Irfan K.T (Photo: AFI Media)

The Sixth National Open Race Walking Championships held over February 16-17 in Chennai was to serve as platform for Indian athletes to meet the qualifying time for the IAAF World Athletics Championships due later this year in Doha, Qatar.

However, none of them made the cut.

At the just concluded event in Chennai, Jitendra Singh Rathore of Rajasthan was the winner in men’s 50km race walk. He finished the race in 4:23:23 hours to secure the gold medal, ahead of Sagar Joshi of Gujarat. Sagar finished the race in 4:24:21, earning the silver medal. Haryana’s Pawan Kumar took the bronze with a timing of 4:30:49 hours, the results posted on AFI’s website said.

Jitendra Singh Rathore (Photo: courtesy Jitendra Singh)

The men’s 20km race walk was keenly contested. Kerala’s Irfan K.T took the gold covering the distance in 1:26:18. Second place went to Devender Singh of Haryana (1:26:19) while Sandeep Kumar (1:26:19), also of Haryana, finished third. It was photo finish for Devender and Sandeep. Tamil Nadu’s Ganapathi Krishnan (1:26:20) missed the podium by a whisker. While informing the results, the AFI statement of February 16 quoted Irfan as being disappointed that his effort wasn’t good enough to qualify for the world championships. He intends to try again next month at the Asian Race Walking Championships to be held in Japan.

This was the third consecutive triumph for Irfan in the discipline at the national championships.

The women’s 20km race walk was won by Soumya Baby of Kerala who clocked 1:40:25. This was well short of her national record – 1:31:29 set in February last year. Uttar Pradesh’s Priyanka finished second in 1:41:20 while the bronze medal was picked up by Haryana’s Ravina who finished in 1:41:46.

A statement from the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) on February 15 had pointed out that the qualification standard (for Doha) in the men’s 20km race walk stood at 1:22:30 (hours, minutes and seconds respectively) while the mark in the men’s 50km race was 3:59:00. The qualification standard in the women’s 20km race was set at 1:33:30.

The IAAF World Athletics Championships is scheduled to be held in Doha in September-October this year.

Soumya B (Photo: AFI Media)

According to race walkers this blog spoke to, Chennai’s heat and humidity took a toll on their performance.

“ The race was good but the heat was too much,’’ Jitendra, the gold medalist in 50km, said when contacted. His personal best is 3:58:56 hours, which he set in the National Open Race Walking Championships in New Delhi in 2018.

“ The race was tough because of the heat as well as the humidity. Normally this competition is held in Delhi or Jaipur where the weather at this time is conducive for good performance,’’ Sagar, who won silver, told this blog. His had trained for this competition with a targeted timing of 3:56 hours.

Haryana’s Sandeep Kumar, who holds the national record of 3:55:59 in the 50km race walk, set at the Indian Race Walking Championships last year, did not start the contest in that discipline, the table of results from Chennai showed. Also DNS (Did Not Start) in the 20km race walk was Manish Singh Rawat of Uttar Pradesh.

Sagar Joshi (Photo: courtesy Sagar Joshi)

Jitendra and Sagar, both of them from the Indian Army, train at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. Following the Chennai event, they headed back to Pune. According to Sagar, while it is for the AFI to take a call on sending them to the upcoming meet in Japan, as back-up plan, the athletes’ coach Basanta Bahadur Rana has suggested the option of requesting the army to send them to Japan. Basanta Bahadur Rana had represented India in race walking at the 2012 London Olympics.

At the Chennai meet, Suraj Panwar of Uttarakhand won the gold medal in the boys’ 10 km race clocking a time of 43.19 minutes. Haryana’s Juned won the silver with a timing of 43.32 minutes. The bronze medal went to Farman Ali of Uttar Pradesh; he finished in 44.50 minutes.

Among girls, Roji Patel of Uttarakhand secured gold in the 10 km race. She finished the race in 53.38 minutes. Suvarna Kapase of Madhya Pradesh secured silver with a time of 55.36 minutes and Punjab’s Gurpreet Kaur got the bronze with a time of 57.00 minutes.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)


Panel discussion at the 2019 Himalayan Club annual seminar. From left: Steve Swenson, Vasant Vasant Limaye, Peter Van Geit, Shantanu Pandit, Amod Khopkar and Mrudul Mody (Photo: courtesy Ashok Kalamkar)

Moves are afoot to set up a state level adventure council in Maharashtra.

The yet to be named body aspires to bring together stakeholders in the field of outdoors and adventure sports; stakeholders broadly meaning service providers, persons / organizations availing service and the government.

