ALL IN ONE’S HEAD

Bhupendrasing Rajput (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Khandesh is in the north-west corner of the Deccan Plateau.

When you come from North India, this region signals transition to Deccan. Cutting through Khandesh is the Tapi River. To the north lay the hills of Satpura. Most rivers in the Deccan flow east. The Tapi flows west. According to Wikipedia, the Tapi flows in a deep bed and therefore historically its waters were difficult to use for irrigation. The lands north of Tapi are fertile but most of Khandesh lay south of the river. Bhupendrasing Rajput was born 1969, in the Khandesh region; in Mandane village, part of Maharashtra’s Dhule district. “ In modern times, Khandesh is where the borders of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat meet,’’ he said. We were at a park in Hauz Khas, New Delhi. It was early April, 2017 – Mumbai had been hot when I left it; Delhi felt comparatively pleasant. The previous night it even rained. What’s happening to weather? – I thought.

Overall, the paradigm of life in Mandane was tough in more ways than one. The terrain is undulating. There is a small river near the village. “ The river has been dry since my childhood. When I was six or seven years old, I remember water being available in the village. After that, it has been generally dry,’’ Bhupendra said, illustrating the frugality within which, life and farming in these parts must operate. He was the fourth child among five brothers and two sisters. His father, a farmer, was also Gram Sevak; the executive officer of a Gram Panchayat. Mother was housewife. “ I too am a skilled farmer,’’ Bhupendra said. In fact, till fifth standard at school, he had attended to regular responsibilities in farming.

From a 12 hour stadium-run in January 2017 (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

Bhupendra studied up to fourth standard in Mandane. According to him, the village is still stuck at that level of local education. Even today it offers no scope for further study. Same has been the case with regard to transport connectivity. There was no bus to Mandane in Bhupendra’s childhood. There still isn’t; the road is a kilometer away. For his fifth standard, the boy attended school at Dondaiche, a town four to five kilometers away from home. From sixth to twelfth standard, he studied at Dhule. Not just Bhupendra, his siblings also shifted to Dhule. There, they rented a two room-house for stay and onward studies. The parents stayed back in Mandane. This meant, from a young age itself, the children tended to all details of survival, from cooking to washing and studying. The arrangement wasn’t easy on the pocket.

The year before the children shifted to Dhule, the family’s house in Mandane was burgled. The loss was significant. “ It left us financially weak. We were struggling and struggling,’’ he said. Amid this, the shift to Dhule and pursuit of studies had a reason. Bhupendra was a good student right from junior school. Till the tenth standard there was no concept of scholarship. His teachers took note of the family’s struggle and often waived fees. By the time he was in the ninth standard, Bhupendra was earning on the side to support his studies and the siblings’ stay in Dhule. His job was making copies of audit reports. “ Typewriting was a luxury. My job was to make three to four handwritten copies of these reports. I was paid one rupee per page,’’ he said. This work of making copies usually commenced around 9-10 PM. Next morning on his way to school, he would submit the work to his employers.

At the 2013 Bhatti Lakes Ultra; with Piyush Shah (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

In tenth standard, Bhupendra topped his school, meriting scholarship support for eleventh and twelfth standards. After twelfth, he found himself at the crossroad most students pass through in India – medicine or engineering? He gave up medicine as it was expensive. He was admitted to do his engineering at the college of engineering in Pune but traded that for a more affordable course in agricultural engineering at the Agriculture University in Rahuri near Shirdi. To help him through this phase, he had merit scholarships won in his twelfth standard, plus, he took tuitions. He also availed an education loan from Punjab National Bank (PNB). Bhupendra topped the university in his engineering course. “ My desire was to pursue post-graduate studies in the US. I had decent scores in GRE and TOEFL. I also got admission at the University of Illinois with 100 per cent scholarship. But for some reason, I was declined visa. I was rejected in all my three attempts.  I had to reconcile myself to that rejection,’’ he said. In September 1991, he joined Thermax Ltd in Pune, working for them in Pune and Mumbai.

From the 2015 12 hour-trail run in Aravalli (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

Through all this, sports had no significant presence in Bhupendra’s life. Back in Mandane, he used to play kabaddi. In middle school, he recalls doing the high jump. “ Probably, I needed to burn some calories; that’s all,’’ he said. What he does admit to doing consistently is – long walks. “ Long walks barefoot were a part of my life. Besides, I am also the kind of person, who once he gets the hang of something, goes on with it,’’ he said. Awareness of marathon set in much later, when he was posted to Mumbai on work with Thermax and one day, saw a city bus with the advertisement for the 2006 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) on it. “ The enrolment process then was to go to the office of Standard Chartered, fill in the form and drop it off with a hundred rupee note attached,’’ he said. Bhupendra registered for the half marathon. On race day, with no idea of what the marathon entailed and lacking the basic essentials to turn up properly attired for it, he ran the event in “ office pant, office shirt and office shoes.’’ He finished the race in two and a half hours. “ I just went with the crowd, I was borne along by it,’’ he said. After completing the run, he went to a photo studio in Chembur and had a picture taken for posterity. Post SCMM, one change happened. He started running two to five kilometers every day. “ The idea was to stabilize my performance in the half marathon,’’ Bhupendra said. He ran the SCMM half marathon again in 2007 and 2008, eventually managing a non-stop run with finish in just above two hours. At that point, he decided to graduate to the full marathon.

Bhupendra after his first SCMM in 2006. He ran it in office attire. This was the photo taken at the studio in Chembur (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

From what he said, one aspect of Bhupendra’s progression in running strikes you. He was in Mumbai, very clearly at that time the running capital of India. Places like Marine Drive in the city have hosted runners for years. SCMM was nudging through a running culture. Yet Bhupendra was bereft of any company in running. He was staying in Andheri those days and used to train at Joggers Park in Lokhandwala Complex, running daily “ with much energy.’’ “ My problem was that I had nothing to talk of with anyone, except running. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. The world around had no incentive to invite me for any socializing,’’ he said. Result – Bhupendra then and to date is not part of any running group. He negotiates running’s maze by himself. In 2008 Bhupendra moved back to Pune from Mumbai. But the full marathon plan stayed on course. With no significant change to his training schedule and logging the same modest mileages he used to put in daily, he went ahead and ran the full marathon of the 2009 SCMM. “ I completed the run in 4:46 or so. I never felt there was anything difficult about it. Of course, there was the occasional struggle in that run-walk, run-walk…but I always knew I would do it,’’ he said. A breeze rustled the dry leaves on the ground. Not far from the park bench we were seated on, a group of boys began playing football; the conversation at the bench periodically punctuated by the dull thud of ball landing close by.

Thar Desert Run; with Denis, Kavitha, Vishwas, Raj Vadgama and Aparna (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

If the 2006 SCMM triggered the practice of running daily in Bhupendra, the 2009 SCMM did more. He ran a plethora of races thereafter, among them – Kaveri Trail Marathon, Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, Baroda Half Marathon and TCS 10K. “ After the 2009 SCMM, it was a mania,’’ he said laughing. He didn’t distinguish between distances too – he welcomed 42 km; 21 km, 10 km alike. Post 2010, somebody introduced him to Facebook and through it he got introduced in turn to the world of trekking. “ I am now a crazy lover of the hills,’’ he said. Facebook was also avenue to something else. Vishwas Bhamburkar, a runner from Ahmedabad, posted on Facebook that he was interested in attempting the 135 mile-Brazil Ultra and wished to do a training run of 150 km around Pune. “ I was curious,’’ Bhupendra said. In September 2011 he joined Vishwas for the training run, starting one night at around 8-8.30 PM and going on till next evening. Well known ultra-runner Aparna Choudhary was the third person participating. By next evening, Bhupendra had logged 135 km without any problem. “ I observed that only some 40-50 km was real running. The rest was walking. I asked how this can be and Vishwas responded: that is how ultras are managed. It occurred to me, if this is the case, then ultramarathons are doable,’’ Bhupendra said. Following this training run, Bhupendra and Vishwas met again in Hyderabad for the Hyderabad Heritage Marathon of October 2011. Vishwas suggested that Bhupendra attempt an upcoming ultramarathon – the Bhatti Lakes Ultra organized by Globeracers. “ Once again it was a case of no training, somebody pushing and I being there,’’ he said.

With an officer of the Border Security Force (BSF) at the finish line of the 2017 Run of Kutch (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

From the 2014 Run of Kutch; with Breeze Sharma (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

The race was an eye opener. “ The Bhatti Lakes Ultra was a fantastic experience. Besides Vishwas and Aparna, among those I met were Aditya Bee, Gaurav Madan, Milind Soman and Raj Vadgama. It was a clean completion for me. I topped the 100 mile-category, finishing it in 27 hours, 28 minutes,’’ Bhupendra said. If Facebook introduced him to Vishwas and ultra-running, Globeracers offered him a basket of ultramarathons to attempt. “ Globeracers has really created good benchmarks in organizing ultramarathons not only in terms of mileage but also in terms of trails and locations,’’ Bhupendra said. He went on to run Globeracers’ 100 mile-ultramarathon in Thar Desert once, the 100 km-ultramarathon in Nilgiri once, the 100 mile-ultramarathon in Kutch four times, the 135 mile-ultramarathon in Uttarkashi four times, the 100 mile-category of Bhatti Lakes once and its 135 mile-category four times. Typically, runners are conservative at picking their events. They give their bodies time to recover from each race and hence space out the races. Bhupendra’s calendar would seem anything but that. Compounding the apparent madness would be the fact that he is regularly logging ultramarathon distances (although in training he was still sticking to modestly long runs). Needless to say, his share of Did Not Finish (DNF) piled up. The 2014 and 2015 Bhatti Lakes were cases of DNF as was Kutch in 2016 and Uttarkashi in 2012. According to Bhupendra, Kavitha Kanaparthi, who runs Globeracers, advised that he pause and introspect: maybe he needed time to recover?

From the GSR Coorg Ultra-80 in Sept, 2016 (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

It is hard to deduce what makes Bhupendra run so. A window to his mind is available in what keeps him going in the ultramarathons he participates in.  “ My sense of home is moving away from civilization. By civilization I mean, the urban cluster, the concrete jungle. As you move away from civilization resources become scarce – that is when you have a challenge to manage things,’’ he said. The nature of engagement herein can be further understood if you examine two points. First, among ultramarathons, Bhupendra says he prefers those that court trail or wild settings. The more the element of nature, the more he likes it. Second, as the afore said management of scarce resources kicks in, he is metaphorically in a return to childhood, when he and family had little to live on and they required to stretch resources as best as they could. Yet again, this may explain, in an oblique way, why he runs the way he does. It isn’t conclusive. What’s truly bizarre is that, according to him, his training regimen remains very modest even today. His daily mileage is still two to five kilometers, he claimed. For Bhupendra what matters most is – mind. “ I decide on running with my mind. Once the mind has decided on a run, I can carry on. I don’t give up unless things are totally beyond my control,’’ he said. So what was the factor getting out of control and forcing those DNFs?

2016 Himalayan Crossing (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

The culprit seemed to be, nutrition. “ At least three of those four DNFs happened because of low fluid and food intake while running an ultramarathon. Even when I was offered snacks to eat or fluids to drink, I wouldn’t take it,’’ he said. This was Kavitha’s observation too. Kavitha wrote in on what she had told Bhupendra after the 2016 run in Kutch, “during this race, I was not present though Bhupendra and I talked at length post-race. Pre-race, we always have a word about how he will approach the distance based on how much he has been able to train. Bhupendra is known for his perseverance and discipline. If he DNFs a race, it will be after considering many factors. Nutrition is the main factor in most of his DNFs. At that time I felt he was rushing the distances. He wasn’t also focused on training with a plan, as in testing the nutrition he will consume during a race and ensuring he eats whatever he intends to as per plan. During our conversation post-Kutch in 2016, I advised that he rest much of that year, training only to retain his base and build on it while he perfects his nutrition intake. My advice included running shorter distance races, building a bit of speed and choosing one big race for the remaining part of the year.’’ Bhupendra’s response to Kavitha’s suggestion of considering some time to recover was to partly embrace the opposite. “ I wondered – can it be proven that my DNF had nothing to with my body and everything to do with my own foolishness, my ineptness at handling things?’’

Cooling off during the 2012 135-miler in Uttarkashi (Photo: courtesy Bhuprendrasing Rajput)

The Kutch DNF happened in February 2016. Soon thereafter, Bhupendra opted to do the 2016 Himalayan Crossing organized by Globeracers; it was due in July. He was originally scheduled to be crew member for a runner from New Zealand and the way it was structured, the race was to be – perhaps for the first time in its history – a 338 km-single stage run in the Spiti Valley with maximum elevation en route touching 15,060ft. A month before the event, the New Zealand runner opted out. Bhupendra stepped in as runner. “ When he applied for Himalayan Crossing, I wasn’t sure if he was ready but being aware of his ability to stop if he feels that’s the right thing to do and not push on in the face of physical adversity, I accepted his application. I am usually tuned in to most runners’ psyche; that is, those who run with us regularly. I have turned them down too for some races. Accepting Bhupendra’s application was a decision based on his prior experience at races and his approach to them,’’ Kavitha said. Bhupendra was the sole runner that year and it is to Kavitha’s credit that she kept the event going despite such low enrolment. The route starting at Tabo and going over the Kunzum La (15,060ft) and Rohtang La (13,050ft) to Manali also included a couple of detours that were more like treks. Bhupendra completed it in approximately 78 hours. Not just that, in August (the Himalayan Crossing was in July) he successfully completed the 135 miler in Uttarkashi, in September he ran an 80 km-ultramarathon in Coorg, in October he completed the 135 miler at Bhatti Lakes, in November he ran the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon barefoot to a personal best of 1:40, in December he did the Bengaluru Midnight Full Marathon and 50km Summit 2, in January 2017 he ran a 12 hour-stadium run in Delhi and a 12 hour-trail run in the Aravalli and in February 2017 he completed yet again the 100 mile-ultramarathon in Kutch along with the New Delhi Full Marathon, which he ran to a personal best of 4:07.

