The views below does not reflect those of the events or their organisers that I have been associated with or likely to be involved in future.
The views conveyed below are in no way sacrosanct and is amenable for suggestions from others.
Among the various disruptions due to COVID-19, includes Running events which carry a significant risk of transmission. The prevailing guidelines issued for various other activities are certainly difficult, if not impossible, to be followed in running events. While it is still unclear on when they will be allowed to be resumed, one can be sure that at some point of time, it has to be resumed. As RK Narayan writes in one of his short stories, “for even diseases must end someday.”
Over the years, the significance of a running event has extended beyond the few recreational runners who started organising them for fun, to event organisers, sponsors, host cities, television and media, and importantly, charitable institutions, for whom marathons presents an opportunity to raise funds. In 2019 London Marathon, those running for charity raised £66.4 million for various charitable institutions. As the events got bigger, they also bring in a few unpleasant traits – crass commercialisation, prohibitively exorbitant entry fee, winner-takes-it-all approach bringing in the negative side of competitive sports, disassociation with community leading to constant friction with non-participants, and damage to environment. In addition to the above criticisms, organising a running event now also carry the risk of being categorised as a ‘Super spreader’ of COVID-19, should any of the participant get infected. In an attempt to find a way out through the current pandemic, it could be useful to have an overall rethink on the way running events are organised and the purpose they serve could be more useful.
Running and COVID
To start with, Running events should not be organised in conflicts with the current guidelines issued by Government or medical authorities relating to COVID. Debates ranging from the existence of virus to the validity of steps undertaken exist in all spheres of society. We don’t need a running events to be used as a platform for testing the different hypothesis proposed. Whether the virus is for real or not (given the lack of trust among some sections of the society), the symptoms, including death, are for real. In simple terms, there is no need for a running event like the Adria Tour organised by few tennis players. Any adverse incident not only jeopardise that event but will soon extend to all running events. It could take the form of unwarranted intervention by government authorities or poorly drafted guidelines that are not possible to be adhered to.
“Virtual” events aren’t a solution
The recent trend of virtual events are never going to be a meaningful alternative. With technological advancements, it could evolve into a new category of event in itself; but the disregard for human connect would never make them a substitute for existing events. Established brands like New York Marathon and others are using the route to either cash-in their popularity or keep their community intact to retain continuity. A similar opportunity does not exist for all organisers. The reliance on technology is huge and many times, it will make those selling t-shirts and medals masquerade as event organisers. Incidents of malpractices and technical errors can also frustrate runners. Further, there is every possibility of alienating runners who are not technologically savvy, which is certainly not a requirement for running. On the positive side, it does help to build the community and keep them together during these times. Such efforts can only fructify if it presents hope to be a physical event soon.
Connect with Runners… again!
Once events grow in stature, many organisers start distancing themselves from the runners. The trend of ever increasing entry fee despite the increase in sponsorships is a case in point.Unlike entry fees, sponsorship amounts are not likely to be paid upfront. While sponsorship amounts are contractual and paid on the fulfilment of obligations, most events retain entry fee even if the event is cancelled. This is not to say that everything about sponsorship is bad for the event and should be avoided at all. Events need to look for committed sponsors who are in it for a long duration. It certainly starts with the stake holders of the sponsoring organisation being active runners.
Winners don’t take it all
Not every event needs to have a single winner. The craze to see a handful of winners among the multitude of runners is a burden on the organisers. The energies devoted to the care of these few elite runners can be deployed on caring many other runners. The compulsion of deciding the winner makes mass start mandatory which in current situation needs to be avoided. Another recent trend of awarding prizes according to different age groups can be done away with. There are embarrassing situations like no prize winners in a certain age group or a fourth placed finisher in a higher age group is faster than the top-3 from a lower age group. It promotes mediocrity and ‘event shopping’ by desperate prize winners.
Involve the community
The benefits from running events must extend beyond the apparent stakeholders – runners, organisers, sponsors – to the overall community. While there are tangible benefits through tourism, emphasis must be made on the intangible benefits that the community derives by hosting a running event. When asked about what she feels proud about the Comrades marathon, Cheryl Winn, who won in 1982, replied,
“It showed the country what it could and should be.”
Running events present a wonderful spectacle of harmonious and peaceful congregation of diverse set of people. Running events can certainly learn from the various temple festivals in India that involves all communities.
Small is Beautiful
In times like these, small-scale running events involving a few hundred runners from the local community organised in their local area can present a viable alternative. The Park Run, started in The United Kingdom, is an ideal model for many running clubs to follow. It is heartening to note that they are likely to be resumed by end-October 2020 with adequate precautions. It will also help monitor the spread of the infection as most runners are likely to be living within the locality.
Major events are becoming unsustainable from the environment perspective, despite their efforts in recycling. Apart from use of single-use plastic, many events provide inferior quality t-shirts, goodies, and needless extravaganze that is hardly connected to running. This is certainly a time to rethink on many such practices and eliminate some of them.
Work with existing regulations and not challenge them.
Don’t rely on virtual events as a long term solution
Focus more on runners
Prioritise participants over winners
Involve the community as a whole
Downsize if required
We always have a choice to wait for change or make/be the change. Most runners that I am aware have been change-makers in various spheres of life. While I am certain that it will not be late before running events are back, I wish it returns back with a difference. It should certainly present the society a way forward in conduct of public events. In 2009, Mumbai Marathon was the major event for Mumbai after the infamous terrorist attacks in November 2008. It presented a chance for people to come together again and move forward. Running events present an opportunity to help the society move from COVID.
One of the eye-catching scenes of the Tour de France is watching a solitary rider who breaks away from the pelaton. It could be someone heading for a stage win or few additional bonus points or the last rider who is trying to save himself from disqualification; or simply just to hog the limelight. Whatever may be the reason, it certainly takes a lot from a rider to go all alone on any stage of the gruelling tour. In the final part of yesterday’s Stage 8, Peters Nans, the French Rider, launched a solo assault to reach the finish line 47 seconds ahead of rest of the pack. It was certainly a sight to watch.
During my solo ride today morning, I started reflecting on my solitary rides over the years. If I ignore the cycling during my school days, my real ‘cycling’ adventures began in 1999, when I was stuck at home during my summer vacations in Karur. It was an unfamiliar town and I didn’t have any friends either. Moving from Chennai, where I did my schooling, it was quite an uncharacteristic town. Luckily, the cycle that I used during my school days was still around and I started exploring the town and beyond. Starting from the cement factory at Puliyur, reaching the banks of river Cauvery at Nerur (didn’t know the greatness of Sadasiva Brahmendra back then to visit his Samadhi) and Vangal, and various other locations that I cannot remember off the head now. These rides used to be for about an hour or two and I was back home for breakfast.
Fast forward to 2007, the present avatar of my cycling journey started with a chance meeting with ‘Coach’ Srinath Rajam at the Saravana Bhavan in RK Salai who thought I was a ‘serious’ cyclist – something I could only aspire and never become. I was soon added to the cycling group – Madras Bike Hash, and soon started riding with the group. Our rides used to be those easy ones on saturday morning, covering about 25-30 Kms and finishing with a heavy breakfast. Occasionally, a ride on the ECR This was the time the ‘cycling’ in Chennai was expanding with the influx of foreign brands and fitter and faster cyclists. Our group slowly disbanded into multiple groups and after moving to Pondicherry, I once again became a ‘solitary rider.’
Unlike running, cycling with a group is quite a complex. To start with, the traffic on the road is a deterrent to it – the constant disruptions by other vehicles and narrow roads will make it difficult to ride with others. Given the range of cycles that people ride and the condition of those cycles, the speed of the cycle is not dependent on the riders’ physical ability alone. Sometime back, a newbie cyclist riding with me commented that I am slow, only for me to respond back, ‘I didn’t ask you to ride with me’! This is not to say that I don’t like to ride with a group or other individuals. I have some wonderful memories of riding with excellent fellow riders – Manjula and Magesh (Singham) on the last day of Tour of Tamil Nadu 2010, Srini on a weekend trip from Pondy to Vaitheeswaran Koil and back, and many others on different occasions.
With Manjula on Kodai-Palani Road. Photo by Ryan Karz
With Srini at Richy Rich Pondy after completing our weekend trip
After I moved to Coimbatore in 2016, I became part of the Coimbatore Cycling. Soon, Satish and Manju started accompanying me on my routine Saturday rides. More than a ride, it is all about the conversations and post-ride coffee sponsored by Satish. The only challenge with them are they prefer a familiar route; and long rides are restricted on special occasions like Independence Day and Republic Day rides – Understandable, given that they have ‘family duties’ on Saturday. The rides are fairly regular, if all three of us are in town and not engaged in other commitments. I continued pursuing my long rides and few adventurous rides as a solo affair.
These solitary rides give plenty of time for me have conversations with myself on issues as diverse as colours in a kaleidoscope. It gives me time to criticise myself, demonstrate a non-existing expertise in everything, play devil’s advocate on my thought process, draw plans for ‘changing the world,’ before getting grounded by a reminder of pending items on my ‘to-do’ list. As RK Narayan writes in ‘The World of Nagaraj’
‘What is going on?’ she asked, surprised. ‘Are you talking to yourself?’ ‘Why not?’ Nagaraj asked. ‘I am my best listener: quiet and agreeable and never disputing.’
