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Education and Support in Trail Running: Organiser Responsibilities, Local Communities and the Hell Race Sports Foundation - Tracking Dirt with Vishwas Sindhu (Complete Episode Transcript)

Education and Support in Trail Running Organiser Responsibilities, Local Communities and the Hell Race Sports Foundation Tracking Dirt with Vishwas Sindhu

Episode 9 of Tracking Dirt delved into the deep thoughts of Vishwas Sindhu, who is no stranger in the trail and ultrarunning community in India. Vishwas is the founder and Race Director of Hell Race, who organise 7 races (across 6 events) in India, each with its own cult following. With a mix of challenge and excitement baked in varying quantities, Vishwas is also notoriously called the 'creator of hell' in the Indian running scene. Or maybe it's just an aura that follows him around.

We caught up with Vishwas a week after Red Stone Ultra 2024 and covered a lot of ground in a rather unfiltered manner. While some of the F-bombs have been censored out, this conversation still borders on the two extremes of 'what the H' and 'what the F'.

This is also the first time an episode of Tracking Dirt has been recorded in Hindi. This transcript is essentially to give reach to the conversation for people who are not fluent in or familiar with Hindi. This is an important conversation!

The complete episode is live on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts and Amazon Music. Or, you can simply head to the Tracking Dirt section of this website.

The actual conversation starts around the 1:50 mark. Special thanks to Sarthak from the CapitalTrails community for helping with the transcript.

Section 1 - Understanding Trail Running

Kshitish: You organise events on roads and trails - like Border Ultra and the Great Himalayan Running Festival on the roads, both of which are pretty popular in the Indian ultrarunning circuit. Same way, you have Solang SkyUltra - you also have Buddha Trails and Red Stone Ultra, but Solang SkyUltra has created a reputation for itself in the country. So as someone who is organising events on both roads and trails, how has this developed or changed your perspective towards running as a sport?

Vishwas: As I’ve spoken about on another podcast, I was a software engineer. I grew up in a village and as you know, in villages, people are always interested in the outdoors. So after 10 years in software, I got out and was wondering what to do. Initially I wanted to organise cycling and trekking trips - but once you’re in the outdoors field, it’s not necessary that you end up looking at just one or two things. While exploring more options, I saw a lot of long and challenging running races were happening abroad and they were doing an amazing job. And then I started wondering, “we also have everything - mountains, deserts, coastline, jungles - so if they can do it, why can’t we”? This led to the idea of developing a race series.

At that time, I was more into cycling and that led to the formation of Hell Race as a mountain biking race. It was only later that running was included. Today, we don’t organise cycling events for various reasons, but the whole idea was that we should be organising challenging races as we have everything available that can push lifestyle as well as elite runners beyond their comfort zones and more towards the extremes.

When people start their running journeys, there are very few who start as trail runners. For most people, it starts as a way of staying fit and then slowly they start running road races - 10k, half marathons, full marathons - before the ultrarunning bug gets them. It’s only pretty late that they see running on mountains, in jungles, with ice, snow, rain etc. as something that excites them. In your view, how are these journeys different? And how should runners traverse from one to the other?

I firmly believe that a runner is a runner. Yes, people don’t directly start running on mountains - they’ll start either on the road or on the tracks in their school or something like that. This is the same whether you look at India or abroad. I compare a lot of things to cycling, so it’s just like when we used to ‘start’ cycling by commuting to work or to meet friends. It was only much later that we realised what road biking was, what mountain biking was, and so on.

My perspective, and I may be wrong, is that just like mountain biking, the trail running community is also very close-knit. This could be due to two reasons. First, maybe because you’re in an activity that’s very close to nature. When you end up challenging yourself at an extreme level, e.g., mountains, jungles, you become humble and, therefore, come closer together. Second, maybe it’s because trail running is such a small community. On one hand, you have 100000+ road runners and on the other hand, you have trail runners in the low thousands. When you go to trail running events across India, it is very likely that you’ll know 100-200 runners by name.

