The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir



Aug 31, 2014

A warm-up for sultry climes – Training for Ironman Malaysia 2014: Part 1

Eight-time Ironman finisher Gael Couturier explains why he chose Langkawi, Malaysia as his race destination and why he decided to be trained under a coach for the first time in his running career.


Gaël Couturier

Why Langkawi?

Why did I go for Ironman Malaysia, choose Langkawi and not another close-by destination (from India) like Japan or Taiwan or even any of those Australian & New Zealand races (Busselton, Melbourne, Port Macquarie, Cairns, Taupo)?

LANGKAWI-ISLANDS-2First things first, let’s talk about the history of that race. It’s interesting to note that it started in 2000 and was held by a licensee of the Ironman corporation that has its base in Florida for 10 years until it stopped. Why did it stop? Well, I couldn’t get a precise official answer from Ironman itself but after discussing with some European athletes who have been racing there in that era, was told that it was because of dearth in participation.

This September, the race is rising again from its ashes. I think it’s a good thing for Asia and the sport of triathlon since this region has witnessed development around the multi-discipline sport. Now, everybody knows that racing in Malaysia is hard because of the extreme heat and humidity. Sure, that’s an extra challenge if you haven’t trained in such an environment but I live and train in India and I generally like the heat so for me this doesn’t really matter. Also, the minute you use words like “hard” or “extra challenge” with me, I’ll say “I’m in!” almost instantly (blame my sports teacher mom and my military–industrial–congressional complex dad). Also, the surroundings will be stunning (TheLangkawi-4 website says we’ll see tons of monkeys on the roads – hey, we don’t have monkeys in France!), the water will be warm at around 30°C (I remember racing in Tempe, Arizona, USA, with 14°C water – I thought my brain would freeze and I’m sure I’ve lost some cells back there) and more globally, Malaysia seems to me like a super beautiful exotic destination, just like Bali in Indonesia or the whole of Thailand. Finally, it’s very close by from India where I (presently) live and the plane tickets are quite cheap (around Rs.35000 round trip last time I checked). What’s not to like?

For the first time in my life: I got myself a coach.

Yes, after finishing eight Ironman races (five-times Nice in hilly southern France, one-time Tempe in flat but hot Arizona and two-times super-hilly Embrun in the French Alps), and after twice finishing in the medical tent with heavy duty infusion, I decided it was time for me to get a coach. I’ve never been able to race an Ironman under 14h. This year, as I’m getting older (I’m 41) and grumpy (true French right?) I don’t like it anymore when my friends beat me. Walter, a good friend and training partner from Paris, just raced an astonishing 12h 04min this month (1:15:30, 5:05:19, 5:34:31) and, well, it pissed me off. My goal is to swim under 1h15’ (beat him), bike around 6h (Walter’s too strong a biker) and run a sub-4h marathon (beat him) for a global time of under 12h. To help me achieve my goal I’ve called in my friend Frederic Sultana, ex-navy officer, long-distance triathlon world champion in the master category (the old guys) and WTS official triathlon coach. He coaches me online. He tells me what to do, whether it’s a swim, a bike, a run but more importantly, he mentors me on the intensity to add. I own a
Garmin GPS watch, the Fenix 2 (400 US$) and I record and report on the Garmin website all the data from every training I do (my heart rate %, my pace, the elevation gain and loss, the temperatures). For that, I just wear a heart belt and my watch. Then, when I come back home, I plug my watch into my Mac, log on the Internet and the website automatically downloads the data from it. Then my coach, who has my login and username, reads and analyzes my data and orientates my next workout.

What do I think of that?