With fellow runners at Ultra India 2012 (Photo: courtesy Bhupendrasing Rajput)

“ I did this focused on just one thing – let me prove that body recovery is not something utterly mandatory. The body knows how to deal with itself. I am not for a minute saying that you should ignore your body and run everywhere. I am only saying, body recovery is not something you should be bogged down with,’’ Bhupendra said. However he did make one major change at the ultramarathons he ran after the 2016 DNF in Kutch. He consciously decided to take adequate fluids and food while running; as further precaution he told event organizers to make sure that he ate and drank for deep into an ultramarathon, he may have drifted off into a zone forgetting what his body needs. “ Bhupendra is one runner who doesn’t believe in doubting himself as long as he has trained and his body is not ailing. It does not work for everyone, especially when they are not as mentally strong as Bhupendra. What works for him is his level of maturity and perseverance,’’ Kavitha said. If, as he says, the bulk of his running lay in the mind, then perhaps Bhupendra digs meditation? Wrong; he doesn’t do any meditation. What he does is – he does all the work at his house in Saket, by himself. A bachelor, he stays alone. He cleans, cooks, washes, takes care of all household chores. He employs none to help. “ I do this by choice. It is not by compulsion. Doing your own work at home is the best meditation anyone can have,’’ he said. Bhupendra’s father passed away in 2000. He had promised his father that he would make sure his sisters are settled well in life. One sister is married; the other hadn’t yet.

In August 2014, Bhupendra joined Driplex Water Engineering Private Limited and shifted to Delhi. The mix of tough childhood and an adulthood with plenty therein to remind him of what he had endured to reach where he did, has spawned an unorthodox outlook in Bhupendra towards what races he may do in future. Events cost money. He has no sponsors; he does not want sponsors either. He also does not want to throw a truckload of resources into running, for running is his passion and he sees no reason to spend indiscriminately on a passion. “ A lot of my walking in childhood was barefoot. I don’t promote barefoot running but beyond need for a pair of functional running shoes I don’t chase big brands. I will run, no matter what shoes I wear,’’ he said outlining his position in the realm of brands and sponsors. What can brands do with a man who sees through the gloss of marketing and says he will run anyway? He nurtured fancy for one costly event overseas – TransOmania. Otherwise, he appeared content racing within India. “ If I find it enjoyable, economical and feel ready for it, I will run overseas. But just because others have done it and therefore you should – no, I can live without that,’’ he said.

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

MUMBAI MIRAGE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region is among the most populous metropolitan regions of the world. It was, until some decades ago, India’s industrial capital. Now that title is unclear. As industrialization gathers currency elsewhere too, the ingredients of being industrial capital lay scattered across several large Indian cities. Mumbai survives though as India’s financial capital.

The metropolitan region includes among others, Mumbai city, Thane and Navi Mumbai – all well-known urban entities with municipal corporations that are by no means poor. On paper for instance, Navi Mumbai – its growth anchored by the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Ltd (CIDCO) – is one of the largest planned townships in the country. Despite Mumbai featuring sharply contrasting images of super wealth and daily economic struggle with a huge chunk of its residents living in slums, Mumbai’s municipal corporation is among Asia’s wealthiest. Wikipedia’s page on the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) states that its annual budget is bigger than the budget of some of India’s small states. Further, a clutch of India’s biggest private sector companies are headquartered in Mumbai.

Juxtapose on this a few facts from the outdoors. The first civilian expedition from Maharashtra to successfully climb a peak in the Himalaya was from Mumbai – a Girivihar expedition, years ago. Girivihar is Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club. In 1988, the club staged an expedition to climb Kanchenjunga – the world’s third highest peak. It was the first Indian civilian expedition to an 8000m-peak and saw two climbers reach above 8000m. Ten years later in 1998, it was a Tata-sponsored Everest expedition that put Surendra Chavan on the roof of the world. He was the first person from Maharashtra to gain that summit. There is a tradition of hiking and climbing in the Western Ghats, in Mumbai. The city is home to dozens of outdoor clubs. Among clubs with a Mumbai address is the venerable Himalayan Club, reputed as a repository of information on India’s biggest mountain chain, particularly exploration and climbing in the Himalaya.

Mumbai is home to a community of rock climbers coping with crags under threat or progressive loss of access to crags. In some cases, the crags are being encroached upon by real estate players, slum dwellers and religious institutions; in other cases, government agencies doing their best to guard depleting forests and green belts have clubbed climbers with the forces to be checked. Amid this, regular climbing has managed to survive in the crags of Belapur in Navi Mumbai, Names like Manori and Mumbra, crags elsewhere in the Mumbai region, are still heard in climbing’s grapevine. Belapur went on to host an annual sport climbing competition (initially on rock and then on artificial bouldering walls) for over a decade, the learning from which eventually led to the  IFSC World Cup in Bouldering held in Vashi, Navi Mumbai in 2016. Several years ago, plans for an adventure academy (with emphasis on climbing) were shared with CIDCO by a bunch of climbers from Girivihar. It envisaged in the main, a climbing gym.

Till date, despite the cumulative monetary wealth of the Mumbai-Thane-Navi Mumbai region, the plethora of outdoor clubs around, the giant companies headquartered in the region and a World Cup held in 2016 – despite all that, there is not one world class lead climbing wall or a complex of such walls in the region. Thanks to the World Cup, one international caliber bouldering wall is now available. Post World Cup, that wall emerged from storage to host an open climbing competition in early 2017. But as of March 2017, a permanent home for the wall was still to be found. Just as in the case of people, a home for a bouldering wall is tough to find in region notorious for blistering real estate price. One solution is to house it in the city’s outskirts. But the economics of urban sport is also fueled by incidental fancy; people drawn to try because they could easily see it, easily access it. Where is the scope for incidental fancy if climbing is showcased in the city’s periphery?

As far as this writer knows, there hasn’t been a meeting of the city’s outdoor clubs (at least in recent times) to investigate why the Mumbai region lacks climbing infrastructure like a world class lead climbing wall, how to develop consensus on the matter or what it would take to get a world class lead climbing wall up and functioning in the region, ideally in Navi Mumbai. One says Navi Mumbai because comprehensive plans to develop climbing were submitted here earlier. It is home to a respected climbing competition which the local administrative agencies have been good enough to support. The agencies are thus empathetic to climbing. Navi Mumbai has a well-developed yet slowly disappearing natural crag in Belapur (the crag is a victim of encroachment) and was host to a World Cup. It is connected by suburban rail to Mumbai and Thane, it is close to India’s biggest container port (critical when it comes to importing infrastructure for sport) and it is due to get a new airport (relevant for visitors in sport) – all of which add to this location as ideal address for a world class climbing gym / complex. Yet compared to the urge to have more competitions including more World Cups and such, focus on establishing climbing infrastructure and training facilities languish.

Unlike Mumbai, other cities have moved ahead in this department, however small their achievements in climbing infrastructure may be. Some of them have proper lead climbing walls and bouldering gyms. Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru – they all have it; they are also the cities from where the bulk of India’s best sport climbers now hail. None of them have Mumbai’s population, municipal corporations as rich as Mumbai’s or private companies (potential sponsors) as big as those headquartered here. So what’s holding back the Mumbai region? There’s something puzzling about an ecosystem that succeeds at hosting a World Cup but can’t roll out a reliable blue print for world class climbing infrastructure with equal, if not more, urgency.

A point to remember is that sport holds much promise in India by quirk of demographics alone. More than 50 per cent of this country is now young and young people need room for activity. Conversely, restrict such room and you may be staring at frustrated youngsters. In at least a few countries, climbing on artificial walls received state support for exactly this reason.

That elusive world class lead climbing wall – for now, it is a case of Mumbai mirage.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This essay reflects his personal opinion on the subject and has been written with a view to get readers thinking on why the predicament mentioned in the article prevails.)    

“ I DON’T HAVE TIME’’ ISN’T A VALID EXCUSE

Peter Van Geit

Peter Van Geit

Interview with Peter Van Geit, founder, Chennai Trekking Club (CTC)

A few days after we spoke to Peter Van Geit, we came across a video on the Internet. As person wielding the camera, his voice was audible in the background. Some of those we had met along with him were in the frame. The location was out at sea; it appeared to be a sea-swimming session. A bunch of happy young people bobbed up and down in the gently heaving sea. Chennai’s profile graced a line on the horizon. The pleasure in talking to Peter is that despite his acceptance of social media as tool for networking, he hasn’t traded the outdoors for the comfort of commanding a virtual community. To meet him, we had to be at a large, deep pool – an abandoned quarry – at Ottiambakkam on the outskirts of Chennai. It was 6.30 AM and members of the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), which the Belgian national founded years ago, were already swimming laps in it, preparing for the triathlon. Some of them, like Peter, were swimming after a stint of running still earlier in the day. The location wasn’t far from Chennai’s IT corridor. Swim done, the IT corridor was where many of those who came, headed to. Early morning run and swim, straight to office thereafter. A few days after we came across the video on sea swimming, Peter was in the news for running from Chennai to Puducherry (Pondicherry) and then running a marathon at Auroville. As Peter told us, I don’t have time – isn’t an excuse for denying oneself the active life.  If you are keen, you will find time. Born January 1972 in Lokeren in Belgium and completing his masters in computer studies from the University of Ghent, Peter moved to Chennai in 1998. Excerpts from an interview with Peter, founder of CTC and a project manager at Cisco:

Early morning; CTC members at the abandoned quarry in Ottiambakkam (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early morning; CTC members at the abandoned quarry in Ottiambakkam (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

CTC claims a Facebook driven-membership of 40,000 people. That’s a lot for an outdoor club. How do you keep them engaged? Do you have a busy calendar?

Our activities have evolved nicely and naturally over the years. Nothing planned. Every year we get into five new activities. Open water swimming, triathlon, ultra-running in the hills – it all happened so. Initially, we were focussed only on the weekends because all of us work. We never thought of making time for weekday mornings. Now they get up at 5 AM, they run, they swim; they do so many activities during weekday mornings. In the earlier days, it was mostly hiking on weekends. About two to three years ago we realised that we had time; so we started planning all 52 weekends. There are biking trips, hiking trips, photography trips. We also started doing major events like big marathons where over 1,000 people participate, triathlons and cleaning up of Chennai’s coastline. It got very busy with a mix of major and minor events. That’s why two to three years ago I started thinking how can we do more and thus became active on weekday mornings too. Now from Monday to Friday we do many activities such as running, swimming, cycling and zero waste community work. We go to fishermen’s hamlets for cleaning up the place, educate people on segregating dry and wet waste. We have been successfully doing this for the last six months in fishing hamlets close to Marina Beach. There are tree plantation activities going on. So a lot of things are happening on a daily basis. This February marked nine years since Chennai Trekking Club started.

peter-2

Trail running

Of the 40,000 members, how many are truly active?

That’s of course an interesting thing. I am a bit of a known person here. Whenever we meet there is somebody or the other who tells me, “hey Peter I am one of your members.”  My response is, “have you been to one of our events?” Nine out of ten people will say I have been a member for one year but I haven’t had a chance yet to attend. A lot of people become members seeing our pictures on Internet links and our Facebook page. I would say of the 40,000 members about 5,000-10,000 would be active. That is also a sizeable number. Of these, there are some people who probably come just once a month or for some weekend activity.

When it comes to a physically active life, the popular excuse you hear is that there is no time for it. In a city like Mumbai many activities are held over the weekend. How do you take out time during weekdays? Today for instance, you all first ran, then swam and will shortly proceed to office. How do you find time for this on a day to day basis?

Too many of us come up with excuses. All of us are working. Most of our active members are working in the IT corridor, which is within 30 minutes from where most of our activity is. If they start working at 9 AM then definitely they can do something till 8-8:30 AM.  I don’t think office is the limitation. It is more like people getting into morning habits. It is a mental issue. The morning is so beautiful. If you sleep by 10 PM and get a good night’s rest, you can start early with some activity. Once you get used to it, it is very addictive. If you go to office after three hours of sports you feel so fresh, so focussed.  This morning physical activity routine is so good. Everyone has time according to me. People think they don’t have time. Everyone has time. It’s just a question of discipline and motivation to get up early and start the day.

peter-10peter-12CTC is now a multi-activity club. Did this profile of activity grow organically or were there people driving specific interests?

Nothing was planned over the past nine years. It started with hiking. Then it was natural for a lot of photographers to join our group. So we had photography related trips. We took people to beautiful natural places. We were good at map reading; topographic map reading. So we were able to make our own trails. Because of my background in biking we also did a lot of biking trips. About 4-5 years ago we started getting imported bicycles in India. So we started mountain biking trips. More recently, running became quite a rage with the help of social media. Initially we did 10 km runs around the city. Now for the last two years I have also been actively involved in hill running. Once a month we go to a beautiful hilly place to do trail running. We have a lot of hills in Tamil Nadu. We do ultra-trail running; sometimes 50 km on Saturday, 50 km on Sunday. We run from morning till evening. It is not like a marathon where we run for four hours. All these activities have happened naturally. Once we started running we discovered this big quarry just 30 minutes away from our office and then we started swimming. We then started organising triathlons. Now people come from all over the country for these triathlons. We also saw a lot of natural places being spoilt by garbage and anti-social activities. So we started clean-ups and created awareness automatically. Then we went to the next level of garbage segregation and zero-waste communities. We are working with corporates and with schools to create awareness about it. Every year some three to four new activities are being added to the list.

How receptive are your members to these activities?

We have a very well connected group. We have a mailing list of 30,000 people and a Facebook group of 40,000 people. We are pretty good in capturing whatever we do with social media, visual photography, smartphone etc. We post a couple of pictures and then it gets picked up. Thanks to digital photography we are able to capture beautiful pictures and upload them quickly. The only thing that we need to do is to keep the activities going consistently. Our organisation is pretty flat and open. But we do have a core group which plans and drives activities. .

peter-22Events like triathlons can be competitive. When you look at CTC, are you looking at it from the perspective of building a competitive group of people or making activity more participatory in nature?