Another aspect is that when you look at road runners (lifestyle or serious), they mostly have chasing PBs as their goal. On trails, the same runner might be there to just enjoy the views. Even if you yourself do a road half marathon and a 10k on the trails, you’ll see both types of runners emerge out in you. For road runners, getting their best timing, precise targets, medals, competition - these matter more. For trail runners, a few seconds or minutes here and there are not significant. These are basic differences that I see between the two communities or ‘types’ of runners. Other that this, a runner is a runner first and a road or trail runner later.

But on the other hand, if someone is born in a place close to trails or mountains, like you have runners from Rimbick who start running by going on these trails - for them, it’s a different story.

Coming to mindset, what’s happening today is that we’re all getting too influenced by social media. Like if someone sees your Instagram, they’ll first think “wow Kshitish did Buddha Trails where he got such good views and so many likes”. But what they don’t see is the amount of training or work that Kshitish put in. So my take here is that when you get into something, you should know its complete background.

For example, in trail running events, when we say running shoes are mandatory or hydration packs are mandatory, many runners still think of these are futile expenses. They don’t understand that it’s these trail shoes and these hydration packs that can save their lives some day. It’s because they’re probably not able to understand the vulnerability and technicality of being out on trails. They’re just coming for the views that they’ve seen through someone else’s photos. It’s almost like they’re going into battle unarmed. How can you win? How can you be successful?

So in making this shift from to trail running, one needs to understand the technicalities, what kind of terrain it’ll be, elevation profiles etc. It’s surprising that so many people still don’t understand what ‘D+’ means in the context of ascent or vert. And they still turn up at races like Solang SkyUltra. Now they may very well be able to even finish the race. But simply finishing a race and understanding it thoroughly are two very different things. When you come prepared, it’s possible that you’ll perform even better. But if you come unaware, then even though you may be able to finish once, you’ll still not be free from risk if, say, the weather turns.

To summarise, my point here is that people should educate themselves on what trail running is, what the technicalities are, how races are scored, how points are awarded etc. For example, many people don’t understand what the different types of ITRA points are. A 50k race like Red Stone Ultra will give you no mountain points as compared to, say, Mt. Patalsu Challenge which will give you 12 mountain points - which is the highest - for a mere 14k race. So if someone comes in thinking “it’s just a 14k race, how hard could it be?”, they’re bound to land into trouble.

When we started Hell Race, there were very few runners and even fewer who knew what trail running was - I remember, back in 2016 at Solang, Nakul Butta was probably the only person who knew what technical trail running was, which even I did not. So such people pushed us and we learnt from them. This allowed us to really learn and understand things rather than chasing runners or customers.

A runner needs to take the same approach. Understand the trails, take a long-term view - that’s a better guarantee of success as compared to just going out without any connection.

Section 2 - Education in Trail Running

So the takeaway here is that when you’re getting into trail running, the most important part is to understand the field, the sport, the battleground. This brings me to a larger point. In India, there is tremendous opportunity for education in the sport of trail running.

As you pointed out, it’s a small community. Out of 9000+ runners whose results are published on ITRA, if you remove duplicates and count only the ‘serious’ trail runners who participate in 3-4 trail events on a yearly basis, there’ll be not more than 200. Of a population of 2 billion, we’re talking about 200 people. At this size, I believe that runners, organisers and other stakeholders - maybe brands or even podcasts like this - have a huge opportunity to educate people. What do you think about this and what direction could this be taken in?

I believe that if we keep education community-based, we have a greater chance of succeeding. I’ll give you an example. In the last edition of Solang SkyUltra, one runner ended up losing his life on a race route recce. Whatever happened is now lost with him, but we think that he lost his way, went in the wrong direction and fell into a gorge. He was a good trail runner - but it’s possible that he didn’t have the required knowhow for mountains. When we got a hint of his location, Rohit (Kalyana “Baba”, on our team) immediately saw that the contour lines in that location indicated a steep gorge, and that the chances of rescuing him were very very slim.