Such rides usually atract undue attention from the passer-bys. There are urchins shouting, ‘Vellaikar! Vellaikar!,’ before I reply back with some abusive word in chaste Tamil; Then, there are moments when other cyclists start trying to “race” with me. Frustrated motor bike riders speeding past me after brushing past to show their superiority; In the less explored places, there are myriad questions from curious onlookers, including the purpose of cycling, if not my existence. Not to miss out the standard query on the cost of the cycle, for which my response would that my cycle is not for sale. With the proliferation of cyclists all across Tamil Nadu, one would expect that such inquiries are a thing of past; but the solitary rider is still not spared.
The solo tours – be it the Tour de Malabar in 2009 or recently, the tour for Asha, has been an exploration of routes, unknown places, unknown people, and plenty of surprises and challenges. It is the uncertainty factor that prompts me to go out and try it again. After all these years, I still do not know why I do these tours or solo rides. While the experience on the ride is a mix of pleasure and pain, the memories have always been sweeter. Only two things happen – You enjoy or you learn.
Before you start reading the blog, please check if you have at least 10-15 minutes with high tolerance levels. An easier way is to to scroll all the way down, check the final part of the blog, and contribute to Asha. It would be more meaningful than the entire blog!
It was in the year 2009 that I was introduced, inadvertently, to two activities in my life – Self-supported cycling tours and Asha for Education. It would be impossible to gauge the impact of these two activities in my life over the next decade and possibly, much more into the future. In March 2009, I undertook the tour of Malabar – an eighteen day cycling tour on the west coast of India; an unique experience that brought me in touch with many ground realities of the world. In June 2009, I visited Thulir – a project supported by Asha, during a cycling tour in Dharmapuri district. Over the last decade, it is certainly not an understatment to say that Thulir has been my another home.
I was keen to combine both and find out if I can do a cycling tour covering the projects supported by Asha for Education. I looked up to the list of projects supported by Asha in Tamil Nadu and chose five of them (Thulir was an automatic choice!) for site visits.Padmanava a.k.a Paddy, projects co-ordinator at Asha, helped me with an introduction to each of the projects. Thanks to Sulu and Anand at Cycology, my bike was fitted with a pannier and I was ready for the tour.
Asha for Education was started in 1991 by Late VJP Srivatsavoy, Prof. Deepak Gupta, and Prof. Sandeep Pandey, during their student days at the University of California, Berkeley. Their belief was that education is a critical requisite and an effective catalyst for social and economic change in India. Over the next 3 decades, Asha has grown in manifold across USA and India, raising funds for numerous supporting grass-root level institutions, and managed in a decentralised manner through various chapters. For details, please visit the website http://www.ashanet.org
I was introduced to the Bangalore chapter of Asha through their running program, anchored by Santosh, a volunteer with Asha, before he moved to start Runners High. From Santhosh to Anita and Sanjeeev, I started getting interested in the projects supported by Asha. Since 2013, I have been a project steward for Thulir and you can read my site visit reports here.
The Tour Plan
Day 1 – February 24, 2020 – Ride upto Mettur
My first destination was Puvidham school, located in Dharmapuri district, about 200 Kms from Coimbatore. Riding all the way on the very first day didn’t look like an option to be contemplated. Also, reaching a remote place like Puvidham in late evenings could be challenging; and I detest riding in the dark. I split the ride into two days with a halt at either Mettur or Erode on the first day, depending on my energy levels. The ride from Coimbatore to Bhavani was on the National Highway with very little to report. The soreness in my legs, following the half-marathon at Annur, was bothering me and I preferred to ride it with ease. I reached Bhavani at about 11:30, before it started getting too hot. The ride from Bhavani to Mettur was a reminiscent from the Tour of Tamil Nadu (ToT) 2018, when we rode from Erode to Hogenekkal on day 1. The Tamarind trees on either side of the road offered much wanted protection from heat. One of the sad outcomes of the road expansion projects in India is the axing of these trees from the road. They were planted decades earlier and had myriad benefits for a host of people. I was reminded of this excellent piece in The Hindu few years back, where the author poignantly concludes,
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
I reached Mettur at about 3:00 PM after a lunch enroute. I was able to find a budget hotel to crash for the night and keep my bike securely. The entry to the Dam closes at 5:30 PM, and my afternoon nap delayed my visit.
Day 2 – February 25, 2020 – Ride from Mettur to Puvidham
The start on the second day was delayed in fixing a puncture and then, a bizarre incident of dropping a glass of tea! The owner was kind enough to let me go for Rs. 10 towards damages and offered another cup of tea too. The ride had plenty of climbs starting from the ghat section near Mettur dam. The view from the top of the hill was breathtaking.
The route until Mecheri was chaotic with lorries and school buses. The number of school buses has increased in Tamil Nadu exponentially over the past decade; largely because, it offers an excellent scope for the owners of the school to make big bucks. In the process, the distance travelled by children has increased taking much of their percious daily time, which could have been used for better purposes. After some breakfast at Mecheri, the ride to Puvidham was through some scenic village roads. It was a pleasure to ride in these roads – well paved and superior to many city roads in India.
Before reaching Puvidham, the route took me to Nagavathi Dam, which was nothing more than a vast tract of empty land. Dharmapuri is one of the most drought prone districts of Tamil Nadu. Despite the fact that the river Cauvery flows through it, the region is economically backward and relies on rain-fed agriculture. I reached Puvidham in time to have lunch with Meenakshi, the founder of the institution.
Day 3 – February 26, 2020 – Stay at Puvidham
The origins of Puvidham goes back to 1992, when Meenakshi, an architect, and Umesh, an engineer turned agriculturist, decided to settle down in the driest region of Tamil Nadu and engage in conservation efforts. Early 2000, Meenakshi started the school, which offered an alternative to conventional education. Starting with her own children, she wanted the school to be a place of self-learning through nature and physical activities. The school also has a hostel attached to it and it caters to both local children as well as outstation children. Children study here upto class 8 and then proceed to the the high school nearby or at Dharmapuri, located about 20 kms from Puvidham.
I spent the day at Puvidham talking to the teachers and students, and attending some of their classes. My favourite class was learning to spin the cotton by using a takli or drop spindle. It was here where I learned that my hands don’t listen to my eyes and I ended up struggling to spin the takli. I promised Meenakshi that I will learn before I visit Puvidham next time. The challenge now is in getting a takli, which seems to be unfamiliar even in Khadi shops.
You can read my site visit report at the project page. The school is supported by Asha – London and Seattle chapters – since 2004. To know more about Puvidham, you can visit their website or visit the project page in Asha website.
Day 4 – February 27, 2020 – Puvidham to Thulir
I started from Puvidham after an excellent coffee from/with Meenakshi. My first destination was Dharmapuri, where I planned to have my breakfast. Dharmapuri, a nondescript town, is known only for being the district headquarters and that, it is on NH7. Finding a decent breakfast place was a challenge. From Dharmapuri to Harur, the ride was through one of the finest roads – it was unbelievable to see a well maintained broad road with reasonable tree cover. I was likely to be late for lunch and requested Anu to keep lunch for me, as I always relish Thulir’s wonderful lunch. After Harur, the route took me to Theerthamalai with plenty of short and steep climbs. This was my third visit to Thulir in bicycle. The first one was in 2009, when I reached Jolarpet by train and rode from Jolarpet to Thulir, after riding up Yelagiri. The second time was in 2015, when I rode from Pondicherry to Thulir via Thiruvannamalai. I rode different bikes in each of the above occasions, and this time, it was a chance for my third bike to pay a visit to Thulir. I reached the school at about 3:30 PM, an hour before the school closes. With the senior students out for a tour, the school was filled with the tiny tots. Some kids were curious on what I would do if my tyre was punctured!
Day 5 – February 28, 2020 – Stay at Thulir
Thulir was started by Anu and Krishna in 2003 when they moved to the Sittlingi village. The objective of Thulir is to cater to the educational needs of the Sittlingi Valley, located amidst the Kalrayan hills in Dharmapuri district. Thulir started out as an after-school learning centre for school going children during evening hours and holidays. Later, they introduced a Basic Technology Program for school drop-outs. After a few iterations, it has now evolved into a primary school. Personally, it has been a great learning for me in associating with Thulir for over a decade and witnessing the change in educational needs in the village. The day was spent well at the school interacting with teachers and lunch with the children. In the evening, the senior students (age 8-10) returned back from their trip and it was a pleasure meeting them. Some of them travelled for the first time without their parents.
It was the additional day of the year and I certainly wanted to make it count. After some lovely coffee from Archana, I set out on the ride well after the sunrise.
The first 20 kms was through the Thumbal forests and I hoped to encounter a bison or two; alas, none were around. The road was unexpectedly good for long stretches and I was thrilled to ride on it! Unfortunately, good things don’t last longer, and I encountered a rough patch for about 5 Kms, where I missed my MTB the most! I crossed Thumbal and reached the Salem-Villupuram highway for some hot breakfast. I had to find the route to take me to Malliyakarai, where I join the Attur-Thuraiyur road towards Thuraiyur – familiar from the ToT 2015 edition, when we rode from Thuraiyur to Kallakuruchi. The day was getting tough and my struggle to ride further found me under a pipal tree for relief from the heat. These unplanned rest breaks offer some time for additional contemplation on whether the trip is worth anything before reassuring myself to hang on there. At Thammampatti, I found a ‘new’ restaurant to get charged up for rest of the ride. My riding speed certainly improved after the lunch.