Following Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a bereaved parent some years ago, the Maharashtra government had issued a set of guidelines for adventure sports.  The original set of guidelines was subsequently replaced by a second lot. At the time of writing, the second version was in force. Over the past year or two, several Indian states have pushed to frame guidelines for adventure activity. Concerns fueling the trend span guidelines for safety and risk management to impact on environment from too many visitors to sensitive wilderness locations, not to mention poor understanding of best practices to follow in the outdoors.

It is understood that the proposed council, besides bringing together the aforementioned stakeholders and contributing to guidelines, seeks to serve the community associated with outdoors and adventure sport, engage in advocacy and be able to facilitate required processes through a multi-pronged approach.

The adventure council found mention in a panel discussion on risk management in adventure sport, done as part of the annual seminar of the Himalayan Club, in Mumbai on Sunday (February 17, 2019). Panelists included Vasant Vasant Limaye, senior mountaineer and founder of High Places, Shantanu Pandit, senior outdoor educator; consultant and safety expert, Amod Khopkar, management systems consultant and trainer with longstanding association with the outdoors and Mrudul Mody, senior management team member at Pugmarks. Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club and winner of the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award and Peter Van Geit, Chennai based ultra-runner who delivered the club’s annual Kaivan Mistry Memorial Lecture also participated in the discussion.

Samgyal Sherpa (right) after receiving the Garud Gold Medal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Among points debated were the relevance of standardized guidelines nationwide as opposed to each state having its own with consequent questions over mutual compatibility and the prospect of grading service providers (example: adventure tour operators) on the basis of track record and safety standards so that clients have a truer picture of who they are dealing with.  Also mentioned was the need to support the adventure council with adequate resources for effectively implementing its work.

Earlier at the day long-proceedings, Peter Van Geit spoke at length about his 75 day-trail run, spanning some 1500 kilometers and covering 40 high, mountain passes essayed last year in Himachal Pradesh.  Steve Swenson spoke of the Khumbu Climbing Center established in Nepal by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. Later, as part of receiving the 2018 Kekoo Naoroji Book Award, he also spoke about his book Karakoram – Climbing through the Kashmir Conflict and his climbs in the region. While the Jagdish Nanawati Award for Mountaineering Excellence was not given this year, the Garud Gold Medal for excellent support staff was presented to Samgyal Sherpa.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Bruce Fordyce (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Bruce Fordyce still holds the world record over 50 miles; a mark he set in 1983 at the London to Brighton ultramarathon. He won that race three years in a row. At one point in his running career, he also held the world record over 100 kilometers. However Bruce is best known as the man who won the Comrades ultramarathon in his home country – South Africa, nine times, eight of that in a row. Altogether he has run Comrades thirty times. That string of victories and his close association with the event opened a window of opportunity – he gets to travel and speak about Comrades. Now 63 years old, he was among guest speakers at the expo preceding the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). On race day, after completing the full marathon in Mumbai, Bruce spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:

At the expo preceding 2019 TMM, you spoke of how you got into running. Could you revisit that narrative for this blog?

My running is a combination of a few factors. As a young child I was always a good runner and not such a good ball sport player. I was passionate about cricket but useless at it and quite passionate about rugby but too small for it, rugby is for big guys. But whenever we ran I ran well and the longer the distance, the better I did. In my final year at school, I won the cross country. My school was one of artists, politicians and creative people. It wasn’t sporty. So it gave no indication that you could be a world beater. I went to university at Johannesburg and for two years I did no exercise whatsoever. I was aware that I was unfit. Then a couple of things happened.

We had television in South Africa only from 1976.  Until then the nationalist government wouldn’t allow us television because they didn’t want us exposed to the rest of the world where we might see races mingling and stuff like that. Eventually they couldn’t hold back the flood gates and we got television in 1976. Television showed us the Comrades Marathon. Now it is 12 hours of live broadcast, back then it wasn’t live, it was telecast a couple of weeks later. That was inspiring to me because it showed some ordinary people finishing. The race was quite small then; probably a thousand runners. Now it is 25,000. Those telecasts inspired me to run. It is also important to know that Comrades is part of the South African sporting fabric. Everybody knows about it. The final nudge was – in June 1976, the students in Sowetto rioted against being taught lessons in Afrikaans, which in their opinion, was the language of the oppressor. They wished to be taught in their home language – Zulu or Khosa – or English, but not Afrikaans. I was a university student and we decided to march in solidarity. We got set upon by the police. I got disillusioned. I was trying to find something to do. All these things came around at the same time and I decided – I am running the Comrades Marathon. Plus one of my fellow students at the university – he is still a friend – had run the Comrades. He showed me the medals and stuff. I started from there.