We’re now planning to conduct some free-of-cost sessions where one could learn how to understand maps, navigate and at least know where not to go. We believe that these are must-have skills, and if we can start with the currently small community and reach out to the 100-200 runners, they can then spread the knowledge and scale it up for the next generations. We don’t want to price these sessions because it will lose its value if priced. We feel that we have a responsibility towards the community in this regard and it’s extremely important to see it as something that’s for the good of the community rather than for business.

I completely agree. This idea of conducting sessions and workshops on navigation etc. is really good. What other topics would you want to or like to cover?

First is navigation, obviously, especially when you’re in the mountains. Second, understanding maps, contour lines etc. Third, and probably even more important, is how to control your ego. For example, I’ve registered for 56k at Trailathon, and say, I bonk at 4km and then literally drag myself for the remaining 52km. I may be able to finish, or I might end up not finishing. But now when you’re in a similar situation in the mountains, it can become a critical decision on whether to continue or not - when to take a step back and turn back.

When we prepare so hard for an event, we tend to forget or overlook the fact that we’re also prone to failing. So we end up just moving forward with a ‘come what may’ approach. On the roads, we’re all ‘safe’. Unless there’s a cardiac arrest or any life threatening event, someone will be able to rescue you in a car or a bike with relative ease. But on trails, and especially mountains, understanding when to turn back is as important a skill as any other.

Another topic is of following local cues. For example, again talking about mountains, the gaddis (shepherds) are the true ‘mountain gods’ in my eyes. So knowing their routes, their timings, their halts and stops is of tremendous value.

That’s why I say that when we’re entering into a new sport, we shouldn’t show haste. We need to approach it with a long-term vision. No one becomes a mountain champion or an Olympic champion in a day. If you don’t finish a race, that’s all right - you can come again and finish it next year. But going there, taking risks, possibly even losing life, just because you didn’t want to ‘give up’, that is not a good thing. There’s a family behind every runner whose life will turn upside down with one egotistical mistake the runner makes.

There are so many topics. You’re experienced, so you’ll also have a lot to contribute. And it’s not just you or me, there are so many organisers and people in the scene who are doing their bit - Anand (Adkoli) from Malnad Ultra, Dighvijay (Jedhe) from SRT Ultra. It’s our collective responsibility to create educated runners and human beings who would help future generations with this.

I completely agree with this. This whole ‘avoiding a DNF at all costs’ mentality that runners come with - I won’t really blame them…

Yes they’re not to blame…

Yeah, they’ve worked hard for 6-7 months and reached this position…

This is basically human nature…

Yes, exactly…

No one likes failing. Whether one is prepared or not, everyone wants to ‘complete’ the task they signed up for.

So I’d say the first and most important part that people need to be educated on, is that a DNF is not bad. It’s not worth risking your lives for - I mean, risking life is also a far stretch - it’s not worth crying over as though all hope is gone…

Under no circumstances is a DNF bad. Yes, the first time, it’ll pinch. Many people come and say to me, “you’re a race director - how can you get a DNF”? I mean, what’s wrong with that? A DNF is just a DNF. It’s not like good athletes don’t DNF - Kilian Jornet, Jim Walmsley, have all gotten DNFs despite their elite-level preparations. Then there are people who will end up injuring themselves so much - like you said, risk their lives - again, forget about risking lives, they’ll end up messing up their knees, their bones, just keep dragging themselves. And then post long elaborate stories on social media. Like, do us a favour and stop writing these stories! You’ve battered yourself, dragged yourself to finish, then you’re celebrating the whole ordeal - without realising that you have an audience who is just trying to follow your footsteps. The takeaway is that if you want to do it, do it properly. Not for the stories and applause.

It’s not like an organiser has given you targets. These are your own goals. For example, last year Yash (Kumar Raj) won the 60k category at Solang SkyUltra. But at the finish line, he was seen crying about the fact that he could not meet the standards the race had set in his mind. To him, maybe even that is a DNF. Obviously, a DNF means different things to everyone - but it’s really not anything to lose sanity over.