There are two elements here. One is inspiring more people to get into a healthy lifestyle. The other is competition. We are not that competitive. We do timed events so that people do the sporting events seriously maintaining the spirit of the event. That said, in the last few triathlons we did not have any rankings or places on the podium. We really want as many people as possible to get into swimming, cycling and running without it being too competitive. When I see people going for the top five or top three positions, I suspect they are losing out on passion as they are too obsessed with time and podium. For us it is not just sports. CTC’s mission is being close to nature such as beautiful jungles and mountain ranges. So we always combine sports with nature. We will not swim in swimming pools; we will not run on city roads. We always take people to natural places. If you spend one hour close to nature you feel so refreshed. You get so much from nature. All of us are born in nature. During the Republic Day weekend some 25 of us went to Meghamalai forests. For four days we ran and cycled through the tea estates and dense forests from morning till evening. The amount of positivity and freshness you get from doing this close to nature rather than doing 10 km loops in the city is something totally different. It is important for people to be close to nature because everybody in cities are so disconnected living in air-conditioned cubicles and enduring traffic, chaos and stress. They desperately need to reconnect with nature. The great outdoors has such a detoxifying and destressing impact on us. Most deaths in urban India are related to lifestyle problems. We want to move people into a healthy lifestyle. Nature is very important for physical and mental wellbeing.

peter-20

Running in the hills of South India

The Himalaya is often spoken about as the place to go to for outdoor activity. You have a great amount of experience in the outdoors of South India. What do you think about the options for outdoor activity in the south?

The Himalaya has always made a big impression on people, including me. Last September I did a self-supported 500 km solo run through Zanskar valley and Ladakh. In 2015 also, I ran 1000 km with a small group of people; not just in the touristy places of Manali-Leh but in remote places like Spiti. We carry our own tent. The magnitude, the remoteness and the beauty of the Himalaya is fantastic.

But here in the South also there are a lot of beautiful places. Many people say Bangalore and Pune are good. The Western Ghats are beautiful. Chennai is also blessed with beautiful mountain ranges. We have a couple of ranges like Nagalapuram, which is just two hours from the city. We also have a lake called Pulicat Lake. Lot of evaporation takes place, so clouds form, they rise and hit this range which is about 800 m high and then condense to form rain. Rains fall throughout the year in this place. Throughout the year there are pristine springs and because of that it is possible to go there throughout the year. Once you get inside the jungle, it is lush green forest. You have Kolli Hills and Javadhu Hills. We go to places in Kerala and Karnataka. There is the Kabini forest. In the four southern states there are so many options for hiking and other activities. Hiking in the south is nice because the weather is good. It is not too cold like the Himalaya. Also, the Himalaya attracts people for the snow and the peace. In portions, it is more like barren land, vegetation is bare. Here, on the contrary, we have beautiful jungles, lush forests; lot of water is present in these forests. In the Himalaya you cannot take a dip, here you can swim easily. Here it is quite safe to trek, there you have to be very careful because weather conditions can be life threatening. Here you can trek light, you don’t have to carry much.  I prefer hiking in the south.

peter-17peter-18The peninsula is where the Indian subcontinent meets the sea. We are blessed with a long coastline, one that is longer than the mountains to the north. Do marine sports interest you?

Once every two weeks we go for a long swim in the sea. I stay at Pallavakkam, just 200 m from the sea. So whenever I feel like it, I walk out of my home in swimming trunks, enter the sea and do a 2 km-swim. That’s again an amazing experience because of the vast openness. There’s nothing above you, nothing around you and all you can see is small houses along the coast line. It’s peaceful to swim in the sea. Eventually, we would like to organise triathlons in the sea.

You have had accidents at CTC, including a couple of fatal ones. Many states have begun drawing up regulations for outdoor activities. Arguably, there is a problem in India when it comes to imagining regulations for the outdoors. Given that Indian lifestyle is predominantly sedentary, rules and regulations are often imagined by people partial to the convenience of settled life. Do you find this a problem? Do you feel that rules and regulations are not sufficiently empathetic to the pursuer of an active lifestyle?

A couple of things on that: one thing that has been difficult for us is dealing with government agencies, whether it is forest department for permission to go on a hike or the sports department of the government. There is small time corruption. It is difficult for us to get permission to get swimming pools for triathlons. Similarly, it is very difficult to get permission from forest officials to get to do a hike. It is more like an administrative hassle and I am not even coming to the rules and regulations that might be there for adventure activity. It is the administrative hassle.

peter-16Do you think there is sufficient appreciation for adventure activity?

In Bangalore, there is an outdoor culture. Also, in the Himalaya there is a large community that is involved in the outdoors. But Chennai is very conservative. There is so much beauty around but people would go to the beach or visit Mahabalipuram. Or they would go for a movie and nothing else. Even now when we go hiking, many of the parents are wary as they think those going for hiking or trekking are just going to booze and do some anti-social activity. They don’t look at it as a positive activity. Many of the guys who come with us on a trek may not have informed their parents and that becomes a problem.  If an injury or a fatality occurs we have to deal with hostile parents. It is not easy but things are changing.  In the last three to four years outdoor activities have become popular mainly because of social media. If you look at Wipro Chennai Marathon, it has grown phenomenally in terms of participation. About four to five years ago very few people used to run the marathon but now it has grown to 20,000 in terms of participation which was unimaginable 3-4 years ago. Runners would post pictures of podium finishes and other related pictures and that would put peer pressure on others to join. Sometimes people are obsessed about doing something quickly without proper training. We are trying to get people on a regular basis into sports, make it part of daily life and not just see it as competitive events. I prefer regular ongoing activities rather than one marathon and one month to recover.

In Europe and America people grow up with the outdoors as part of their life. There is nothing like outdoor experience being apart from one’s normal existence. In India, life is largely around human clusters and space indoors. The outdoors is distinctly ` outdoors.’ Do you find anything different in the way the average Indian relates to the outdoors?

I see that youth here is so much focused on education and studies that there is absolutely no space left for other activities. I see very few parents encouraging their wards to get into other activities. These kids are always busy at school and occupied with studies. You only see them in the month of May when schools close for longer holidays. Outdoor activity has very less priority, I would say.  That’s a problem. I got a lot of exposure to nature during my younger days. I started swimming quite early. I used to go hiking with my parents. Whatever you do at a young age makes a huge impact. Young minds are very perceptive. Doing something later becomes much more challenging.

Chennai is pretty conservative compared to other cities. In school and college years, youngsters are busy with studies. Once out of college and into a job, particularly the IT sector; then, they join us. Some of them are very passionate and quite regular. Then after about two to three years they disappear completely. Once they get married they are off the radar. Not like in Europe where you see parents with two kids coming for adventure activities. Here, once you are married you are not supposed to do any of these activities. About 90 per cent of them would disappear into married lives. This is a problem for me. I need organizers to carry on activities. Some disappear as they get relocated to other parts of India. Once they get out of Chennai they lose the momentum. Also, they don’t have that energy. Some people are lost when they change jobs and then they get too busy. Some go abroad for further studies. These are some of the reasons, active people disappear completely. That’s very sad because whatever passion they had will have to be buried and whittled down.

peter-19When it comes to outdoors there must be emphasis on environmental sensitivity. Your organization brings large volumes of people to the outdoors. How much do you emphasise environmental sensitivity?

There were reports about organisations taking people to Himalaya in large groups of 50 or so. Himalaya is a very sensitive place. What we do here is we put a head count. On a hike, we won’t take more than 20-25 people. We are very strict on that because if you take more numbers there is the issue of safety and also the issue of environmental impact. It is a bit of a challenge. Almost every weekend we take people to some spot or the other. One thing we do – judiciously, depending on the place – is that we don’t follow specific trails. We go through the wilderness using maps and GPS like explorers making our own trails. That way we kind of spread out and don’t go on the same trail. We don’t want to leave a permanent trail. People have criticised Chennai Trekking Club because we were taking 300 people to some places. We have to strike a balance between bringing people close to nature and yet keeping nature largely undisturbed. We try and do activities in places which are not virgin nature. More than hiking we do a lot of trail running. Here again, we don’t go into deep jungles but mostly run on jeep trails between villages. Hiking is now pretty balanced. We never leave any garbage behind. We are very strict and disciplined about littering. We ourselves carry out environmental campaigns where we educate people about garbage. When people come with us they learn about the place and get very excited about the natural beauty. But some of them return with private groups and that’s when the problem of littering starts and things get nasty especially in places which are easily accessible.

How do you ensure safety? Do you have safety clinics at CTC?

Safety is very important and has many aspects to it. One very important aspect is to have the right organisers. All our organisers have grown as people. They have been coming with us for years and they are very responsible, very experienced. We often have two leaders on a trip, one in the front and one at the back of the group so that managing groups becomes easy and people don’t get lost. Number one killer is water. There are some people who get very excited seeing water and sometimes they jump in even though they do not know swimming. They assume someone will pull them out. We had a couple of cases in which people have drowned. Another problem is people straying away from the main group and then doing stuff which they are not supposed to do. Lack of adherence to safety is the number one killer in these outdoor activities. We are very strict about safety. We also make sure that our organisers and rescue team are excellent swimmers and are able to pull out people safely. We always ensure that non-swimmers carry tubes or life jackets with them when they enter water. In Himalaya, weather is the reason for calamities but here it is mostly water that causes fatalities. We do a lot of treks to places where there are beautiful streams and waterfalls around. We ensure that we keep an eye on people going into water. We do regular workshops in the group on first aid, basic CPR and we have an ERT group (emergency response team) who we can call anytime. When some people go missing, we call the ERT. They are very experienced and they come within a couple of hours. All these systems have naturally evolved over the years.

peter-14When you dealt with serious accidents like fatal ones for instance, what did you personally feel? Did you feel that you were dealing with people who understood what you are doing or was it a case of adventure, outdoors – all those tags automatically branding you as guilty?

Everything completely depends on the reaction of the parents. There are parents who say this was fate. And then we have had parents who went against us even though we had nothing to do with this. One time there was a youngster who jumped into the water wearing jeans. He is a good swimmer but all of a sudden something happens and he drowns. It all depends on the reaction of the parents.

In many instances the victim of an accident in adventure / outdoor activity is an adult who consciously participated. Yet when things go wrong, that wilful participation by an adult is overlooked in the quest to fix blame.

That’s definitely an issue. People in their 40s and 50s are still living with their parents and listening to their parents about what they should and should not do. I come from Belgium, which is not as forward as other countries. I come from a place where there are divorces and kids run away. I come from a place where the social fabric is disturbed. I concede that. But here people are too much under the control of their parents and too entangled in the social lives of relatives. I see many people who are extremely passionate about the outdoors facing tremendous pressure from their parents to get married, have children and then focus on the lives of children. It’s a vicious circle.

Now there are situations wherein people don’t inform their parents about doing a trek because they are conservative. This becomes a problem. We, therefore, have a disclaimer that people joining in for our activities are doing so at their own risk. Ours is not a commercial organisation. We are all doing these activities because we are passionate about them and we do it in our free time. We all come together on an equal footing. About 20 or so people come together to do some activities. Of course, we ensure safety to the best of our ability. We have had serious difficulties with some parents, who were politically connected. We try to do a lot such as supporting the parents, helping in recovering the body, helping in transporting the body home and such stuff. There was once a case when one person from the group strayed off the path and went on his own trail. That gave us a lot of negative publicity. For the next four days we were looking for that guy. He went on his own journey. He never understood what trouble he caused us. The first thing we did was we informed the parents about their missing son and also gave them the location with latitude and longitude details. Police could have easily come there but police do not have the capability to come there. We went on a very active search inside a thick jungle.

From a clean-up drive by CTC. in Chennai.

From a clean-up drive by CTC in Chennai

You did exemplary work during the time of the Chennai floods. What was the motivation for that?

Our group is an open group. It is fully volunteer-driven. People come because they have a shared passion. Bangalore has so many groups but some of them have a commercial purpose. In contrast, we are a group of people driven by a shared passion who come together to run, swim, cycle and trek. So the energy and spirit is much more open. When something like a natural calamity happens, automatically people come together. During the floods, in a couple of days we had about 400 volunteers coming together and setting up relief centres. Social media helped in bringing everybody together but people came on their own. We started making kits that would help one family for two weeks. The coming together of people to help was akin to volunteering during an event. For instance, during a triathlon also volunteers are happy to organize the entire event. People spontaneously volunteer for events, they don’t sleep for two days, they prepare everything, set up the route, set up podiums and do all the preparatory work. We have been involved in clean-ups throughout the years. Perseverance is the key to keep the momentum up. And then it is backed up by social media.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Where photo credit hasn’t been provided, the photo concerned was downloaded from the Facebook page of Peter Van Geit and used with his permission.)

MAKING UP FOR YEARS LOST

Venugopalan Arunachalam (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Venugopalan Arunachalam (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It wasn’t difficult locating Venugopalan Arunachalam in the park.

True, Tower Park in Chennai’s Anna Nagar had many people by evening. But there was only one person in distinct running shoes, track pants and a bright colored T-shirt that said: Chennai Runners. No need for smartphone and quick reference of Facebook photo; your senses said he had to be the quiet person, sitting at one end of a park bench. That’s another attribute, if one may submit, of those who have journeyed long in endurance sports – they typically have an air of self-contained detachment.

Over the next two hours, we were treated to a conversation that every company in the country – public and private – should perhaps take note of. A septuagenarian now, Venugopalan was born almost 600km away in the port town of Thoothukudi (Tuticorin). He was the third child among six siblings. His father worked in the Post & Telegraph Department. That meant several transfers on work within the country. Venugopalan started school in Jodhpur but soon enough, the family shifted to Kalyan near Mumbai. There, he studied up to third standard before moving south to Thoothukudi, where he stayed with his maternal grandmother and studied up to class six. “ It was there in school that I won my first race in running. I was probably ten years old and a got a red soap box as prize,’’ he said. While Venugopalan was in Thoothukudi, his father had continued at his work in Kalyan. With his father being transferred next to Jabalpur, Venugopalan followed, struggling in the process with the shift from Tamil medium of education to English medium. At school in Jabalpur, he found himself qualifying in the heats for the 100m, 200m and 400m races. He practised daily for the finals. “ In the finals I came last in all three. The competition was really good,’’ he said. However that outing was both beginning of life as runner and a precious lesson learnt – maybe his strength wasn’t racing fast but racing long?