Thuraiyur brought back memories of ToT 2015 and the difficulty of finding a place to have our dinner and breakfast as most restaurants were very small back then. Padmas cafe, where we had our breakfast, has since been upgraded and the capacity has been expanded. I stopped for a coffee and some pleasant conversations with the owner, before riding to Payir. It was a slow day and I reached Payir at about 4:30 PM. I was warmly welcomed by Senthil and Preethi and had my dinner with them, listening to their stories of starting Payir.
Day 7 – March 1, 2020 – Stay at Payir
It was obvious that getting time with Senthil seemed practically impossible as he is engaged with various facets of Payir round the clock. On Saturday, there were students seeking his help in academics after his dinner time. He was still kind enough to allot some time for me on Sunday. Senthil is a engineer by graduate and worked in corporate for a decade. He quit his high flying career to relocate himself to Thenur and start Payir. His TEDx talk would give an excellent overview of his work at Thenur and the surroundings.
You can read more about Payir in their website. Asha has been supporting the educational program at Payir since or visit the project page in Asha here.
Senthil is also an Asha Fellow since 2017 and I was keen on knowing about his work and plans. I had a freewheel chat with him about the various challenges in the region and his work with them over the decade and half. Later that evening, I also attended a meeting of farmers in that region over watershed management in that region. You can read more about his fellowship and my observations in the Fellowship page here.
Day 8 – March 2, 2020 – Payir to Madurai
I was keen to find out routes that would keep me away from the highway for that day but couldn’t find any. My first pitstop was Manachanallur. I wanted to stop for a coffee but the cozy hotel tempted me to have some hot idlis and vadai before washing it down with a cup of coffee – the breakfast was cheaper than a coffee at some of the city restaurants! I wanted to bye-pass the Trichy town to avoid the morning traffic. In the process, I could catch a glimpse of the Rockfort while crossing the river Cauvery.
After crossing Trichy, the barren highway had very little to describe. At times, you feel that you are riding towards the end of the world. This is exactly where the podcasts came handy. On this tour, I rekindled my love for podcasts. Apart from the usual favourites from The Guardian, there were few others that got me interested like We Crashed by Wondery. On that day, I was listening to a two and half hour conversation between TM Krishna and Amit Verma in a lovely series called The Seen and the Unseen. It was a thought provoking conversation on caste, carnatic music, gender, privilege, and social structures, as viewed through his own life. I am sure a reference to his name can get people polarised to extremes; but this was one conversation where I find him being honest with himself. He was willing to accept that his rise in music was not just a symbol of meritocracy but also linked to his antecedents, caste, and the society he grew up in. More so, on that day, it helped me to cover 50 Kms in an otherwise boring ride. I reached the outskirts of Melur for my lunch at about 1:00 PM and stayed put there till 3:00 PM. I reached the “Temple City” at 4:30 PM after surviving an ‘attack’ by a two-wheeler, which seems to be an integral part of riding in Madurai. Although a long day of 10 hours and 30 minutes, my riding time was only about 7:21 – tail wind helps!
In Madurai, Asha supports the Madurai SEED project at Karumbalai. It is an after school learning centre for school going children aimed at education beyond the school curriculum. The objective is to help children continue going to school and also, to find out the true potential of the children. The assistance extends beyond their education in helping them achieve their aspirations. To know more about Madurai SEED, you can visit their website or view the project page here. In addition, the founder of the project, A. S. Karthik Bharati is also a Asha Fellow. I had planned to visit the centres during the evening (as it functions only in evenings and weekends) and meet Karthik for a chat the following day. The evening was well spent going around the four centres of Madurai SEED in Karumbalai.
Day 9 – March 3, 2020 – Visit to Gandhi Museum, Meeting Karthi Bharati and ride to Vathalakkundu
I started the day by visiting the Gandhi Museum, purely out of my inquisitiveness. This was the first time I have even heard about it as people rarely associate Madurai with this museum. Housed in the erstwhile palace of Rani Mangammal, it was inaugurated in 1959 and contained some interesting collections of memorabilia from the life of Mahathma Gandhi. It also had an extensive photo exhibition on freedom struggle.
The photographs from the Gandhiji’s trips to Tamil Nadu were treasure troves. I was particulary impressed by the collection of letters that Gandhiji had written to various people. One of the letter was addressed to the Principal of Gujarat College requesting him to re–admit the students who had participated in the civil disobedience movement. At a time when people are debating the relevance of students’ participating in political movements, this was interesting.
The next two hours were spent conversing with Karthik and he was kind to take me for lunch too. Karthik has been a Asha Fellow since 2013, supported by Asha Boston. He grew up in the Karumbalai area and was the first graduate in his family. He was keen on giving back to the society as he was supported by others. This prompted him to start the Madurai SEED and has since worked extensively with the children and youth in that locality. You can read more about his fellowship in Asha Project page here.
The ride from Madurai to Kodaikanal was about 120 Km. I preferred to split into two rides – from Madurai to Vathalakkundu (or is it Batalgundu or Batlagundu?) that evening and climb the ghats, the following day. I was hoping that the hotel where we stayed during ToT 2010, enroute to Kodai, would be still around. I reached Vathalakkundu and realised that the hotel has been shutdown sometime back! I had to ride back to the town to find Hotel O2 Residency, who were kind enough to allow me to carry my bike to the room. It was good to finish this section of the ride earlier to allow the following day only for the climbs.
Day 10 – March 4, 2020 – Vathalakkundu to Kodaikanal
My first conquest of Kodaikanal was back in 2010 when we rode from Vathalakundu via Pattiveeranpatti and Pannaikkadu. This time, I chose to ride through the highway. I find riding uphill as a very ‘spiritual’ experience – I struggle, I curse it during the ride, but the satisfaction of accomplishing it surpasses it all. Riding slowly with high cadence is like a poetry in motion; it is just between you and your bike. My first attempt to climb hills was in 2008 when I rode uphill to Coonoor and yet, every ride still makes me feel that it is the first time I am trying it. It has been a learning experience, shuffling my ride strategy between cadence and power. Often, the breathtaking views after few hundred metres of climb will reaffirm the confidence and push towards further climbs.
There were some additional challenges – The newly laid road caused a few problems with the stones sticking on to my tires. A temple festival in one of the villages that held the traffic for a while. After reaching Kodai, I was surprised to see rooms unavailable in TTDC on a weekday during off-season! I finally checked in at Hill Top Towers, who also provided me with a safe place for my bike. I believe many hotels and homestays have been shut down in the recent past due to violations of building rules, among others.
I spent the evening going for a walk around the Kodai lake. The ambience around the lake tempted me to go for a run, which I did on the following two days. The one awkward moment was when someone asked me if I want to rent a bicycle! A statue of Jawaharlal Nehru was an interesting find, when you observe the names of dignitaries in the inauguration plaque.
Day 11 – March 5, 2020 – Morning run, Betsy Creche, and the phone!
The day started with a pleasant morning run around the Kodai lake. It was a scenic location and a 5K run was possibly the best thing that one can do in Kodai. The road was largely free from traffic and there were a few fellow walkers and runners enjoying their morning there. It was a reminiscent of my days in Pondicherry doing my morning runs at the promenade. I feel that every city must allot some roads for the exclusive use of early morning walkers and runners.
I was scheduled to meet Ms. Hilda at the Betsy Elizabeth Creche that morning. The creche was located a little away from the hotel and it was best to ride the bike all the way. The Creche has been supported by Asha Seattle since 2007. You can read more about the funding and support by Asha on the project page.
The afternoon was spent visiting Sai Sruthi and a walk around the lake again. Somehow, I didn’t seem to get tired of the lake even if I visit it again and agin. I was also glad that I was there when there aren’t many visitors, if I visualise how chaotic it would be during the ‘tourist season.’ There was garden inside the lake which caught my attention, not for its maintenance but for the person after whom it has been named. It was named after Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who died in Kodaikanal as a political prisoner – some historical facts that I was not familiar with.
On the way back to the hotel, I found these interesting lines from The Bible in a Church.
After taking this picture, my phone fell flat and the screen broke! Yeah, the weary and burdened phone was given some rest!
Day 12 – March 6, 2020 – Morning run at the lake and Ride back home
It was impossible to resist another chance to run around the lake. I started the day with an energetic run on Kodai lake and bade farewell to its beauty. Little did I know that the following weeks will be deserted for worse!
I started the ride after a sumptuous breakfast at Hilltop, watching children being dropped at the Kodai International School by the parents during the ‘rush hour’ – One would think that settling down in Kodai is to have a laid back life; not for these parents though. A long downhill ride was awaiting me with a 5K climb in the middle. The ride was a repeat of the last day of ToT 2010, when we rode from Kodai to Pollachi. On that day, the road from Perumalmalai to Palani was ‘exclusively’ for us, as there was a landslide in-between and heavy vehicles couldn’t come through it. Even otherwise, there wasn’t much traffic and it was an absolute beauty to ride overlooking deep valleys and through tall trees. Memories of riding with Manjula and ‘Singham’ Magesh flashed by as I rode towards Palani. I am posting the pictures from that ride. The picture by Ryan on that day was outstanding (left one)!