So there are two points that emerge out of what you’ve said. First, whatever it is that you’re doing - running, racing, road, trail, whatever - you’re doing it for yourself and not for anyone else. You’re the only one who’s actually feeling happy doing this. Yes, you’re getting applause and appreciation, results, medals and whatnot - maybe you even win the thing - but there’s a family behind you, who, even though they support you, really don’t care what your actual result was. The difference between a 5:20 finish and a 5:18 finish matters only to you and no one else. This is extremely important for everyone to understand.

Second, when the community is so small today, every single athlete has to act responsibly - as every athlete today is a role model for tomorrow’s generation. Whether he or she a front pack athlete, a back of the pack athlete…

Or even a DNF athlete…

Section 3 - The Role of Race Organisers

Yes, it’s their special responsibility to spread the right message and the right values. Because the generation that comes after us will move forward only by seeing what we are doing today. You may think that you don’t have enough followers, no one sees or hears you, but it’s not like that. Just by virtue of being in a small community and being there before the next person makes you a role model who the next generation will look up to and try to emulate.

Coming back to organisers’ role in this, what do you think of other micro points? For example, don’t litter on the trails. Fortunately or unfortunately, road runners have this image of throwing their gel packets etc. On the roads, it’s easy to clean up, but it’s a completely different story on trails. What is your take on this?

It’s a collective responsibility. You’re right that it’s easier to clean up on the road and equally difficult on trails. But here’s my take - it’s pretty much like listening to a motivational speaker. You hear everything they say, but do something only when you feel about it on the inside. Before every race, I usually mention to runners that they shouldn’t litter. I mean, just carry that empty wrapper back with you - that extra 1 gram won’t really affect your finishing time. But they still do it. I feel that we can say whatever we want, but the real difference will only be seen when we all collectively understand the impact of littering and neglecting the trails. Everyone thinks “so what if I throw a small wrapper” - but they don’t realise that there are hundreds of thousands of people thinking this way. The result, we all know - too much garbage will flow into the streams and join the rivers, will end up blocking the water flow, then there will be floods, followed by destruction. The day these hundreds of thousands of people start understanding this and stop throwing wrappers, only then will things improve. This is so basic and is not even something we need to explain to people. Yes, as a process, race directors should be clear in communicating this. But how do you enforce this? Do you DNF all runners who litter? How do you keep track of everyone littering the trails? These are not solutions. The only solution is when people come to the realisation that littering is wrong.

One other thing we do is that after every race, we collect all the garbage from all aid stations. Like in Border Ultra, we go on a round, collect everything and deposit at the Municipal office in Jaisalmer. In Solang, we create three teams, one for each mountain en route, and do the same. Obviously, we also do it on a best effort basis but we take it as a responsibility after every race.

This is a slow process and we’re only getting more aware of these issues. My belief is that the coming generations will only do it better than us, simply because they’re more aware and more responsible than us. It’s a generational thing but it will certainly improve.

So I have a complaint for you. Plastic paints - why, and what’s your take on them?

You’re absolutely right. Initially we never used plastic paints. But what would happen at Buddha Trails and Solang SkyUltra was that we’d mark the route with temporary paint in the day, and by evening it’d rain and wash it all away. It can rain at any time in the mountains, and we don’t want our runners to get lost. So it was only to address this that we started using plastic paints.

Obviously, there are pros and cons to this. We all understand the cons - it’s plastic, it’s permanent and definitely damaging to the environment. But there is the other aspect also - treks like Beas Kund where 90% used to go with guides, now see 90% go without guides and on their own, simply because our markings are there to guide them. Many of them thank us for this. In that regard, we’re creating these routes where people won’t get lost when out on their own.

You won’t believe that Hira (Lal Thakur) bhai lost his way this time at Solang SkyUltra. This was so weird because he’s someone who can close his eyes and complete the entire 100k route. If this can happen to someone like Hira bhai, then for other runners who are not as familiar with the trails, such markings always come in handy. So yeah there are always two sides to the coin.