The Comrades happens in the beginning of June or end of May every year. My first run was ten minutes around my university rugby field. I ran loops and I did it at night because I didn’t want anyone to see. But I progressed quickly. Within a few days, I was running for half hour. Then I ventured on to the road and started going further and further. I trained on my own for six months. Then at the beginning of the next academic year, I joined the university athletic club. I was terrified because I thought these are all real athletes. However, I found that I was one of the best. Those days and even now to some extent, the road running program in South Africa is geared towards Comrades marathon. If you are a complete beginner, everybody would be busy doing their first half marathon. Right now (we met in mid-January), they would be doing their 32k runs. Next month, they would do their first full marathon. The following month, they would start doing their first ultras. End of May, they run Comrades. I was taken through that whole build-up. I completed my first marathon in 2 hours 45 minutes and my first ultra was a 56k, which I did in 3:35. At my first Comrades, I placed 43rd out of perhaps 1200 runners.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Comrades Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Many cities worldwide now have their own marathons. The Comrades is called a marathon but it is actually an ultramarathon of 89 kilometers. How did Comrades become such a big fascination in South Africa?

We have a city marathon – the Cape Town Marathon, which is at the same level of certification as the Mumbai Marathon. It happens in September. But it is not the same as Comrades. We also have another race, which is nearly as famous called Two Oceans. That is also in Cape Town, 56k, held in April. Comrades will turn 100 years old soon. That will be a bumper year.

I really believe that sporting isolation (experienced during South Africa’s apartheid years) made us look inward. When you get banned, you start looking inward at what you have got. We were passionate about cricket and rugby. In cricket, if you have a series against India now, the stadiums would be packed. But those days (when the sporting isolation was on), this sort of things wouldn’t have happened; we would never have played India, India wouldn’t have come. So, inter-provincial games, interstate games – they became huge. Those games – home and away – would be packed. It was similar in rugby. Comrades, partly, had the same trend. What was unique about Comrades was that –people with nothing to do on that day would wake up and watch. And then what happened is – the event progressed to live television coverage. It is 12 hours of live telecast. The winners finish in five and half hours; the winning ladies finish in six hours and yet people sit glued to the television for another six hours and all they are watching is people walking! They watch because they have a loved one in there, they have a friend or they have run it before. And then on the sides of the road you have a huge number of spectators.

The sporting press also contributed, speculating on who might win an edition. In the early 1980s, which was when the event began growing, there were some characters. These characters (they were participating runners) made the race seem like theatre. The race also had traditions. One is – it changes direction every year between the two cities. When you have run the race ten times, they retire your number and give it to you – so my number is 2403 and nobody else can run in that number. My number is colored green, which identifies you as a person who has done ten Comrades or more. The route is very famous. For instance along the way you pass the Wall of Honor, which is an embankment with shields on it. All these things combined have made the event magical.

The Internet has this video of you at Comrades from the year you won it for the first time – you are seen running with a black band on your arm. How was that experience for you?

Terrible! The first time I ran Comrades I was 43rd, then I finished 14th, then third, then second – I can tell you: third is wonderful, when you are third in a marathon you can’t believe it; second is bitter, you know you could have won and first is first obviously. I had come second and I really knew I could win it. The following year, a month before the race, Comrades to its shame, allowed itself to be part of the nationalist government’s celebration of twenty years of apartheid rule. It was called republic day. They had fly pasts and tank parades – all those kind of things you see fascist countries doing. It was horrific. Politicians gave speeches about how wonderful South Africa was when actually most of our population was second class citizens. Because of the regime, those of us who loved sport had been completely isolated by the world. A lot of people withdrew from that edition of Comrades. Some of us said – let’s not withdraw but show our disagreement by wearing black arm bands. We got harassed by the security police for doing so. On the day of the race, people were throwing tomatoes and eggs at me; there was a lot of booing. I won the race. I broke the course record. But I was a very unpopular winner. In retrospect, Nelson Mandela and some of those who were being held as political prisoners on Robben Island said they were amazed. They watched! Sixteen years later, in 1997, I got an award from Mandela and that was definitely because of the race with arm band. So I was originally an unpopular winner. But then as we all know – the public love a winner. You win again, then again, and they start forgetting they were booing you.

Bruce Fordyce speaking at the expo preceding 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

It wasn’t difficult for you getting back to the race after that experience?