Venugopalan (left) at an event (Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam)

Venugopalan (left) at an event (Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam)

In those days, the “ mile-race’’ was a popular fascination. For the following year, Venugopalan thought of registering for the 800m and 1500m events. He was a small, lean lad. In his tenth, eleventh and twelfth standards, the rather reserved and independent thinking youngster from Thoothukudi trained regularly for the distances he aspired for (he used to run five kilometers everyday) and consistently managed podium finishes in the 400m, 800m and 1500m disciplines. He also merited a second place finish in a 3.5 mile-race. “ It convinced me, I am better at long distance running,’’ he said. He practised his running mostly at night. His family was supportive. “ They didn’t know how much I was running but they were happy to see the certificates come home,’’ he said.

Following his school years, Venugpolan opted to study mechanical engineering. While his father shifted to Delhi on work, Venugopalan moved to the Benares Hindu University (BHU). There, after other students had completed their daily dose of football, he would run on the ground, savoring the everyday fix of five kilometers he had got used to from school. On BHU’s annual Sports Day, he would participate in the 800m, 1500m and 5000m competitions, usually winning all three. “ Engineering students are typically a studious lot. Work load is high and they don’t have much time for sports. The competition I faced in these races was mostly from arts and science students,’’ he said. Venugopalan passed out from BHU in 1968. He secured a job at Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) in Trichy. The company – a public sector undertaking (PSU) – was one of the leading industrial enterprises of the government. It was Venugopalan’s first job after BHU. For the next 40 years or so, until his retirement over a decade ago, aged 60, he remained at BHEL. Joining the company was a turning point. Life changed drastically for the young man used to running five kilometers every day and enjoying races, since school.

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

At Trichy, BHEL had its own cocooned ecosystem. Its township was a good 14 kilometers away from town. There was running and sports in Trichy. But its vibes rarely reached the insulated township. “ The problem I faced was this. Both the Indian Railways and the military encourage athletics as part of sport. PSUs, in contrast, were partial to games. They had no interest in comparatively solitary pursuits like athletics,’’ Venugopalan said. By nature, he had little interest in games.  Result – at BHEL, his active life came to an utter standstill and his fitness nosedived. At Anna Nagar’s Tower Park, the septuagenarian Venugopalan cut a trim figure. Back in his BHEL days, despite no smoking and drinking, by the time he hit his mid-thirties, he had sprouted a tummy. Around that age, all BHEL employees had to go in for a mandatory medical check-up. In the check-up, he was found to be mildly diabetic. It rang alarm bells for there is a history of diabetes in his family. Venugopalan speaks rather bitterly about this turn of events. Although he resorted to walking to stay fit following the medical diagnosis of diabetes, up until his eventual retirement and exit from BHEL, there was no relapse to running. He says it was simply impossible in the ambiance of the township. For instance, the athlete in him was soon looking for ways to make walking more engaging. He read up on race-walking and began practising it. Needless to say, that made him an oddity. By the time people hit that midlife medical test, many would be advised to walk. But few – likely none – race-walked as they do at the Olympics. One man doing something different stands out in crowd of conformists. Is that why the industrial environment is partial to games? Games teach you to collaborate and conform as a team, while athletics is often a solo trip to self-discovery? One wonders.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ I firmly believe athletics should be encouraged at PSUs. On the one hand we say that it is not machines but manpower that is the wealth of an organization. But then, we make no provision for the health and wellbeing of this manpower. In their own interest, corporates must make arrangements for their people to have an active life. Running is the least infrastructure-intensive of sports. You can even do it alone. Nowadays, the private sector has begun recognizing this but PSUs in India still lag,’’ Venugopalan said. It wasn’t BHEL alone that appears to have weaned athlete away from his regimen. Along the way, Venugopalan got married and raised two sons. In the Indian context – as both culture and economics – family is a commitment and society’s perspective of this institution rarely accommodates what the individual desires personally for meaning and fulfilment in life.

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

When Venugopalan shifted from mere walking to race-walking what catalyzed that move in man tucked away in industrial-township was the growth of the Internet. The worldwide web brought the notion of larger planet home; suddenly it was possible to leap over immediate society and notice others like you elsewhere. “ I read up on race-walking and started to practise it,’’ Venugopalan said. Used to having an early dinner, he was the type who experienced wakeful hours by 3 AM. So he started to go out for race-walking that early, come back and sleep again. Slowly, a commitment and devotion to something he was passionate about, built up.  In 2005, Venugopalan retired and moved to Chennai where he stayed on rent in Anna Nagar West Extension while his house was being built in Anna Nagar West. Given he had elected to tackle his diabetes through exercise he continued the daily walking he had started at age 35. One day when out walking, he saw a marathon underway and elite African athletes go by.  “ It ignites a spark in you. Such images, you don’t forget at all,’’ he said. Long forgotten running legs stirred restless again.

As luck would have it, in ` The Hindu’ newspaper, he read about the group – Chennai Runners. He joined their Google group, regularly perusing their posts on running, occasionally pitching in with a comment. Meanwhile, his friend and running partner from BHU days – Brigadier K. Venkatraman – called up from Bengaluru informing that he had been running the marathon. “ That is how the seed to resume distance running was sown in my head,’’ Venugopalan said. His first attempts at running in the local park were a total failure; he would be out of breath in no time. So he started to jog around in his apartment, emerging to run in public only after he felt ready for the transition. He chose a 10.5km-loop in Anna Nagar for his daily run, covering it on the average in about 70 minutes. He ran 10km every day, raising the distance to 15km on weekends. Soon enough, he reached that point where he could run 10km without a break. Then the inevitable happened: one day he did two laps of the circuit, making it a half marathon. That was the first time, he had done 21km. “ It was a really good feeling,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

The East Coast Run in Chennai featured distances of 10km, 20km and 30km. In 2009, he did the 30km segment, completing it in a mix of running and walking. “ There I got recognition from Chennai Runners that at close to 64 years of age, I was able to cover 30km on foot. The way they used to talk and chat about it; that gave me self-confidence. It really helped me. People came to me, they spoke to me, they became friendly,’’ he said. The sight of elite athletes in action, which sparked the resumption of running, had been from the Chennai Marathon. A year after that sighting, Venugopalan did the half marathon segment of the event, completing it in 2:20. “ Towards the end, I was quite tired,’’ he said. Then a smaller version of the BHEL-quarantine struck. Like most Indian parents, Venugopalan and his wife wanted to see their sons married and settled in life.  The sons though – the elder one in particular – had a mind of their own. Over time, Venugopalan’s wife, initially skeptical of her husband’s running, had both become empathetic towards it and even commenced her own share of walking. However as prospective alliances for their sons fell by the wayside, she decreed that Venugopalan’s running should be halted till the required marriages occurred in the family. Two years went by so. During that period spanning 2010-2012, his friends in running would call up to inform of upcoming events, even offer to get him out of the house and running. He declined the offers, determined to address family responsibilities. At best, he went along to see his friends run. “ That’s hell, to see others run and not be able to run myself. My children are now married. Thank God the embargo on running did not extend to my children having children too,’’ he said laughing in jest about the many eccentricities of the Indian predicament.

In 2013, Venugopalan ran his first full marathon at Auroville in Pondicherry, covering the distance in 4:55. Later in the same year, he participated in the Wipro Chennai Marathon. He completed the full marathon there in 4:05. He has since gone on to get podium finishes at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), finishing third in his age category in the full marathon in 2014, first in 2015 and third again in 2016. His personal best in the full marathon is 4:04. Aside from walking at aid stations along the way, at full marathons, he runs the rest of the distance. In between, he also did a race involving six hours of cycling and six hours of running. However, the gains have not been without their share of related problems. He has had to cope with running injuries. But what has laid him low is herpes. Its onset has meant a weakening of muscles. It forced him off the 2017 SCMM; he didn’t participate. Ageing athlete hasn’t given up. He has embraced the Pose Method of running, wherein gravity is roped in as active partner to aid one’s running. “ Using this method I am now able to cover 20km in 2:18. I must now add speed. I haven’t run a race yet using the Pose Method. Now I have to,’’ Venugopalan said.

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

Photo: courtesy Venugopalan Arunachalam

The evening light was now slowly fading and as the sun threatened to drop out of sight, the urgency of those playing games in Tower Park grew. A misdirected smash from a volleyball match racing against sunset saw the ball land close by. “ Careful, careful,’’ Venugopalan gently told the youngster who came to pick it up. He has often thought of what made him run years ago. He didn’t have a single answer. In his childhood he has chased after his older brother as the latter and his friends ran around pushing their toys – was that how it all started? He doesn’t know. “ I don’t quite know why running interests me. I think I like the feeling of the wind blowing in my face. It used to give me a lot of happiness. It is also true that when I run, I feel my body and mind is one and not limited. It is expanding. I feel I am one with the universe,’’ he said.

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

THE KARANJA METAPHOR

Meena Barot

Meena Barot

The story of a woman, who overcame her fear, used what she had around her to train and completed a half Ironman.

“ I wanted to do something in life rather than just get married,’’ Meena Barot said.

It isn’t that her parents didn’t understand. The larger family and community she found herself in didn’t expect women to work.

Most women married and settled down, raised families.

If there was anything for a woman to gravitate to, it was that predicament.

Born 1972 in Vadodara (Baroda) and roughly a decade later, shifting to Belapur in Navi Mumbai, Meena wasn’t one bit inclined to tow the community line. In her schooldays, she was into athletics and excelled at badminton. “ That sporting spirit probably brought some aggression to the table,’’ she said, mid-2016, at her neat apartment in Kharghar, where she stayed self-contained, two bicycles for company.

Realizing early that India assigns set direction for girl child and one’s own effort is the only way to foray a different path, Meena kept busy. Continuing on to college, she worked part time while still an undergraduate. She did her PG Diploma in Pathology from Grant Medical College and worked full time at Hinduja Hospital as a lab technician for the next four years. “ I believe every woman should be financially independent. Dependence and relations can take a twist at any point in life,’’ she said, adding, “ you don’t need others to tell you that you are strong. You need to realize it yourself.’’ While still at Hinduja Hospital, Meena enrolled for a MBA in marketing from the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) and successfully completed it. She funded that MBA course entirely with her earnings. “ It was a struggle doing all that. But the struggle made me a strong person. My life to date has been my decision,’’ Meena said.

Meena with her team at the China office of Shalina Healthcare

Meena with her team at the China office of Shalina Healthcare

Following the MBA, she worked for three years at a company called Becton Dickinson, shifting later to a smaller outfit called Shalina Healthcare, which though smaller, allowed her room to learn. In their employ, Meena moved to Shijiazhaung near Beijing, tasked with setting up operations for the company in China. She had to do everything from scratch, from finding a place to stay to finding a place to set up office. Shijiazhaung had just two other Indian families. Indeed there were few foreigners in town. “ It was tough but the local people were good,’’ she said. Back in Navi Mumbai, for some time now, her father had known that his second child had no appetite for conventional womanhood. According to Meena, he maintained his views on life but rarely interfered with her choices. When she got the offer to move to China, she didn’t inform him at first. Once everything was in place and the shift was imminent, she broke the news at home. The China angle also came at the right time. With her siblings marrying and settling down in life, there was pressure on her to follow suit. China put an end to that. For the next five years – from 2005 to 2010 – she was based there. One of the highpoints of that tenure happened in 2008. As the Beijing Olympics drew close, Meena who participated in a contest by Lenovo to choose a bunch of ordinary people who would get to carry the Olympic torch, found herself in the lucky lot. After the relay, she got a torch as memento; it is there at home with her.

Meena with the Olympic torch; from the torch relay head of the Beijing Olympics

Meena with the Olympic torch; from the torch relay ahead of the Beijing Olympics

From a weekend cycling trip in China; Meena with friends

From a weekend cycling trip in China; Meena with friends

Setting up a company office entails much work. There was considerable stress. A year after moving to China, in 2006, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. It triggered weight gain; she nudged 90 kilos. Living alone and the long, lonely stint endured from schooldays, navigating her path in life – all that was also taking their toll. “ I was in the happiest phase of my life. Strangely, I was also depressed,’’ Meena said of that period in Shijiazhaung. What particularly depressed her was the loss of stamina. Going up stairs had become difficult. She joined a gym, working out regularly after work. It helped physically (she brought down her weight to 80-83 kilos) and while it did help mentally, it also posed a fresh problem – over time gym becomes boring. For engaging alternative, she joined a badminton coaching class, where the students were mostly children. That didn’t demotivate her, she kept up the routine till a new set of problems emerged – knee pain and lower back issues. The doctor she consulted while on a visit to India, said, “ no exercise.’’ Once back in China, Meena took up cycling. She was getting on a bike after 25 years or so. It was a lady’s bike called ` Emily,’ single speed, no frills. She started cycling to office. Soon she was going everywhere on Emily. Around 2008, she bought a Giant MTB (mountain bike). The shop, which sold her the bicycle, also hosted organized rides. That way, Meena started riding 30-40 km on weekends. China is both the nerve centre of global bicycle production and home to a large number of people using bicycles for day to day commute. “ Half of our regular road in India – that is how much space they demarcate on roads for cycling,’’ Meena said. Her parents visited her in China. She remembers the visit for her father’s observation. “ I am happy you didn’t get married although I pressured you to,’’ he said.

In December 2010, Meena moved back to India and Navi Mumbai. Reason was her father’s ill health. He had a heart problem having suffered his first stroke in 1987 followed by a bypass surgery in 1992 after his third stroke. In 2009, he was victim of yet another stroke; this time, severe. He had called up Meena in China and asked her to return. Not long after she returned, in March 2011, he passed away. He was 66 years old. Meena felt the loss, deeply. She had moved back to Mumbai with the same company that sent her to China. In India, she was tasked with setting up a new department and that involved considerable work. So much so, that within a week after her father’s demise she was back at her office desk. “ That got me thinking – what am I living for?’’ she said. The old depression was coming back to haunt.