Another option is to erect poles without damaging existing natural structures. We’re also new to this and would even like to speak to the government to organise the infrastructure on these hiking or trekking routes. Like they have in Nepal - emergency huts where we can stock warm clothes, blankets, medicines - at least this way we can formalise the trails and the infrastructure around them in collaboration with the Himachal Pradesh government.

There is also the issue of maturity in runners. A lot of runners still get lost despite markings. GPS, navigation etc. are unfamiliar skills. Once the community grows more knowledgeable, markings might not even be needed any more. Look at Europe - the trails are so well developed there, but even they have permanent markers. Maybe not paint on rocks, but permanent signboards are there. We should look at developing these factors as well.

So, complaint was not the right word…

Complaints should always be there. One more thing - I don’t have a problem with complaints…

Yes, you shouldn’t…

If there’s no feedback, how will I improve? I just want to ensure you that I’m aware of these issues, and I’m intentionally not trying to focus on it. Because if even one runner gets lost, you know how big a problem that can become. It’s not a risk worth taking. But I assure you that we will work on this in the future and try to avoid or minimise the use of plastic paints.

Yeah, so there are so many perspectives here. It’s not a simple question like “hey, what do you think of plastic paints”? That’s a complete world-peace type question. As you’ve pointed out, it’s a different story in the mountains and these markings have a very different use over there. Obviously, the definition of environmental sensitivity itself is very different for the mountains as compared to, say, Delhi-NCR. We may argue that in NCR, plastic paints are not required and something else may be feasible. But on the other hand, in the jungles and forests of NCR that are so raw and bare with questionable safety at best, when one sees an arrow or a marking that indicates a route, that can help them mentally and give them psychological comfort.

Yes, it can help them feel secure…

Exactly, I feel this is a great debate, but if one is to be practical and pragmatic, it comes down to what you prioritise. Are you prioritising safety and security of runners? Are you prioritising the environment? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. People will take the side that aligns with their beliefs…

As I’ve said, I’m aware of our shortcomings but I can’t do anything about this until things generally start developing in this regard. The day I see that runners are able to use GPS, navigate on their own, it’s not like we’ve vowed to use 5kg of paint…

If you’re putting ribbons…

The thing with ribbons is that you need something to tie them on. If it’s bare, then where do you hang them? Or you put up a pole, tie a ribbon, put something reflective. Yeah this debate can go on and people will see positives or negatives as they see fit. We see some positives in this. Hardcore environmentalists might see the negatives.

Do you think that in the next 3-5 years we’ll reach enough maturity to give this debate a balanced thought and resolution? Or will it take longer?

I think 3 years is too little, but in 5 years we should be good. At least in races like Solang SkyUltra, this will definitely change. While both Solang SkyUltra and Buddha Trails are our races, Solang SkyUltra is developing in a very different way. The way runners prepare and the type of runners who are taking it seriously really shows a mature and dedicated approach. I don’t think I’ve seen it anywhere else in India. Runners are shifting their bases to Manali, or at least moving there a month or two prior to the race. So over there, I’m very hopeful and positive. Buddha Trails, on the other hand, are well-maintained trails. Achieving a sense of environmental responsibility over there is even easier I’d say. Slight common sense is all that’s needed.

Nice, this is the positivity the Indian trail running scene needs…

We’ll do it together. It’ll be great…

Yep, absolutely. So we’ve spoken a lot about education…

I’d like to add just one more thing. This is not something that a single Kshitish or a single Vishwas can do. Even today I see a lot of organisers not enforcing mandatory gear checks. If we get lenient even with such things, then the other concerns become too far-fetched. So this has to be a collective responsibility of all organisers and runners. This might irritate or alienate a few runners and you might get a few beep bombs from them, but only when such small things become non-negotiable, would the larger things start getting attention. This is my request to the entire community.

I mean it again comes down to how you understand the playing field and how prepared you are. It’s not like the organiser wants to enforce his or her way out of ego. Like I’ve spoken about this in a few of the earlier episodes - and correct me if I’m wrong - the most important priority for you as an organiser is to ensure that all your runners are back safe. Now in order to achieve this, if you enforce mandatory gear, if you’re cutting the route short, let’s say you’re using permanent markings - even though they’re bad all around - you’re only prioritising runners’ safety. The more we’re able to understand this, the better it’ll be for the community and for the sport.