The next year, I was harassed a little bit here and there. People shouted: where is your arm band this year Fordyce? I always used to reply: it is right here, in my heart. Besides I wasn’t the only one with an arm band the year before. I was the most prominent because I won. There were a lot of people throughout the field who were protesting and some of them had a very hard time from other runners. I was alone in front. Some of the others were being asked: what are you doing? Are you a Communist? Don’t you love your country? 1981 was a sad year for Comrades.

You have run Comrades 30 times. You have seen the race changing through the years. What are the changes you have noticed? Are you happy with all the changes?

I am pretty happy with most of the changes. The biggest change is the prize money. I got no money in my day. Now there is substantial prize money. The unfortunate thing with prize money is that it has definitely led to cheating. There have been drug (related) failures. There are some performances that you have to be suspicious of.  One shudders to pick on any country – but Russia….

The size of the race has grown. My first race had around 1200 people I think, the second was 1500 – it grew rapidly with the running boom that was sweeping the world. Now it is 25,000. The race gets sold out in 2-3 days. There is a problem with Comrades in that a part of our population does not have access to Internet. They still post their entry forms. But the event is already sold out. An entry form posted from a remote place will take a week to be received. But if you are in Johannesberg, you wait for the clock to strike midnight and then tap enter. Even the Americans say it is tough for them because they are several hours behind us.

1975 was the first year that Comrades allowed women and black runners to participate. Until then, it was exclusively, an all-white male event. That has been a massive change. Now there are more and more black runners coming in and doing well. Also for me, what has been amazing are the ordinary runners at the back doing 11-12 hours, plus the growth in women runners – now there’s like 5000 women participating.

There have been many Comrades winners from South Africa. There have been winners from Russia, Poland, UK, USA, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Belarus too. Among other African countries only Zimbabwe has triumphed at the event. None of the African countries strongly associated with the marathon, feature on the list of Comrades winners. Why is that so?

They are not coming for it. Haile Gebrselassie always threatened to finish his career with Comrades. But he hasn’t. The cost of winning Comrades, you know – it takes time to recover and it is a significant commitment in terms of training. I have no doubt they will come. But they haven’t yet. I have seen two Olympic medalists running Comrades. One was – Lisa Ondieki of Australia, who won silver in the marathon at the 1988 Olympic Games. She came to Comrades but by then she was past her peak. She said I am not here to race; I want to close my running career with a Comrades medal. The other was Yuko Arimori of Japan; she had the same attitude. It would be hard to get one of those runners who are at their best because at that stage, you can command huge appearance fee. There is no appearance fee at Comrades. You get prize money. But nobody is getting paid to run. Nowadays top runners going to high profile events get fat appearance fee and guaranteed bonuses; time bonus, position bonus. It would be foolish of them to come and run Comrades.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Comrades Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

At a generic level, as running becomes more and more commercialized, what are the changes you see, the ones that you agree with and the ones you don’t?

In the early days, the running magazines that we got, the literature we had – magazines like Runner’s World, Track & Field Times, Athletics Weekly; those were full of serious running with results and stuff like that. On the cover was a photograph in black and white of whoever had just won Boston or set a world record. Now you find some model on the cover. It is not a picture of Bill Rogers wining Boston; it is a model and in many cases, you as runner know – that is not a runner. So that has changed. But what is great is that running has become accessible to the masses. There is no possible way in the 1970s that people would wait for six hours for somebody to finish. Today I saw people waiting for close to seven hours. So it’s got to the masses and that’s great. Before, it was amateur, more serious and more informative. Now it’s got hugely commercial.

In 1981, the year you won Comrades for the first time, you ran with a black arm band. Placed second the previous year, you knew you could win and were running to win Comrades. Yet you made room for your conscience and registered your protest at a larger wrong prevailing in South Africa then. In today’s world of running – amid all the pressure caused by competition; technology, money and branding – do you think athletes will pause to notice such wrongs? Is the current ambiance dominated by the sheer drill of performance dehumanizing sport somewhere; rendering human perspective mechanical and insular?

I think runners would show their displeasure at something contentious but perhaps race directors are careful about which political events they align to their events nowadays.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Race walking / This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Manish Singh Rawat and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended. Manish (blue vest) had placed 13th in a field of 74, in the 20km race walk for men at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Unlike running, which is the popular face of athletics, race walking lives in the shadows. But it is no less grueling. The timings in the sport would easily resonate with amateur marathoners aware of physical strain. Further, treading the edge of walking and prevented by rules from becoming running, it isn’t easy sustaining the race walk style. The world record in the men’s 50km race walk is 3:32:33; the same for 20km is 1:16:36. Race walking formats may be in for change if the IAAF Council approves recommendations recently placed before it.   

