LOVE RAJ CLIMBS EVEREST FOR THE SIXTH TIME

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Indian mountaineer, Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, reached the summit of Everest for the sixth time on May 27, 2017.

A senior officer of the Border Security Force (BSF), Love Raj was on this occasion part of the ONGC Eco Everest Expedition.

He had previously climbed Everest successfully in 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013. He is the Indian mountaineer with the maximum number of Everest ascents to his credit. The May 2017 expedition was his ninth visit to Everest.

“ Love Raj reached the summit of Everest around 6.10 AM on May 27,’’ Capt. S.K. Sagwan, leader of the expedition, said when contacted. According to him, a total of four team members (including Love Raj) summitted the peak on Saturday, May 27. Three other team members were slated to commence their summit attempt on Saturday night with hopes of reaching the top by Sunday morning. “ Following his successful summit, Love Raj is on his way back to base camp,’’ Capt. Sagwan said, Saturday evening.

Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Love Raj’s sixth successful climb of Everest has happened after a long wait. It was originally slated for 2015. But that year, while Love Raj was at Everest Base Camp, the devastating earthquake that killed thousands in Nepal, struck. At Everest Base Camp, the earthquake triggered a massive avalanche with resultant casualties. The climbing season was terminated following the incident.

Love Raj is an Assistant Commandant with the BSF.

He was awarded the Padma Sri in 2014.

This blog has previously written on Love Raj and the Johar region in Kumaon that he hails from.

For more on Love Raj please try this link:   https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/everest-to-the-east/ . For an account of the 2015 avalanche including Love Raj’s experience, please try this link:  https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/everest-when-the-earthquake-struck/

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

SCIENTIST BY PROFESSION, RUNNER BY CHOICE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Given where I was headed, I had told myself that the camera would be a definite no-go. So it stayed behind in the hotel room. At the gate of the establishment I needed to be in, off went my cell phone and bag as well. They had to be surrendered. I was allowed to proceed like a scribe from journalism’s early days – two writing pads and two pens clutched in my hand for pursuit of profession. I liked that situation. It restored purity and simplicity. Like early morning run; time with oneself and nothing else before world by restless cell phone, breathless TV, exploding traffic and a thousand expectations take over. “ Careful,’’ Siddesha Hanumantappa said as I almost fell onto a nearby patch of carefully manicured green thanks to my shin splint of a leg giving away. We were at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in Bengaluru. Siddesha found a quiet conference room for the interview he had promised.

Nelamangala is a town in Bengaluru rural district. It is around 25 kilometers away from Karnataka’s capital city, towards Tumkur. This is where Siddesha was born in March 1959, one of nine siblings. His mother who was illiterate stayed a housewife. His father managed a job in the police for a while, then, he resigned and commenced a business in Nelamangala. The income generated was barely sufficient to support the family. “ Of the nine siblings, six survive. Now I am the youngest,’’ Siddesha said. Educated at a government school, he studied in Kannada medium up to the eighth standard. “ From fifth onward, I learnt English. I moved to English medium when I was in the eighth standard,’’ he said. Twelfth standard was a turning point for young Siddesha. His father, who had supported the family, passed away. His mother struggled to keep things going. Siddesha therefore decided to work. In May 1978, an opportunity emerged to join the Indian Air Force (IAF). He grabbed it. After initial training in Bengaluru, he was posted to Lucknow. There an incident happened that altered his fortunes in life. A colleague wished to desert the IAF and while doing so, he left the books he had purchased to do an engineering course, with Siddesha. It sparked an idea – why not study engineering? The IAF provided perfect room for continuing education. Alongside his regular work, Siddesha enlisted to study electrical engineering from Institution of Engineers, Kolkata. He was a dedicated student. He finished the AMIE engineering course in two and a half years. “ I gave my first exam in May 1980, the last one in December 1982,’’ he said. Next, he enlisted for M. Tech at Harcourt Butler Technical Institute (HBTI), Kanpur.  He was about to finish his first semester, when he got an offer from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to work at their Engine Division. “ Following my selection by HAL, IAF allowed me to leave,’’ Siddesha said. He joined HAL in March 1985. Two years later, seeking a change of scene, he shifted to ADA, a premier institution just established by the Government of India to design and develop the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). “ I am one of the oldest employees of ADA,’’ he said.

In his days at school decades ago, Siddesha was an active individual. He participated in any sport that entailed running. Football, kho-kho and kabaddi were his favorites. “ It wasn’t anything competitive; it was more of staying active,’’ he said. Things changed when he joined the IAF; the most significant shift perhaps being the early onset of responsibility given his father was no more by then. The young man needed to find a trajectory to move up in life. Despite the military being popularly associated with physical activity, Siddesha’s IAF days were quite different. Coming across those engineering books had rekindled the desire to study and with his joining the engineering course and completing it double quick in two and a half years, most days were spent studying. “ I would work eight hours and study up to twelve hours a day,’’ he said. During exam time, study hours increased further. Sleep wasn’t much. “ If I take up something, I become very serious about it,’’ Siddesha said. It was a trait that would show up in his running too.

Photo: courtesy Siddesha Hanumantappa

While he had all along been a sports loving person, it wasn’t until September 13, 1994 (he recalls the exact date) that running as the running it is these days for most of us, visited him. That day his wife who is an agricultural scientist and senior professor, went on outstation duty. The couple’s son, who was in nursery, was set to have an internal exam. Meanwhile, design work at office had also peaked leaving Siddesha a tired, exhausted man by the time he got home. “ The routine was to go home tired, eat and crash out,’’ he said. As alternative, he decided to seek time in the morning to spend with his son for his studies. Doing so, they woke up early and went for walk / jog together from 5.30 AM to 7.30 AM, from home to Cubbon Park and back. During this peaceful, private time, Siddesha, who would have prepared notes the previous night, taught his son what he required to know for his exams at school. The family stayed near Cubbon Park in Bengaluru. This early morning routine went on for a few years. As the days went by, the walking inched towards a mix of jogging and running. Siddesha’s son became fond of cricket. He ended up training at the Brijesh Patel Cricket Academy in 1998. When that happened, Siddesha’s daughter stepped in to fill the vacancy in the early morning walks. In due course she got selected to represent Karnataka in field hockey at the sub-junior level; she went on to play for the state at senior level too. According to Siddesha the drift to running from walking / jogging, happened mainly because of his fancy for return on investment. Running gave back much more than walking did. Even if he was teaching his children, he could jog or run alongside. “ Luckily my son and daughter were game to join me on those early morning walks. That was my biggest strength,’’ he said. From 2005 onward, with his children having made their own choice in sport, Siddesha started running solo. He would run from home to Cubbon Park and back. The distance run used to be six kilometers initially; that progressively increased to nine kilometers by 2009.

In 2009, while running at Cubbon Park, he met Rishikesh Basu and Amritha Mitra. They were part of the running group called BHUKMP. Said so, that abbreviation reminds of the Hindi word for earthquake. In the running world, it is expanded as Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ultra, Kaveri Trail, Mumbai and Puducherry. Rishikesh and Amritha pulled Siddesha into BHUKMP. “ With that, my running became really serious. Even now I train with Rishikesh Basu and Amritha. Three days a week I run with them. The remaining four days, I run alone,’’ he said. In 2010, Siddesha participated in the Kaveri Trail Marathon; he ran the full marathon. He not only completed the race but to his utter surprise he also placed first in his category. “ I was stunned,’’ he said. Thereafter podium finishes have been regular for Siddesha. On the average, he participates in roughly six full marathons a year. “ By now I would have run 48-49 marathons,’’ he said early May 2017 at ADA, “ I am not too ambitious as regards targets in running. I don’t care much for timing. I worry only about distance and remaining injury-free. If you want to run injury-free, you must stay stress-free.’’

Siddesha’s commitment to running is absolute. He runs every day no matter what. If he doesn’t run, he said, he felt his day gets spoilt; the body becomes too stiff and lethargic. A day after I met him, he was due to travel on work; catch a flight at 6 AM. He said he would make sure he got up at 1.30 AM and log in his daily run. “ I can sleep in the aircraft. Sleep is not a priority. In my case, whatever sleep I put in, it is deep sleep’’ he said, adding he didn’t need an alarm to wake up at the hour he wished to. For his weekly long run, which starts at 4 AM, he wakes up at 2.30 AM. He ensures he warms up before the run and cools down after it. In 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 he used to additionally cycle up to 70-80 kilometers per week. But that old obsession with return on investment saw him revert to full time running for it felt like more calories burnt per unit of effort. “ End of the day I am looking for returns and certainly, that feeling called runner’s high. Cycling is side dish. Main course is running,’’ he said. Siddesha does not follow any popularly tracked training protocols. He has designed his regimen himself. “ Basically, your joints should be working well and for endurance, you need a strong core,’’ he said. From September 2009 to February-March 2010, for seven days a week, he ran 30 kilometers every day. Then he got fatigued and reduced it to 22 kilometers for about nine months. Tweaking it further, he reached the norm of about 100 kilometers per week. Over two days in a week therein, he does a long run and a medium run totaling 50 kilometers. The balance 50 kilometers from the total of 100 kilometers is spread across the remaining days of the week.  “Nowadays I run a minimum of 100 kilometers per week. At times it has gone up to 150-160 kilometers a week,’’ he said.