I hate it. No. I used to hate it. I used to hate swimming in lines, running with specific paces on targeted distances and bike at given speed and given distances. Understand me. I come from a sport background where you’re allowed to do whatever you want, wherever you want for as long as you want – surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding. I’m not used to being told what to do, at least not in sport. For this I have my job (and my mom – yes, I’m 41, I know). But these days, I enjoy being told what to do. My coach tells me to bike for 50 min at a 130 beat per minute (bpm) pace max and then go for 10 min run at 150-160 bpm. And repeat 2-3 times in the same training. Fine. I’m loving it, so far. I’m loving the fact that in my gym in south Delhi, everybody is looking at me like there’s something wrong with me. I love it because they have no good bikes 0192_26403available elsewhere. I sit for 3 hours in the cycling classroom and do my own training while normal cycling classes are going on and cycling students give me strange looks. I love it when at the end of the class the teacher comes and tells me he’s going to talk to the management because I am disturbing the class by being the only one not following his orders. I love it when I tell him that it’s not personal but I’m going to keep coming to his class and do my own stuff until someone in the management gives me a bike to train outside of this stupid classroom. I love to be considered a rebel like that. It gives me the feeling that I am training for something special, something not everybody can do. It gives me strength. Survivor, the band, crooned. It gives me the eye of tiger. Which is perfectly relevant since I’m in India. Tonight, coach said to go run 21 km. I’ll go in the park, by my house, in south Delhi. I’ll go with my headlamp and my iPod. And the “eye of tiger” blasting in my ears. Last week, I did 93 min of swimming, 370 min of cycling and 215 min of running. That’s 679 min, more than 11h30 min in total, my most consistent week since I’ve seriously started my training end of July. I told my coach. He said that was nothing. He said I soon would need to go up to 30h of training a week. That means I’ll have to go on holidays soon. Great, last week I loved my coach.


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Sep 21, 2018

Suru Fest: India’s Growing Climbing Festival

Two weeks of sending in the remote Suru Valley: From 300 boulder problems to alpine rock climbing in the uncharted Himalayan giants.


I don’t usually attend festivals, but the Suru Fest had been on my list for as long as I had heard of it. So in late August this year, I spent a week and a half in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, climbing and bouldering with some of India’s best climbers, as well as a host of international adventurers. This year’s event was the third, and possibly most successful instalment since its inception in 2016.

The festival is the brainchild of Suhail Kakpori and Jamyang “Jammy” Tenzing, ‘Indian Climbing’s Exploring Boulderer’ previously covered by The Outdoor Journal. Jammy organized the first Suru Fest with a small crew of dedicated and passionate Ladakh-based rock climbers, which has now grown into a sustainable, sponsored event attracting climbers from all over the world.

While the idea is to unite the climbers from all across the globe, it is a festival premised on celebrating the power of youth and adventure. It’s held annually from late August until the first week of September and is a force that brings both athletes and creatives together to create inspiring content.

This year’s festival was sponsored by Tata Motors, an Indian multinational conglomerate with hundreds of well-known brands and properties, including Jaguar Land Rover. Eight 2018 Tata Hexa SUVs were made available to move climbers around from place to place, in this remote and wild part of the world. One of the Hexas also waited for us in Leh, but we were waiting for our dog Maurice – we’d flown in, but Maurice was being driven up to Leh from Delhi (about 48 hours by road). We had to wait for him and delay our early morning departure, and eventually get one of the many shared cabs that ply these mountain roads – pretty much the de facto method of getting around in Ladakh.

It was late in the day by the time Maurice arrived in Leh, and Tenzing got us a shared cab for Suru, near Kargil, several hours west of Leh. We then drove through one of the most picturesque landscapes in India. The road is very well paved for the most part of the journey, which isn’t usually the case in and around the Himalayas. The thought of being at the Suru Fest hadn’t quite settled in yet – perhaps I simply didn’t know what to expect. This was my first climbing festival and all I knew was that I was going to spend a week climbing and exploring the valley.

Unlike Leh and its location on the trans-Himalayan plateau, which comprises of high altitude arid desert, Suru is green, with agricultural activity. We reached Barsoo, a small village in Suru close to midnight. Upon entering the campsite, I was shown my way to a 3-man GIPFEL tent – a new, Indian outdoor gear make and the 2018 Suru Fest’s climbing equipment partner. In the morning I woke up to a sweeping view of the scenic valley that surrounded our campground. We had a pre-bouldering yoga session scheduled first thing in the morning, before breakfast… Talk about a flying start to the adventure! Following the session, we had breakfast and went exploring the climbing areas. “Most of the rocks here have been climbed, graded and documented. The topography to this area is also well underway” Jamyang told us. There are about 6 dedicated climbing areas in Suru and 300 problems with grades varying from 5C to 8A+.  The Suru tribe has and is fully invested in expanding the scope of climbing in Ladakh and also across India.