The Race Walking Committee of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has made three major recommendations, which if accepted by the IAAF Council, could witness changes in the format of the sport.

According to the IAAF website, the three recommendations agreed to last weekend at a meeting in Monaco include use of RWECS electronic chip insole technology for competitions from 2021, two events each in race walking for men and women at championship programs (women currently have only 20km) to maintain gender equality and reduction of race distance from the currently prevailing 20km and 50km to 10km and 30km.

The IAAF has said that the recommendations, which followed broad consultation and consideration of feedback from member federations, athletes, event organizers and stakeholders (including broadcasters), reflect the reality that event program across all major athletic meets will become “ shorter and more dynamic.’’ So innovation is required in race walk to “ ensure it remains a core discipline in the World Championships and the Olympic Games.’’

The recommended changes are accompanied by a period of transition. Using RWECS technology will help judges identify athletes who have lost touch with the ground (even as the quest is to move fast, in race walking you are expected to have one foot in touch with the ground always to make sure the sport doesn’t slip into running). It will only be adopted in 2021 provided necessary tests, introduction and distribution of insole chips are concluded by end 2020. As regards ensuring two events each for men and women and reducing the distance for each event, the suggested transition is – move from 20km and 50km for men and 20km for women at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, to 20km and 30km for both men and women at the Oregon 2021 World Athletics Championships to 10km and 30km for both men and women by the 2022 Race Walking Team Championships and continue that format on to the 2023 Budapest World Athletics Championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics (incidentally, the IAAF Council had recommended to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2018 that a 50km race walk for women be included at the Tokyo Olympics).

“ Changes are not always an easy thing, but it is absolutely necessary to make race walking more appealing for fans and for young athletes,’’ the IAAF website quoted  its Race Walking   Committee chairperson, Maurizio Damilano, as saying in the context of the most recent recommendations. The recommendations will be included in the agenda of the next IAAF Council Meeting, 10-11 March 2019, and if the recommendations of the Committee are approved, the changes will be effective as of 1 January 2021.

Meanwhile, according to information on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), India is set to host its first invitational international race walking championships, in Chennai over February 16-17, 2019. It will be alongside the sixth edition of the national open championships in the sport. A report in The Hindu dated end-January said, top national athletes are expected to take part besides second rung walkers from China, Japan, Korea and Australia. Among Indian athletes due at the event were K.T. Irfan, Manish Singh Rawat, Sandeep Kumar, Eknath Sambhaji, Ravina, Soumya Baby and Shanti Kumari. The event in Chennai will be an opportunity for Indian race walkers to qualify for the IAAF World Championships due later this year in Doha, Qatar.

Race walking traces its roots to the 17th and 18th centuries; the first competitors were footmen who ran / walked by the side of their masters’ coaches. The aristocracy of the day staked wagers on who would win a race. Some of these were multi-day races. By the 19th century, the sport now popular, was called pedestrianism. Race walking first appeared at the Olympics in 1904 with a half mile race included as part of a 10 event-all around championship, an early forerunner of the decathlon. The men’s 20km-race walk began featuring at the Olympics from 1956 onward. Women’s race walking was introduced at the Olympics in 1992 as a 10km-format; it was increased to 20km in 2000.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Sebastian Coe, President, IAAF (This photo was downloaded from the IAAF website. No copyright infringement intended).

Fans connect to a sport through its athletes and the next generation of stars would need to embrace the new technology that the IAAF is planning to introduce to its World Athletics Series events to bring fans closer to the action, Sebastian Coe, President, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has said.

Speaking at the Leaders’ Sport Business Summit in Abu Dhabi in end-January, he said that agents were sometimes too protective of athletes to the detriment of fans and wider sport.

Coe, a former world record holder in middle distance track events, Olympic champion and chairman of the organizing committee of the 2012 London Olympics, called on athletes to express their personality. “ Sometimes the technology that brings those competitors more intimately into the lives of the young audience that we are all trying to chase at the moment, means that some of it is invasive,’’ he was quoted as saying in the report on the meeting, hosted on the IAAF website.

Elected to the post of IAAF president in 2015 – a time when sports was shaken up by doping scandals – Coe has been reported as most likely seeking reelection for a second term. In an interview to Reuters at the earlier mentioned meeting in Abu Dhabi, he said that the initial part of his tenure was about reform and “ providing confidence…that we are a sport worth investing, time, resource and finance into. The next leg of the journey has to be about innovation, it has to be about growing the sport, creating an exciting experience, particularly for young people.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Jyoti Gawate

Jyoti Gawate has been podium finisher multiple times at the Mumbai Marathon, India’s biggest annual event in running. Focused on the marathon and lacking in resources, she trains back home in Parbhani with none of the facilities that grace elite coaching circumstances. Her’s is a story tinged by what if. What if she had the support and ecosystem others enjoy?   