Siddesha likes the fact that he is designing his passage through running himself. There is an element of science in listening to one’s body and making the required adjustments to keep running. Early morning, his hours spent running are an oasis of peace during which, he consciously manages the activity and strategizes for the day ahead. In some vague fashion, this private time spent running with the body sensing the challenges it is pushed into, it sending messages to the brain and the brain processing the data and transmitting instructions, harks of modern aircraft technology. Many fighter aircraft, including India’s LCA, work on digital fly by wire technology. A team of computers instantly analyzes control inputs made by a pilot, evaluating the aircraft’s speed, weight, atmospheric conditions and other variables, arriving at the optimum control deflections to achieve what the pilot has requested – this is how NASA’s page on the subject describes fly-by-wire. Multiple computers eliminate the possibility of computer failure and many computers participating in the voting exercise to decide, means an optimum decision made.

Photo: courtesy Siddesha Hanumantappa

From a design standpoint, there is an interesting paradox here. In the earlier days of aircraft evolution, emphasis was on creating a stable aircraft. However a stable aircraft means difficulty in complex aerial maneuvers, most of which are an invitation for instability. With fly-by-wire, it doesn’t matter if the aircraft is unstable. The resultant superior maneuverability promised is delivered by unstable aircraft using multiple computers for doing the real time math to meet pilot’s request. It reduces the pilot’s workload with respect to flying and allows him to concentrate on his mission. This is what makes fly by wire aircraft versatile. The personal time one finds while running, Siddesha felt, is somewhere similar to this. The body as stable platform is something we make it by conditioning it to only limited circumstances. Like in aircraft, that conditioning reduces its maneuverability in dynamic environment. As we challenge the body and it becomes unstable, the brain and its network of neurons and nerves engage furiously to make the body adapt and perform in altered conditions. Did you fly by wire today? – might as well be another way to ask: did you go for a run? That said Siddesha is clear that running is not all about pushing one’s limits. For example, after the 2010 Kaveri Trail Marathon, he participated in the Bengaluru Ultra completing its 50 kilometer-category. He didn’t enjoy it and chooses to see distances beyond the full marathon as probably not his cup of tea.  The full marathon distance is his sweet spot in running. “ After 33-35 kilometers in a marathon I am really tired and hit a wall. From 35-36 kilometers onward, all hell breaks loose. That is where I enjoy the most,’’ he said laughing.

In April 2016 and 2017, Siddesha was among those who travelled from India to the US to run the Boston Marathon. “ It was not something planned, It just happened,’’ he said attributing the participation to the Boston Qualifier time he returned at the 2015 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM), where he had finished first in his age category. He had completed the Mumbai race in 3:29. Training systematically and doing it enjoyably, he reserves his best for events. His personal best so far in the full marathon was 3:24, clocked at an event in Delhi in February 2017. “ I am always content with whatever is my performance. I keep modest targets. That helps me enjoy my running. In running, you should not be over ambitious,’’ he said. At ADA, Siddesha Hanumantappa is Project Director (LCA-Mark 2) and Technology Director (Propulsion). “ I maybe a scientist by profession but running is my first choice,’’ he said.

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

CHASING A 10 DAY-RAAM

Samim Rizvi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

It was early May 2017.

We were at a restaurant in Whitefield, Bengaluru.

Meeting Samim Rizvi had been in mind for quite some time. Putting it off to a more convenient instance wasn’t difficult. My job is to chronicle every subject’s past. The past doesn’t change if a meeting in the future is delayed – does it? That view changed on account of two developments. First, a chance perusal of a crowd funding website revealed that Samim was heading back to the US for another shot at Race across America (RAAM). Second, when I called him up to schedule a meeting, he seemed headed into the record books, albeit only `headed’ for the paperwork had been submitted and no official confirmation had been received yet. At the time of writing this article, the farthest distance cycled by anyone in a month was 6455 km by Janet Davison of UK. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this was achieved over July 24 to August 22, 2015 with Janet daily cycling a 215 km circuit around Cheshire. The 2017 RAAM would be Samim’s fourth visit to the iconic race.  When he commenced preparations for it, his team felt he could make an attempt at breaking the above mentioned record as well, using the daily training sessions for the purpose. “ I managed to cover 7777 km in a month,’’ Samim said. He decided to stop at that figure for it seemed a tidy number.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Although Bengaluru is home now, that isn’t where Samim’s story starts. His childhood was in Dongri, Central Mumbai, a suburb, infamous for its links to the Mumbai underworld. “ My father stuck to the right path,’’ Samim said. In his younger days, Samim’s father used to be active in the Scouts and the National Cadet Corps (NCC) but following an accident, which brought him to hospital, he was diagnosed with diabetes. His mother was a good shooter and Samim believes she used to run, for he has seen an old podium photo from her college days. Both parents were post graduates in organic chemistry. Samim’s father ran a perfumery business; his mother was a teacher and eventually principal of a school.  Born July 1969, Samim was the youngest of five siblings; three brothers and two sisters. While he didn’t delve much into it, he did say that growing up in Dongri was a testing experience. It was a tough neighborhood with potential to go astray lurking in every corner. By age four, he was learning martial arts, starting with karate. “ That brought discipline into my life,’’ he said. His first attempt at distance cycling happened when he was just ten years old. It was a trip from the Mumbai Central area to Borivali and back. As a school student, he read about leading sports personalities and dreamt of achieving something. He was also inspired by lines of poetry penned by Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Closer to cycling, he was in awe of some of his seniors at school who used to participate in the Mumbai-Pune cycle race. “ I don’t know why I liked distance cycling. Maybe it was the chance to be alone, no one to tell you anything, that feeling of being free. It was also perhaps closer to my personality; at home I was usually playing by myself. I was a loner – you could say,’’ he said. While that may have been perception at individual level, distance cycling has its teams. It is teams that make up the peloton of endurance races. Teams were prominent in sports magazines with articles on cycling. At age 16, Samim formed his first cycling team in Mumbai. In tune with the approximation of the entire exercise, the team was aptly called Errors. It was also occasion for Samim’s first pair of cycling shorts – it was made of satin; he had it stitched with sponge within for padding. “ Everything about Errors smacked of mistake. Thanks to what we read and saw in the media, it aspired for international but fell woefully short due to lack of gear, circumstances and experience,’’ Samim said.

Mumbai days; with the Flying Pigeon road bike (Photo courtesy: Samim Rizvi)

In the history of bicycles – indeed the history of personal transport –`Flying Pigeon’ is famous. On the Internet, it shows up as the name of a bicycle company located in Tianjin, China. Its Flying Pigeon PA-02 model (based on the Raleigh roadster) – Wikipedia says – sold more than 500 million units over 1950-2007. The next highest sold vehicle is the Honda Super Cub, which by 2008 had passed 60 million units in sales. So sought after and ubiquitous was the Flying Pigeon in China that Deng Xiaoping is reported to have once described prosperity as “ a Flying Pigeon in every household.’’ Samim’s elder brother was a strong cyclist and the brothers used to compete with others, cycling loops around Marine Lines in the city. Samim’s parents gifted his brother a Flying Pigeon road bike. Soon enough, the younger sibling took it over. Samim loved riding it fast. He obtained an eight speed gear set from a friend and for a brief while managed to make it work on the Flying Pigeon. When the gear set had to be returned, Samim converted the Flying Pigeon into a fixed wheel bike. “ Those days it was largely riders riding on tracks who used a fixie,’’Samim said. The absence of freewheel behind meant that both accelerating and decelerating the bike depended on one’s legs and cadence. It is not easy to master. Samim however adapted well to the fixie. “ Looking back, I suspect my bike handling skills and smooth peddling motion probably came from using that fixie,’’ he said. In 1986, Samim’s father and his elder brother shifted to Bengaluru. A year later, the whole family followed. Samim had his trusted Flying Pigeon along. “ It was an extension of my being that I couldn’t part with,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