From the 2015 Chennai Triathlon

From the 2015 Chennai Triathlon

By November 2011, she had made up her mind to quit her job. It was a well thought through decision – she had cleared her loans, had some savings, endured a high pressure job with consequences and wanted to be done and over with that lifestyle. China had sent her back with a hobby for gift – cycling. She was now cycling regularly in Navi Mumbai. One of the friends she made so was P. V. Subramanyam (aka Subra). He was a member of Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR). He kept saying that Meena should get into running. By then, she had also linked up with Shalil Nair, one of the founders of NMR. In 2012, after her last day at work, she went out for a run with Nair who incidentally asked her about her background and realized that she was between jobs. He was Director, Human Resources at Institute for Technology and Management (ITM Group of Institutions). Meena was offered a job as part time lecturer at ITM Business School in Kharghar. “ I was thus unemployed for only eleven days,’’ she said. She sought six months break before joining. In that time, she did a cycling trip with Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) in Himachal Pradesh, to the Jalori Pass.

From a cycling trip to Khardung La in Ladakh

From a cycling trip to Khardung La in Ladakh

One of the great challenges for people living alone is – what do you do with time? Bereft of human company and the evolving dynamics of person meeting person characterizing crowded Indian life, time sits still, a palpable quantum on one’s shoulders. A sense of engagement is essential. If you don’t have that, the very fabric of life – time, can turn against you. Still insufficiently engaged in life for a person of her nature, time was turning against Meena. Over January-June 2012, she was severely depressed. “ I had nothing to look forward to. The biggest issue was – what do I do with my time?’’ she said.  The good thing about life is surprises lurk in every corner. Kripa Sagar is Meena’s friend, met through cycling. “ I had heard about Meena from some friends. I met her sometime in 2011 after she returned from China. She was into cycling. Our first ride together was to Nere-Maldunga, off Panvel. She came across as a very unassuming, friendly and grounded person who was at the same time a strong woman. I enjoyed her company,’’ Kripa said. One day Kripa had gone cycling to Kharghar; she called up Meena and asked if they could meet for tea. “ I went over to her house. While sitting in the balcony, I mentioned to her: why not do Ironman? We both agreed to try,’’ Kripa said. Meena had neither done distance running nor did she know well, what Ironman was. She read up on Anu Vaidyanathan – among India’s best known triathletes – and lapped up what she could learn about Ironman. It was 2012. At least a half Ironman by 2016 seemed possible. Less than four years remained. As with China, it was another start, almost from scratch. “ Meena took on the challenge seriously and trained intensely. It was a very tough training session that she chalked out for herself. Some days, she would train for 7-8 hours. Many runners and athletes could not keep pace with her intense training schedule,’’ Kripa said. Although Ironman was an idea shared by both, Kripa had to drop out as she was committed to another project.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ramachandra Rao is a senior runner living in Kharghar. He used to be an organic chemist and researcher with Ciba Geigy (now part of Sandoz). He got into running during his days at university in the US. Every morning, he and his wife (she likes to walk) go out for a walk and a run. A quiet person and a dedicated runner, Rao is a member of NMR. He first met Meena on a NMR-run from Nere to Maldunga. It was some time before Rao got to know her better; that happened mainly because Lavanya Chillara, a runner staying in Rao’s housing society and Meena, used to run together. “ One thing sets Meena apart from others,’’ Rao said, “ others plan but often don’t do, she plans and executes meticulously. She is very committed.’’ According to Rao, once the Ironman idea was in, Meena went after it diligently. She had Daniel Vaz as her running coach. Off and on, Rao would run with her. “ In one year, she improved a lot from jogger to runner,’’ Rao said.

By October 2012, Meena had run her first half marathon at that year’s Vasai-Virar Mayors Marathon (VVMM). The same year, she also got to know of the Brevet des Randonneurs Mondiaux (BRM) events in cycling and consequently rode 200 km from Borivali in Mumbai to Cheroti and back. Determined to improve, she found a cycling coach. Soon she was regularly cycling and running. By 2013-2014, she was securing podium finishes at some competitions. In 2014 she participated in a duathlon organized by Kripa Sagar – 100 km cycling plus 21km running. The cycling was from Navi Mumbai to Nariman Point and back, while the running was done on Navi Mumbai’s Palm Beach road. However, if the Ironman was to be goal, Meena had a major obstacle to overcome. She didn’t know swimming and, she was scared of water. In June 2014, she joined the Belapur YMCA’s coaching sessions to learn swimming at their pool. It taught her the basics. As was her habit, she kept working at pushing her limits. There was a big problem. She may have learnt to swim and overcome some of that fear of water in the process. But the Ironman event required her to swim in open water and the two – swimming in a pool and swimming in open water – are two distinctly different animals for those tackling water right from the basics. In one you have a sense of containment and accessible safety, in the other, you are on your own and safety isn’t quite at hand. Where was she to go for a taste of open water?

Karanja (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Karanja (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The question is stupid in Mumbai-Navi Mumbai for the urban agglomerate is right next to the sea. But it is also one intense mass of human habitation and industrialized to boot. The sea around Mumbai-Navi Mumbai is polluted. To compound the problem, the coast in these parts sees significant ingress and egress during tides. Most beaches during low tide are an ugly sight with debris and garbage exposed; the scene sticks in mind even if you swam only during high tide. What do you do? In the meantime, Meena had registered for the 2015 Chennai triathlon and the Hyderabad triathlon. Her running was improving; she had even ended third in her category at one of the editions of VVMM. She was also regular at the BRMs. Roughly two hours’ cycle ride away from Belapur is Karanja. It is on the edge of the sea. People come to the boat jetty here to take a ferry and cross over to Rewas. On a Sunday morning, a cyclist reaching here from Navi Mumbai would be treated to the not so dainty sight of muddy land surfaced in low tide, fishing boats with their hulls exposed in the receding tide and murky waters typical of tidal zones. It was to Karanja and its boat jetty that Meena turned to for familiarity with open water swimming. She was determined to go for an Ironman. She knew she had to make do with what was available. No point complaining. Accompanied by her swimming coach and good friend Ramachandra Rao, she frequented Karanja, where they went out in a rented boat with Meena subsequently swimming in open water supervised by her coach. “ The water was very muddy. It was also prone to tides. I was a bit concerned about her health, swimming in that water. Meena though had no hesitation in jumping in and swimming,’’ Rao said. Despite her efforts, she would remain a slow swimmer. At Chennai, it took her an hour and ten minutes to cover 1.5 km; at Hyderabad where the swim was in a pool, she needed an hour and twenty minutes to cover 1.9 km. Internationally the cut off time for 1.9 km is 1:10. Altogether, she took nine hours to do the half Ironman distances at Hyderabad. To compete in Europe in 2016, which she planned to, she required cutting this time by a whole hour.

At the Hyderabad Triathlon

Then in December 2015, while working out at the gym, she injured her lower back. “ I just could not bend,’’ she said. In January 2016, running the half marathon at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), she noticed mild pain in the left leg. At a cycling trip in Sri Lanka, which preceded SCMM, she had felt heel pain. She managed to complete the half marathon at SCMM in 2: 12. However the heel pain steadily worsened till it was diagnosed as Plantar Fasciitis. Post SCMM, there was no running and looming ahead in July 2016, was the half Ironman she had signed up for in Budapest, Hungary.  To add to her woes, the 2015 monsoon season had been weak with resultant water shortage in the state of Maharashtra. By March 2016, many swimming pools in Mumbai-Navi Mumbai had shut. Meanwhile, to reduce the heel pain, the doctor recommended a steroid injection. By mid-April she was back to cycling and running. For swimming, it was Karanja. Then towards April-end, the heel pain returned forcing her to stop running. By May, she was left with only cycling to do. It didn’t end there. In mid-May, while training, she fell from her cycle. With that, she was off running, cycling and swimming. How much adversity will life throw at her? “ I used to cry a lot,’’ Meena said. Her friends told her to take it easy.

Budapest Half Ironman; Meena just after finishing the swim segment

Budapest Half Ironman; Meena just after finishing the swim segment

On the bright side, she was able to merge an ITM trip to Europe, with the Budapest Half Ironman. In Normandy she found a place to run, cycle and swim. With weeks left for Budapest, she trained as best as she could. Ahead of the event, Ramachandra Rao – he had become instrumental to keeping her motivated – texted Meena regularly with positive thoughts. On July 29, a day before the half Ironman, there was a trial swim in open water at Budapest. “ I went into the water and panicked. I tried five to six times but I kept coming back. I was scared, it was psychological,’’ Meena said. There was a sense of endless depth to the water and seeming absence of limits nearby to the expanse of water she had to tackle. She decided against participating in the event. Some of the Indian participants told her not to do so and to at least swim up to the buoy midway. But as she did so, she panicked again attracting the attention of the rescue boat. The doctor on the boat shouted at her, “ what you are doing is not swimming! This is not a swimming pool. You will kill yourself!’’ Back on land, those comments hit Meena hard. From January 2016, given all the reverses life had thrown at her while preparing for the half Ironman, she had been battling depression. The universe didn’t seem to notice what she had done; all it appeared to see and enjoy toying with, was her nervousness in water. Suddenly her motivation crashed. She sat in Budapest, eating ice cream, hoping to lift her spirits up. “ I didn’t tell anyone back home what I was going through. The only person I called was Mr Rao,’’ she said. He told her to calm down and relax. It brought back some of her motivation. She decided to attempt the race. “ I know her potential. I was very positive that she will do it, provided she keeps her mind calm. I told her to remain calm and see that thoughts don’t disturb her mind. Don’t get involved in it. Always think that you have the ability to do it. It is easy to say so but to practise it in adverse situations, it entails much work,’’ Rao said. Meena also had a chat with a colleague from ITM, Deepthy, who got her to meditate. Thus calmed, she fell asleep.

Meena, cycling at the Budapest Half Ironman

Meena, cycling at the Budapest Half Ironman

On July 30, race day, she decided to tackle the swim in segments and not visualize it as the entire distance it represented. She also told herself: it is okay to be last. What is important is to attempt the swim. “ If you don’t attack fear at the time it appears, then it sets in for life. I will then live my life knowing that I messed up at the starting point and didn’t attempt the race at all,’’ Meena said. Further as the medic’s shouting of July 29 showed, the rescuers were alert and good. She was in safe hands. She finished her swim just within cut-off time, in an hour and ten minutes. The organizers provide a grace period of 50 seconds. By the time she started cycling, the professionals had already completed their first 45 km-loop. But there was a pleasant difference to their cycling. “ They cheer you on,’’ she said. Both the cycling and the running went off well for her. In the end, she finished the half Ironman in Budapest in seven hours and forty six minutes compared to the nine hours she took for the same distances in Hyderabad.

Meena, completing the Budapest Half Ironman

Meena, completing the Budapest Half Ironman

Looking back, Meena credits the journey completed to hard work and discipline. She used to wake up at 4 AM and start training. Aware of her capacity for depression, she stayed off all forms of negativity. This included keeping away from people who were negative or tended to doubt her abilities. “ I was out of all social media groups – WhatsApp, Facebook, all that. I was in touch with only those who were positive,’’ she said. “Rao sir’’ was very important in this framework. “ Never once did he say, don’t do it. He always said, you will do it,’’ Meena said.

Uniquely, Budapest taught her to relax.

“ I don’t have to prove a point. I am happy with the place I am in, right now,’’ she said, explaining her learning.

Meena hopes to do a half Ironman every year.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used in this article – except those otherwise mentioned – were provided by Meena Barot.)     

MAN VERSUS MACHINE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

During the day, Mumbai’s railway stations are typically crowded places that become more crowded whenever a train arrives. Here and at equally crowded nodes on the city’s streets, small eateries and tea stalls exist that work at frenetic pace. One such eatery, at the railway station I frequent, has long been halt for a plate of potato vada (served with mint chutney and spicy chilli-garlic powder) and a cup of tea for me – a sort of cheap brunch freelance journalist treats himself to. There are two such stalls at the railway station, one each at its two exits on the side of town I live in. The vada is tastier at the place I patronize. You may notice a moment of relaxation here and a moment of relaxation there but otherwise almost everyone working at these eateries stays busy. The manager accepts the money, pays the balance, shouts the order and keeps a watch. At the same time, his assistants hear the order shouted, wipe a plate clean, find the required food item from the several kept around and serve it. The whole sequence from payment to serving food takes less time than what would be required to either swipe a card for digital payment or do one of those phone-based electronic wallet-transactions. Thanks to demonetization, overall business has dropped a bit, for people rattled by shortage of change hold back on expense. Impulsive expenditure like a cup of tea or a snack, are among the first things to get put off. Seeing the manager enjoy a rare moment of quietness, I asked him whether the Indian government’s evangelism for digital payment would work in his case. He smiled. “ I own two establishments here,’’ he said, pointing to a tad more fashionable joint next door, visited by college students. The one freelance journalist goes to is an older working class type-eatery. The college crowd-joint had a suitably attractive name and slightly more expensive food – rolls, sandwiches etc. “ I installed a card-swiping machine there,’’ the manager said, “ but the telecom network has suddenly got loaded with traffic that it takes a long time to make a payment. As for the place where you have your vada and tea, here the pace of work is so fast that a swipe machine or an electronic wallet would fail to keep pace. In the time I swipe one card, under normal circumstances I would handle five or six customers, quite likely more. Besides, a machine does one job at a time. As manager I am doing several jobs at once – while I am accepting money and giving back balance, I am shouting the order and also keeping an eye on whether the orders are being attended to, even who is taking what from the refrigerator. I am also being flexible, negotiating and taking spot decisions as I go along. Electronic transactions have one value for sure. A record of transactions is automatically kept. It makes the daily tallying easier. But we anyway do that with some marginal, negligible error. By and large for our work at this eatery, none of the digital fads are relevant. Hopefully, in some days the problem with change is sorted out and we are back to the old level of hectic work,’’ he said. I wondered if realities like this find place in the wisdom of the day, deciding how India should live.

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

THE CAPTAIN, THE TEACHER, THE WARRIOR AND THE BUSINESSMAN

Diskit's Maitreya Buddha statue (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Diskit’s Maitreya Buddha statue (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

An article in long form, on the 2016 edition of La Ultra-The High

August 10, 2016.

My hotel room has a fan and I can’t believe it.

The temperature didn’t warrant using it. Equally, if I turned it on I wouldn’t be very cold. The fan harked of early entrant whose time will come. As in the Bob Dylan song: the times, they are a changing. The food served at Hotel Siachen, amazed for the variety of vegetables in it. The hotel was in Diskit, Nubra Valley, Ladakh. “ The vegetables used were grown here,’’ the employee standing behind the buffet table informed. He said that weather patterns had been changing slowly in Ladakh. Winters aren’t as severely cold as before and in land famous for being high altitude cold desert, rain was getting through. That has its problems. The powdery soil of Ladakh’s mountains dislodges quickly with water. Rain makes people nervous. On the other hand, the rising warmth and occasional wetness has meant improved scope for home-grown vegetables on Siachen’s table.