This is like back when helmets became mandatory for two-wheelers, no one followed the rules. But when they started issuing challans, everyone fell in line. Same with seat belts in cars. This is no different. As the authority in context, organisers need to enforce and maybe even penalise runners for not following rules and mandatory requirements at the least. If Hell Race is the only one enforcing it and, say, another race doesn’t, runners can very well think “why the beep should I do Hell Race? Let me just go to the other one”. But if every race enforces these, then we improve community standards. It’s our basic responsibility as organisers.

How have you seen these things change at Hell Race events?

This has been a process. Not just the events, I’ve even seen myself change. We used to be very casual about these things in the beginning. Basically, you need to have the endgame in sight. If I talk about Hell Race, it has never been a profit-making venture for me, whether people believe me or not. When we started Hell Race, we wanted to make changes in this sport. But you need to know how to bring about changes. You need to not only develop the sport, but also build a community. If you become adamant that “come what may, I’ll beep do it this way”, the community will never form and never grow. You can’t implement things without a community.

Initially, we used to casually mention but never enforced, say, mandatory gear. So as a result, the route at Solang SkyUltra also evolved accordingly. For example, we won’t send runners too deep in the jungles because we realised that we weren’t mandating the right footwear. Then slowly some runners started getting the right equipment, and then there were runners like Nischint (Katoch) who started educating other runners. He’d say in his own flair, “look, for you it’s very important because beep otherwise you’ll break” - you know his way of putting things. This is how the community grows. It’s not one person’s responsibility. This is what we’ve also done. We’ve seen changes in peoples’ attitudes. It’s not like people don’t learn. Everyone learns, but it’s important to say things the right way. It’s not like “Vishwas has said this, Kshitish has said that”, that’s not how you can grow a community.

We’ve had a lot of people who went off angry or annoyed. But a lot of them came back to us as well. Maybe it was something we said or something someone else said, but many runners understood what we were trying. As I said before, this is a slow process and some things take generations to solve. If you see, trail running has grown in India only in the last 3-4 years - of which 1-2 years were the Covid years - so we should give another 5-10 years to see significant changes.

Section 4 - Local Communities

The whole purpose of having these conversations is to understand what topics or what discussions need to be highlighted today, so that the trail runners that come in the next 5-10 years or so, emerge a much more evolved and mature generation than what we are.

So just to flip this conversation a bit and move away from organisers and athletes, where do you think local communities fit into this whole equation?

This is an area where I’ve worked extensively. My firm belief is that until locals are involved in events, it’s almost impossible to do things properly. Yes, you can bring people and professionals from outside but the locals know the demographics, local customs etc. Another important aspect is the sense of security you achieve when you involve the locals in any event. At the end of the day, we’re taking the routes through their villages, so having them on-board is extremely critical.

What I’ve observed is that most of us are reluctant to go and talk to locals. We have to just go and speak to them and get them involved. Take the Red Stone Ultra as an example. Even though this is the area where I live, we took a long time launching a race here. And the main goal was to change the perceptions among urban runners that these villages, these locals, the jats, the gujjars etc. are not weird people. For this reason, we specifically included the villages of Manger and Kot in the route. I still go and meet the leaders, the sarpanch, the elders from these villages and it is the locals who end up managing aid stations at these locations. Maybe no one tried these things before us.

Another example from Red Stone 2023. A female runner, Gunjan (Raina), came up to me very scared that her route was going through villages. I went and spoke to the villagers and told them that they have a negative image around safety. You know what they said? They got angry and literally told me off - “how dare someone from our soil misbehave with women”? So when I took this back to Gunjan, she found comfort as we all realised how important these locals are as stakeholders in the community.

