IRONMAN 13 TIMES AND COUNTING

Dr Kaustubh Radkar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr Kaustubh Radkar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We were at the PYC Gymkhana on Pune’s Bhandarkar Road.

Our mutual introduction and subsequent conversation had one shared quality – Dr Kaustubh Radkar spoke to the point. Except in places, he didn’t seem one for long sentences or the sort for whom, one sentence leads to many. You gauged pretty early, a penchant for brevity in the interviewee; the likely legacy of having been for long a competitive swimmer and after that, Ironman.

Kaustubh was born May 1982 in Pune, coincidentally the year Julie Moss fired popular imagination in the US with the mantra that finishing an Ironman is as good as victory. Moss, a college student then, had collapsed near the finish line. She crawled the rest of the way to complete her race. She didn’t give up. The incident was widely telecast in the US. It is unlikely anyone in India would have seen that telecast, now available on YouTube. In 1982, India was still a government monopoly in television broadcast and colour television commenced only that year, thanks to the New Delhi Asian Games. Ironman was probably unheard of. Indeed, according to the website of the Indian Triathlon Federation (ITF), the first triathlon in the country was held eight years later, in 1990.

The Radkars were a family of four; besides Kaustubh, there was his father, Sunil, who was a lawyer, mother, Nilima, a trained violinist and PhD in music and a sister, Deepti, three years elder to him, who was into swimming. She was a good swimmer who used to win medals at swimming competitions. At seven years of age, the boy followed his sister into swimming. It wasn’t a move with any aim in mind. He just followed. Nevertheless two years later, he was competing at swimming competitions and by the age of 11-12, he was winning medals at Pune level.

From Kaustubh's early days in the pool (Photo: by arrangement) Kaustubh

From Kaustubh’s early days in the pool (Photo: by arrangement)

We met Deepti at a cafe in suburban Mumbai. According to her, Sunil Radkar was a keen sportsman, particularly interested in baseball. He encouraged his children to take up sports. The family stayed not far from Pune’s iconic Tilak Tank. That is where Deepti and Kaustubh were introduced to swimming. Those days Tilak Tank was completely fed by subterranean springs, `L’ shaped and at 100 yards on its longer side, slightly less than double the length of an Olympic-sized pool. Today it is a modern swimming complex with only a portion retaining spring water, the old way. The siblings had diverse tastes in swimming – Deepti preferred the breast stroke and longer distances; Kaustubh took to freestyle and sprint. She recalled two coaches in particular – S.N. Karandikar and Srinidhi Sakharikar. Karandikar also organized swimming camps during the holidays. A day at one of these camps typically entailed a hill run, a few hours of swimming in the pool and lectures by sportspersons, nutritionists and motivational speakers. This was the environment in which Kaustubh’s swimming evolved. In 1995, at the national level school swimming championships held in Kolkata (Calcutta), he secured gold. Then based on his performance at the open nationals, where he was in the 15-17 age-group, in 1997 he got his first chance to represent India for races at the Asia-Pacific level. Speaking about the progression, Kaustubh said, “ initially I did not like swimming. It is a solitary pursuit, anti-social in a way and I wasn’t winning any medals. It was often serious practice, long practice sessions and few results to show. I was working as hard as any of the other kids and not getting anything. But at 13 years of age or so, the difference between talent and hard work started to show. That is when I started getting results and began enjoying it.’’

At the finish of Ironman, South Africa (Photo: by arrangement)

Finishing Ironman South Africa (Photo: by arrangement)

Apart by 150km, Mumbai and Pune are cities with different character and in sport, arguably different trajectories. Set by the sea, mercantile and open to the world, Mumbai was first off the mark in sporting greatness. Up and over the hills, located on the high Deccan Plateau and regarded as a sentinel of local culture, Pune took time catching up. Nowadays, Mumbai is the laggard in sports and adventure activity. In swimming, Kaustubh recalled, his years in the pool at school and university level, was the period Pune emerged from the shadow of Mumbai, Maharashtra’s erstwhile powerhouse in swimming. “ We were not afraid anymore,’’ Kaustubh said. Representing Pune University at the national university meet in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), he won six gold medals; one silver and a bronze in swimming. “ I was a specialist in the 100m, 200m and 400m-freestyle events,’’ he said. The Radkars were a family of lawyers. Although she made it to the nationals at university level, Deepti progressively found her calling in the arts and slowly veered off swimming. Kaustubh’s future, the family realized, may be in sport. “ The two of us not becoming lawyers was a major departure,’’ Deepti said.

Things weren’t rosy in India for a career in competitive swimming. Characteristic of Indian sports, there was much politics in swimming. Kaustubh started looking for opportunities to study and train overseas.  He wrote to American universities seeking to represent them in swimming. He was accepted at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, initially with 50 per cent scholarship. Later, after seeing his performance, another 10 per cent was added to the scholarship component and he was included in the Dean’s List. His chosen line of academics was: BSc in Exercise Science & Pre-medicine. Deepti felt that there was an experiential link between the solitary progression of the competitive swimmer and Kaustubh’s academic journey. Several colleges in the US have a sizable Indian student population. But as a student with strength in sports and seeking to grow in it, Kaustubh was at colleges overseas that didn’t always have a large Indian student population. He became more independent; his circle of friends was diverse. “ He is an excellent cook,’’ she said.