Next day, around noon, a very light rain manifested briefly. The forecast, as available from a couple of days ago, wasn’t good. August 11 evening; there is a mass of dark grey gathering in the skies behind Diskit. A cold wind blew. The massive Maitreya Buddha statue on a hill near the Diskit monastery faced the approaching grey in peaceful meditation. It rained. Dr Rajat Chauhan looked past the statue to the clearer skies it guarded. Hope is a good word. It was still raining when the convoy of cars left Diskit. Ladakh’s roads are a study of curves and straight lines; curves on mountainsides, straight lines on vast, open flat land. The starting line was on a straight road below Diskit, close to the flood plains of the Shyok River. The vehicles bearing runners parked here, one behind the other. A small hamlet of headlamps took shape. The countdown had begun.

August 11, close to 8 PM, start line of the race. In the foreground are some of the 111km-runners including members of the Indian Navy team (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

August 11, close to 8 PM, start line of the race. In the foreground are some of the 111km-runners including members of the Indian Navy team (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 1992, director Ridley Scott made a movie: 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Garnering mixed reviews, the movie wasn’t commercially successful. Its theme music ` Conquest of Paradise,’ by the Greek composer Vangelis, however became popular, including as the preferred music at the start of the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in Europe. A powerful, evocative musical composition, it played on the mobile phone of Dalibor, part of Jovica Spajic’s support team. Rain and cold notwithstanding, Jovica looked ready for action. By now the other runners too had got out from their vehicles – Grant Maughan, Mark Steven Woolley, Alexander Holzinger-Elias, Dariusz Strychalski, Nahila Hernandes, Dunya Elias, the team from the Indian Navy, Saachi Soni, Rahul Shukla, Ramanand Chaurasia and Kieren D’Souza. August 11, 8 PM, they set off. Minutes into the 2016 edition of La Ultra-The High, they tackled the first problem: a portion of the road submerged in ice cold water, thanks to an overflowing stream. That done, one by one, they drifted into the inky blackness of Nubra’s night, a series of headlamps making steady progress on the road. Kieren led the group. There was a ring of expectation around Kieren. He was a young Indian ultramarathon runner born in Nagpur, brought up there and in Bengaluru, now living in Faridabad. His well-wishers presented him as someone who had grasped the nuances of the sport. In 2014, he had participated in the 111 km race of La Ultra and failed to complete it; according to the official website of the event, his race ended at kilometer-48, a Did Not Finish (DNF). Two years later, he had elected to return with considerable training at altitude done. Besides races in India, he had been to UTMB. That night on the road leading to Khardung La, Kieren showed no lack of confidence. He ate up the miles, opened up a long lead and chugged steadily on to Khardung La.

La Ultra-The High is an ultramarathon composed of three separate races on the same course – 111 km, 222 km and 333 km. As the distance increases, so do difficulties. The average elevation of Ladakh is around 10,000 ft. The race is held on the road. Its highest elevations are mountain passes with roads through them. In the 111 km segment, you get Khardung La (17,582 ft), in the 222 km segment, you get Khardung La and Wari La (17,200 ft), in the 333 km segment you get both the earlier mentioned passes and Tanglang La (17,480 ft). Running this course, a runner will experience temperatures varying from 40 degrees centigrade to minus 10 degrees centigrade. Depending on altitude, atmospheric pressure will reduce to 50 per cent of what it is at sea level. This affects oxygen intake. Add to it progressive fatigue and susceptibility to adversities brought on by the elements – that’s what makes La Ultra particularly challenging. It currently ranks among the toughest ultramarathons in the world. It is also an expensive proposition given the mandatory acclimatization schedule. You have to be in Leh, days in advance. That makes it, a commitment.

Night of August 11; Grant Maughan crossing the waterlogged stretch of road (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Night of August 11, Grant Maughan crossing the waterlogged stretch of road (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

August 11th night. En route to Khardung La, Mark Woolley gets a quick refill of water from one of the support vehicles (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Night of August 11, en route to Khardung La, Mark Woolley gets a quick refill of water from one of the support vehicles (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As some of the foreign athletes gathered to run the 333 km segment said, the race is little heard of in the global ultra-running circuit. Discerning runners are attracted by the fact that not everyone finishes it. Appreciated in this context, was how the organizers have preserved race parametres without diluting it to attract higher number of participants. Broadly speaking, this purity is a function of distance and cut off time. The whole race of 333 km is run at one go with runners moving through the night. They have to cope with sleep deprivation, planning their rest as they wish. However within this large single stage, there are cut offs (time limits within which sub sections must be run) to respect. This introduces a sense of constant momentum. Rest is typically eyes shut for some time. The whole course is covered in a mix of running and power-walking, rarely dipping below that in pace. Seventeen runners reported for the 2016 edition, twelve of them (two foreigners, rest Indians) for the 111 km race.

Very important for a race of this sort is the medical team. The Race Director (indeed its founder) is Dr Rajat Chauhan, who is a leading specialist in sports medicine. The 2016 medical team was composed of Tim Berrow and Nick Dillon, experienced in dealing with medical emergencies in remote locations. As they explained, a difference when working with an ultramarathon wherein athletes push their limits is, gauging how far a runner can push his / her limits safely and monitoring that appropriately. You don’t terminate his / her race without providing room for stretch.

Cdr. Sunil Handa of the Indian Navy gets back into running shoes after crossing the waterlogged stretch of road (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Cdr. Sunil Handa of the Indian Navy gets back into running shoes after crossing the waterlogged stretch of road (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At a medical briefing for volunteers and support crew, Tim and Nick put their approach in perspective. While altitude is the most obvious challenge in La Ultra, the solution for altitude related complications like High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) – is as obvious. The best treatment for altitude issues is descent. With the race being held on the road and vehicles present for support, treatment was available at hand – get the patient down as quickly as possible. The medics were more worried about heat related complications – the consequences of losing heat or heating up. La Ultra debuted in 2010 as a 222 km race. Given its emphasis on adequate, prior ultra-running experience, it was partial to foreigners. Indians who attempted it, struggled to get past the race’s early stages. For a country getting used to the ultramarathon, 222 km at altitude with cut-off time alongside, was probably too big a first step. At the same time, some of the foreign runners who completed 222 km felt that a return to attempt the same distance wasn’t engaging. They sought greater challenge. That’s how the 111 km sub-race and the extension of overall length to 333 km happened. 2016 was special for the 111 km segment. The Indian Navy dispatched a team of six runners for the 111 km race. Their team leader Captain Rajesh Wadhwa had been podium finisher (along with Ramanand Chaurasia) at an ultramarathon in Garhwal, which serves as qualifier for La Ultra’s 111 km category. When he sought permission to participate in La Ultra, the navy, noticing the uniqueness of the race at altitude, recommended a team.

Kieren on the ascent to Khardung La (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kieren on the ascent to Khardung La (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

If you want to know how fast runners can be – even in the hills – all you need to do is, eliminate traffic. Night does that for you. With nothing else around moving for distraction, running’s pace shines forth. An ultramarathon is slow. But even that seems a determined, consistent lapping up of distance when ultra-runners are the only ones moving in the frame. Past midnight, the slopes of Khardung La were pitch-dark. Kieren’s headlamp would bob in the distance and then slowly, unfailingly wind up the road’s curves to where one stood. As I prepared to ask “ all okay?’’ he quipped, “ are you okay?’’ On the road, the first half of the string of runners included Kieren, the 333 km-pack, some of the navy runners, Rahul and Ramanand and Dariusz (Darek) Strychalski of Poland. Darek had enrolled for the 222km segment. He runs mainly with one side of his body; the other side having been paralysed in an accident in childhood. The mishap affected his vision too. Recovering, he lived a lonely life. Running was accidental and testing. He used to run very early in the morning to avoid being seen as his gait was awkward; one leg and side of the body does most of the work, the other supports as best as it can. Initially people looked at him like an oddity. He persisted. Slowly he regained the company of people. After two years of running, he ran his first marathon. His best timing yet in the full marathon was 3:07. He also ran the Badwater Ultramarathon. “ In Poland he is called the Polish Forrest Gump,’’ Anna, Darek’s friend said. Darek, who spoke no English, had been to La Ultra before. In 2015, attempting 222 km, he had to pull out at kilometer-35. That time he had been unable to continue his run because of a leg injury. In Leh, in the run up to the 2016 edition, he had experienced return of the old leg injury. Running steep uphill sections challenged the man who counted on one good leg to do the bulk of the work. Darek never let the strain show. His face was always calm.

Early morning August 12; Race Director Dr Rajat Chauhan counting down to cut-off at North Pullu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early morning August 12; Race Director Dr Rajat Chauhan counting down to cut-off at North Pullu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

For the medics and the Race Director, the 111 km segment is the busiest section of the route as the number of runners is more and it includes the less experienced. At the first cut-off, a little over 20 km from the start, two runners missed the stage cut off time and had to withdraw. Punctuating the ascent and descent on Khardung La are South Pullu and North Pullu. They are check posts, both at approximately 15,500 ft. On the ascent from the Nubra side, you hit North Pullu first. The medics gave everyone a check-up here. Two more runners retired from the race at North Pullu as they failed to reach on time. Darek arrived at North Pullu before the cut off time. He was very cold and having low oxygen saturation. “ His lungs was clear, his pace had slowed down. He was okay but feeling very, very cold,’’ Nick Dillon, one half of the medic team, said. Darek was warmed up. He was the last one to leave North Pullu for Khardung La. Nick followed in his vehicle; he kept reassessing the runner’s condition. Not just Darek’s but as he put it – into a race, the back of the pack is where the ones needing help are.

Dariusz (Darek) Strychalski - seen in yellow jacket - exits the 2016 race. Medic Nick Dillon (kneeling) next to him; also seen are Dr Rajat Chauhan and Darek's friend, Anna. Although his race stood terminated, Darek returned to cheer other runners (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dariusz (Darek) Strychalski – seen in yellow jacket – exits the 2016 race. Medic Nick Dillon (kneeling) next to him; also seen are Dr Rajat Chauhan and Darek’s friend, Anna. Although his race stood terminated, Darek returned to cheer other runners (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Between North Pullu and Khardung La. Nick Dillon grew worried about Darek. The runner’s lungs were clear, his mental clarity was good. His pace was very slow. At one point his oxygen saturation was 55 while that of everyone else in the medic vehicle was around 70 (these figures must be read in the context of altitude). What made Darek’s diagnosis difficult is that his medical history featuring partial paralysis, created a case for weak circulation. Even looking for ataxia (loss of balance, it is a symptom of altitude sickness) was difficult because Darek’s natural gait had a wobble to it. He was allowed to proceed because he seemed neurologically sound. But when the runner’s pulse slowed down and ataxia became strongly suspect, Nick decided to consult Dr Chauhan, the Race Director. The latter spoke to Darek who resolved to press on. About 50 metres from the Race Director’s vehicle, with Nick and Anna present, Darek stumbled pronouncedly. It was curtains for his second attempt at La Ultra. The Race Director pulled him off the race and Nick administered oxygen. “ It was a combination of factors and several things building up over time that resulted in this intervention,’’ Nick said. It was also a text book case of what the medics had promised – that they would assess, provide room for stretch, keep monitoring and if required, pull the runner out. Darek bore it stoically. He and Anna returned to the race to encourage and applaud fellow runners.

On the map of Europe, Slovakia lay to the south of Poland, south of Slovakia is Hungary and to Hungary’s south is Serbia. Straddling the junction of European and Asian cultural influences, East Europe has a tradition of being Europe’s powder keg; the world wars of the twentieth century were sparked by events in these parts. In the closing decades of that century, as the erstwhile Iron Curtain crumbled, the Yugoslav Wars broke out (Wikipedia describes them as conflicts spanning 1991-2001). Jovica Spajic was born in Priboj in Serbia in 1987. He grew up with his grandparents; he used to help his grandfather with work in the forest. “ These memories bring so much peace in me. I liked to talk about the future with my grandfather,’’ he said. His father worked in the police and following his basic education, Jovica attended secondary police school. Then he moved to Belgrade for “ real’’ police school to join the special-forces. For someone with that background, Jovica speaks passionately, emotionally. “ Till I turned 14 years old, we had war. That is too much for young people. Maybe it matured us with experience. You learnt to survive with little; a piece of bread and a glass of water. We enjoyed small things. Life was tough and beautiful at once,’’ he said. His grandparents died some years ago. “ There is a lot of empty space in my heart because of that,’’ he said. If there was a well-tuned running machine at the 2016 La Ultra, it had to be Jovica. A black belt in judo and jujitsu, he seemed energy reined in. He came to Leh with two close friends, Dalibor and Alex. Jovica met Dalibor much before his running career took off; at a “ small’’ run in Belgrade, “ a six hour-race for which I had arrived in walking shoes and jeans.’’ In the stipulated six hours, Jovica covered over 60 km. Dalibor encouraged him to take up running. “ That was the start of a voyage,’’ he said. Later, back in Belgrade after a mission in the mountains with the special-forces team, he chanced upon a magazine article on a race in the Sahara. He decided to go for it. He was the first Serbian to attempt the race and completed it in seventeenth position.