On January 20, 2019, two runners – both around 32 years old and assigned to the Indian women’s elite category – lined up at the start of the year’s Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

Their respective trajectories in sport were quite different.

In her 32 years, Sudha Singh had become national record holder in the steeplechase, Asian champion in the discipline and represented India at two Olympic Games. Given the marathon has for long been favored hunting ground of athletes specialized in running’s middle distance formats, she was also among India’s leading woman marathon runners. In fact, at 2019 TMM, Sudha who works with Indian Railways was the defending champion.

Jyoti Gawate on the other hand, was the winner among Indian elite women in 2017; she had finished two minutes behind Sudha in 2018 to secure second place. That year Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper summed up her predicament in a post-race report. She had won 15 of the 30 full marathons she participated in, including the Allahabad Marathon five times in a row. “ I am still jobless; what more can I do?’’ the paper quoted her as saying.

In every marathon, the start and the hours of running thereafter are pristine. No regrets; only goals, maybe even blank head. At the start line of 2019 TMM, there was a goal for Indian elites to run to. That edition of the Mumbai Marathon was widely perceived as among last chances to meet the timing required for participating in the IAAF World Championships due in Doha, Qatar, later in the year. For women, the cut-off time for Doha was two hours, 37 minutes. Sudha had a personal pacer – Vicky Tomar, a steeplechaser she trained with in the national camp. They knew each other’s style of running. The race organizers had provided Jyoti too, a pacer – Marius Ionescu, a Romanian long distance runner who had been to the 2012 London Olympics; he had also been winner and runner up at the Dusseldorf Marathon, his best timing there being 2:12:58.

The day was Sudha’s.

Jyoti Gawate

She completed the race in 2:34:55, a new course record. Jyoti finished second in 2:45:48, cutting five minutes from her timing at the 2018 Mumbai Marathon. According to her having Marius as pacer helped. At the start of the race, she had nursed mixed feelings about her prospects. On the one hand, she felt she could get to 2:40; on the other hand, she was worried if she would improve her timing at all. “ The pacer helped me a great deal. He chalked out the entire plan on how to run the distance. He helped me maintain the pace. I completed the first half in 1:20. After that my speed suffered a bit. But the pacer helped me maintain the speed during the second half of the race,” she said. The splits tell the story. Sudha ran the first two splits at 16.1 km / hour each and the last two in 16.3. For Jyoti, it was 16, 15.5, 15.4 and 15.3.

Jyoti managed a personal best. However, it was far from the remarkable result Sudha produced. Sudha became eligible for selection to the Indian squad for Doha; Jyoti didn’t. Contacted some days later, Jyoti was – as usual – back to training in Parbhani, the district in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region that she hails from. Her work was cut out – to knock off was eight minutes; that’s the gap between her new personal best and the qualifying time for Doha. She had one race left to accomplish it – the National Marathon Championships in New Delhi scheduled for February 24.

Born February 1987, Jyoti has been running the full marathon for the last ten years. In the very first marathon that Jyoti participated – Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) as the Mumbai Marathon was known then – she finished the run in 3:12 hours and placed second on the podium in the Indian women’s category. The following year, she finished the race in 3:05:29 hours emerging winner among Indian women. Jyoti has been running the Mumbai Marathon for the past ten years securing top position among Indian women in 2011 and 2017 and second position in 2010, 2018 and 2019. Running marathons is livelihood for Jyoti. The prize money she earns from the races that she participates in helps her contribute to her family’s modest finances. Her father, Shankarrao Gawate, retired as a class four employee from government service. Class four-job in government service often refers to service as peon, sweeper and attender. Her older brother Ravindra works as a police constable. Her younger brother Kiran is yet to find proper employment; he too is trying for a job in the police. As part of formal education, Jyoti did her BA and B.P. Ed (Physical Education). In 2014 she secured employment with Mumbai Police but quit after eight days because she feared she may not get time to train for the marathon. “ I would have had to wait for one year to find out if I would be part of the sports team or not. I could not afford to lose time. In that period, my running career would have ended,’’ she said.