Rimbick is yet another example. Buddha Trails is not the first event to happen there. But no one ever went and involved the villagers over there. People were happy inviting runners from all over, charging them huge fees, operating a tour there, etc. I believe we have a responsibility to speak to local communities and educate them on how this can change things for them. Changes are not just financial. You can actually create opportunities for local athletes. You are helping change perceptions that people carry. Why is it that people are fine with going to villages in Himachal but not in Haryana? The Haryana ones might be even more welcoming and warmer than the Himachal ones. It’s only when you go and see for yourself that you’ll understand.

We Indians might be different within each state, but we are a good people. You go land up somewhere and ask for a cup of tea - no one will say no - right from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. And they’ll sit with you and talk to you. That’s all you need to do. Just go and speak to people. I personally love speaking to people. Whether it’s a CEO/CFO or it’s a shepherd or a construction worker, each person adds tremendous value to the community. To me, organising an event with even one runner but heavy local involvement is a better measure of success than having thousands of runners with zero local involvement.

What is your expectation from local communities? Do you ask for specific help or do you just want them to cooperate?

See, expectations vary. If I’m enjoying a conversation, that’s also a good expectation to have. There need not be anything material or financial involved. I mean, there are certain professional expectations some times, e.g., for rescue. But largely it’s a relationship that I look for. If something goes wrong in Solang, for example, there’s no way I’m going to be able to get support from Haryana. So my expectations are more abstract and on the lines of giving a sense of security that things will get handled if or when anything goes wrong.

To me, missing some markings or running out of support at aid stations is a small thing. People may come and hurl some abuses at me, but that’s immaterial. There are more important things like women safety. By involving locals, I sort of expect that they’ll create an atmosphere that feels safe for women. When I go and talk to village elders about this, they themselves take ownership of this, with a “who from my village dare do this” attitude.

We’re going to try something new in Rimbick this year. We want to empower the locals to organise Buddha Trails as their own race. We’ll come and guide you, market the event and get runners. But the eventual organising ownership has to be yours. You mark the route, you set the hydration points, you set the inventory. The whole idea is to be able to hand over the races to the local communities. In the next 5-7 years, if Hell Race has to organise events all over the country, Baba and I can’t keep managing everything. We’d like the local communities to be able to execute events as efficiently as we do - or maybe even more efficiently.

End of the day, it’s about trust and building relationships. Once you start trusting people, people will start trusting you. The first time I went to Roshan (Thakur) in Solang in 2016, I told him that one day, the whole of Solang will be filled with runners at this time of the year. That every hotel, every homestay, will be hosting runners one day. In 2021, all hotels in the area had only runners at the time of Solang SkyUltra. And it has been the same since then. If you’re able to communicate a vision and prove it, that ends up building trust. This has been the same in Rimbick. It’s the same everywhere. It’s a matter of mutual trust between the local communities and the organisers.

Section 5 - Hell Race Sports Foundation

I’ll give you a background. Last year when I was planning this podcast and was trying to figure out guests and their topics, I had the word ‘community’ written next to your name. This is such a huge topic and you’ve done so much work in this regard. Yes, all other race organisers are doing this, but I feel that Hell Race is doing this at a much larger scale. You’re doing this in Jaisalmer, Rimbick, Manali, Delhi/NCR, Rimbick - you’ve sort of covered the northern half of India all the way from east to west. There’s so much to talk about on this, and we should plan another conversation just on community.

But for today I want to bring up one more, very specific, topic, and that’s the Hell Race (Sports) Foundation. I feel that it’s a perfect mix of the value systems and experiences of Vishwas Sindhu and Hell Race. Let’s talk a bit about the Hell Race foundation.

The need for this arose mainly because this is a very small sport and there’s no support from corporates, governments etc. Athletes like Hemant (Limbu), Som (Bahadur Thami), Prabin (Rai) mostly come from humble backgrounds and are in need of support. In such a scenario, there are also many who come and mislead these runners. Some end up becoming their ‘coaches’ - but how are they contributing to the development of athletes? For example, Hemant has won races from TMM 10k to Solang SkyUltra 100k and so many other races. But where is the improvement? Now what happens is that when such players end up associating themselves with athletes just for namesake, even support from well-meaning sources is unable to each the beneficiaries. They end up becoming middle-men.