Jovica Spajic (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jovica Spajic (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On return, he and Dalibor formed a group called: Ultra-runners Serbia. “ It is like a community. There are people from age 15 to 55. It isn’t just about running; it is about life, friendship, progress. Each of us, have some talent, we express that in our community; we try to motivate others to find their strong point. There is nothing aggressive. We don’t judge anyone. That is not our purpose. The elder generation talks with sorrow and pessimism about world and war. We try to be different. We want to tell positive stories to the next generation and create in their head, space for forgiveness. We don’t blame anyone. We must put a full stop and move on; there is no use staying in the past,’’ Jovica said dipping into the many things ultra-running seemed, in his life, the first 14 years of it, affected by war. “ Ultra-running is like a river. It is like life, flowing along. Life is a synonym for ultra-running,’’ he said. According to him, Serbia’s ultra-running community has the quality of an oasis. “ It is our space. We don’t make huge plans. We take small steps. In big space you can’t make a difference; in small space you can,’’ he said. Following the race in the Sahara, Jovica started to regularly participate in races and push his limits. He ran Italy’s longest road race, the ` Ultra Milano San Remo’ and the ` Race of Titans’ in the Italian Alps. In due course he became the national record holder in running for 24 hour-runs, 48 hours, 72 hours and six day-races. Then he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the maximum number of sit-ups – 30,000 repetitions in 24 hours. In 2015, he was accepted to run the Badwater Ultramarathon in California’s Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth. Training for it in Serbia with its nice weather, was tough. Jovica trained with several jackets piled on to create a very hot environment. “ It was odd doing so in the centre of town,’’ he said. In Death Valley, he had just one day to acclimatize. “ I had no strategy or tactics, I ran with my heart,’’ he said. Jovica completed the iconic race in about 29 hours to secure eighth position overall, the highest place that year for a European. On the final climb to Mt Whitney Portal, he had the best split timing; all that growing up in the forest and hills of Serbia must have helped, he said. Among those Jovica met at Badwater was, Grant Maughan. “ When you say Badwater, you think of Grant and a few other runners. It is like his playground,’’ Jovica said. Fifteen to 20 miles into the run in Death Valley, Jovica saw Grant struggle with stomach issues. He asked Grant if he needed help. “ He just laughed and said: everything is okay mate; this is normal, this is ultra-running. That’s one thing about Grant – one moment he is like near dead, 15 minutes later, he is full of energy,’’ Jovica said. Grant, who has been a podium finisher at Badwater, ended the 2015 race in ninth position overall, just after Jovica. In conversations that followed, Jovica said he would like to run with Grant sometime.

In Leh, Mark Woolley and I knocked on Grant’s door at the Leh-Chen hotel, to see if the 52 year-old would speak to freelance journalist. An athletic weather beaten man of medium height opened the door wondering why his sleep had been disturbed and yet ready for whatever the interruption held. Let me start the profile backwards, beginning with what I discovered last, long after the 2016 La Ultra had ended, Grant was in the US and I was in Mumbai. Grant Maughan is an excellent one man-band. Sometime amid his travels to run races, he should cut a disc. One of his songs is about the Australian Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, who like Ernest Shackleton, had endured an epic story of survival. If you decide to compose a song for somebody, there must be much empathy therein and when the subject is exploration and Antarctica, you can imagine what the heart identifies with. Growing up in Australia, Grant liked the active life; he liked surfing, he also liked motorcycles becoming at some point in his life the owner of a KTM 640 (one of his travelogues is about an 8500 km-motorcycle trip around Scandinavia, including a visit to Murmansk in Arctic Russia). Travel and adventure appealed much to Grant. He became a sailor. He was skipper aboard yachts, ships and fishing trawlers. The world’s oceans taught him to cope with solitude and sleep deprivation; he also became familiar with the uncertainties of weather, how cold and icy things can be. Somewhere along the way, while helping to unload cargo that had been lashed down to the ship’s deck, a mishap occurred leaving him blind in one eye. Grant took to running only in 2011. He quickly moved through his first marathons to embrace the ultramarathon, which he felt was his calling. The portfolio of runs he has been to, is diverse – there are desert runs, runs in arid terrain and runs in snowbound terrain pulling sledges. He has a twin brother, who – according to Grant – is quite unlike him. Grant was married for 19 years. When he took to running, his wife joined the support crew for one of his races. “ It was nice of her to do so,’’ he said. He has no children. “ My wife and I, we made a conscious decision not to have children,’’ he said. The couple later separated because they weren’t getting much time together. They remain “ best of friends.’’

Grant Maughan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Grant Maughan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Grant seemed to keep a packed calendar. As of late August, his race history, available on the Internet, had been updated till February 2016 with the last event being the Alaskan winter classic, the Iditerod Trail Invitational. The list was an eclectic mix – many ultramarathons, a handful of marathons and a bunch of triathlons including Ironman; altogether 52 races, since 2011. In mid-July 2016, he successfully completed yet another edition of the Badwater Ultramarathon (finishing it in sixth position overall), by July end he was in Leh to acclimatize for the 333 km-La Ultra and race done in mid-August; he was expected within days thereafter in Colorado to run the Leadville Trail 100, a demanding 100 miler and among the world’s best known ultramarathons. “ I tend to recover well,’’ he said. Interestingly, Grant also said he gets bored very easily and needs activity. Further he is on a trip to stay healthy and get the most out of as little training as possible – the best option therefore, was to make running a lifestyle, hop from one race to another (one of the gathered runners pointed out that the flip side of this approach, is you may run some events sub-optimally). He found the people in ultra-running agreeable company. On the small lawns of Leh-Chen, on the eve of leaving for Diskit, he quipped how different the people around would be had it been a gathering of triathletes or marathon runners and not those into the ultramarathon. “ I find ultra-runners a quieter lot. They are an interesting bunch of people,’’ he said. Besides running, seafaring and surfing, Grant is also a mountaineer who has climbed in North and South America. He heard of La Ultra from among others, Mark Woolley. He registered for the 2016 race. Reaching Leh – a town he had visited decades ago as a young traveler – he rested and then progressively set out to acclimatize for the race. One of the things he did was go up Stok Kangri, the peak climbed by many for a shot at 20,000 ft. He felt good. For race bib number, he had chosen `640,’ after his bike. Coincidentally, another runner the organizers reached out to was his young admirer from the 2015 edition of Badwater, Jovica Spajic. The opportunity the latter had dreamt of – to run with Grant – materialized. Reaching Leh, Jovica and his team, after spending some time in town, moved to Wari La, the pass that sits in the middle of the La Ultra course, to train. August 11, from the start of the race in Diskit, Jovica and Grant ran together.

Tim Berrow (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tim Berrow (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nick Dillon (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nick Dillon (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The night of August 11, medics Tim and Nick were at North Pullu when the runners reported for their check-in. It had rained along the way and with elevation, it had got quite cold. The small café at North Pullu was where the runners were assessed and warm drinks had. The personnel of the local ambulance service, was also present. Jovica’s entry into the café made heads turn. He resembles Virat Kohli, India’s cricket sensation. At North Pullu, the medics did a quick assessment of Grant. “ He was okay, there was nothing out of the ordinary,’’ Tim said. Past North Pullu, problems began. Tim was by now tracking and checking the first lot of runners for although they led the pack, that very fact meant they were ascending fast. Gaining altitude quickly can be dangerous. As the medics put it, broadly speaking the vanguard of the runners’ column where the strong racers are, runs the danger of coming up too fast; the middle is usually alright, the caboose is slow for valid reasons. So their eyes were on the front and the rear of the column. Up ahead, Tim posed simple questions to the runners. “ What I was looking for was: can they answer me in a full sentence, a quick inspection of how they were running or walking…such things,’’ he said. At roughly 15,800 ft Grant who had slowed down, said he was finding it hard to breathe. Tim had noticed changes. So he kept monitoring. At Khardung La, he once again caught up with Grant. By now Grant’s difficulty in breathing was clear. “ It was obviously pulmonary edema. I didn’t have to get my stethoscope out, I could hear the crackling,’’ Tim said. The treatment for HAPE is descent to lower altitude and administering oxygen if needed. Inhaling bottled oxygen disqualifies a runner. So Tim walked with Grant till he descended to 15,800 ft on the other side. Tim’s vehicle followed with oxygen cylinder aboard. At 15,800 ft, Tim checked Grant once again. He seemed able to continue without medical assistance. “ This was a case of quick onset and quick recovery,’’ Tim said. Something else – something very central to the 2016 edition of La Ultra – happened at Khardung La. When Grant struggled, Jovica waited. Grant told the young Serbian runner to continue and not waste time. Jovica not only waited for Grant’s medical assessment to be done but on the descent thereafter, he carried Grant’s small backpack till he felt sufficiently well. Abhinav Sharma, one of the members of Grant’s support crew, was waiting for the runners at South Pullu on the Leh-side of Khardung La. “ It was a humanizing instance,’’ he said of the moment Grant reached South Pullu, the effects of Khardung La visible on him.

Kieren D'Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kieren D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Towards noon, August 12, Kieren D’ Souza reached the finish line of the 111 km race. It was a new course record – 15:30 hours. The August 19, 2015 issue of Hindustan Times has the story of the previous course record; 17 hours and 57 minutes. It was set by Parwez Malik a scrap dealer from Dehradun in Uttarakhand. Parwez was the first Indian to complete the 111 km race of La Ultra. While Kieren placed first in the 111km segment in 2016, the second position was secured by Rahul Shukla, an engineer from Bhubaneshwar. Third was Hari Om of the Indian Navy. Kieren’s timing is considered to be very good for that distance, in a high altitude environment. “ Under similar conditions, the best we can expect internationally is just over 14 hours. However, we must appreciate that we got extremely lucky this year. We started off with poor weather conditions, which cleared very soon. Best conditions in the last seven years. Let’s not make too much of these timings as they can’t be compared from year to year for the earlier mentioned reasons,’’ Dr Chauhan said. In September, Kieren was scheduled to travel to Greece for Spartathlon. “ Give him 2-3 years, he will be right up there,’’ Dr Chauhan said. A remarkable story from the 111 km race would be that of Nahila Hernandez. Born in Azerbaijan and now a Mexican national, she is one of Latin America’s top female ultramarathon runners. Among other milestones in her career, she was the first woman to cross South America’s Atacama Desert. Nahila’s baggage arrived late in Leh upsetting her acclimatization plans. Then, a day before setting out for Diskit, she fell ill with food poisoning. Till the time of leaving for Diskit, she was under the care of the medics. Nahila had originally registered for La Ultra’s 222 km race. She switched to the shorter 111 km and essayed a wonderful run, surviving on just fluids. But what should interest amid all this is that the ones who immediately followed Kieren were those from the 333 km-pack; they had over 200 km more to go and yet their pace wasn’t terribly slow compared to Kieren’s.

Mark Steven Woolley was seated nearby when I interviewed Grant. They were of the same age. At one point, Mark couldn’t help intervening, hearing Grant’s views on running – it was so similar to his own. Yet as the two runners explored that similarity further, disparities emerged. Grant said he is a loner. Mark wasn’t, indeed among the gathered foreign runners he was the one who mixed with others the most. Grant didn’t think much of competing; Mark admitted to occasionally drawing energy from it. Late evening, on August 12, several kilometres away from Leh, the headlights of our car picked up a runner, paced by a member of his support crew and proceeding diligently to Sakti. It was Mark. He was in many ways the real hero of La Ultra’s 2016 edition. While people blaze their way to the finish line or complete strenuous races on their first attempt, Mark had been denied the satisfaction of completing the 333 km stretch twice before. Mark is an accomplished ultra-runner with races like UTMB, Badwater and Spartathlon under his belt. He was also into martial arts. Mark is an Englishman, living and running in Spain. He is a school teacher; he teaches Physics. Elena, his wife who was part of his support crew for the first time on the 2016 edition of La Ultra, is a photographer. Mark had previously completed the 222km version of the race successfully. According to La Ultra lore, his disinterest in coming back was among reasons that spawned the longer 333 km race.

Mark Steven Woolley (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mark Steven Woolley (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A new race born, in 2014, Mark attempted it. That first time at La Ultra’s 333 km race, he overtook his nearest competitor and led, till at kilometer-317 – past Tanglang La – he collapsed. He went into shock. The descent from Tanglang La to Dibrung, in its early portion, is a mix of sharply contrasting ambiances. Depending on the time of day, just after the pass, you get a sunlit mountain face. The road then proceeds to a gully, takes a U-turn and straddles the opposite mountain face, which is in the shadow and hence cold. “ Up there, the big issue is high altitude but sometimes you have the more common problems like hypothermia and hypoglycemia. Mark was extremely low on energy and suddenly the temperature dipped because he was in the shadow region,’’ Dr Chauhan said of what triggered collapse and shock. That year was weird. Probably because 2014 was the inaugural year for La Ultra’s 333 km-challenge, of nine people running the distance, eight ended up DNF. Only one – Kim Rasmussen of Denmark – finished. Mark’s was the last of the DNFs, which had begun from kilometer-48. On the second occasion, in 2015, Mark ran up and over Khardung La in good time but then began worrying if he had done it too fast. He wondered whether such an approach to altitude would elicit a toll later in the race. Next day, when he experienced difficulty breathing, a rather convincing notion that he was unwell, took hold. With memory of previous collapse alive in mind, he lost much time insisting on being checked by the medics when the medics couldn’t find anything wrong. Eventually he finished the race 52 minutes after the cut off time for the whole course. 2016 was his third attempt. “ I like to finish what I started,’’ Mark had said ahead of the 2016 race. If there was any runner, everyone wanted to see finish the race successfully – it was Mark. You have to have a big heart to return three times for La Ultra’s 333 km-ordeal. I had asked him if three times on the same route may deny runner’s mind a sense of motivation. “ No, you start with an empty head. Every race is new. Besides this is the Himalaya,’’ Mark said.

August 12. Ryoichi Sato and Mark on the approach to Goba Guest House, Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

August 12. Ryoichi Sato (left) and Mark on the approach to Goba Guest House, Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Morning of August 12, as they came off Khardung La and South Pullu, the 333 km-runners were free to halt at the Goba Guest House in Leh, which served as the race organizers’ base camp. Waiting for Mark there was Ryoichi Sato. In La Ultra circles, everyone spoke of the Japanese runner with respect. His visiting card offered a glimpse of the races he had run: among them were the Marathon Des Sables, Spartathlon, 24 Hour World Endurance Marathon, Annapurna 100, Mustang Mountain Trail Race and a clutch of races in Japan. In 2013, he required a pacemaker to be attached to his heart. Two months later, he completed La Ultra in its 222 km-avatar. “ I got to know of his pacemaker only after I reached Leh. That year’s medical director almost had a fit when she learnt of it. Sato has some crazy runs in some amazing times. The pacemaker wasn’t something that bothered me. I did tell him that he needed to listen to his body a bit more now and not be as reckless as he would have been a couple of years ago,’’ Dr Chauhan said. In 2014, Sato had attempted the 333 km-version of La Ultra along with Mark. “ Sato San’’ met Mark a little away from the guest house and ran a short distance with him. A while later, refreshed and rested, Mark left the guest house on the next leg of the race. That was hours ago. Now a blazing afternoon and much of an evening later, on the run up to Sakti, he seemed to have slowed down.