In Bengaluru, Samim’s first memorable adventure in cycling was with his Indian-Chinese classmate from college, Yang Yen Thaw.  The latter had just taken delivery of a BSA Mach 1 bicycle and the two decided to head straight for Nandi Hills. It was to be a night ride. “ It was buying the cycle and heading out immediately. We had a torch but no money for the road, no food, no water,’’ Samim said. Lashed by rain, the duo were soon cold, hungry and shivering. An old lady, who took pity on them, shared some bananas. By 3 AM or so, they reached the top of Nandi Hills, where Yang ran to Nehru House and sought help. They got a warm bed and slept for two hours. Then they headed back to Bengaluru. The descent was particularly difficult for Samim, given his Flying Pigeon with a fixie. “ I was thrown all around on the road,’’ he said. That outing to Nandi Hills – nowadays the trip is a regular fixture for Bengaluru’s cycling community – was Samim’s first real taste of distance cycling. Following that first trip, he began to cycle to Nandi Hills frequently. “ I have this crazy bonding with that place,’’ he said. If you believe in the 10,000 hours-paradigm, then what followed must have contributed much to making Samim the endurance cyclist he is today.  Approximately 50 km south west of Bengaluru is the small town of Ramanagara, famous in India as the location where the block buster movie Sholay was shot in 1975. It is additionally well known as a destination for rock climbing. Samim’s father wanted him to be an engineer. In 1989, he joined an engineering college in Ramanagara. From where he stayed in Bengaluru to the college, it was a distance of 67 km. For the next four years, most working days, Samim cycled up and down logging 134 km daily. He soon became quite proficient at this commute. “ Sometimes I feel sad I passed my engineering course in four years,’’ Samim said laughing. In 1993, he joined Jet Airways on the engineering side, working there for the next two and a half years. During this period, he got side tracked into body building. “ That was the worst decision I made. My cycling suffered. I became top heavy and all that,’’ he said. A small group of men walked into the restaurant. “ My support team,’’ Samim said, introducing them. It included his son. They left agreeing to wait in the neighborhood till we finished our chat. There was a ride scheduled early next morning for which a team meeting was necessary that very evening.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Pogostemon Cablin is the botanical name for patchouli, a bushy herb of the mint family. The heavy, strong scent of patchouli has been used for centuries in perfumes and more recently in the manufacturing of incense. Karnataka (of which state, Bengaluru is capital) is a major center of India’s agarbati (incense) industry. These were among reasons Samim’s father shifted his business to Bengaluru. Besides being a perfumer, he was also local agent for a French perfume company. In the early 1990s, there was a period when the price of patchouli oil ruled high and supply was low. Someone told Samim’s father of a container load of the highest quality available. The deal was almost finalized, when Samim took a sniff from the sample bottle and warned his father that it wasn’t top quality oil; he was being swindled. Alarmed his father sent the sample for testing. It turned out to be low grade oil. Samim seemed to have a nose for fragrances. His father suggested that the engineer move to France to do a formal course in perfumery sciences. He did so, spending time in Grasse in southern France for the purpose. Being in France meant something else too – cyclist side tracked into body building and regretting the decision, got back into cycling. No better country to make that homecoming, than France. On his return to India however, his family failed to use his newly acquired skills in the perfumery trade. They put him instead into the agarbati business, where Samim set himself up to make niche, high end products. Just as this enterprise was taking off, his father lost his longstanding business with the French. That restricted cash flow. Amid this, Samim’s mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. The large family, living together, was shaken up. They managed to find alternative accommodation. But debt started piling up. The agarbati business was shut down. Their original house was taken over by the bank. It was a desperate time. What helped Samim at this juncture was what he had learnt since age four – martial arts. In the years that followed, he had become a first degree black belt in karate and judo and a second degree black belt in taekwondo. He had also won a silver medal in boxing for Karnataka at one of the National Games. Plus he was into cycling. In 2005, putting all this together, he set himself up as a personal trainer. This was a turning point for the better. Clients seemed to like his work. Income was decent; Samim’s wife had also begun working by now.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

RAAM was started by John Marino in 1982, as the Great American Bike Race. The first race featuring four riders commenced at Santa Monica in California and concluded at the Empire State Building in New York. Lon Haldeman was the winner in 1982 cycling the distance in nine days twenty hours and two minutes. The race has always run from the US west coast to the east; it covers roughly 4800 km. Unlike the better known Tour de France, which is composed of multiple stages, RAAM proceeds as a single stage with an overall cut off time. Winners typically complete the length of the race in eight to nine days. Given near continuous cycling (very few breaks are taken), sleep deprivation has always been one of the major challenges on RAAM. As a result, riders may hallucinate. According to Wikipedia, in 2006, a solo enduro division was added to race categories, which requires racers to take rest at specified points for a total of forty hours. These changes were made to improve safety and shift the emphasis from fighting sleep deprivation to long distance cycling speed. Interestingly, affection for this format faded over time and it was eventually removed from RAAM. The official RAAM champion now is the winner in the traditional format. On the average, participants make do with around one and a half hours of sleep every day. In 2014, Austrian cyclist Christophe Strasser won his second RAAM cycling 4860.2 km in seven days, fifteen hours and fifty six minutes, translating to an average speed of 26.43 km per hour. A year after RAAM commenced its experiment with the now defunct enduro division; back in India, Samim was having a tryst with something different from cycling. Although committed cyclist and having sound endurance thereby, he hadn’t got into running in the real sense of the word. Yet in September 2007, at the prodding of his friend Arjun, he ran 1100 km from Bengaluru to Mumbai (some deviations en route included) over 22 days. Then, he cycled back to Bengaluru in three and a half days. It was at the end of this trip that Samim did an Internet search for the toughest race in the world. Among the results that popped up was: RAAM. It had a qualifying norm – you had to ride 675 km in 24 hours.

Training youngsters in martial arts (Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi)

By now Samim was participating in cycle races in Bengaluru and long distance rides. Among popular distance trips from the city is the Bengaluru-Ooty-Bengaluru ride. Samim’s fastest time on this route, riding a Trek alloy road bike, was roughly 27 hours. Dinesh Reddy, owner of Red Rooster Racing, was among those who tracked Samim’s Bengaluru-Mumbai run. He offered to help out with RAAM. Samim shifted to racing with Red Rooster briefly. Although Red Rooster provided him with a Specialized Tarmac road bike, the arrangement didn’t last long. So it was with Bulldog Sports that Samim got through his RAAM qualifier. It was done on the Nandi Hills road (using the Specialized Tarmac); he notched up 701 km in 24 hours. According to Samim, he was the first Indian and the third Asian to qualify for RAAM. Of great assistance were folks from the local arm of Cisco. Some of them were his clients (as personal trainer) and they had come to cheer him on the qualification ride. Accepted for the 2010 RAAM, Samim estimated his total costs at Rs 30 lakhs (three million rupees). Cisco helped raise funds. For the race in the US, he bought a new bike using part of the resources Cisco provided – a Specialized S-Works Roubaix. To train for RAAM, besides his regular sessions, Samim spent 25 days cycling in Ooty.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Samim’s first RAAM was a bad experience. The race commenced at Oceanside, California. Past Flagstaff in Arizona, on a long downhill section, his support vehicle came up alongside and inadvertently pushed him against the hill on one side of the road. As it did so, the front wheel of the spare bike mounted behind the vehicle, clipped against Samim’s shoulder. Given the incident was happening at speed, he flew off the bike. For about 15 minutes he was unconscious. Then he pulled himself up and resumed cycling. “ At that time I knew my RAAM was over. I had hit my head on the ground and my body was badly bruised. I kept going but the problem in RAAM is that just going on is not enough. For instance, there is enough uphill in this race that is equivalent to doing Everest thrice back to back,’’ he said. He somehow reached Mexican Hat, typically associated with nasty weather. When the rains hit and temperature dropped to two degrees, he found that the team hadn’t packed in rain gear. He was reduced to cycling wearing a plastic bag. “ I rode 100 miles like that,’’ he said. At Durango, Colorado when he got back on to the bike after a brief rest, he was seized by vertigo. Then he fell unconscious and was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. It was the end of the 2010 RAAM for Samim. Durango was roughly a third into the race. Returning to India, Samim busied himself with distance cycling on the local circuit; he kept doing Bengaluru-Ooty-Bengaluru and Bengaluru-Chamundy-Bengaluru.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise….

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free….