After Palani, I had no choice but to take the route via Pollachi, as my phone was not available for navigation. The road from Palani to Pollachi was turning out to be a nightmare to ride. Thanks to the good-old ways of finding routes – Oral enquiries – I found some alternate route to avoid Pollachi. The route was tough with rolling hills but was largely free from traffic making it a pleasant ride. After crossing Chettipalayam, while riding towards Pothanur, I spotted my fellow cyclist, Manju returning from work. He went ahead and warmly welcomed me back to Coimbatore with sugarcane juice! Since Cycology was on the way, my first priority was to go and thank Sulu and Anand for their support before heading home.
These are journeys without destinations; There are only temporary halts. This was the longest tour since my tour on the west coast, a decade back. Every cycle tour teaches me plenty of things – from cycling perspective and society, in general. This time around, it was more to do with Asha, the projects supported by Asha, my own association with Asha and the projects, and importantly, how I can contribute more through Asha. The best part of volunteering for Asha has been that it is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. For me, as a project steward, it was a great experience to engage in the development of Thulir over the past decade and see the transformation during this time. It also helped me to step outside the bubble that I was living in and understand the bigger challenges that people face in their daily life.
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Running, as a fitness activity, can get boring after some time. The expected benefits plateaus and runners are often on the look for new areas to motivate themselves. Those who take up running to lose weight would not be able to lose beyond a point; the quest for speed stops when one cannot run any faster. Some of them gravitate towards other fitness routines like cycling, gym, Yoga, or Zumba to do something new. Such changes also brings with itself other challenges like a new equipments, clothing, shoes, and in worst cases, new injuries and pains too. Then, there are other ways to make running more interesting.
1. Run with friends/family
Take time out to run with your friends or family members who are taking up running for the first time. In the process of motivating them to run, you would be invariably motivating yourself to run more and better. While appreciating their efforts to take up running, it would be a reminder to you on how far you have come from the time you started running. Such initiatives build better relationships and brings good health to everyone.
2. Be a pacer at running event
A Pacer is an experienced runner who runs a race within a defined time to guide other runners to finish before the time. For instance, in a 10 Km race, a 1-hour pacer would finish before the 1 hour mark (usually a few seconds before). Those running with him/her are assured of running the race within the specified time. To become a pacer, a runner choses a pace slower than their comfortable running pace. By pacing in an event, the runner foregoes their personal aspirations and helps others to achieve theirs. It is an altruistic activity and widely appreciated by fellow runners. My recent experience of pacing at Mumbai Marathon got me unprecedented amounts of appreciation that was worth more than all my medals. Training to run at a pace slower than usual is an experience in itself and at times, it feels like learning to run yet again.
3. Run for a cause
Apart from running events that are organised for raising funds for specific causes, like the Coimbatore Marathon for cancer awareness, runners can raise money by running marathons for a cause that they are passionate about. Major running events have exclusive registrations for runners opting to raise funds for registered charities that promote their cause. Runners participating in New York Marathon through Charity route raised over $40 million in 2018 for various charities. When running for a cause, training for a marathon takes a different dimension for the runner. It is no more about his/her personal achievement. In every conversation about the marathon with friends and families, the Cause takes the centre-stage. Every donation brings additional motivation to see the distance through. Finishing the event is no more a personal achievement but a step towards a social cause. Although at a nascent stage in India, runners participating in the recent Chennai Marathon raised over Rs. 27 lakhs for the restoration of lakes in Chennai.
4. Volunteer for an event
Volunteers are the back-bone for organising any marathons. It is practically impossible to organise an event of such huge magnitude without the support of volunteers. While the tasks handled by volunteers may look mundane at individual level, they are colossal as collective. Be it cheering for the runners, helping them with water, controlling traffic, or just guiding them through the finish areas, they provide extraordinary support to the event. The heartfelt thanks extended by runners creates a great sense of self-satisfaction for every volunteer. Volunteering does take significant amount of energy and sometimes, more tiring than running in the event. There is nothing more motivating than watching people run and it will make us fall in love with running again. As Katherine Switzer once wrote,
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”
5. Talk/write about running
By writing and talking about running, one becomes an evangelist for running and it brings commitment and respect in equal measure. The medium of broadcast is much wider and accessible, thanks to the Internet, and there is a place for everyone to express their thoughts in a manner that suits their audience. By sharing your views and ideas, you have an opportunity to hear from others and improve upon it. It helps you to explore many unknown facets about running and the positive changes that it brings to the lives of many. Every runner has a story that is wanting to be told. Over the years, the stories of my fellow runners have inspired me to do more in running.
For many runners, running starts as a fitness activity and has ended up as a way of life. It has enriched their lives by improving not only in their physical well being but also their mental well being. There is a lot that one can do by just simply putting one foot after another and moving forward.
An edited version of the article appeared in The Hindu – Metro Plus Coimbatore Edition. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Coimbatore/things-you-can-do-if-you-are-a-runner/article30769698.ece
Back in 2011, Rajesh Vetcha offered me the first opportunity to be a pacer in that year’s Hyderabad Marathon, when such concept was hardly heard about. A pacer is someone who runs to finish in a pre-designated finish time at a steady pace to help other runners finish within the same time. They also share how they intend to accomplish the task, be it their split timings for different laps, or aid-station breaks. It was a new experience for both me and Karthik Padmanabhan, and somehow, we managed to finish the run 2 minutes under our designated time of 5 hours. We were largely guided by our experience of running a marathon under 5 hours a few months back in the Shahid’s Ultra. The next experience of pacing was at Hyderabad in 2015, and this time, it was the 5:30 bus. The plan was more like not to plan and I went by few simple pointers as laid out in my blog. The third experience of pacing was at yet again in Hyderabad in 2018. I had to pace the 5:00 bus and the plan was simply to cover 9.5K, 9K, 8.5K, 8K, and the rest over the 5 hours.
In early November, Shiv presented me with an opportunity to pace for the 5:45 bus at the Mumbai Marathon. I had long decided not to run Mumbai Marathon again as explained in my blog post (it garnered the highest viewership among my blogs). However, it was difficult to say ‘No’ to Shiv, as he has been a pacer for events at my request in the past. The course being a flat one with minimal complications, it did not require me to know the route well (run it 5 times in the past). One of my aversion to Mumbai was that the event is an out-and-out commercial one and altruistic concepts like pacing is certainly alien to them. With plenty of commercial interests at stake, the joining formalities was certainly complicated.
To start with, a profile picture with conditions more stringent than the one required for visa purposes. Thanks to Dr. Gautham, I could get it done at zero budget. Some additional complications like not sporting brands other than the ‘official ones’, restrictions on communication, and so on – didn’t matter much given that I don’t have any commercial interests in running. The real shocker was when I was told to register for the event paying a hefty fee of Rs. 2,300! Most events in South India offer free entry to pacers as a token of appreciation, as they sacrifice their personal quests for a greater cause. By then, I had booked by flight tickets and hotel room, and financial stakes of cancelling were high. I had no choice but to pay and register for what I would call as the “Most Expensive” city marathon in India. Over the next two months, I worked on my plan to ensure that I do a decent job for the sake of runners trusting me on the run. If not for the organisers, this one was for the runners.
Most events prefer runners from that city for pacing as they would be familiar about the weather, route, elevation, key intersections etc., Such varations would normally be factored in their timing splits for the event. Finishing at 5:45 had only two challenges – the elevation was at the Peddar road flyover, which lasts for less than 2 Km, and the run at Marine Drive towards the end between 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM, for which splits have to be adjusted. I prepared a fairly straight forward plan, starting my runs at 7 minutes 40 seconds per Km in the beginning and gradually tapering down to 8 minutes 30 seconds towards the end. As suggested, I added a minute in the first half and another in the second half for bio-breaks. I wasn’t sure of the aid stations and felt I could adjust in the time provided. I only wish I factored some time for taking pictures at the Sea Link Bridge and with spectators at Peddar road.
One of the the best ways to run long distances is to mix walking with running, popularised by Jeff Galloway, as the ‘Run-Walk-Run’ method. We resort to walk breaks at some point over the 42.195 kms to ease the tiredness. In this method, the walk breaks are taken up at fixed intervals from the beginning, like running for few minutes and following it with a minute of walk. The average pace required for a 5:45 finish was about 8 minutes and 11 seconds – I split it into 2 cycles of 4 minutes each with 3 minutes of running and 1 minute of walk. The walk breaks were helpful in pacing the run to its perfection. It also helps runners to take a sip of water or grab something to eat at the aid stations (well, there wasn’t much to eat in Mumbai marathon!).
Training in the pace
Typically, a pacer chooses a time much slower than his/her comfortable running pace. On the face of it, it does look easier to start the run in such slow pace. The challenge, however, is to sustain the pace over the long hours and the distance. The physical and mental fatigue can kick at any time and it requires some composure to finish the run in designated pace. If not trained, pacers end up running faster initially and slow down towards the end; Or worse, they start so slow and have to catch up towards the end by running faster. Both strategies may help them finish on time, but it does not help others to follow them. The training runs are oriented to develop the rythm at slower speed and sustain them. While I was fairly confident of my ability to withstand 6 hours on the sun, I wanted to make sure that I am well trained to run in the desired pace. During the 2 months leading to the event, I made sure that all my runs follow the 3:1 run-walk method and gradually reduced the speed in the process. My last training run of 24K, a week before the event, boosted my confidence to do so (splits above).
