Some of the world's greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible.
The term ‘marathon’ has become synonymous with any lengthy and difficult human physical activity signifying a test of great endurance, persistence, and courage. The human body is being subjected to increasingly and incredibly tougher tests in numerous ways on land, water, air, and space. Adventurous men and women of all ages subject themselves to such tests, more often than not voluntarily, and for the sheer pleasure of participation, often also in support of a lofty cause. In doing so they are living up to the Olympic ideals of Baron Pierre de Coubertin who proclaimed: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well...”
Here is a sample of some of the greatest feats of endurance and courage in the last one hundred years: Crossing of the Antarctic by Ernest Shackleton and his team in 1914-1917, overcoming some of the most incredible hardships ever faced by humans; Charles Lindbergh’s path breaking solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in a single-engine plane in 1927 that kept him airborne for over 33 hours non-stop; the Le Mans 24 hour annual car rally in France since 1923, testing the endurance of both car and driver; Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition across the Pacific Ocean in a primitive raft that lasted over one hundred days and around 7000 km; the eventual conquest of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay in 1953, a feat that is now being routinely duplicated every year by numerous ‘ordinary’ people; the grueling annual 21-day Tour de France cycle race covering about 3200 km, one of the most physically demanding of athletics events, won by American Lance Armstrong for a record seven consecutive years from 1999 to 2005 after having survived a life-threatening testicular cancer; swimming across the Atlantic Ocean by Frenchman Benoit Lecomte in 1998, a 6000 km journey that took him 37 days to complete; 195 days of spaceflight by India-born Sunita Williams in the International Space Station in 2007, the longest by a woman astronaut. This list can be stretched to several pages. One thing they all have in common is the proven capability for human endurance and courage, bordering on the impossible and infinite.
The Marathon Man from Mysore
Madhusudan Nagaraja (known to everybody as Madhu) was born in 1970 to middle class parents in Mysore who were my neighbors in the Manasagangothri campus of the Mysore University. The father was a university employee and the mother, whom I have never seen without a smile, a high school teacher. I can proudly say that I have known Madhu from his cradle days and as a playmate to my second daughter, who was born a year later, and a host of other small children. They formed quite a noisy and mischievous little gang in the neighborhood, often a source of both annoyance and pleasure. The parents moved to their own home close to the university swimming pool some years later. This was indeed fortuitous since it gave him a chance to take to swimming, though not very seriously in those early days.
Even as Madhu went through his school and collegiate education in local institutions, he took to swimming seriously and gained considerable prowess in it. He earned a national sports merit scholarship for graduate studies at the Mysore University and won the University swimming championship. Combining other sports with swimming, particularly tennis, he won the best athlete award of the university as well as numerous other awards.
Here is a picture of Madhu at home about this time:
[Some of the pictures shown here are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window. However, none of them were taken by me and I am not able to credit them individually.]
After obtaining a master’s degree in Biochemistry from the Mysore University, he changed tack completely and took up employment in the Income Tax department of the government of India as a stop-gap measure before proceeding to USA for his higher studies in another field, Information Technology. He then took up residence in California and when he found himself out of a job temporarily, he decided to spend his time taking to swimming more seriously than he had ever done before under the guidance and patronage of the renowned Rinconada Masters Swim Team in Palo Alto. This was to be a turning point in his life. He began dreaming of exploits that would rival any professional swimmer and, towards this end, took to strenuous open water swimming in the San Francisco Bay for long durations to toughen up both his body and mind. He began to eye the celebrated and treacherous English Channel (EC), one of the toughest challenges facing any swimmer and a daunting task even for the best of professionals.
One of the motivational factors for Madhu to attempt the EC swim was former president of India Dr Abdul Kalam’s inspirational book “Wings of Fire” in which he drives home the message that the nation is much larger than the self and national prestige should be an overriding consideration in any individual effort. He wanted to do it primarily for the country.
English Channel Challenge
The English Channel separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about 560 km long and varies in width from 240 km at its widest to 34 km in the Strait of Dover (see the Google Map below).
Way back in August 1875, Matthew Web of England was the first person ever to swim the English Channel, from Dover to Calais, taking just under 22 hours to do so. In 1926 the American swimmer Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to achieve the feat. Mihir Sen became the first Indian to swim the English Channel, from Dover to Calais in September 1958. Much like climbing Mount Everest, crossing the English Channel has become an annual feature, though no less challenging now than in earlier times.