In 1968, the year before Samim was born, British rock group The Beatles released their ninth studio album named after the group. The album also came to be known as the White Album. Many of the songs in the album were written over March-April 1968 during the band’s time at a transcendental meditation program in Rishikesh. One of the songs therein was Blackbird; Samim liked this song. Samim returned to RAAM two more times, on both occasions supported by Globeracers. In 2011, by day four, his sleep deprivation was causing hallucinations. Among what he imagined was, a blackbird following him. That year, he completed RAAM’s entire distance in 12 days, just within overall cut-off. The completion made him eligible for a permanent bib number; his is 400. It also spared him need to requalify for the race. “ That was my best year,’’ Samim said. The phone rang; a reminder of team meeting due. In situations like RAAM and preparing for RAAM, every cyclist’s team has as much say on matters, as cyclist himself.

Kick boxing (Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi)

Grasse, the commune in southern France, where Samim went to do his course in perfumery sciences is often called the perfume capital of the world. Home to a prosperous perfume business since the 18th century, it is the center of the French perfume industry. Its microclimate is said to have been apt for flower farming, the place is sheltered from sea air and water availability is good thanks to its location in the hills. Several tonnes of jasmine, a flowering plant originally brought to these parts by the Moors in the 16th century, are now harvested annually in Grasse. Roughly 675 km north-west from Grasse is the French capital, Paris. This great European city is base for the oldest long distance road event in cycling; participants pedal some 600 km westward from Paris to Brest in Brittany and back. In the world of cycling, it is called Paris-Brest-Paris or PBP. In cycling parlance, it is a brevet event meaning the cyclist is unsupported. Riders can buy supplies along the route but support by motor vehicles is prohibited except at check points. There is a 90 hour-limit and the clock runs continuously. In 2011, three months after his successful completion of that year’s RAAM, Samim reached France to attempt PBP. He hadn’t trained specifically for the event, trusting things to work well after a good RAAM. It did. He completed PBP’s 1230 km-stretch in 72 hours, 15 minutes. As of May 2017, it was still the fastest time by an Indian. The 2011 event was topped by Christophe Bocquet of France, who zipped through the distance in 44 hours, 13 minutes. But one swallow does not a summer make. Two years later, it seemed 2010 all over again for Samim, albeit differently. Returning to RAAM in 2013, he was forced to give up half way through the race. This time, he acknowledged, his training had been quite inadequate. “ I wasn’t prepared at all,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Samim Rizvi

Getting ready for the 2017 RAAM, Samim and his team decided to include in preparations; that crack at breaking the record for maximum distance cycled in a month. He logged up 7777 km; according to him, the ratification process, which takes time, is underway. Samim feels he would have covered more distance were it not for the state of Indian roads and his bike giving up in between, forcing him to cycle a couple of days on a heavier, slower mountain bike. The preparations for RAAM haven’t been without challenges. While returning from an outing in Nandi Hills, Samim suffered a road accident. One of his Specialized bicycles was mounted on his car’s rear when it was rammed from behind. The bike was completely damaged. As replacement, the guilty party presented the RAAM cyclist with an ordinary Indian roadster. One day he arrived for work at a client’s house on the roadster. The client, who was supportive of Samim’s passion for cycling, offered to help. RAAM in mind, orders were placed for a Look 695 road bike. Further, a crowd funding campaign was underway to meet the expenses of the US trip. The support crew is drawn from friends he has known for long in Bengaluru. He was scheduled to leave for the US in June. “ The goal is to eventually complete RAAM in ten days,’’ Samim said. It had been a long chat. Bill paid; we stepped out of the mall in which the restaurant was located. A quick couple of photos and Samim took leave, hurrying off into a nearby lane to join his waiting team.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with the subject. Details are as provided by him. Except the first photo, the rest have been downloaded from the subject’s Facebook page and used with his permission.)     

LOOKING BACK AT BOSTON 2017

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In American history, the battles of Lexington and Concord are important being the first battles of the American Revolutionary War. These battles, which took place on April 19, 1775, marked the outbreak of armed conflict between Great Britain and 13 of its colonies in British America. Same day, 86 years later, the first bloodshed of the American Civil War occurred, courtesy the Baltimore riot of 1861. According to Wikipedia, thirty three years after the Baltimore riot, in 1894, Frederic T. Greenhalge, the 38th governor of Massachusetts, proclaimed April 19 as Patriots’ Day to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord. Roughly two years since the practice of Patriots’ Day commenced in Massachusetts, the first modern Olympic Games were held over April 6-15 at Athens, Greece in 1896. The manager of the inaugural US Olympic team was John Graham, who was also a member of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), founded in 1887. Inspired by the Olympic marathon, he, with the assistance of businessman Herbert H. Holton, moved to establish a similar race in Boston.

One of the sub-stories in the larger narrative of the battles of Lexington and Concord is that of Paul Revere, a prominent and prosperous Boston silversmith who helped organize an intelligence and alarm system to monitor the British military. A prominent episode therein is Revere’s `Midnight Run.’ On the night of April 18, 1775, Dr Joseph Warren told Revere and William Dawes of British troops about to embark on boats from Boston for Cambridge and the road to Lexington and Concord. Revere rode out that night warning patriots along his route of the impending British move. In his book on the Boston Marathon, Tom Derderian (excerpts from the book are available on the Internet) has noted that Graham and Holton considered Revere’s route for the marathon. The problem was it wasn’t just Revere who rode out to warn patriots that night in 1775. There were others, including those he tipped off, who helped courier the warning. Further, the layout of roads had changed in the intervening years, the exact routes the patriot-couriers rode wasn’t known in detail and many of the routes weren’t long enough to satisfy the needs of a marathon. However the rail road west led to Ashland station and ran parallel to a road back to Boston. This, Derderian writes, was a logical choice and thus became the route of the marathon. In his book, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas (excerpts available on the Internet), Murry R. Nelson says that the marathon’s original course ran from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland to Irvington Oval in Boston.

The biggest celebration of Patriots’ Day has remained the Boston Marathon (according to Murry R. Nelson, it was initially called the American Marathon), which has been run every Patriots’ Day since April 19, 1897. An exception was if April 19 turned out to be a Sunday. Then, the race was run the following day, a Monday. Since 1969, the race has been held on a Monday. In the first Boston Marathon of 1897, John J. McDermott of New York triumphed, winning the race in 2:55:10. Among the longest running presence at the Boston Marathon was that of John A. “ The Elder’’ Kelley, who ran his first race in 1928 and the last in 1992. His name is bound up with the incident from the 1936 edition of the race, when he passed the leader Ellison “ Tarzan’’ Brown on one of the last of the Newton hills, only to lose to Brown in the end. Writing on that race, Boston Globe writer Jerry Nason coined the still-used phrase: ` Heartbreak Hill,’ Murry R. Nelson says.    

The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon. It is now a part of the six major marathons of the running world – the other city marathons being those of New York, Chicago, Berlin, London and Tokyo. Amateur runners worldwide aspire to run at these events and the attraction for Boston is particularly high. This year too Mumbai had its share of those who ran at Boston. We sought impressions from three of them. Excerpts:

Running in Boston (Photo: courtesy Pervin Batliwala)

PERVIN BATLIWALA

I am very, very happy with my Boston performance.  I got a personal best of 04:16:13, cutting off seven minutes from my previous best timing.

I had planned my race in three stages:  1-26 km (pace 5.55-6.00/Km), 27-34 km (pace 6.15-6.20/km) and remaining 8 km on best effort basis. My expected time of finish was 04:17:40. The weather in the first 26 km was very hot.  The sun hit directly as the race started at 11.15 AM.  This portion had a lot of downhill with some uphill.  Everyone had cautioned not to go too fast as there are four big hills to deal with after those 26 km.  I started off fast but then settled down at 5.51-5.53/km, going down a bit fast and slowing on the ups. At 27 km I started cramping badly in the calf and hamstring. I had to stop at least 5-6 times to stretch and start slowly.  The final pace from 27-34 km became slow – 6.30/km.  During the 34 km stage I stopped at every single water station as it was hot and my mouth was absolutely dry.  I wasted a lot of time.  But the good thing was, I had no idea when I got over the four hills, especially the much talked about ‘Heartbreak Hill’ as my full attention was on the cramps and thirst. 35-42 km was really good.  I regained my rhythm and the cramps stopped as I had a lot of salt.  Got a pace of 6.00/km and finished very strong.