Jyoti has won many of the races she goes to. But long-term support has remained elusive. She hasn’t been able to get any job, brand support or sponsorship or for that matter, an invitation to join the national camp for the marathon. She tried for a job with Indian Railways, employer for many sportspersons. At age 25, she submitted her application for a job with them. She heard nothing. She hasn’t seriously pursued other avenues of work like being a sports teacher at a school. She is therefore forced to participate in races including 10k, half marathon and full marathon and earn money from podium finishes. A podium finish as elite athlete in some of the major marathons helps her get prize money bigger than what is offered at smaller races. Her elder brother supports the family. Jyoti’s earnings add to it. Life’s rigors shape character.

Jyoti with her coach Ravi Raskatla

At the Mumbai Marathon, Jyoti is a recipient of pre-race hospitality from Procam International, the organizer of the event, if she has been a podium finisher in the previous year. “ In 2011, she was offered accommodation at Trident Hotel in South Mumbai but she felt uncomfortable about staying there. She therefore stayed at the legislators’ hostel in Colaba,” Ravi Raskatla, her coach, said. Indeed for some years thereafter, whenever she came to Mumbai for the annual marathon, she stayed at the legislators’ hostel. For 2019, Procam arranged her stay at Hotel Supreme at Cuffe Parade. “We always travel by train from Parbhani to reach Mumbai for the race. We leave the morning after the race as we like to collect all the newspapers before heading back to Parbhani,” Ravi said outlining the pivots on which the annual outing hung. Travel by train, sleep, a marathon run, newspapers collected to keep memory of event and performance, alive – beneath the hype and marketing of modern day running that’s life stripped to bare bones that count.

Jyoti got introduced to running during her school days at Prabhavati Shala in Parbhani. She began running the middle-distance disciplines – 3000 meters, 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. “ During my school days, I participated in some races but there was no structured plan to it. There was no training either,” she said. In 2003, she got into running more seriously. “ I enrolled for a 12k police run in Parbhani. That’s when I started training to run,” she said. Two years later she was spotted by coach Ravi Raskatla, who took her under his wings to train her.

“ Unlike many elite marathoners, who are also into other track and field events, Jyoti focuses on marathons,’’ he said. Of the 35 marathons that Jyoti had participated in by early 2019, she had won 16, ended in second position six times and in third place, thrice, he said. She has been a winner at multiple editions of the Allahabad Marathon, Hyderabad Marathon and Bengaluru Marathon. In 2011, she took part in the Asian Marathon Championships in Thailand and finished seventh among women with a timing of 3:17 hours. She was selected to run in Thailand because of her win at the 2011 Mumbai Marathon, where she was winner. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) funded her trip and stay. In 2018, she ran the SCO Marathon in China finishing in ninth place with timing of 3:02 hours. It was AFI that invited her to run at the event. They also funded her trip. However none of this support – valuable as it is – ever progressed to an invitation to be in the national camp, something athletes dream of given the superior facilities in that ecosystem.

Jyoti now hopes to get closer to the required qualifying timing for Doha, at the National Marathon Championships, New Delhi. Dilip Patil is retired deputy commissioner (sales tax), and an ultra-marathon runner. He has participated in the New Delhi marathon before. “ The course there is much better and the weather is also pleasant compared to Mumbai,’’ he said. He has been running for the past 14-15 years. He has completed the Comrades Marathon in South Africa several times. Dilip is one of the organizers of the Amaravati Half Marathon, where Jyoti has been running and winning. “ Jyoti and a group of runners hailing from similar background like her come and participate in the Amaravati Half Marathon. We organize their stay for the race,” he said. Jyoti gets some financial support from individuals in Parbhani including doctors and businessmen but no sponsorships. In 2017, she approached a prominent state politician for assistance. He promised to help. She heard nothing thereafter. Dilip believes Jyoti will be able to reduce another ten minutes from her marathon timing if she has access to scientific training and proper nutrition.

We wrote to Matt Fitzgerald, the U.S. based coach, sports nutritionist and author of many books on running, about Jyoti’s prospects for improving her marathon timing over the next one year period. “ Jyoti can improve if she raced less, improved her diet and did some strength training. In the absence of these changes, I expect that any improvement she does experience in New Delhi will be due entirely to more favorable weather conditions and possibly if she finds herself on pace in the late miles,” he replied. With Delhi’s weather expected to be much better, Jyoti would be able to run about four minutes faster assuming everything besides the weather is the same, Matt said.