Madhu started rigorous and systematic training and preparations lasting nearly a year, most of it in California, to take up the channel challenge and chose to make his attempt in early August 2004. Any such effort is impossible without the active support of well-organized and highly experienced groups of dedicated people with specialized skills and Madhu had their full backing.
Though the distance between Dover in England and Cap Griz-Nez in France is about 37 km, the actual swim distance becomes considerably longer because of tidal currents which take the swimmer on a zigzag course. However, the real problem is not so much the distance as the challenge to swim in bitingly chilly waters battered by high winds. As Madhu found out, this required not only superb physical conditioning but also even greater mental toughness.
On the morning of 10 August 2004, egged on by his pilot boat crew and others, Madhu hesitantly got into the cold water at Dover in pouring rain, with some self-doubt as to whether he was up to the challenge. The weather continued to be cloudy and rainy for the first six hours and he made slow progress, firmly pushing aside any thought of giving up. Thereafter things improved.
Here is a picture of Madhu swimming with powerful strokes, with a beautiful jellyfish appearing to give him company:
Despite a sharp pain in the right shoulder he kept going relentlessly, hour after hour, and it was with a great sense of both elation and relief that he spotted the French shoreline. Finally he got out on the sandy beach of Cap Griz-Nez to be welcomed by some friendly French people who had gathered there. It had taken him 12 hours and 31 minutes to accomplish the feat and join the elite band of adventurers who had conquered the EC. He was one of very few Indians to do so. He had also become the first Kannada speaking person from the state of Karnataka to achieve the feat, something he is greatly proud of. He held the Indian tricolor high in celebration after returning to Dover. Here is a picture of him at Dover displaying the national flag and standing next to the statue of Matthew Web, the first man ever to swim across the channel successfully.
Madhu’s English Channel crossing happened just a few days before the start of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. The media gaze in India was so much on the games that Madhu’s achievement went almost entirely unnoticed and unsung back home. The world’s second most populous country was to finish with just one (silver) medal in the entire games. It occurred to few people that Madhu’s achievement was at least as good as that of India’s entire Olympic contingent.
Marathon des Sables 2010
Madhu’s next major adventure was participation in the 2010 Marathon des Sables (MDS) that takes place every year in southern Morocco. First started in 1986, it was a six-day ultra-marathon foot race in the Sahara desert, the equivalent of six regular marathons or more and is regarded as the toughest race on Earth and described as a highway to hell! It is designed to promote developmental initiatives in favour of children and underprivileged populations within the health, education, and sustainable development sectors of this North African country. Held during 2 – 12 April 2010 and celebrating its 25th anniversary, this event subjected its hundreds of voluntary participants from many parts of the world to some of the most torturous physical endurance ever experienced by anyone in a desert environment and required extraordinary physical conditioning achieved through a regimen of long and rigorous training. The risks are perceived to be so great that the entry fee includes the cost of possible return of the dead body of any participant to his/her kith and kin back home!
Here is a picture of Madhu as a fully dressed participant against the background of the desert. Each participant had to carry all the personal needs, including food, in a backpack. Only water was made available to them at intermediate checkpoints that had to be reached before a specified time each day. Medical aid was more readily available.
The following picture shows Madhu amidst a number of other participants all ready for the next leg of their journey across the desert:
At the end of the six-day ordeal, everybody would have suffered physically in some way or other, at the very least with some blisters in the feet and on the back. Madhu fared much worse as the following picture so poignantly shows. Of course it is to his credit that he survived the scare, made light of the ordeal and completed the full course.
The following picture shows a triumphant Madhu showing off his well-earned medallion at the completion of the event:
Across Lake Ontario
Madhu’s latest, and perhaps the greatest, exploit has been the crossing of the great Lake Ontario in Canada last month end. He had eyed this years ago and decided on a route from Port Dalhousie north of the great Niagara Falls to his present hometown of Oakville, northwest of the starting point (see Google map below), a distance of about 42 km which also happens to be the land distance for any marathon road event. Curiously, Madhu who is presently employed as a senior business systems analyst with a Canadian insurance company is aged 42 now.
As before, Madhu’s meticulous preparations had begun about a year in advance, helped by a team of expert swimmers and strategists (constituting the Lake Ontario Swim Team) who had to contend with a situation much more challenging than the EC swim. By all expectations this was going to be much harder than the EC and so it turned out to be. The eventual success of the effort has been beautifully summed up in the following visual taken from the official report on the swim.