So the whole idea was to identify athletes and fulfilling all their needs. It’s likely that no one from the current generation emerges on the global scene. In India, I think the top ITRA scoring athlete is Som at around 750, which is about 200 points or 2 hours behind the top international athletes. Maybe our current athletes will never be able to bridge this gap, but they’ll surely play a role in producing the future generations of Indian athletes who will bridge this gap. We need to start nurturing and supporting them from now, because building the right amount and type of support also takes time. So we need to future-proof the entire ecosystem.

We, therefore, decided to identify athletes and support them in many ways. Like, not just give them shoes and supplements, but also give them a basic stipend. If you’re able to fulfil basic financial needs for athletes, then they’ll be more dedicated.

This is also a huge topic and we’ve just started working on it. The basic idea is to prepare the future generation of athletes through support and competition. Just like local level sports, there needs to be some sort of a grading system based on which the stipend is decided, and a system that allows athletes from move through grades and improve.

These are the things that we’re working on. Building the framework, getting them access to good equipment, giving them access to good nutrition, provide them good stipends.

What about coaching infrastructure?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve reached out to the likes of Sannat (Sachdev), Vinay (Krishnamurthy), Amit (Gulia), Kieren (D’Souza). This is not something where you throw in money and you’ll get the outcomes. Until athletes get the right type of coaching, they won’t be able to do much. So we’re also working on creating a pool of coaches. We’d also like to be able to give some wages to coaches. In India, right now, even coaching infrastructure is not up to the mark - anyone randomly can start calling themselves a coach and become one.

How have you planned fundraising for this?

Honestly, I have no knowledge of this. For now, we’re just asking for contributions from the running community. We raised approximately INR 2 lakhs at Border Ultra, which was able to fund good shoes, a good watch etc. for Devender (Thakur). Obviously this is not scaleable, I’ll definitely reach out to all of you for help. We’ll certainly need support from corporates and other institutions if we want to take this at a large scale.

There is clearly an opportunity for raising funds here. Maybe it’s not in crores, but amounts that are enough to give basic stipends and support.

Yeah, like I was discussing with Mr. Manish Jauhar and he gave an idea of ‘adopting an athlete’. So something where you just foster an athlete and take care of their needs. I’m open to many such ideas and hopeful that we’ll get the right kind of help from the community.

I remember you had announced this in Rimbick last year…

Well, we announced it but the beneficiary athletes never got back to us. The middle-men came through. That’s why we want to try and be directly involved in discovering and working with athletes. We don’t need people with the random ‘coach’ label coming into the picture.

We’ll also self-evaluate on how our athletes are able to progress or improve through our support. It’s not just about a stipend. There has to be corresponding improvement in ITRA scores in order to justify the need for Hell Race Sports Foundation itself.

Yes, the ultimate goal is to have an all-round development of athletes and the sport…

Exactly. I see Hemant stuck at 700-odd points. You’ll keep on winning races but where’s the growth outside the Indian scene?

How are you planning athlete intake?

We’ve come up with some parameters and we’re defining everything on the HRSF website - We’d also like to, in future, pick athletes at a much younger age, say, 12-13 years old, and work with them. Obviously we won’t take in anyone and there will be certain criteria around 500m times, 800m times etc. We’ll keep evaluating and changing these from time to time.

This is great, Vishwas bhai. I’ve taken notes and have topics for the next two conversations sorted - one is community and the other is competition via HSRF and the general trail running scene in India. Before I let you go, is there anything you’d like to summarise, say or re-emphasise?

Nothing much, but just remember that you’re doing all this for yourself and spending your hard-earned time, resources and money. So when you do these things, do it with a feeling of passion and understanding, and not just by seeing others do it. This was you’ll end up discovering yourself. Success is not about medals and finishing. Just keep ego aside, and love what you’re doing - finish or not, DNF or not, medal or not, none of it matter.


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