Amongst the few known Indian athletes and some elite climbers, Suru also hosted three IFMGA guides, two of which were from Georgia and one from the United States. The Georgians rigged their first sports route on a highball near the shore of the boulder-choked Suru river; their first in the himalayas. Sunny Jamshedji was another important addition to the festival whose tryst with trad-climbing has taken him across 20 US states over 22 years. I had heard of him through Prerna, who went climbing with him in Dhauj. The festival certainly couldn’t have asked for more experienced company.

Meanwhile, I lucked out when Luke Smithwick, an IFMGA guide and a prolific American climber with over 50 unclimbed Himalayan six-thousanders to his name, lead me up on my first multi-pitch trad climb. We did three pitches and an FA of a 5.6 route we named, “The Windy Novice”. As an inexperienced climber who is just getting started, I couldn’t have been more stoked. There are inherent risks involved in trad; you often expect your partner to have some kind of real rock experience before taking him out on a big Himalayan slab climb. Nonetheless, this was something I had been looking forward to for some time and I am glad to have made the experience with Luke, who mentored and lead me up the wall.

Luke on top of the Windy Novice. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

“Alpine rock climbing (no snow/ice) in the Himalayas is like climbing alpine rock anywhere in the world with just one caveat. Everything is much bigger than you think! The approaches are longer. The areas are mostly virgins, so there is very little to no information on the approach, route or descent. One has to figure things out themselves on the go. Places like Suru and Miyar have thousands of feet of alpine granite to explore, so if you are willing to do this sort of climbing, then this is an alpine paradise…”,  said Sunny when I asked about his thoughts on climbing in Suru.

Suru Fest is the first of its kind in India. While it constitutes of a demographic representing only a fraction of the population, it is a catalyst in that it suggests a much-needed deviation from the norm. We have long awaited the arrival of a culture that collectively underlines individualism and vigorously captures the spirit of the times. Suru does just that and does it with grace.

“I was particularly happy to send two projects which I was not able to execute last time even though I tried really hard. This is a great measure of progress which one doesn’t get in the gym because the routes there are reset frequently. I was also content to push my personal limits on a 7m highball. Besides the superb quality of the rock and the lines as well as the great weather I love that Suru Fest brings together an amazing crowd of people who share the passion for the outdoors and climbing. Honestly, I first and foremost came to see my friends in India.”, said Svenja Von Jan, a climber and a friend from Germany who also attended the festival last year in 2016.

Svenja Von Jan. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Svenja and I had met a few years ago in Himachal Pradesh in this quiet little village called, Kalga. Back then, I was exploring Parvati Valley in the Kullu district and had become obsessed with this particular mountain, which I hope to climb some day. It was also in Kalga, where I had my first hands-on experience while climbing a highball. We had found this high mossy boulder and were able to put up a few lines. She was strong back then and has undeniably grown stronger since then. So watching her try some hard moves in Suru was inspiring to say the least.

The mountain range that I aspire to climb in Parvati Valley. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

When you’re surrounded with experienced climbers you will only improve. The novelty of Suru is that it exposed me to some fine climbing along with some fine climbers. I was particularly drawn to this rock with some interesting looking features, referred to as the Green Mamba, a 7C+ problem. It took Adarsh Singh, a professional athlete, two to three attempts before topping out. I also saw Viraj Sose, who’d climbed Ecstasy Tree, a sick bulging 7C highball in Hampi: a boulder high enough to send chills down your spine.

The Slab. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Looking back on that slab, I still remember the ease with which Luke loosened me up for the climb. “You know what this is?”, he asked me, while holding out a nut tool. “Mhm, I have used it once or twice”, I said with every ounce of confidence I could gather. On our first pitch, while sitting on a ledge, I heard him say “Off Belay”. “Belay off,” I said and started paying out the rope. I had well familiarized myself with the jargon before we started off. On the second pitch, we stood leaning back on the rope with the weight of our bodies distributed equally over a three point anchor system. It took me a while to register that. “This can hold the weight of a big truck”, said Luke reassuringly. Now, closer than ever to the last pitch, the wind had picked up a bit and I felt a wave of euphoria sweeping over me. I then turned to look in the other direction and immediately spotted the Georgians glued to a big vertical wall, it was cinematic! Shortly after topping out, I calmed myself down and caught hold of my breath. “So much to celebrate discomfort,” I sighed.

Now, as I write this from the flat, smoggy and hot environs of Delhi, having returned sooner than I had wanted, I’m looking forward to returning to the high mountains, attending the festival next year and further honing my skills.

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