Start and Finish Time
Every event provides a runner with two finish times – Gun time and Chip time. Gun time refers to the time from start of the event (shot of a gun) to the runner crossing the finish line. Chip time refers to the time from the runner crossing the start line and the finish line. While Chip time matters the most for runners, as it is the time taken by them to cover the distance, Gun time is considered as the ‘Official Time’ as per Rule 165.7 of The IAAF Competition Rules 2018-19. Pacing Bus must be always be based on the Gun Time. If corrals are used for staggered start, pacing must be based on the start time of the respective corrals, the pacers are assigned to. Take the example of Berlin Marathon 2019,
The 3:00 pace bus in wave 1 will finish at 12:15 PM and in wave 2 will finish at 12:25 PM. By following the wave start time, they ensure that the runners joining those buses in respective corrals finish under 3 hours. However, if someone starts in wave 1 and joins the 3:00 pace bus in wave 2, they will not be able to finish under 3 hours. In Mumbai marathon, while pacers were assigned different corrals based on the finishing time, they did not have seperate start time for different corrals. Corrals were started as the crowds were cleared. We were asked to follow our chip time and runners starting ahead of us could not make best use of the pace buses, when joined at later stage, as they were not sure of our start time.
Event distance or GPS Distance
One of the critical gadget for pacers is the GPS watches that measures time and distance. It helps them to monitor the pace during the run and the time elapsed. Most running events do not rely upon GPS devices for route measurement. They go by Calibrated Bicycle Method – in simple terms, distance measured by bicycle odometer with correct tyre pressure. For more, you can refer to this document. The differences between GPS devices and the race distance starts getting bigger as the distance increases. To avoid this, it would be best to use ‘manual laps’ in the watches. At the end of every 2 Km (by Km marker boards), the next lap should be started and the distance and pace is monitored for that lap, instead of cumulative time and distance. In Mumbai, the maximum difference between the laps was only about 60m, whereas the aggregate difference over the marathon was 360m.
Organisers of Mumbai Marathon provided runners with pacing bands that contain the timing splits for every 2K. Pacers were provided with a pacing flag and a bag to hold it. Kudos to the organisers for the excellent work on those. This helped the runners to identify us easily on the run and the pace bands were handy to follow us on the run.
Race Day Experience
The race day did not have many surprises in store. It was easy to execute the plan and I cleared each lap close to the designated time. The bus was packed with runners from the start to the finish, albeit not the same ones. Many runners appreciated the run-walk method as it helped them to clear the distance with ease. Here’s the analysis of my run through numbers.
There were some mistakes that the above data masks:
1. Lack of planning for water stations – I somehow managed to fill the bottle on the move. While it is not possible to drink as per schedule, it will be good to fill the bottles as per schedule.
2. Photographs en route – Apart from the exhorbitantly priced official pictures, there is a chance to take some wonderful pictures at the Sea Link Bridge or with the crowd at Peddar road. I could find some time at Sea Link Bridge, thanks to the time gained in previous 3 laps.
3. Peddar Road – The only elevation in the entire route was that of Peddar road, appearing twice on the route. While it was fairly easy to ascend on the onward route, it gets a bit difficult on the return as it appears between 34-36Km. The minute saved by not using the time allotted for bio break helped us to be on track.
It was certainly an overwhelming feeling when many runners approached me at the finish line to express their gratitude. More than the medal and the joy of finishing a marathon, the kind words from runners made my run very special and emotional. I must also thank my co-pacer Subramanian a.k.a. Rajesh for the wonderful support throughout. He managed the WhatsApp group, motivated the runners regularly, took care of interaction with runners at expo (which I had to miss), and supported excellently on the run.
Personal bests in running events is not all about finishng faster. It is also about planning for a run and executing it as per the plan. What more, when your run can help others to finish well, it is certainly the best that one can have.
During the first Tour of Tamil Nadu in 2010, I offered myself to be a blogger but never fulfilled that promise. Most of my writings remained in draft mode and on many days, I did not write anything other than the title. I redeemed some of the promise when I wrote this piece for The Hindu during the last Tour of Tamil Nadu – 2018, largely helped by pictures from Ganesh and Srini. Over the 8 days of this year’s Tour of Tamil Nadu, I managed to provide daily updates on my Facebook page – little did I realise that I had ended up typing a whooping ~2500 words in my smartphone! This blog is an edited version of those posts with few detailed explanations and pictures by Srini Swaminathan
Day 1 – December 22nd – Thanjavur to Chidambaram
The tour started with the customary photo shoot, the image usually finds it way to our certificate. Some exchange of old memories on how it all began in Coimbatore in 2010 – just to show off I have been riding for so long (and yet quite rubbish as it was revealed end of the day). We exited Thanjavur listening to the incessant honking which was mistaken for cheering from the public – not true for sure. We reached Ayyampettai, Ammapettai, and shouted together ‘pettai rap‘. Our first pit stop was at the Dharasuram temple.
We had a choice to visit the temple and I was carrying the dhoti in my hydration pack. I unveiled the fashion disaster of the tour when I wrapped around a dhoti, a towel, hydration pack and not to miss out my goggles!
The next major landmark was the Lower Anaicut – the terminal barrage across Kollidam before the river joins the sea. The dam, built in 1902, still allows only one-way traffic for cars and heavy vehicles. The second pit-stop was at Gangai Konda Cholapuram – my hunger made the hotel outside of it look more attractive and lunch was excellent. We viewed the temple from outside as it was too hot to step our foot inside.
The last phase of afternoon ride took us to the banks of Veeranam lake. The road seems to be never ending and the only solace was seeing the lake filled with water. I kept myself engaged thinking how many thermacols are required to cover the lake. Srini gave an excellent company on the ride and clicked some lovely pictures!
The heat and the headwinds certainly humbled me and the ride finished in Chidambaram at 5:40 PM.
Day 2 – December 23rd – Chidambaram to Velankanni
The start was delayed to make sure we are on time for lunch at Aryapuram, the highlight of the day’s ride. The first town on route was Kollidam, just after the river with the same name. Memories of buying my cane rocking chair in 2005 flashed in my minds – a piece of furniture that has been integral to my life since. The next town was Vaitheeswaran Koil – a nondescript temple town that shot into fame in the early 2000s due to ‘Nadi’ astrology. Looks like the hay days are over now. Personally, the place is significant as the presiding deity in the temple happens to be my ‘family deity‘.
Devotion levels rose instantaneously and I thought of making a quick stop. The challenge was to find someone who will take care of my cycle during the visit. Few of them rejected to do so despite my emotional appeals about the significance of the place in my life – getting tonsured here on completion of my first year on earth, piercing of my ears etc., Finally, one kind lady agreed for it and I was able to make a quick visit to the temple. Returning back from temple, I offered her some money which she refused stating that she is happy to see me visit the temple. Who said God lives inside the temple alone! The star attraction of the day was the pit-stop was Aryapuram, where TOT veteran Ganesh Ram had arranged for a traditional ‘sappad’ in his ancestral place. Delicious meal served exquisitely with tons of love made the meal unforgettable. The reclainer chair in the pyol tempted me to take a long siesta. It was certainly a challenge to motivate ourselves to ride again!
Post-lunch ride was through densely populated villages leading to Velankanni. There was not a patch of land where we were devoid of the noise from loud speakers. Election announcements, Temple songs, Churches, Mosques – at times, I wished that villages need DJs more than elected leaders. They can mix and match all these through a single speaker in periodic intervals! Srini kept me occupied through this stretch with some random discussions. His portable speaker ran out of battery and was certainly not missed with the noise around. Our second pit-stop was outside the Nagore Dargah. Time constraints forced me to abandon the visit and proceed to Velankanni instead.
The day ended with a visit to the Vailankanni Church, which certainly looked well maintained than the temples we visited.
Day 3 – December 24th – Velakanni to Karaikudi
Being a long ride of about 157 Km, we started the ride by 7:45 AM at Velankanni. And then, it happened!
R A I N… You made me a, you made a, believer, believer!
We were welcomed by a downpour that pushed us the nearest covered place available. I took refuge at a house where an old man proudly told me about his achievement of riding his bicycle all the way to Poompuhar in his younger days. Good old times when he doesn’t need to show his Strava reading to anyone! Left the house only to be welcomed by another downpour. The next place of refuge was a bus stop where I gave an impassionate speech on the “true worth” of my cycle, when asked for its price. Quite a few gave an impression that it would have been lot better to get drenched in the rain than listen to me.
There was an option to use the pickup truck and take float to the next pit stop, from where we can start riding again. Rain is a pretty strange thing – at first, we do our best to avoid getting wet; once fully drenched, we don’t wish to escape it anymore. While running in the rain is real fun, like the Berlin Marathon early this year, riding in the rain has a painful side to it – the task of cleaning the bike after ride. Today was a long ride and there was ample time to think about it.
Meanwhile, Abhijit, who got on to the pick up truck captured the ride in this beautiful video.