I have always enjoyed the hills.  This was a perfect setting for me.  The cheering was really, really good.  Not a dull moment through the 42.2 km. All arrangements were just perfect; starting from the bus pick-up at Bolyston, the refreshments at the starting point, the toilet facilities (so many that one did not have to wait in queue), the miles and kilometer markers and finally the finish. It was a super experience.

Photo: courtesy Pervin Batliwala

Before I left for the US, there was a big hype about my doing the Boston marathon.  But, I did not feel so.  I thought it was another 42 km race.  I was hyper about the trip, the planning of warm clothes, the race day attire, the stay and the shopping and that I would have to travel alone in the bus to the starting point and run alone.  That I was to run the prestigious Boston race was secondary.  I slept well the night before the race. The memorable moment was when I took the first step at the starting point.  I was filled with emotion and tears rolled down.  That was the time it dawned on me that I was running `The Boston Marathon.’  I was very happy and felt strong.

My training for Boston started a week after the Mumbai Marathon.  My trainer Sandeep advised me to go to my physio and check out if I needed any help.  Mondays and Fridays were rest days, Saturdays, Sundays featured back to back runs and Wednesdays saw speed runs plus hills.  Even the Sunday long runs were easy, with speed in the last few kilometers.  Every Monday I got a deep-tissue massage.  My colleagues helped me a lot during my training.  On every run I had at least 4-5 friends giving me company.  On Sunday long runs, they would plan and join me at different points so that I would never run alone.

My training was perfect.  I am sure I would not have wanted to do my training any differently.

Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni

CHITRA NADKARNI

I divide the race into two halves of 21 km each. The first half was fairly good. I was well within my pace. 27 km onward the race started unraveling for me. I really can’t pinpoint what went wrong; I was sapped of energy and couldn’t push myself to maintain my pace and my quads starting hurting. What hurts me most is that in the last 5 km my mind also gave up on me. I felt like walking…just finishing the race. For the last 2 km I took 16 minutes….my quads were painful and mentally I was tired. I could not conquer the hills; I feel the hills got the better of me.

I have run the Berlin Marathon. That was a flat course and the weather wasn’t this hot. Berlin I was in control of the race till 36 km and marginally slowed down post 36 km. The crowd at Boston is amazing. The cheering at both places was awesome and different. There were more people on the roads at Boston whereas there were more bands and more music on the Berlin track. The organization at Boston was flawless. The runners at both the events were fast and superbly fit.

Would I want to attempt Boston again to improve my performance? I think I would like to realize my wish of completing the six world majors first.

Photo: courtesy Kranti Salvi

KRANTI SALVI

In 2011, my son Chirag joined athletics training at PDP (Priyadarshini Park). I used to walk around till his training got over. That didn’t satisfy me. Looking at the tracks, I remembered my school days when I was a national level track athlete. I asked the coach whether I could join. He asked for which event. The Mumbai Marathon registrations were going on then. So I said, “ marathon!’’  I started training and registered for my first half marathon. I also attended the Nike Running Club (NRC) training session on Sundays at Marine Drive, that year.

My first half marathon at the 2012 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) was a unique experience. For rookies, the starting position was way behind. I had to zip and weave through the crowd for the first 10 km. At the finish line I wasn’t tired and didn’t get the runner’s high. I decided to do the full marathon at that moment. Next year, 2013, I ran a full and to my surprise won a podium finish in my category. Every year since then I’ve been running the full marathon at SCMM and it has been either a podium finish (among the top three positions) or a PB (Personal Best).

I’m happy with my performance at Boston because the timing – I completed the race in 3:51 – is another BQ (Boston Qualifier).  Yet I feel I could have done much better if I wasn’t having an upset digestive system. I was in self-doubt at the start line, whether I would complete the race or not. I couldn’t eat or digest the food that’s necessary for race week.

I would divide this race into three sections- the first seven kilometers, the next 23 km and the last 12.2 km. The race has variable gradient throughout the route. However, these three sections are important for watching your pace. The first downhill makes you start very fast with fresh legs and race spirit. If you can control your pace and relax during this first section, you can use your energy in the last one. The middle 23 km are somewhat steady and can be maintained at a steady pace. The uphill made me slow but I saved time while going downhill. I let gravity take me down every hill I passed after this section.

Photo: courtesy Kranti Salvi

One has to experience Boston to believe it. I have no words to talk about the cheering! Thousands of people, families and kids coming out of their houses and pouring their heart out to cheer the runners; the Wellesley College girls and boys with their kisses near Heartbreak Hill…you don’t even realize when you passed that hill! I had many memorable instances from the race. I heard people cheering me by my name: “ great going Kranti” or “ hey TomTomSports,’’ hundreds of times on the route when I was just flowing with the river of runners. Getting special attention in a race like the Boston Marathon was so empowering!

In Mumbai, I train on the tracks at PDP. My long runs on the road are limited due to lack of sufficient time in the mornings. So, I enroll myself for the races which fit into my training schedule.  That way I get the benefit of race pace-runs, which I doubt I’d be able to do otherwise on busy Mumbai roads. A guaranteed podium finish is a bonus 🙂 I train all through the year as I go to PDP with my son for his athletics. There wasn’t any particular plan for the Boston Marathon. I had read about the hills, and the unique route of Boston Marathon. However, I couldn’t give much time for hill training. I just did two long runs in the neighborhood of Malabar Hill where I live. I didn’t do any 20 miler runs even for this race. May be it’s the time limit; I have to stop my run and go back home to prepare breakfast for the family. On my long run day, I do whatever distance I can for three hours. It goes to even 28 km on a hot humid day. I feel I can achieve better timing in any marathon if I do a couple of long runs. The body does not understand a route, whether its hills or flat; it understands the effort and the strength required. To be prepared for the challenges of race day, I would focus more on strength and endurance.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. All the photos used along with this article are from the 2017 Boston Marathon.)

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.)

STARTING LINE: 50

Chitra Nadkarni (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Fifty is a milestone for most of us.

When you touch fifty, stock taking and bucket lists happen. It has its bright side. For one, it focuses energy on a new set of priorities, a quest to live the rest of one’s life truer to what one is.

Chitra Nadkarni was born Chitra Mallya in 1963. She lived her early years at Shivaji Park in Mumbai. The city was then a bustling center of India’s textile industry. Indeed some old-timers argue, it was the profusion of textile mills with their work running in day-night shifts that cemented Mumbai’s reputation as a city that never sleeps. Chitra’s father worked with the National Textile Corporation (NTC); her mother was a housewife. She was the youngest of three siblings, the others being a brother and a sister. As a youngster in school and college, she was into sports. She was a sprinter enjoying the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m and good enough at it to compete at inter-district competitions. Further, with the Shivaji Park swimming pool located in their neighborhood, Chitra’s mother made sure that all three children learnt swimming. However, when sports competitions began to require travel out of town, the parents grew trifle concerned and advised Chitra instead to focus on studies. She majored in psychology.

From the 2016 IDBI Half Marathon in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

At the age of 21, Chitra married Nitin Nadkarni. The couple has a daughter, Nameeta. For regular job, Chitra worked with Unit Trust of India (UTI). In all her years with UTI, she recalls one year when an annual sports-meet was held and it provided erstwhile athlete opportunity to revisit some of her old favorite sprint events as well as enjoy a bunch of games. In between, as family, there was a shift from Shivaji Park to Borivali and then back to Shivaji Park. On that return to Shivaji Park, in 1993, she decided to revive the physically active life and got back to swimming. Alongside, she also commenced aerobics. “ In 2003, I quit my job,’’ Chitra said. We were at her well-kept, beautiful apartment in Bandra West. Outside a typical Mumbai summer day was drawing to a close. So was yet another working day for the city; the roads near Lilavati Hospital had reverted to peak hour traffic with people driving back home from office. Both Chitra and Nitin were at home; Nameeta – now a veterinary surgeon – was away at work in another part of town.

Nitin quit his job with HDFC Bank when he turned 50. He didn’t want to work in a job past that age. In 2013, Chitra was due to turn 50. As the milestone approached, so did its accompanying baggage of introspection and reflection on life and environment. The old textile mills of the city had vanished. In their place, shopping malls and business districts had emerged. Chitra’s life too had changed – her father had passed away in 1989; her mother was no more, as was her mother-in-law. Her siblings were not based in Mumbai and her daughter had grown up. Suddenly there was space opened up. That old sports bug came to haunt. In all her relapses to the physically active life since marriage, employment and raising family, she hadn’t yet revisited running in a serious fashion. Why not resume running? – She thought. “ I believe I picked running just to get back to my childhood,’’ she said. Erstwhile sprinter, Chitra has much respect still for the sprint events. But she wasn’t aware of the `Masters’ category of competitions in which, veterans can participate in sprint disciplines. On the other hand, she had seen the annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). She decided that she would mark her fiftieth year on the planet with a half marathon run. With that in mind, in 2012, she resumed running. For coach, she found Giles Drego.

