchi was planning to quit his government job and shift to being a professional runner. Apparently he had been thinking of doing so since a ten day visit to London in 2017, for the IAAF World Championships. The move was seen as helping him improve his existing timing in the marathon and compete with the world’s best. He wished to use the prize money he got in Boston to effect the transition. In April 2019, a report in Japan Times said that Kawauchi had become a professional marathon runner.

Ekidens are now held outside Japan too. According to Wikipedia, they are held in Hawaii, Guam, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Singapore.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He hasn’t seen an ekiden except on video; he hasn’t been to Japan. The above article is based on information available on the Internet. For an article on Wataru Iino, winner of the 2017 Badwater Ultramarathon, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/10/26/in-oragadam-a-badwater-winner/)     

COMING UP: A TRAINING CAMP FOR ULTRA-RUNNERS

Sunil Chainani (Photo: courtesy Sunil)

Ultra-running has picked up in India and the need of the hour is advanced guidance on running techniques, nutrition and prevention / management of injuries to sustain the present momentum.

A training camp for ultra-runners is being organized.

“ This is the first time that India’s ultra-running community has come together to hold an informal training camp for some of the leading ultra-runners of the country. It is being funded by friends of the running community,’’ Sunil Chainani, member of the Ultra Running Committee of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), said.

The camp will be held in Bengaluru from August 11 to 18. Anthony Kunkel, a US-based coach, will offer guidance to the runners. A nutritionist and a physiotherapist will also be a part of the camp.

A former national level squash player, Sunil took up running for fun. In 2003, he ran a half marathon and enjoyed it thoroughly. “ Those days there were very few shoe models available, purpose-built for running. I ran wearing a cotton t-shirt,’’ he said. Though he had started running long before the landmark Mumbai Marathon debuted in 2004, Sunil’s journey in running gathered direction only from 2006. Sometime that year, he participated in the Lipton Bangalore International Marathon.

In 2005, the group Runners for Life (RFL) came into being. “ It introduced the concept of strength training to runners,’’ Sunil said. In 2007, RFL started the country’s first ultra-running event, Bangalore Ultra. Sunil made his foray into ultra-running with this event and went on to run several editions, in the process extending the distance he tackled from 50 kilometers to 100 kilometers.

In 2011, he ran the uphill version of Comrades Marathon, the ultramarathon held in South Africa.

“ I am passionate about sports and have been involved in sports for several years now. I am happy to give back to the sporting world,’’ he said. He is now actively involved in co-ordinating for international ultra-running events.

According to Sunil, running too many races is not the way forward for recreational runners and runners of ultra-distances. The training camp, he feels, signifies the start of a properly structured approach. He feels Indian ultra-runners should be able to make a mark at the global level in three to four years.

A regular at Malnad Ultra, Sunil will have to give this trail ultra-running event held in the Western Ghats of South India, a miss this year as he is scheduled to run the New York City Marathon in November 2019. “ I would like to go back to South Africa to run the Comrades Marathon,’’ he said.

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

JAPAN’S YOSHIHIKO ISHIKAWA WINS 2019 BADWATER 135, SETS NEW COURSE RECORD

Yoshihiko Ishikawa (This photo, downloaded from the Facebook page of Northern Ireland Running, is from the 2017 Belfast 24 Hour World Championships. No copyright infringement intended)

Patrycja Bereznowska sets new women’s course record

Pamela Chapman-Markle sets new course record for her age category

Rajesh (Raj) Vadgama and Siva Balu complete the race

Japan’s Yoshihiko Ishikawa has won the men’s 2019 Badwater 135 in record time .

“ Our men’s 2019 Badwater Champion is Yoshihiko Ishikawa, setting a new course record in 21 hours 33 minutes and 01 second!,’’ the race organizers said in an official tweet.

The previous course record was held by Pete Kostelnick. In 2016, he completed the race in 21 hours, 56 minutes and 31 seconds.

The first woman to complete the 2019 edition of the race was Poland’s Patrycja Bereznowska; she was also second overall. Patrycja, 43, set a new women’s course record of 24 hours, 13 minutes and 24 seconds.

Third overall and second among men was Harvey Lewis of the US, who covered the distance in 26 hours, 11 minutes and 18 seconds. Gina Slaby of the US was the second female finisher (she was ninth overall, placing just two seconds behind the eighth place). They were neck and neck from Badwater Basin. She finished in 29:26:45.

Finishing seventh overall and sixth among men was Grant Maughan from Australia. The 55 year-old completed the race in 28:30:33. Pamela Chapman-Markle of the US finished fifth among women and 24th overall. The 63 year-old covered the distance in 34:03:47 bettering her own course record for the age category (60-69 years). In 2018, she had finished in 34:30:53.

Patrycja Bereznowska (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page.)

Badwater 135, promoted as the world’s toughest foot race covers a distance of 135 miles or 217 kilometers non-stop from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California, USA.

The race starts at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which is 85 meters below sea level. It ends at Whitney Portal at a height 2530 meters. The course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 4450 meters of cumulative vertical ascent.

Ishikawa 31, had earlier won the 2018 edition of Sparthathlon, a historical ultra-marathon held in Greece. He finished the 246 kilometer distance from Athens to Sparta in 22 hours, 55 minutes and 13 seconds.

In this year’s edition of Badwater 135, there were two Indian runners in the field – Mumbai’s Rajesh (Raj) Vadgama and Siva Balu from Chicago. Siva Balu, 39, completed the race in 44:12:39. Raj Vadgama, 52, covered the distance in 44:37:39. They placed 69th and 70th overall, respectively.

At the time of writing, there had been 16 DNFs (Did Not Finish) so far in the 2019 edition of the race.

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