I reached the first pit stop at 45k mark and the rains had subsided then. Soon after that, I faced the only incident of puncture in the entire tour. Cometh the hour, cometh the man – ace mechanic Rajashekar fixed the issue in less than 5 minutes.
The route was through places that I was hearing for the first time. One exception was Aranthangi, synonymous with S. Thirunavukkasar, a politician whom I always felt never got the due from different parties he belonged to. The final stretch of the route from Puduvayal to Karaikudi was filled with beautiful Chettinad houses (most looks haunted though!) and the Kandanur temple.
The day ended at Karaikudi and the hotel was next to Pandian Cinemas – memories of watching, rather suffering, ‘Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu‘ with Rajan, when we were in the town for the wedding of Thenappan!
Day 4 – December 25th – Karaikudi to Rameswaram
For some, it was a 145 Km ride; for Coach Srinath, it was a ride in a pace line in steady 160W. Those terminologies certainly got few of the heads spinning. Never mind, waiting for a train at level crossing ensured that we are well seperated from the ‘pace line’!
The first stop was at a Chettinad House in Devakottai. One of our riders had arranged for us to visit the house and have a look around it. We were warmly received and the residents took us through the house. Sometimes, I wonder where we lost our sense of aesthetics in the process of building concrete jungles.
After Devakottai, there weren’t any major towns till Ramanathapuram. We had to ride through vast open spaces of barren land with few patches of greenery. The ride was a pleasure though, thanks to pleasant weather conditions, less traffic, and assistance from tail wind. Our route bye-passed Ramanathapuram and we found a decent place for lunch on the road leading to Rameswaram. It was 1 PM, we were looking for lunch after covering about 90 Kms. Some adventured in their choice of food whereas, I stayed safe with my staple diet of curd rice. The sky rocketing of onion prices meant that I cannot get onion pakodas to relish. It was a fairly easy post lunch ride and the next destination was the iconic Pamban Bridge. It was bizarre to see a bridge on a highway looking like a tourist spot with vehicles parked on either side. Breathtaking views of the sea and the Rail Bridge got me captivated for few minutes. I was later told that the bridge rarely opens these days.
As we moved towards Rameswaram, our pit stop was located at the memorial of APJ Abdul Kalam. I felt that the memorial serves the purpose of tourists than for anyone seriously wanting to know about him. The paintings gave an impression of a mythological legend than someone who really lived!
One surprise element was the lack of Christmas fervour on the route. Some got lost in the election campaign but there weren’t many churches either.
Day 5 – December 26th – Rameswaram to Rameswaram
The day when the Solar Eclipse eclipsed our ride. Our tour was fortunate to have an enthusiast like Prasad, who had personally bought eclipse glasses for safe viewing for all of us. Further, he found an ideal location, about 3 Km from our hotel for best viewing of the Eclipse. Laziness made me choose the balcony of my room as the location. Should I tell you that the moon came in the view between me and the Sun!
Our ride started at 10:30 AM towards the farthest point in Dhanushkodi. Getting out of Rameswaram town was an experience in itself. A 20 km ride with sea on either side was a beauty in itself with less to be described. Looks like some of the old remains of place have disappeared from my only visit in 2006. The final point – Arichalmunai – was crowded with crazy traffic, and I preferred to turn around few metres before. The ridesboth ways had plenty of cross winds giving us some hints on what is store for the next day.
A mandatory temple visit for the evening. While I had an option for a “guided” visit which usually involved getting sprayed with water, I preferred a simple option to take a walk in the beautiful corridors (1212 pillars) of the temple. I could not fathom what kind of spiritual progression can be expected in a place that is nothing short of filthy and filled with noisy and unruly crowds. The sanctum sanctorum was crowded and there was no chance of visiting it. I was suggesting to my fellow riders that one day, we should ride through the four corridors to make the tour special!
The rest of evening was spent listening to Coach Srinath about various facets of cycling and fitness, in general. If I look back to find out that moment where it that started my cycling journey, it has to be the chance meeting him at RK Salai Saravana Bhavan (although he wishes he met someone in Muniyandi Vilas instead!). This was back in 2007; Twelve years later, his enthusiasm in learning and sharing about cycling has not diminished a bit. While it is tough for me to ride to his expectation, I can sincerely hope to retain my current enthusiasm though.
Day 6 – December 27th – Rameswaram to Madurai
The first of two days, when it is more about riding than touring. The longest ride of the tour at 176 Km, if not the toughest of the tour, certainly ensured that we focus on riding and nothing else. Yet again, getting out of Rameswaram was a challenge due to traffic issues. I may be generalising here, but the chaos caused by Sabarimalai devotees was certainly obnoxious. So much that I was hesitant to visit Madurai temple due to their presence in temples all over south.
The route was through the highway and we did not enter any of the towns enroute like Ramanathapuram, Paramakudi, or Manamadurai. The architect of the Tour, Vasanth used to call these rides as “Junk miles” in the past; but he too was riding today! The crosswinds and the heat did pose challenges. Such long rides require substantial food and water intake and we stopped for a royal ‘full’ meals. Post lunch ride was supported by listening to some random podcasts on Astrology (that too by The Guardian), crisis in North Carolina, and some issues with a youth club. If there was one podcast that I enjoyed the most, it has to be Athletes Unfiltered by Strava. I did miss my good old iPod classic, which helped me manage podcasts a lot better.
It is very easy to know that you are entering Madurai as soon as you see the unruly traffic situation. Where else would you see in the middle of the road, someone park their car or stop their two wheeler to take a phone call!
Day 7 – December 28th – Madurai to Madurai
This was an easy ride day before the one final big day of the tour. I wanted to ease my legs by going for a short run, which did not turn out to be noteworthy. This made me wonder how participants of Ironman run a marathon as soon as they finish cycling for 180 Kms!
Our ride to Azhagarmalai started at 10:30 AM through the heat and dust of Madurai. We rode on the road to Natham, where a bridge to nowhere seems to be perenially under construction. We finally had the real ‘climb’ of the tour – a missing ingredient in the Tour. We climbed about 300m on a narrow road constantly obstructed by the monkeys – not only the four legged ones. It is yet another bizarre case of a road that is permitted for two and four wheeled motor vehicles but not cycles. The organised assured the officials of safety and managed to get exemption.
Crowded temples did not interest me anymore and quickly rode downhill.
The Tour is never the same without the photos and selfies with Suresh. After missing the tour on the 6 days, he duly announced his arrival on the tour with his exciting photography.
The felicitation ceremony of the Tour, where all participants get honoured regardless of the distance or speed they rode, was held in the evening. Vasanth unveiled the theme of the next season of the tour. It is amazing to see the completion of 10 editions of the tour when we think that the first edition was in jeopardy due to certain issues. Eventually, some of the organisers personally funded the see through the first edition of the tour in 2010. It goes without saying that the Tour has always been about the organisers and spirited volunteers – replace them with anyone else, the tour wouldn’t be the same. We also took time to appreciate the wonderful support crew and the spirited volunteers who made the tour.
Day 8 – December 29th – Madurai to Thanjavur
The day started with a surprise visit of Kumaravel from Chennai Runners at the Hotel. It was nice of him to break his Sunday long run and wish us at the Hotel. Being the last day, some of them opted out of ride due to various reasons. I was surprised that I still had the mettle to start. Not sure of finish, I decided to take it one pitstop at a time.
The first two hours of the ride was under a pleasant weather and I rode past the first stop. The weather continued to be kind until the second pit stop. The headwind was posing a challenge and I maintained a steady rhythm. Some emotional moments when Sachin Krishna announced that this is the last pit stop manned by him for 2019 (fairly obvious, still..!). Srini, who had taken a day off delighted us with some photography!
The highlight of the day was the third pit stop. We were hosted by the members of erstwhile Pudukottai Royal Family. Although called as High Tea, we ate enough to make it a perfect lunch! The arrangements and warmth shown by the host was certainly overwhelming. It is definitely not an easy task to invite a bunch of sun burnt cyclists wearing sweat laden multi-coloured clothes that would potentially damage anyone’s sensory organs! I quickly checked if the tour was over there. It was only 2:00 PM and with only 50 Kms left, it was too early to call it a day.
I wanted to finish my tour at the Big Temple. The crowds outside the temple didn’t permit me to have a spectacular finish. Hence, I finished with a picture outside the temple!
It was simply impossible for me to do a tour of this magnitude without the support of some wonderful people who helped me do it.
Firstly, the core of Tamil Nadu Cycling Club, Vaz, Venky, Rajaram and others for the conceptualisation and perfect execution for 10 editions!
The team from Pro-Bikers, Bala Sir, Suresh, Vissu and their dedicated staff for the support on the tour.
Pit stops will never be the same without Sachin! His presence and enthusiastic cheering gets you going. Not to miss out the stern faced strict officer Rajaram, currently in Swamiji avatar, and his clear directions!
Abhita, Chitra, and other volunteers who quietly worked behind the scenes to ensure everything works perfectly!
My roommate Srini Swaminathan, for putting up with me in yet another tour. His photographs were priceless!
The support crew of drivers, mechanics, Loknath and others who worked tirelessly for eight days to make the tour memorable.
My friends in Coimbatore Cycling who are my ride partners round the year; Sulu Bhai for getting my cycle in perfect condition for the tour.
Last, but not the least, heartfelt thanks to all my fellow riders on the tour! I would also like to move from riding to volunteering in the next season. I would certainly continue touring and would prefer them to be unorganised henceforth.