Madhu had publicized his intention of swimming across Lake Ontario in several ways, including a TV interview he had given on Canada Day 2012 (see: http://www.tvcogeco.com/burlington-oakville/gallery/tv-shows/305-tvc-on-location/59643-canada-day-2012). He stepped into the lake in excellent weather conditions at Lakeside Park, Port Dalhousie on 28th July around 9.10 PM (local time) escorted by an expert support team one of whose boats is shown in the following picture:
Here are two pictures of the swim in progress at different times:
The outside world was kept informed of Madhu’s progress through regular hourly bulletins on his Facebook page. His parents and I at Mysore were among thousands of people in many countries following his progress. Everything appeared to be going well up to a point, with eleven consecutive hourly bulletins posted on his Facebook page. We kept urging him on with frequent messages of encouragement. Then the bulletins stopped mysteriously. We got nervous and when the twelfth bulletin became long overdue, and it was well past my bedtime (India time), I went to bed hoping for the best possible news on the morrow. After three hours I woke up from my disturbed slumber to find a very reassuring comment from Madhu’s wife Suman saying that the swim was still on despite some strong currents he had to fight against and more importantly, no further news had come through till then only because of some communication problems. His pace had slowed considerably and it was apparent that he would take a lot longer than the estimated 17-18 hours for the swim. As Bryan Finlay, the official accompanying Madhu on the boat put it, “the success of the swim revolved around Madhu’s dogged and calm acceptance of some ten hours of headwind and associated waves. Ironically, these challenges were faced under a star-filled clear sky with dazzlingly bright reflections on the lake from an 80% full moon…”.
I went back to bed, slept better and woke up very early next morning to read that Madhu was closing in on his target at Oakville, with the conditions having improved considerably. Then there was another long silence, more anxiety and at last the final word that he had stepped on the Coronation Park beach to some rapturous welcome from his family and friends. With wife Suman holding their child and looking on, Madhu’s face in the next picture (published in a local newspaper) says it all. However, as Bryan Finlay remarked, “few will ever know what challenges Madhu and his crew faced during the final two hours, as they struggled to avoid the northerly push of some strong currents and thereby maintain the 313-degree heading required to ensure their precision on-the-spot version of a moon landing...”
Madhu had taken 24 hours and 26 minutes to complete his swim, about 6-7 hours longer than he had estimated, but still a record for the course. At this time Madhu’s Facebook page may well have been jammed with a flood of congratulatory messages, including mine. Coming from someone who is not a professional, this was a fantastic feat of endurance and athleticism. That this should have been achieved by someone I have known from his cradle days is all the more wonderful for me.
Perhaps unintentionally, Madhu’s Ontario swim coincided with the start of this year’s London Olympic Games, much the same way it happened during the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. With this very much in my mind, I had remarked in my congratulatory message to him, “I do not see how this feat can be less significant than any medal India may win in the ongoing London Olympics though it may very well go unnoticed and unsung back home.” Considering how the Indian Olympic contingent has fared in the London games, I feel fully vindicated in what I said. Such achievements by little known and uninfluential individuals without any government or corporate patronage stand little chance of the recognition that they really deserve. In contrast, we find that the Indian media are treating even the few bronze medal winners of the Olympic Games as demigods and showering hugely disproportionate largesse on them.
While the Indian media took no notice of Madhu’s feat, there was however one notable exception. A Kannada TV channel put out a well-orchestrated half-hour feature that showed a video interview with Madhu’s parents and an audio interview with him. This was indeed some consolation.
How does someone like Madhu achieve such extraordinary feats which, as one Ontario swim support crew member put it, “… require such sacrifice of mind and body… just to contemplate the challenge, never mind attack it full on without mercy…”? Perhaps part of the answer is provided by former American president Calvin Coolidge’s observation: “Ordinary people believe only in the possible. Extraordinary people visualize not what is possible or probable, but rather what is impossible. And by visualizing the impossible, they begin to see it as possible.” Perhaps this compliments Doug Larson’s quote with which I began this write-up.
When I mentioned Madhu’s exploits to a close acquaintance of mine he was all admiration but went on to add in a lighter vein that only crazy people do such things. Yes, perhaps in the insane world of today we need such crazy people to help preserve some semblance of sanity in humanity.