From a run; snapped on Carter Road in Mumbai (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

In October 2012, the annual edition of Mast Run was due in Mumbai. They had a 10km-segment, which Chitra enrolled for. She finished the race first in her category. With her original plan to run the half marathon segment of the 2013 SCMM, clashing with an overseas trip that the family had planned, she shifted her attention to Goa. Here we must pause and explain an interesting angle. After she returned to running, there is possibly not a race Chitra participated in, in the domestic circuit, where she did not end up on the podium. So, even if we fail to highlight it specifically, every race in India, featuring Chitra, mentioned in this article concluded in a podium finish for her. It would be convenient to attribute this to her past in school and college as an athlete. Yet aside from her tenure as athlete in college – prematurely ended when she traded sports for studies – there was no formal training in running. “ We had a good coach in college. But in school, there was no coaching,’’ Chitra said. After more than three decades of no running, Giles was the first coach she trained under. Embracing distance running wasn’t easy. One October, in the initial phase of her return to running, Giles asked her to run a 13 km-stretch of the Bandra-NCPA run (it is a half marathon) hosted on the first Sunday of every month by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR). “ I remember being worried about the distance. It was daunting,’’ Chitra said. Nevertheless she persisted with the training. In August 2013, she did the half marathon segment of the Hyderabad Marathon. Among marathons at Indian cities, the Hyderabad Marathon is reputed to have one of the tougher courses. “ After running the Hyderabad event, I started enjoying my return to running,’’ she said when asked about not just the resumption of running but also the transition to being a distance runner. By the time she completed the 2014 SCMM, she had managed to pull her half marathon timing into the sub-two hour realm. “ Chitra is a very disciplined and determined athlete who always gives her best. Every event that she participates in, she takes it seriously,’’ said Dilip Patil, recently retired as Deputy Commissioner (Sales Tax) and runner since the first SCMM in 2004. A seasoned veteran of several marathons, half marathons and ultramarathons, Dilip has trained with Chitra.

Chitra (centre) on the podium with Pervin Batliwala and Vaijayanti Ingawale after the 2016 Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

In the world of running, podium finishes are like the telegrams of yore. Bullet points illustrating the outcome of a race, the names of those who won, travel around becoming part of background chatter. Soon Chitra was being talked about. “ These podium finishes mattered a lot to me. They really made me happy and provided encouragement. Not to mention – the winner’s cheques kept some money coming my way,’’ she said.  In due course, she joined the running group, Top Gear. The group had individuals who had run The Comrades in South Africa or desired to attempt it. It was in the company of Top Gear that Chitra started thinking of attempting The Comrades. At 89 km, The Comrades is an ultramarathon; it is longer than the regular marathon distance of 42 km. Up until that point, Chitra the distance runner had only gotten up to the half marathon mark. She hadn’t run a full marathon. For that, she selected Amsterdam as venue. Such choice of location is driven by another motive – she tries to keep some of her races a family outing. If a run can be combined with a holiday for her family, that works well. She is also clear that while she may be a podium finisher at races in India, she is very far from the podium at races abroad. The quality of talent in her age group at races overseas is much more competitive given the active lifestyle everyone there grows up with. In India, the active lifestyle is a deliberate choice. Sometimes, even if the active lifestyle was chosen, it is cast to hibernation, courtesy pressures of work and family. Running culture and running movements are still young in India. Back home in Mumbai, Chitra has the advantage of being in the vanguard of those from her age group foraying into distance running. The pool of competitors is still limited and their roots in the past lay in times when sport and physical activity for women was rarity. “ By the time, today’s youngsters – the ones currently running in the open category and those in the 30-40 age group – by the time they reach my current age, then this age group will heat up with real competition because they would all be hailing from a tradition of running,’’ Chitra said. At that point in time, here and overseas may start looking similar in terms of competition for the veteran category.

At The Comrades in South Africa (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

Amsterdam marathon done, Chitra ran the full marathon segment of the 2015 SCMM, the first time she was running a full marathon in India. Following that, all focus shifted to The Comrades. A portion of the training for this ultramarathon was based in the hill station of Lonavala, some distance from Mumbai. Here, many of those from Mumbai, attempting The Comrades, gathered. Among those assembled was Satish Gujaran, who had run The Comrades quite a few times. He recalled Chitra asking him about the course in South Africa and other details of the ultramarathon. “ She was very dedicated to the training and eager to learn. She put much effort into her work. She appeared a determined person, someone who wouldn’t easily give up,’’ Satish said of Chitra, from that time The Comrades aspirants converged in Lonavala. Chitra enjoyed the runs in the hill station. She remembered in particular a 56 km-practice run begun at past 2 AM and progressing in pouring rain. “ It was a magical experience. Just you, rain, running and fellow runners,’’ she said. Weeks later in South Africa, The Comrades turned out to be an equally enjoyable experience. Chitra who loved the cheering in South Africa, finished the ultramarathon with a timing that qualified her for the bronze medal category of finishers. Every year, The Comrades alternates between an uphill and a downhill course. The 2015 Comrades featured the uphill course. Chitra would like to taste the downhill too. But repeating The Comrades several times as some runners do – she isn’t into that. She would rather move on. As a matter of fact, she has already moved on even as the downhill course remains on the agenda. Post 2013, Chitra had resumed running, she knew swimming and she was no stranger to cycling – predictably the triathlon beckoned.

Chitra (centre) with Kaustubh Radkar (back row, second from left) and others, at the Bahrain Half Ironman (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

At the 2015 Comrades Chitra heard of Kaustubh Radkar, the Pune based triathlete. Kaustubh is a one time national level swimmer who pursued his higher studies in the US. During that period in the US, he not only trained further in swimming but also kicked off participation in a string of Ironman events. One of the most active triathletes from India, as yet, he has completed well over a dozen Ironman events besides completing an Ultraman (for more on Kaustubh Radkar please try this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/ironman-13-times-and-counting/). When Chitra decided to attempt a triathlon she turned to Kaustubh to be her coach in swimming and cycling. He sent her training schedules, which she diligently followed. There were also coaching camps in Pune and occasionally Kaustubh traveled to Mumbai to monitor his ward’s progress. “ I just wanted to challenge myself and see if I can do the triathlon,’’ Chitra said explaining why she made the diversion to triathlon. Her weak spot in the triathlon is cycling. “ I suck at cycling. I am not comfortable with the gear system – what gears to use when,’’ she said. So far she has successfully completed three triathlons – in Goa, Pune and Bahrain; the Bahrain event (a half Ironman) being replacement for a triathlon scheduled in Turkey but rendered dicey due to political developments. “ At some point, I want to try a full Ironman,’’ she said.

Chitra; during the cycling segment of the 2016 Goa Triathlon (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

The time we met her, the event looming large and imminent on Chitra’s calendar was the 2017 Boston Marathon. She was in training for it. Her coach in running was Suchita Varadkar. According to Suchita who has been a coach for 12 years, the pleasure in training Chitra is that she follows everything she is told to do, to the T. “ Nothing happens without my approval,’’ she said. Chitra chooses her events in consultation with Suchita and once she selects an event, she maintains her focus. When the Boston Marathon was selected as an event to attempt, Suchita advised her against participating in the 2017 SCMM. Chitra readily complied. “ She has done this many times in the case of other events too, so that the focus and training for a chosen event is not compromised through some distraction,’’ Suchita said. Further, according to her coach, Chitra, despite her many podium finishes does not court victories through participation at races where competition is weak. “ She goes for the genuinely competitive ones,’’ Suchita said. The group Suchita oversees is known as Frontrunners. When she is not around, Suchita is happy to entrust her wards with Chitra. “ She is a good support system for the whole group,’’ Suchita said. Chitra had qualified for Boston based on her timing in the full marathon at the 2016 SCMM. Earlier, she had earned an entry by lucky draw to the Berlin Marathon, famous world over for being one of the fastest courses, one where records get rewritten. With Berlin in the bag (she finished this race in 3:56) and Boston expected in a fortnight’s time, among Chitra’s personal wishes was attempting the world’s six major marathons – besides Berlin and Boston, they being New York, Chicago, London and Tokyo. She was also exploring the world of ultramarathons – fellow runner Pervin Batliwala had told Chitra of her experience running in Ladakh; not to mention tales of Spartathlon with its demanding stages, which intrigued her.