Sometime after the age of fifty, there comes a moment called as retirement which brings curtains down on most lives. On many occasions, not doing anything is most sought out. There are a few who go on to defy the convention and lead the way for the rest.
By the age of fifty-eight, Latha Srinivasan had accomplished almost everything that one would expected from her – a corporate career with Unit Trust of India, bringing up two sons, caring for the aged in the family, becoming a grandmother, and a settled retired life at Coimbatore. However, she was not ready to call it quit. A trained dancer in Bharatnatyam, Mohiniattam, and Kuchipudi in her younger days, she was always eager to learn something new throughout her life, mostly in the field of arts. During the months of July and August 2018, she was reading articles in Metro Plus about the upcoming Coimbatore Marathon and thought to herself if she can give it a chance.
She joined her neighbourhood running club, the Sai Baba Colony chapter of the Coimbatore Runners and introduced herself into running. She was immediately attracted to the warm welcome of the fellow runners who seemed to believe in her almost instantaneously. Her first run was a marathon in itself – a cautious start, gasping for breadth after running few metres, and very soon, she started having second thoughts on whether she is right to pursue this. All her fears were soon dissuaded by the encouraging words from Karthikeyan Padmanabhan, co-founder of Coimbatore runners, “If you can train well for the next two months regularly, you can do the 10 Km run.” Over the next two months, mornings were never the same as it was a new routine with new friends, and the discovering the runner in her. She went on to finish the 10K Run at the Coimbatore Marathon in 01:40:41, in less than two months of starting to run.
Buoyed by the strong finish, she confidently registered for the Half-marathon at Cochin along with few of her friends. The half-marathon was tougher than what she expected. With weather conditions not as favourable as Coimbatore, it poised plenty of challenges and she managed to finish it in 03:36:46. What surprised her though was the recognition of a second place in her age category. “It was a telling moment that I too am a runner” says Latha on her pivotal moment.
In January this year, she started training under coach Narayanan who helped her with strengthening her muscles and improving her speed. During the months of April-August, she challenged herself to do the 100 Days of Running and accomplished it by running the maximum distance among women in Coimbatore, who took up the challenge. In the course of the 100 days, she also clocked an impressive time of 2:42:57 for the half-marathon distance at an event in Bangalore. It was then she thought to herself that she should challenge the distance of full marathon. For inspiration and guidance, there was Venkatesan Rangaswami, who ran his first marathon at an age of seventy one. “His relentless commitment towards running a full marathon inspired me to give it a try.”
She set her sights on the Spice Coast marathon to be held on December 1, 2019 and started training towards the event. Rain or shine, she ensured that she met her training calendar religiously. The heavy rains on the day before the event increased the humidity levels during the race. She was cautious about it and conserved her energy for a strong finish in a time of 06:11:43.The presence of her husband, sons, and not to miss her fellow runners, who have been waiting for more than 2 hours after their event, at the finish line, made the finish memorable for more than one reason. It was not only the end of marathon but a journey of transformation into an athlete.
Winning prizes or accolades was never her objective to take up running. When told about Masters Athletics events, she first hesitated to participate as she was not keen on competing. However, it was the simple pleasure being recognised as an athlete and running alongside many other stalwarts that prompted her to participate in the events. She participated in the 5000m event and finished it impressively at 32 minutes winning the first prize in her age group!
She has since won three gold medals in the district-level competitions and two medals in the state-level competitions. She is also excited about the opportunity to represent Tamil Nadu in the national athletics meet to be held in Manipur in February 2020.
On looking back, she retains her humility by saying, “all that I wanted for myself is to be physically fit enough to do my daily chores and not be dependent on others. I am certainly glad about the friends across different ages, that I have made during this time.” She also credits her family for their wonderful support. Although the running bug hasn’t yet caught up with them, their support has been immense. Her son gifted her a Garmin watch and got her into the world of gadgets and meticulous data keeping of her runs. Running has certainly added a new dimension to her life and she sets her sights higher next year by wanting to travel around India for marathons in other cities, and possibly outside of it very sooner. As George Bernard Shaw once said,
We do not stop playing because we grow old: we grow old because we stop playing.
A marathon in a city like Berlin cannot be anything but “legendary” – Yes, that’s the theme of the event and the organisers did some brilliant promotions to reinforce. Check this promotional video,
The event holds a special place among runners for being the ‘fastest course.’ Suresh Seshadri, a participant in this year’s edition, wrote an excellent piece for the The Hindu ahead of last year’s event.
“the combination of a flat, fast course, a pack of top-flight pacers and ideal autumn weather has ensured that the event is now regarded as the undisputed WR marathon race. Its claim to fame cemented by the fact that the last six successive world records for the distance, for men, have been set on the course”
Last year, Eluid Kipchoge set the fastest time ever by clocking 2:01:39 and certainly, the expectations were higher this year. I must have watched his finish a zillion times over the past one year and through him, I tried to visualise my own finish!
Kipchoge had to pull out of the event this year due to his committments with the potentially record-breaking attempt to run a marathon under 2 hours (which he did so). His absence this year was filled by the presence of Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder for 5,000m and 10,000m events. He justified his presence by clocking an impressive 2:01:41, the second fastest timing and he was followed by Birhanu Legese who clocked 2:02:48, the fourth fastest timing of all times.
My entry to Berlin marathon was through lottery and I was over the moon when I found that I have managed to secure entry to the event, as I have failed in every other lottery to the world marathon majors. Having secured entry to the event, it was up to me to make it special. The preparations for the event started much earlier. My first priority was to do ‘something different’ to my routine and ventured to add Yoga to my routine since January. Ably guided by Prashanth, Yoga helped me to improve my breathing. The training routine was disrupted in June due to freak cycling accident and did not have the mental grit to bounce back quickly. I started my long runs in August and after finishing Hyderabad Marathon (for the 8th time) in 4:31:26, I decided that my realistic target for the event would be 4:15.
I reached Dresden, Germany a week before the marathon and my good friend Padmanava was there at the station to receive me. I hired a bike the following day at Dresden and set out to ride towards Prague. I reached Sezemice, near Teplice on Monday, stayed overnight in a quiet hotel, and rode from there to Prague on Tuesday. After going around in Prague on Wednesday, I returned back to Dresden by train. The route was scenic with some challenging climbs and the highlight was crossing the border into Czech Republic with no checks.
After staying another day at Dresden to enjoy the exemplary hospitality and tour of Dresden by Paddy, I proceeded to Berlin on the Friday, September 27. The city was warming up for the marathon weekend. The pre-marathon event expo was held at the now-defunct Tempelhof airport, one of the oldest airports in the world. The vast airport suddenly looked small when filled with runners waiting to collect their race numbers. The added attraction in shopping, largely related to running, from fancy clothing to accessories and nutritional products, represented a running festival.
On Saturday, there was a ‘Breakfast Run’ organised from the Charlottenburg Palace to the Olympic Stadium — two iconic monuments with plenty of history. Running into the Olympic stadium, stories of 1936 Olympics and memories of the 2006 World Cup final flashed in my mind. It was in this stadium that Jesse Owens won the gold medal for the long jump in the 1936 Olympics beating Luz Long — a story that is a great example of sportsmanship. It was also the same stadium where the legend Zinedine Zidane bowed out in an unceremonious manner. So, when I met someone by name ‘Marco’ from Italy, I couldn’t resist enacting the sequence from 2006 World Cup!
It was also fun to bump into Chennai Runner, Vilva on the run, whom I was meeting after ages.
Getting 44,000 runners to run through the streets was no easy task. Runners were grouped in four categories and the start times ranged from 9:10 am for the elites to 10:10 am for the back-of-the-pack, where I duly took my place. Before the race, I decided not to wear my watch to track timing/distance. I started using tracking device from December 2016 and it has helped me in focusing my training runs well. This was a race where I had mentally prepared to give my best and I certainly don’t need a watch to tell me that I am running at my best. I had prepared for this event for the preceding 9 months, and decided that it would be best for me to run my heart out. From the gun shot, I made sure that I ran every minute of the race.
After running about 10 Km, largely jostling for space, it started raining and there was some challenge in an otherwise “fast marathon”. It must be noted that by then, Bekele and other lead runners had finished their respective races. The rain was certainly not a deterrent for runners as most were busy living their long cherished dreams.
What was surprising though, was the unflinching support from the volunteers who didn’t move from their positions, until the last one went past them. The equally admirable crowd didn’t relent either and cheerfully supported the runners through the route. Lively music bands were stationed across the route playing vibrant music.
Timing mats were placed at every 5K point and at the half-marathon. I could vaguely guess my timing for the intermediate split based on the time displayed. For instance, I knew that I completed my half-marathon at around 2 hours and was slowing down after that. The rains weren’t giving up and neither did my spirit. I continued pushing towards my best to see how far I can stretch myself. Naturally exhausted after the 30th KM, I was looking for some external motivation to see through the remaining distance. Before the event, Ashok, from Pillar Pacers informed me that he would be waiting at the 39th KM point. His presence at the 39th KM provided me with huge respite, when I saw him waiting in the rain and cheering for me. He also clicked a picture, which was certainly priceless!
