Three days into the toughest ultra-cycling event on earth, he had completed over 1000 kilometres. Srinivas Gokulnath, while focused on completing the course, overheard the head of his crew speaking to a friend on the phone, “He will not make it to the finish line.” The vehicle with the crew members was following right behind him, and it was not difficult to hear the voice.
The disappointment among his 11-member crew in the early part of the race was not surprising. At the seventh position on the first day when it started on June 14, 2017, by the second day, he had been struck by a bout of dehydration. He soon fell behind and was one of the laggards among the 40 participants from 15 countries who were competing to reach the finish line. It was a make or break situation in his second attempt at Race Across America (RAAM).
She made him realise him that the crew was making all the effort that they could. Having failed to complete RAAM in his first attempt, he needed to try harder. She was sure her husband could do it but thought he was still not giving it his best. That pep talk was good enough to fire him up.
“That conversation had such an impact on me that from the 27th position at the end of third day, I mustered all the strength I could. Nearly 12 days later, I had completed the race,” Srinivas recalled what has so far been among the best moments of his life.
Reaching the finish line taught Srinivas how he could be his own hero, while the journey had its own lessons. The 288-hour race taught him how desire and self-belief coupled with hard work, could help an individual achieve the impossible. It was the culmination of a journey that took several years, and he was the first Indian to do it.
No cycling race in the world is as tough as the Race Across America. Instituted in 1982, only 336 people have managed to complete 5000-kilometre race from the West to the East Coast of America. Participants are expected to complete the race in 12 days. The time trial race stops for nothing, which makes completing it one of the biggest challenges.
Through the 12 days of the race, athletes must cross 12 states, across the mountain ranges of Sierra, Rockies and Appalachians, and go past four of the longest rivers – Mississippi, Colorado, Missouri and Ohio, besides other iconic landmarks.
To complete the race, the athletes must cycle for over 20 hours in a day, put up with minimal sleep, and manage with food and other daily necessities in the least time possible, so that they can focus on completing the race. The focus on race completion in spite of all obstacles, is what makes it incredibly tough.
A comparison with other sport and amazing human endeavours will help put that in perspective. About 550 people have gone to space, some 5000 have scaled Mount Everest. About 1500 have crossed the English Channel and nearly 700,000 athletes have completed the Ironman Challenge. Since the race started, the champions who have got past the finishing line are revered for their feat. Only 336 athletes have managed to complete the course.
Srinivas was always in love with cycling as he grew up in Bangalore, completing his school and later an undergraduate degree in medicine. A few years after joining the Indian Army, he obtained a post-graduation degree in aerospace medicine. During his school and college days, cycling was the most obvious mode of transport.
Bangalore has a very active cycling community which organises regular activities for members. A habit for cycling inculcated since childhood helped Srinivas become an integral part of the community.
After post-graduation, Srinivas was posted to Jammu and Kashmir in 2012. Since he did not give up on the passion for cycling, he followed the practice of regularly cycling within the premises of the garrison where he was staying. It had become a habit, and soon he was known among the locals for cycling regularly for hours on end.
“People would often wonder what I was up to when they saw me cycling all the time,” he recalls of those days.
Beginning April 2014, Srinivas became the epicentre around whom several dreams began to take shape. Preparations were being made to set up the logistics and identify the route that had to be taken for the all-important journey. His dream was audacious – if something like this had been attempted earlier, it had never been completed.
Challenges on two wheels
On August 23, the cyclists and their pickup van were flagged off at Khardung La in Ladakh. It was the toughest part of their journey because of the hilly terrain.
On September 2, they started from Leh and the first 50-odd-kilometre ride was relatively smooth. Suddenly, Rohan remembered that he had left his identity card behind at the guest house they had stayed the previous night. It took a few hours as they drove in the pickup truck to get it back.
They had started at about 11,000 feet high and had to go up to 17,000 feet before beginning their descent to about 15,000 feet. Suddenly, it started to snow. Srinagar was experiencing flash floods and the team learnt from television news that the weather in the state had turned ugly.
“It was a very tough day for all of us. But we had to continue our journey,” he recalls.
Another day into the journey, Srinivas was bitten by a stray dog. The only option was to take pain killers and some basic medicines since there was no medicine available for rabies!
Once they were in the plains, the team could clock almost 300 kilometres in a day. They had put banners on their cycles which spoke about their Leh-Kanyakumari expedition and that would get a lot of local people excited in the different places they rode through.
Finally, on September 15, the team reached Kanyakumari a little after 9 pm. The obsession with recording the details of the expedition through the trip had continued.
“One of the first things we did was go and register at the local police station that we had reached our destination,” Srinivas recalls.
Rohan’s mother gave the team a surprise visit when they reached their destination and was there to receive them all.
According to the 2015 edition of the Limca Book of Records, the team completed the journey in 15 days and 17 hours, a feat that was unique when completed.
“Do not focus on the external factors. Have belief in yourself. Do something every day to achieve your dream.” That was the learning from the gruelling races that Srinivas attempted and completed. He did not give up when he could not complete RAAM in his first attempt.
In 2018 he attempted the Race Around Austria, a 2200-kilometre expedition, considered the toughest in Europe. He is the only Indian to have completed it.
Two wheels can take you far, very far. But as Srinivas exemplifies, it is the dream that can give you wings.