From the 2016 Goa Triathlon, which was Chitra’s first experience of swimming in the sea (Photo: courtesy Chitra Nadkarni)

“ I think she is catching up on lost time. If you look at her graph in running, it is sharp. Everything – including the triathlons – happened after 2013,’’ Suchita said. Chitra’s journey post 50 years of age hasn’t been without its challenges. So far, her biggest support has been her family, in particular her husband, Nitin. Registering for events, training well, traveling to events here and abroad – it all costs money. Nitin is not into running but he has financially supported Chitra in her new found role as competitive distance runner. “ All the funding has been from my dear husband,’’ she said. A consistent podium finisher at the Indian races she participates in, Chitra has had mixed fortunes with sponsors. She admits to being talkative; her friends – Dilip being one – second that. However by nature, she does not socialize a lot or court visibility. Her day’s running done, she typically retires home. In the currently prevailing sponsorship model imagined by marketing folks, the measurable return for support is mileage in the media. Visibility, socializing – all these are deemed positive attributes in athlete. The paradigm also requires athletes to be social media savvy. Further, sponsored athletes have to engage in activities the sponsor wants you to. Besides her natural reticence, Chitra believes that her Achilles Heel in the sponsorship game is her low appetite for social media. While it is possible to argue that you must wire yourself differently to merit the support contemporary world can offer, it is also true that it is your unique wiring which birthed in the first place, the talent now seeking sponsor’s support. At 50 plus, do you learn to be social media savvy or do you focus your limited energies to run as best as you can? In the kitchen-cum-dining area of her flat, cups of fresh coffee served for all, her disappointment with the prevailing sponsorship model was evident on Chitra’s face. It wasn’t a subject she liked probing because according to her, all she wants to do is run peacefully, free of controversy.

“ So far in my life in running, I have gone with the flow,’’ she said.

Chitra Nadkarni / Track Record as of early April 2017 (Abstracts)

IRONMAN70.3

(1.9km swim, 90km cycle and 21.1 km run with periodic cut offs)

Bahrain Ironman 70.3 (Dec 2016)

Seventh position in Veteran Women Category

Timing – 7:05:12

OLYMPIC TRIATHLON

(1.5km swim, 40km cycle and 10km run)

Tritheos Olympic Triathlon, Pune (Nov 2016)

First Place – Veteran Women Category

Timing – 3:54:57

Goa Olympic Triathlon (Feb 2016)

Second Place – Open Women Category

Timing – 3:29:04

ULTRA MARATHON

Comrades Ultra Marathon, Up Run / 87.7km with periodic cut offs

Durban, South Africa (May 2015)

Second Fastest Indian Woman and Finisher in Bronze Medal Category

Timing – 10:43:54

FULL MARATHON (42.195kms)

Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (Jan 2016)

First Place Age 50-55 Category (Women)

Timing – 3:54:46 (PERSONAL BEST)

BOSTON MARATHON QUALIFIER TIMING

HALF MARATHON (21.1kms)

Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (Nov 2015)

First Place Veteran Category (Women)

Timing – 1:46:33 (PERSONAL BEST)

10km

Keep On Running India, Mumbai (June 2016)

First Place Veteran Women Category

Timing – 00:50:48 (PERSONAL BEST)

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

RUNNER, UNEXPECTEDLY

Simta Sharma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tohana is on the border of Haryana and Punjab.

The nearest big city is Hisar. It is typical Haryana, relatively flat and according to Wikipedia “ desert land’’ until the Bhakra Nangal sub-branch canal came along. Once irrigation water became available, Tohana developed into an agricultural hub. Simta Jhamb (now Sharma) was born here in January 1988.

Her father ran a grocery store in town; she was the eldest of three siblings, two sisters and a brother. As a child, she was prone to the occasional epileptic seizure. Her schooling was entirely in Tohana, during which time, sport wasn’t a pronounced part of day to day life. However life in general was a physically active one; she walked or cycled to school, enrolled for the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and thanks to that irrigation canal which changed the fortunes of Tohana, learnt to swim and enjoy swimming at an early age. There was also a brush with karate when she was in junior school. But there was nothing to indicate a runner latent in her. She never thought of herself as a prospective runner.

On completing her school education, Simta moved to Chandigarh to do her BSc in Computer Applications at the MCM DAV Women’s College. “ I always wanted to be in a big city,’’ she said. Following her graduation, in 2009, she traveled to Mumbai out of her own choice, to do her Masters in Computer Applications (MCA) from the city based-SNDT Women’s University. Initially, she lived at the university’s hostel near Churchgate in South Mumbai. Here, like many do an early morning in mid-January, she too stood by the roadside to see those running the annual Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). “ There was no emotional connection to the spectacle or a tug in my heart to participate one day. I just watched it, the way I would watch anything,’’ Simta said, sipping a cup of black coffee. We were at a café in Marol, like Tohana a name on a border, in this case, the overlapping border land of central Mumbai and north Mumbai. The running season was slipping to hibernation. Outside, the summer of 2017 had suddenly made its presence felt after what had been, strangely, a pleasant January-February. Mumbai lay cloaked in a simmering heat.

(Left) The Simta of 2010; new to Mumbai she would indifferently watch that year’s SCMM (Right) Simta, 2017 (Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma)

In appearance, Simta Sharma is quite athletic. That wasn’t the case when she watched her first SCMM in 2010. She was then on the heavier side and having issues with her thyroid. After that initial phase of stay near Churchgate, Simta shifted to Juhu in the city’s western suburbs, where her college too was located. There she commenced going for morning walks in an effort to reduce weight. A week long camp conducted by the National Service Scheme (NSS), introduced her to yoga. She found it helpful and continued to practise it even afterwards. She also started jogging. In 2011, she participated in a seven kilometer-run (the event was called Mast Run) and ended up third on the podium with a three thousand rupee-cash prize to boot. That was both unexpected and motivating.

A year later, she started to work for Nautilus Software Solutions, a company based in Wadala. While working there, yet another edition of Mast Run cropped up. This time it was a 21 km-run. Relying on nothing but her trusted mix of yoga and jogging, she went ahead and ran the race. She isn’t sure how much of it she covered and so declined to name it as her first half marathon. Simta followed this up with a 10 km-run in Powai, which she completed in 53 minutes. Her boss at Nautilus Software Solutions was Vivek Sasikumar. Associated with the city based running group Striders, he took note of emergent runner in office. Vivek encouraged Simta to run regularly and as means to step up mileage, introduced her to the monthly Bandra-NCPA run organized by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR).  This training run, held on the first Sunday of every month, spans the distance of a half marathon. Over the years it has become an institution in Mumbai’s running circles. In February 2013, Simta, now a resident of King’s Circle in the city, reported for her first Bandra-NCPA run. This was her formal introduction to Mumbai’s running community. “ Vikas Mysore was the first runner I said hello to,’’ she said. She became a regular at the monthly Bandra-NCPA run and as she did so, her circle of friends in running slowly grew. Ajit Singh is a popular face on the Bandra-NCPA run. A member of MRR, he works for FDC, the company manufacturing Enerzal, the well- known energy drink. He recalled Simta’s early days. “ She came in through the Facebook group. She was into fitness and had run only events featuring short distances. She had no experience of the half marathon. So with her, we first ran at Juhu. It was three of us – my friend Purnendu and I, both of us runners who prefer to run bare-chested, with Simta in the middle. She didn’t say it then but later she admitted that she had felt embarrassed!’’ Ajit said in jest. The Bandra-NCPA run was a significant addition to Simta’s life from another angle too. On the second Bandra-NCPA run she reported for – the run of March 2013 – she met Kshitij Sharma, her future husband. They would be married less than a year later, in February 2014.

Simta with her father in law Anil Sharma (Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma)

Kshitij and Simta in Tohana (Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma)

Soon after marriage, she shifted from her King’s Circle residence in central Mumbai to Kandivali in north Mumbai. During the period from 2014 to 2015, she worked with Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) at their D.N. Road office in South Mumbai. The distance between her place of stay and place of work in a Mumbai that operates daily on a north-south tide of human and vehicular movement, limited her ability to find time for running. She couldn’t train seriously with any group of runners. “ It was difficult to spare every morning for that,’’ she said. In August 2014, she shifted to Vile Parle, a move in the southerly direction from Kandivali, which brought her tad closer to work. While living in Vile Parle, her father-in-law was diagnosed with diabetes. He was determined to control it through diet and exercise. He was already into walking and exercising but the diagnosis made him more serious in the pursuit of fitness. In some ways, her father-in-law’s decision to be serious about exercise proved synergic with Simta’s interest in running. What she had been missing until then was drive and determination. Suddenly that seemed found. The two of them started running every morning at a nearby ground. More important – Simta’s training became more focused in the process. This phase was a turning point in her life as runner.