Judy and John Collins, at their induction into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. Triathletes from California, they introduced the triathlon to Hawaii on February 18, 1978 by creating and staging the first endurance tyriathlon, The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, a swim/bike/run course that circled the island of Oahu. The Ironman course linked the minimum 2.4mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, an estimated 112 miles of the 115 mile Round Oahu Bike Course and the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon (Photo: courtesy Judy and John Collins)

Judy and John Collins, at their induction into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. Triathletes from California, they introduced the triathlon to Hawaii on February 18, 1978 by creating and staging the first endurance triathlon, The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, a swim/bike/run course that circled the island of Oahu. The Ironman course linked the minimum 2.4mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, an estimated 112 miles of the 115 mile Round Oahu Bike Course and the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon. This is how Ironman started. (Photo: courtesy Judy and John Collins)

Training in the US was a remarkably different experience. The Indian approach to being a better swimmer was to swim, swim and keep on swimming. The coach postured as a know-it-all. In the US, approach to sport was a convergence of different streams ranging from practising the sport to strength training and nutrition. There were separate teachers for each stream and none posed as a know-it-all. “ If you compare it hours for hours, you probably spend fewer hours in the pool there. But the recovery time is productively used for a lot of related training,’’ Kaustubh said. Another major difference was – the Indian approach focussed on the individual; training in the US focussed on teams. The entire team travelled together, trained together and cheered each other. Every weekend there was a swimming meet where Kaustubh’s university competed with some other university from the region. The daily training spanned 6AM to 8AM and 3.30PM to 6PM. There was only one session on Saturday. After two years of such training, he was either the best or second best swimmer on the team. He finished his programme by May 2003. “ I was pretty burnt out from swimming by then,’’ he said.

Kaustubh joined the University of Wisconsin to do his Masters in Cardiovascular Physiology with specialization in rehabilitation of people with heart and lung disease. This was an intense course with hospital-internship; it lasted till December 2005. During this period, he swam little. But he began running. Although from the same stable of endurance, swimming and running are two entirely different animals. Running is a high impact sport; swimming is not. One is partial to upper body-engagement; the other is wholly lower body-engagement. “ The transition from swimming to running was challenging initially. The good thing was I already had the required endurance,’’ Kaustubh said. Starting with 5km and 10km runs, he slowly graduated to distance running.  In 2006, he ran the New York City Marathon. His participation at this prized event was a matter of luck. The daughter of one of his patients worked with the Road Runners Club. They gave him a slot to run the marathon.

In 2007, Kaustubh shifted to Boulder, Colorado. He was now in the outdoor capital of the US. As he put it – in other cities people talk of which party they went to on a weekend; here they talked of the running, cycling or climbing they did. While in Boulder, he joined a Masters Swimming Programme, marking a return to swimming. By 2008, he had placed fourth in the US Masters Swimming Championship in the 200 and 400 yards freestyle events. He also took part in the Denver Marathon of 2007. His swimming coach at the Masters Programme was a triathlete; almost 90 per cent of the trainees at the programme were triathletes. It wasn’t long before curiosity set in. His friends mentioned Ironman. It seemed like a good challenge. Started in Hawaii in 1978 and since staged at various locations worldwide, the Ironman is essentially an extended triathlon. The full Ironman entailed 3.8km of swimming, 180km of cycling and 42km of running, all of it back-to-back. According to Kaustubh, full Ironman races in America have 17 hours as overall cut-off time. Within 17 hours, 2 hours 30 minutes is cut-off time for the swim, 8:10 for cycling and 6:30 for running. In comparison, the Olympic format of the triathlon features a 1.5km-swim, 40km of cycling and a 10km-run. He signed up for his first Ironman – a full Ironman – due in Arizona in six month’s time. As part of training, in 2008 June, Kaustubh did a half Ironman in Lubbock, Texas. He finished in 5 hours 59 minutes.

Kaustubh finishing the 3.8 km-swim at Ironman Brazil (Photo: by arrangement)

Kaustubh finishing the 3.8 km-swim at Ironman Brazil (Photo: by arrangement)

“ Arizona was really nice. The water was cold and I had to borrow a wet suit for the day. I had the fastest time in the swim segment at 47 minutes and 37 seconds. The cycling was okay. I had two punctures, the first at 120km and the second at 170km. I fixed both myself as you lose time waiting for the mechanics. The run went as planned. Overall I finished in 11 hours, 41 minutes. I was very happy,’’ Kaustubh said. He had overcome the main challenges – training the lower body for the strength and endurance demanded by running and cycling and surmounting the mental barrier in cycling, the sport – among triathlon’s three – he felt least connected to. The outcome at Arizona was also despite the fact that he was working full time. “ Kaustubh’s shift to the triathlon was completely unexpected. The Ironman was a surprise for us. It was only when he shared the timing he had in Ironman and details like you are doing the three disciplines back to back, that the enormity of it hit us,’’ Deepti said. In December 2008, Kaustubh moved to the East Coast, to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, where he commenced work at the hospital’s cardiology department. Between 2008 and 2013, he did four full Ironman races. This included races in Canada (2009), Lake Placid, New York (2010 & 2012) and Idaho (2011). “ I was doing an Ironman every year,’’ he said. Amid this, he enrolled for a MBA programme in Health Care at Johns Hopkins and then halfway into the MBA, added a PhD programme also to the list. These commitments were among reasons that kept his participation at Ironman to one race per year.