Alexander Holzinger-Elias (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Alexander (Alex) Holzinger-Elias (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Gone past Mark was Alexander (Alex) Holzinger-Elias, a German businessman based in Bahrain. Both Alex and his wife Dunya are into running. Alex, who has been a regular at The Comrades in South Africa, had completed the 111 km race of La Ultra in 2015. That year, he placed second, behind Parwez Malik. He had then taken a leap of faith and opted for the 333 km category in 2016, skipping progression through the intermediate 222 km option. Training was a problem. Bahrain is a hot place with neither mountains nor altitude. Alex opted to run long hours early in the morning and after work, besides making the best use of the treadmill and the stair-master. With Dunya as coach and manager, he also did a couple of races, which he thought may prepare him for La Ultra. Dunya’s bid at the 111 km race in 2016 ended quite early. She missed the North Pullu cut-off by 15 minutes. It was her second DNF; in 2015, she had stopped at kilometer-54. On August 12, she joined Alex’s crew. The least experienced of the 333 km-field, Alex kept a steady pace. He was the last of the four runners to reach Leh from Diskit, but by Karu, on the approach to Sakti, he had overtaken Mark. That was the pecking order August 12 evening; past Mark and his crew we came across Alex and his team. Ahead lay a small guest house – Solpon Camping & Home Stay – and beyond that, the 17,200 ft high-Wari La.

On the ascent to Wari La; Mark and Peter, the cyclist (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On the ascent to Wari La; Mark and Peter, the cyclist (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jovica and Grant had already reached Sakti and Solpon Camping & Home Stay. They rested for about an hour and 45 minutes. Late night, they set off for Wari La. Grant had to exercise caution. They were moving into high altitude. But Jovica was prepared for Wari La; this was where he had trained ahead of the race. The duo made brisk work of the pass. “ Their initial target was to reach the top of Wari La in about eight hours. They did so in six hours,’’ Dhanush K. N, who was part of Jovica’s support crew, said. Meanwhile very late at night, Alex and Mark too reached the guest house. Early morning as the sun revealed the beauty of Wari La and the view from there; all four runners were once again in the same region. Jovica and Grant were returning from the top while Alex and Mark were on their way up. Grant seemed fine after Wari La. Tim and Nick had an observation about the Jovica-Grant partnership. It worked to mutual benefit. The tough older runner had the drive of the younger one to draw motivation from; the younger one avoided the folly of heading too fast to altitude thanks to older runner around. It kept both in a stretched but mutually beneficial, relatively safe zone, aware of potential complications yet avoiding it. On the ascent to Wari La, Mark kept a slow, steady pace. He had chosen his crew carefully. Two of his crew members had been with him on his previous attempts; the third was Elena. “ For me, the most important thing in a crew is absence of conflict,’’ he said. He had that peace in his team; Mark’s was a happy, relaxed crew. It graced runner too. Mark was never beyond a “ hi’’ or a “ hello’’ on the road.

Peter (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Peter (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Unlike cities, mountains are quiet. From a couple of bends above, I heard Mark say hello to Peter. The cyclist had slowly caught up with Mark. Peter was a police officer from Germany. His touring bicycle – a Velotraum – had pannier bags at the rear and up front. Loaded, it was heavy. “ I like my independence,’’ he told me. For a while, cyclist and runner seemed side by side, a moment Elena tried to capture on camera. Then the cyclist pulled ahead. On Wari La, Peter watched from the side as Mark reached the pass and turned back. The Wari La portion of the La Ultra course, is an up and down along the same road. As Mark left, we went looking for Jovica and Grant. Peter stayed on alone at the pass, enjoying his rest, before cycling on to Nubra.

Grant rests for a while (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Grant rests for a while (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jovica and Grant on the road to Rumtse (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jovica and Grant on the road to Rumtse (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The road to Sakti and Wari La branches off from Karu on the Manali-Leh highway. Jovica and Grant were not at Karu; they had already gone past the junction. The sun was now blazing; it was hot, close to noon. We met them at Upshi, where the duo had decided to break for lunch. Jovica sat in his support vehicle. Grant sat on a chair in a dhaba (a roadside eatery), dressed in racing attire amid a bunch of tourists. Few looked up from their banter, food and selfies. The road from Upshi to Rumtse was testing. Not only was it the hottest part of day, there was vehicular traffic and in Ladakh’s still air, every molecule of smoke invades one’s nose and lungs. The runners proceeded carefully on this section. By all accounts, it was Grant who kept the steadier head on these hot, irritating sections of road with traffic. Exhaustion was slowly creeping in. Jovica paused to rest. Grant walked considerably ahead and decided to take rest himself. The support crew created a chamber within their vehicle for him to rest, windows masked with dark fabric. He chose to lie down on the road, legs up on the vehicle’s bumper. Before the start of the race, Grant had mentioned that he would like to keep his breaks for rest, not full-fledged but partial. Bare earth was perfect; neither here, nor there. Late at night, after a two hour-halt at the guest house in Rumtse, Grant and Jovica set off for the last high pass on the La Ultra course – Tanglang La.

Grant, evening of August 13; Rumtse is still some ways off and beyond that lay, Tanglang La (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Grant, evening of August 13; Rumtse is still some ways off and beyond that lay, Tanglang La (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Probably because it is the highest and most publicized, when it comes to mountain passes in Ladakh, Khardung La is everything. Tourists in cars, bikers, cyclists – all want a photo or selfie there. When you run La Ultra from Diskit, things are different. As the first test by altitude along the way, Khardung La takes its toll. But a seasoned runner is still fresh and able to tackle the challenge. Next night, it is a tired runner who reaches Wari La. However Wari La is overall gentle unless the weather plays truant. Picturesque and tucked away, it pulls the visitor in without a mission mode in the frame. August 13 night, as Jovica and Grant began the ascent to Tanglang La, they were not only tired from being on the road (almost continuously) for more than two days, they were sleep deprived and the approach to the pass was long and winding. The dimensions of these mountains hit you. The frustration is perhaps more at night, for in the darkness you can’t see the far bends or estimate how much more distance is left to reach your objective. Headlamps show you the way; they don’t show you the world.

Jovica, evening of August 13 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jovica, evening of August 13; the 333 km-runners have been on the road from August 11, 8 PM, onward (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The unending climb took its toll on Jovica. He grew tad irritable. At one point he asked me if I knew exactly how many kilometres remained to the pass. He seemed searching for an answer better than the regular Indian reply of: it’s just over there. Although I had been on that road before as a traveler, I hadn’t observed it well enough to estimate distance, particularly at night. My response was disappointingly vague. Another time Jovica wondered if this combination of endless ascent and their tired selves was “ some sort of scientific experiment.’’ Grant assured in a composed voice that their problems stemmed from the night denying them perspective to gauge distance. Grant was however battling other worries – it was cold, exhaustion had been creeping in and Tanglang La was once again, a return to elevation. Not far from the pass, the medics came by checking on the duo. The runners asked if the medic’s car could be driven slowly so that they could follow its lights to the pass. That’s how Jovica and Grant reached Tanglang La. It was bitterly cold.

Morning of August 14; Grant and Jovica on the final stretch to Dibrung (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Morning of August 14; past Tanglang La, Grant and Jovica on the final stretch to Dibrung (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The medics assessed Grant. “ Jovica was tired. But Grant was not engaging mentally. He wasn’t responding. We quickly took him to the vehicle and turned the heating on. His oxygen saturation was 65 while everyone else was at about 75. He was told that medically he is unfit to continue for the next ten minutes. He accepted that,’’ Nick said. During the ten minutes that followed, Grant had a litre of water and two chocolate bars. He was reassessed. His oxygen saturation was now around 85. His lungs were clear. He was allowed to continue the race. According to Nick it was a case of exposure exhaustion. Jovica once again waited till Grant was back on his feet. Tanglang La, appearing late in the race when runner is exhausted, has always been the real challenge in La Ultra. “ The pass is 309 km into the race. That’s a lot of running by any standards even if it is in the plains. Now add high altitude and extreme cold to it. This year’s medics pushed my extreme approach too. They are thorough professionals who appreciate what runners are doing and what it means to them. As a support team, they were the find of the event. We are still learning how the human body responds to endurance events in such extreme conditions,’’ Dr Chauhan said.

Mark on the final stretch to Dibrung (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mark on the final stretch to Dibrung (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At the 2016 Badwater Ultramarathon where Grant finished sixth, completing the race in seventeenth position was Ray Sanchez. In 2011, Ray, running La Ultra in its then 222 km-avatar, had a memorable tryst with Tanglang La. It was there, delirious and disoriented, that he lost his lead to Sharon Gayter who went on to win that edition of the race. I didn’t specifically ask the runners but I suppose, crossing Tanglang La is a psychological threshold in La Ultra. You know you are now on the home stretch albeit still with work to do for someone racing against time, as there is one final cut-off – 333 km in 72 hours – to meet. The lead duo of 2016 had however made it to the pass with much time to spare. The peaks around wore a crown of early morning sunshine as Jovica and Grant jogged down the descent from Tanglang La. A little over a half marathon now remained. Their passage to Dibrung was largely uneventful. Sixty hours and 37 minutes after they commenced their run in Diskit, Jovica and Grant crossed the finish line in Dibrung, together. It was a new course record. Grant later described his partnership with Jovica during the race, as akin to a “ father-son relationship.’’

Grant, Jovica and their support crew at the finish line (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Grant, Jovica and their support crew at the finish line (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mark and his crew reach the finish line in Dibrung (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mark and his crew reach the finish line in Dibrung (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Alex at the finish line (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Alex at the finish line (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The previous morning, Alex had reached Wari La before Mark. On the way down, Alex decided to rest some time at the guest house in Sakti. Mark didn’t. He regained his lead. But at Karu he rested and Alex went ahead. The latter, reaching Rumtse ahead of Mark elected to rest for about two hours. Mark reached Rumtse late but kept his rest short. Some hours after Jovica and Grant had crossed the finish line, it was Mark we met first on the Dibrung side of Tanglang La. Alex was still a bend or two below on the other side of the pass. At one point, as he walked down the sunlit face of Tanglang La, Mark said, “ my energy level is fine. My legs feel like blocks of concrete.’’ If you run your hand on the bone above Mark’s ankle, you can feel a line of screws beneath the skin. There’s a rod in there. On the knee of his other leg, to the side, is the scar of a surgery gone by. Both are joints that have seen much work. “ The ankle holds up but the knee tends to hurt,’’ he had said in Leh ahead of the race. Elena walked with him for a while on the home stretch to Dibrung. Just before the finish line he was joined by his whole team. That last bit, they walked together. On his third attempt at the 333 km race of La Ultra, Mark Woolley succeeded, completing it in 68 hours and 57 minutes. The finish is significant. Mark, 52, has been working on a book on his life in running. He can now write the chapter on La Ultra. It was evening by the time Alexander Holzinger-Elias reached the finish line. He had taken a chance at 333 km and cracked it in the very first attempt. He completed the race in 70 hours, 39 minutes. V.S. Ramachandran was part of Alex’s support team for the first half of the race. “ I was sure from start that Alex would complete the run,’’ he said.

Some fun at the finish line (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some fun at the finish line while waiting for the runners (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The thing about La Ultra is that because it is an extended commitment, it forges bonds. “ I think we are all sad that it’s over,’’ Alex said after the awards ceremony on August 15. “ Post-race blues,’’ Grant said smiling. Mark felt Grant is among the toughest adventure racers in his age category at present in the world. Grant thought of himself as a gypsy. This life – hopping from one race to another, encountering different cultures, enjoying the company of ultramarathon runners – suited him. He hadn’t worked the past six months. He had invested his earnings such that he could keep race-hopping. But resources were running out and he knew he would have to skipper a boat or two to further the gypsy life. I asked him if he had anticipated his troubles at Khardung La. “ I thought I went in good considering I acclimatized well and the distance seemed doable. It surprised me that the altitude got to me. There are quite a few bits and pieces of the race that I can’t remember,’’ he said. About Jovica he said, the Serbian is a talented runner, somebody to watch out for. As for La Ultra itself, Grant felt “ it is really, really extreme.’’ But describing any race as `toughest in the world,’ more than one runner cautioned, would be incorrect, for at day’s end perceptions are personal. I asked Elena if she would return to being on the support crew for Mark, now that she had made her debut at the job in Ladakh. A photographer, she didn’t consider herself a sportsperson. She wasn’t sure she would repeat the experience. People are different; some are into sports, some are creative. What each one is should be respected. She said of Mark, “ if he is angry or upset, you give him his running shoes. He goes out for a run, he is calm again.’’ Late August 2016 – I searched for Grant Maughan on the 2016 Leadville Trail 100 results. A week after La Ultra, he had finished second in his age category at Leadville.

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

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

Postscript: One month after the 333 km race in Ladakh, Grant wrote in with a small synopsis of what he had been up to. He wrote: a few days after finishing La Ultra “ I was back in Colorado to run the Leadville 100 mile trail race which I managed to do in sub-24 hours. Then I drove for two days back to Death Valley and completed the Badwater 146 mile; solo, self supported crossing and broke the record by about six hours (49 hours 42 minutes). Solo means you have to carry enough water, food and gear to get from Badwater Basin in Death Valley all the way to the summit of Mount Whitney (highest mountain in lower 48 states of the US). I pulled all the stuff in a three wheeled cart. It weighed about 85 kilo at start because of all the water you need to carry. You are not allowed to resupply along the way or even get rid of garbage. Pretty cool!”

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The altitudes of mountain passes are as mentioned in the race route map. The details of DNF from earlier editions are taken from the race’s official website. There is an article on the 2011 edition of La Ultra available in the blog archives. At that time the race was of 222 km and it started from Khardung village. The organizers have been talking of increasing the distance of the race to 555 km and 666 km, making it multi-stage alongside. An article on that too can be found in the blog archives.)