Every year, Total Sports (a chain of shops selling sports goods in Mumbai) and Run India Run organize a 10 kilometer-race in Borivali, northern Mumbai. In 2014, Simta won this event in her category; she won it again in 2015 and was placed third in 2016. Notwithstanding her given place on the podium, her timing was steadily improving – it was 52 minutes, 48 minutes and 44 minutes respectively in those three years at that event. “ It was a good feeling’’ she said of her first win in 2014, her first major podium finish. Meanwhile in the run up to that podium finish, she had completed her first major half marathon in Thane. She completed it in 2:01. Through all this, a new runner was also born in the Sharma family – Anil Sharma, Simta’s father-in-law. Now 59 years old and a Chief Manager with Central Bank of India, he graduated through running seven kilometer-races to 10 km and 21 km and eventually, a full marathon.

On a training run with Vijayaraghavan Venugopal, good friend and one of the core team members of FastandUp India, Simta’s nutrition partner (Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma)

Simta too progressed to the full marathon. Her first major full marathon was the 2015 Bengaluru Marathon, which she completed in four hours to place second in her category. An interesting aspect about Simta is her apparent lack of long term focus on any particular distance category and adoption instead of short term focus on whatever is the distance of the event she is training for. Thus, she says she has no problem shuttling between 10 km, 21 km and 42 km; moving from one to the other, forward or backward. On the other hand, she said, “ the greater mileage I had to put in while training for the full marathon had a beneficial impact on my shorter runs as well. It is possible to improve timing across distances.’’ One discipline she has had mixed fortunes with is the ultramarathon. She attempted the ultramarathon in Vadodara, twice. The first time, she went off course and ran longer than needed. The second time she had to call it quits at 33 km, resulting in a Did Not Finish (DNF).

For her first major full marathon at Bengaluru, she trained for about two months. As said, thanks to her work schedule, Simta was never in a position to formally train with any runners’ groups or have a dedicated coach. Post marriage her husband, Kshitij, who is a Senior Network Analyst with FIS Global Business Solutions in the city, became her coach.  He draws up her training schedules. “ I never miss my work-outs,’’ Simta said. She appeared content training under her husband who is an amateur runner. We asked Kshitij why he had taken on the role of Simta’s coach. “ I know her lifestyle well, her diet, sleeping pattern – these details matter. If she trains under a coach, these details may not get articulated or may get overlooked. As a runner, I had trained under coaches and know what they offer and what they don’t notice. In Simta’s case, she was also epileptic and I did much research to find out the best approach she can have,’’ Kshitij said. According to him, Simta has fine endurance. “ I have noticed how she runs three to four hours in the morning, comes home, prepares food and leaves for office without any strain,’’ he said. He thinks she has reserves she can tap into before the duo – runner and coach – enter the more challenging realm of extracting incremental improvement. Simta puts a lot into her training runs. The events she chooses to race at are few and handpicked. It is a different matter that she won some events, which she treated as training runs. “ You become stronger when you are running, not when you are burning out,’’ Kshitij said explaining the conservative approach. Amid all this, Simta also moved to a new job at Turtlemint (via another job in between at Purple Squirrel), which has its office in Andheri East, not far from her home in Vile Parle. Work place being closer to home meant better attention for training. On a regular day, she rises early and cycles to her chosen location for training (usually Juhu). It was a Simta shaped so by her life experiences, who geared up for the 2016 edition of The Wipro Chennai Marathon (TWCM) in January 2017.

Some time with the physio ahead of a stadium run in Bengaluru (Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma)

Simta with Dr Phil Maffetone after she secured first place in the half marathon for women at the Hyderabad Marathon (Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma)

TWCM is the brainchild of the Chennai based runners’ group, Chennai Runners. Indian IT major Wipro Ltd has been the main sponsor of this event since 2012. The company has a strong association with running through its annual Spirit of Wipro run and its in-house running club (Wipro Running Club, begun in 2012), which boasts a membership of 150-200 people. The 2016 edition of TWCM was to be the event’s fifth edition; 20,000 runners were expected to participate. TWCM includes a full marathon, a half marathon, a 10 km-run and a fun run for differently abled children. The event usually falls in December. The 2016 edition was however postponed following the hospitalization of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa. She eventually passed away. As it turned out, the postponement appeared wise not just from the perspective of avoiding any political turbulence; in December 2016 Chennai was also lashed by Cyclone Vardah, one of the most powerful cyclones to strike India’s eastern sea shore. Originally set for December 11, 2016, the 2016 edition of the marathon was rescheduled to January 8, 2017. As was routine, Simta had trained ahead for the Chennai marathon. Her approach was diligent; Ajit recalled some training runs they were on together in the run up to TWCM. Simta’s family had made plans to holiday in Goa after TWCM. When the event got postponed it put a question mark on the holiday, for Simta now had to stay in practice longer. They found a creative solution. Why not practise in Goa? The 2016 Goa River Marathon was due on December 11. Simta managed a late entry. As it turned out she ran the half marathon in 1:38 finishing first in the open category for women. Both running and holiday in Goa were salvaged!

With the winner’s cheque at TWCM (Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma)

Chennai, January 8, 2017: it was for Simta, a humid day. “ Humidity was the biggest challenge for me while running TWCM,’’ she said. There were also two other issues, according to her – there was a festival that day and it occasionally brought people on to her path for a couple of kilometers; second, as measured by her GPS, the whole route appeared to be tad longer than usual (by about 800m or so), which given the competitive circumstances of a race made its impact felt towards the finish. “ I couldn’t stand up after finishing,’’ Simta said. On the brighter side, she loved the fact that the pilot vehicles kept her company three to five kilometres from the start itself. “ They were cyclists and not motorcyclists. They gave me water and snacks on the go. It meant I did not have to stop at any aid station along the way and could keep moving,’’ she said. This was a major difference from many other races where the pilots appear only towards the finishing stage of a marathon. “ I love running with the pilots,’’ she said. Simta finished the full marathon in 3:34:27 placing first in the open category. The win at Chennai was an important victory for the runner from Tohana, TWCM being a major race in the national calendar for marathons.

Less than a month after the full marathon in Chennai, on February 5, 2017, she ran a full marathon at Rajkot in Gujarat winning it in 3:28. Rajkot’s is not as high profile an event as Mumbai’s SCMM or Chennai’s TWCM. Why deign to run Rajkot, when you are on a high after victory in Chennai? For Simta, the common thread running through her choice of events is that her timing is improving – she clocked 3:34 in Chennai; that was down to 3:28 in Rajkot. Should anything else matter? A critical observer may question otherwise – if you run at smaller events aren’t your chances of podium finish that much higher?  Runners obsessed with podium finish are known to harbour that streak; strike gold where competition is less. Simta argues that is an incorrect view. As example, she points to her participation in the half marathon at Rajkot in 2016. She had finished the distance in 1:40. “ Yet I was placed tenth. There were people running the distance in 1:23,’’ she said. Aside from the fact that she likes running in Rajkot, Simta said that smaller events bring forth a category of local talent that is genuinely competent but rarely makes it to the big events in India’s large cities for want of resources. These are good Indian runners and they shine at the smaller events they participate in, returning timings that would be the envy of city based-runners. “ I enjoy participating in these smaller events,’’ Simta said.

Photo: courtesy Simta Sharma

Tohana to Bengaluru, TWCM and Rajkot – it has been a journey of transformation. “ Simta’s improvement has been dramatic – from someone with very little experience in running, she has become a podium finisher in the sport. The thing about her is that she is dedicated and trains hard. She is also very focused on the event she is planning to participate in. She doesn’t let that focus be upset by any other event advertising itself as potential distraction,’’ Ajit said.  Noteworthy performance has fetched Simta sponsors. After her podium finish in Bengaluru, Adidias elected to support her. Later FastandUp and TomTom joined in. Concerned more about training than participating in events, Simta hadn’t yet figured out her calendar for 2017 when we met her in late March. “ I am looking at the Airtel Delhi half marathon. As regards a full marathon for the year, I haven’t decided yet,’’ she said. She was however clear about one thing – she is now focused on running.

Simta Sharma – Personal Bests (as of end March 2017)

10 K – 00:44:29

21 K – 1:35:17

42 K – 3:28:13

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. The timings at races are as provided by the interviewee.)