In 2013, with a few Ironman races now in his kitty, he designed a goal for himself – do a full Ironman in every continent. “ It was just something I came up with. Two other people had done it till then and it seemed a nice thing to aspire for,’’ Kaustubh said. The new goal entailed some specific challenges. Different locations come with different peculiarities, most important being difference in weather conditions. Then there is the issue of resident weather condition at one’s base – how much training one can do and how much training in those conditions may be relevant to the location you are planning to go. His new pursuit in the Ironman fold started off in May 2013, with the race in Port Macquarie, Australia. This was followed up with a full Ironman in Wisconsin, where he registered his personal best – 11:03 hours. That year – 2013 – also became the first year in which he did two full Ironman races. In December 2013, Kaustubh returned to India. He had always wanted to start something of his own in his line of work.

Cycling at Ironman Zurich (Photo: by arrangement)

Cycling at Ironman Zurich (Photo: by arrangement)

Meanwhile his pet project continued. In July 2014, he went for the Ironman in Frankfurt completing it in 12:11. In September, he was at Langkawi, Malaysia, finishing the event there in 13:24. In November, he did the Ironman at Fortaleza, Brazil in 13:49. If in 2013, he did two Ironman races, he ended 2014 with three races done in a year. In March 2015, went to Port Elizabeth, South Africa for the Ironman there, completing it in 13.22. With that Kaustubh had done an Ironman event on all the six continents it is held. In July 2015, he raced at Zurich, Switzerland, finishing the race there in 12:32. It was the first time he coached four others to participate; two did, the others couldn’t get visas in time and so hoped to do an Ironman later in Malaysia. Two weeks after Zurich, Kaustubh completed the Ironman in Boulder, Colorado in 12:31. “ I don’t advise that,’’ he said pointing to both the need for time to recover between races and that fact that Boulder is at an elevation of over 5000ft. He now has a new goal coming up. After you have finished 12 Ironman races, you gain entry into the Legacy Programme. Under this provision, you get a slot for the Ironman World Championship held annually at Kona, Hawaii. Kaustubh has so far participated in and completed 13 Ironman races. He hopes that his slot for the World Championship will come in 2017. “ The World Championship is always a big dream for anyone who has done an Ironman. That’s the birthplace of Ironman,’’ he said.

In the years since he returned to India, Kaustubh began Radrx, a clinic that attends to people with heart and lung diseases, cancer and also deals with sports medicine. Additionally, he is associated with two hospitals (going on to three) in Pune. Of direct relevance to sport, he started Radstrong Coaching which specializes in coaching for running and triathlon. In January 2015, he got married; his wife, Madhuvanti, is a PhD in Pharmacology. He estimates that around 20-25 people from India have so far finished the full Ironman. He has set a goal for Radstrong: coach 100 Indians to finish an Ironman by 2020. At some point, he would also like to bring Ironman to India. This is not an easy task for multiple reasons.

With others at a triathlon training camp (Photo: by arrangement)

With others at a triathlon training camp (Photo: by arrangement)

Most locations hosting the Ironman have a sizable resident community already into the triathlon. This is crucial because an event cannot survive by banking wholly on foreign visitors. India’s triathlon-community is yet small. At present, the Indian hotspot in terms of people interested in the Ironman is Bengaluru (Bangalore). Pune, Mumbai and Delhi are catching up. In Chennai and Hyderabad, local clubs have organized races sporting Ironman-distances. But there is a long way to go. Then there are India’s infrastructural challenges. The Ironman event requires the portion of road used for running and cycling to be closed for the whole duration of the event. That means a road being closed to traffic for 17 hours. Ironman events happen outdoors. The swimming segment needs a suitable water body and while the water body can be a river, lake or a portion of sea, it could be a challenge finding a water body in India that is presentable at the international level. “ For now, Goa looks promising,’’ Kaustubh said. There is also another angle to India’s relation with water. While abroad, swimmers turned triathletes are common, in India those moving to the triathlon are mostly from running and cycling. As in sailing, the country’s engagement with swimming smacks of reluctance despite its shores graced by major seas and water bodies available inland (for an idea of India’s evolving relation with sailing, please see the series on Sagar Parikrama at this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/sagar-parikrama-part-one/).

The question plays on the lips of the curious: will there be an Ironman race in India?

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Where photo credit says ` by arrangement,’ the photo concerned has been sourced from Dr Kaustubh Radkar. The authors would like to thank Judy and John Collins for allowing the use of their photograph.)    

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