The marathon route goes through some of the landmarks of Berlin including the Victory Column, German Chancellery, The Friedrichstadt-Palast, prominent art galleries and museums, Bundestrat, and finally, the Brandenburg Gate appearing between 41 and 42 Km points. Running through the Gate (Built in the 18th century to commemorate peace, it was closed for 28 years following the division of Germany), was something that I have been dreaming about ever since I won the lottery to participate, and the last kilometre was certainly my fastest!
Did I mention that the current marathon route passes through the landmarks of the erstwhile East and West Berlin signifying a unified spirit. In the first Marathon after the Wall came down, it was Uta Pippig, from East Germany, who won the race in the women’s category. Listen to her recollecting those wonderful moments,
A euphoric finish was rewarded by a wonderfully designed medal — one side featuring the important landmarks of Berlin and the other side the a relatively unknown Lutz Derkow. Lutz Derkow was one of the earliest employees of the organisation and worked for the event for over 30 years before passing away earlier this year. It was a tribute to him.
That evening, as I departed from Berlin, there were the finishers in the airport proudly sporting their finisher tees and medals all the way to their flights — the Berlin legends! I knew my finish timing only when I got my medal engraved. More than calling it a ‘Personal Best’ for being the fastest time that I have clocked for that distance, I would call it a ‘Personal Best’ purely for my efforts. Although, my 32nd marathon, this was one event that I would consider best in terms of planning and execution. The hype around the event was certainly worth every bit of it and I am proud to say “Ich bin ein Berliner“
Do check out the highlights of the event in this official video,
I was recently invited to talk about how to run a marathon to an eclectic audience across different age groups. Before the session started, one among the audience instructed her two kids, aged 6 and 8, to stop running and to listen to the talk about running. It stuck to me as to what do I talk about how to run to someone who is told not to run? The only way to run is not to be stopped from running. Renowned South African-Swiss explorer Mike Horn, when asked why he does what he does, said,
“Why do fish swim? Why do birds fly? Why I do what I do and why do you do what you do? Because, we can!”
Yes! We run because we can. It is a natural instinct in every human being. As a kid, after learning to balance ourselves in two feet, the natural progression is to try to run. Each one of us have run as a kid and we all know how to do it. Somewhere in the ‘growing up’ stage, we have stopped running. When asked the audience as to what prevents them from running, three major themes emerged.
Top among them are issues related to one’s health. The wear and tear in the adult stage due to complications developed from genetic, environment factors, and importantly, changing lifestyles. Not all issues are reversible and running is certainly not a panacea for any illness. While every complication has its own way of treatment, our ability to run – longer or faster – can be used as a measure of good health. As it is commonly said that we can improve only what we measure. While we may not be able to run at the same speed or distance as our younger days, we can certainly try. At times, even the thought of starting to run again can help us mentally prepare for recovery.
The second aspect is increased self-consciousness as we grow up – the way we feel that we are looked up by others. In a commercialised word influxed with products and services promising to boost one’s self esteem, it is quite natural to be excessively conscious of oneself. The biggest mental barrier around starting to run is all about how we would be perceived by others when we run. I was no exception in this regard. I was a laughing stock in every sport I tried before getting into long distance running. During my early days of running, it would appear that everyone was bothered about why a lean person like me is ever into running. I preferred to wear full pants to avoid people ogling at my slender legs. It was only because to my fellow runners in various running groups that I could get over these inhibitions.
The other area where being self-conscious affects us is the fear of being outpaced by others, especially by those whom we consider inferior to us, thus making us feel insecure and a loser even before we start to run. Being brought up in a world of cut-throat competition from school to college to work, it is quite natural for many to feel insecure. It is very much possible that someone older, person of other gender, or even someone whose appearance we ridicule could outpace you on the run. Participating in running events, be it a 5K run or a marathon, is one way to get rid of this mindset. In running events, we are just one among the multitude of people. We would be neither first nor last; and definitely second to none. As it is commonly said, every runner is ahead of someone who didn’t turn out for the event. Many times, the distance would force runners to show camaraderie and encourage each other finish. Running with like minded runners certainly help in breaking this mould and improve oneself by helping others.
The third dimension is the social perception about sports and fitness in general that gets forced on us. It is a widely accepted notion that sports and games are only ‘hobbies’ and to be pursued secondary to academics, family or profession. Even taking up a simple activity like a morning walk is usually considered as a result of medical advice or as a post-retirement activity rather than by choice.Those not appearing obese are often made to believe that running is for those who would like to reduce their weight. In case of women, the barriers are lot more and discussions needlessly intrudes into their personal space. Many running communities have successfully dispelled these myths and have created a space for runners to come and join them.
There is not much that one needs to learn about running. If we have done it in the past, we can almost certainly start doing it again. It is more about ‘unlearning’ the complexities that we have created for ourselves over the years. As running has taught me over years, keeping it simple is the easier way to do it. The more I have tried to learn about running, the more I realise that I haven’t learned. Running, at times, does bring with itself complexities like choice of clothing, gadgets, statistics, accessories, footwear, nutrition, and many others; But, none of them have been a deterrent to get started and actively pursue it. One doesn’t need to be called a runner to run; just being a human being is enough to run.
A edited version (brilliantly done by Pankaja) appeared in The Hindu – MetroPlus (Coimbatore edition) on August 30, 2019 under the title “Yes You Can”. The online version is not yet available.
Talk about France and cycling, the first thoughts that comes to one’s mind is the prestigious Tour de France. Equally popular though is the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) Randonneur event, which unlike the Tour de France, is open to amateurs across the world. Started in 1891, older than Tour de France, the next edition of the quadrennial event is scheduled to be held on August 18-22 , 2019. Unlike Tour de France, a multi-stage event, PBP is a single stage event where riders cover a distance of 1200 Km at a stretch. Riders are expected to complete the distance within 90 hours with stringent cut-offs in the intermediate segments, like 600 Km in 40 hours. To qualify for the event, riders have to complete a series of brevet rides, organised across the world under the regulations of Audax Club Parisien, the organisers of PBP. The brevet rides are long distance cycling events starting from 200 Km onwards, with time limits. The PBP is actively participated by riders all over the world and in the 2015 edition, about 57% of the 5,311 participants resided outside France. This year’s edition sees participation of over 300 riders from India, of which four of them are from Coimbatore.
1. Chakkravarthy Birur, 51 years
Chakkravarthy, popularly known as Chakra, was a pentathlon athlete during his college days before getting sucked into his business and family life. He started riding in 2012 to keep himself fit and has not looked back since. He attempted his first brevet in Chennai in 2012 and was instrumental in bringing the brevet events to Coimbatore. He finished the arduous 1000 Km ride between Chennai and Vijayawada in 2014 helping him qualify for the 2015 edition of the PBP. After quitting the 2015 event midway due to mechanical failure in his cycle, he is more determined to complete the current edition. He is also a triathlete and looking forward to finish his first half-Iron man event later this year.
2. Siva Balaji, 36 years Siva Balaji, a production engineer by profession, had his interest rekindled in cycling in 2017 and was addicted to it since. He started riding the brevets and started scaling up from 200 km to 1000km, not just once but five times, within the next two years across South India. The longest brevet that he has undertaken is the 1200 Km early this year stretching over 4 days. He occasionally participates in competitive cycling and has won prizes in time trail events and finished third in the Western valley MTB challenge.
3. Sakthivel Manian, 36 years Sakthivel Manian, an IT professional, started cycling in 2015 only as a means to keep himself fit during his hectic work schedule. He credits his friend Gokul Raju for getting him to take up cycling for fitness and participating in various events. It soon become a passion and unsurprisingly, he got hooked to brevets. He started riding brevets with Coimbatore Cycling and presence of his friends in the group are constant source of motivation.
4. Dr. Achyutha Krishnan, 29 years Hailing from a family of doctors, Achu took up to cycling during his post graduation in Medicine, when he started riding with his friends at the We the Chennai Cycling Group (WCCG). A juvenile diabetic, cycling helped him to test his limits and the way beyond it. Since the beginning of this year, he has clocked over 10,000 Km in his bicycle across the South India. Being a native Coimbatorean, it goes without saying that he enjoys climbing hills on his bicycle.
The common thread that runs across these 4 riders is their passion for riding and the amateur spirit in them. They took up to cycling with minimal background in sports and it is the sheer persistence that has taken them to these heights. Their technical abilities and age may not help them participate in the professional events but their determination sees them through in amateur events.
A quick calculation would suggest that brevet require riding at only about 15 Km per hour, which doesn’t sound difficult when viewed with layman’s glasses. The real challenge lies in enduring the distance and finishing within the time specified. During the given time, one has to manage their sleep, food, mechanical failures, and other unforeseen incidents on the route. The brevets are largely self-supported and one has to plan their routines themselves. Further, the route include significant increase in elevation and drop adding to the complexities. The total elevation for this year’s PBP route is about 11,566m, well above Mt. Everest. One of the key strategies in cycling event is to stick with the peloton – a group of riders. This helps all the riders to help each other and go the maximum distance with minimum effort. In PBP, this would be difficult to implement as over 90 hours, as they need to match not only their riding speed but also their scheduled and unscheduled breaks. They do ride with different groups at different points of time but the finishing the event ultimately relies on individual pursuit.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu – Metroplus on August 17, 2019 under the title “Going the Distance (1200 Km)”