Jyoti Gawate

“ I don’t feel any pressure from the Doha qualification norms. My training is good and I am confident it will carry me through. In Delhi, the weather is much cooler; that should help me run better,’’ Jyoti said. Further, the race in Delhi starts at 6:30 AM as compared to Mumbai’s 7:40 AM start. Her coach believes she will be able to come within striking distance of the elusive mark, soon. “ She should be able to get to 2:40 at the National Marathon Championships,’’ Ravi said. The IAAF World Championships in Doha is not the only event out there to aspire for. In 2020, there is the Tokyo Olympics. Given there is considerable time to be lopped off before sub-2:37 is reached, the coach-ward duo is also looking at the possibility of enrolling this year (provided funds are found) for the London Marathon in April and Berlin Marathon in September to help achieve the qualifying time. “ Though Doha Championships would be out by then, hopes for 2020 Tokyo Olympics remain alive,’’ he said adding that the Berlin Marathon would be followed by another Mumbai Marathon and the National Marathon Championships. As per the rules of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), the qualification period in marathon for 2020 Tokyo Olympics runs from January 1, 2019 to June 29, 2020. However, it must be borne in mind that the selection process for elite events has been tightened by the IAAF; it is more than just timing now with athlete ranking and participation at multiple races also factored in.

Amid all the challenges she has faced, one factor that has been favorable for Jyoti has been the absence of injuries. “ She has not had any injuries in the last several years she has been running marathons,’’ Ravi said. Running as she does to make ends meet, Jyoti does not believe she is racing too much. On the contrary, every time she races she feels rejuvenated. “ I have to participate in races because the money I get so helps me buy shoes and food,’’ she said. Participating in high profile events like the Asian Championships, World Championships or Olympics is extremely beneficial for athletes like Jyoti. “ If I get into any of these, it is possible for me to get grade one job in government service,’’ she said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. The photos used in this article were provided by Jyoti Gawate.)


Jigmet Dolma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In seven years of participating at the annual Mumbai Marathon, Rimo Expeditions’ team of runners from Ladakh, have made it to the podium for elite Indian women, twice. The time taken by these women runners in the full marathon – they represent the new generation of runners from Ladakh – is yet to dip below three hours. But they are within striking distance despite the limitations in which they train back home. There is a sense of what’s next opening up in the program. Key to it is Indian sports authorities taking note of the improvements in performance made. Question is: will they?

Jigmet Dolma remembered the first time she ran in the elite category at the Mumbai Marathon.

She and fellow runner from Ladakh, Tsetan Dolkar, reported to the start line of the 2017 edition of India’s biggest marathon. It was a year when the field in Indian women didn’t have some of the prominent elite runners. But elite is nevertheless elite; the atmosphere is more purposeful, a sense of aim prevails. At such levels of competition, even relaxation is ingredient for enhanced performance. As runners warmed up ahead of battle, the duo from Ladakh felt nervous. “ I was a bit scared,’’ Jigmet said. But being underdog helps. Many runners who secured podium finishes in their career would recall the buoyancy afforded by that predicament. There are no expectations. You run free. That year Jigmet finished third in the elite category for Indian women. Tsetan completed the race in fourth position, the two separated at finish by a mere four seconds. Then, the uphill began. You have podium position to live up to.

At a café in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, some days after the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Chewang Motup put his project in perspective. Motup owns Leh based-Rimo Expeditions, among the best known adventure travel companies in India and organizers of the Ladakh Marathon. He started the Ladakh Marathon with a simple goal in mind. In distance running which counts on endurance, training at altitude is recognized as helpful. As location, Ladakh enjoys high average elevation; much of it is over 9800 feet high. Born to altitude, people from here should have a bank of endurance. Rigzen Angmo is good example. In the 1990s, she ran sub-three marathons, was podium finisher at national and international marathons. But that was years ago and a case, not repeated since in Ladakh. Motup wished to unlock the potential for endurance running in Ladakh by encouraging a culture of running. He also wanted to see local runners representing India at the Olympic Games. Hence the choice of the marathon for unlike the ultramarathon more easily associated with Ladakh’s mountainous landscape, the 42.195 kilometer-distance is firmly recognized as Olympic sport.

Chewang Motup (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hailing from Igoo village, Jigmet was into running while still at school. But it was the Ladakh Marathon staged in Leh at an elevation of over 11,000 feet that brought her (she used to run the half marathon) and Tsetan to local prominence. Although their early timings are quite slow compared to the pace at which marathons and half marathons are run in India’s cities, they were consistent podium finishers in Leh. Rimo Expeditions pioneered an annual program for Ladakhi runners – selected on the strength of their performance at the Ladakh Marathon – to travel to races at Indian cities with the Mumbai Marathon as main focus. “ My first visit to the Mumbai Marathon was in 2013,’’ Jigmet said. After a couple of years spent participating in the half marathon at the event, in 2015 (so she recalls), she ran the first full marathon of her life in Mumbai. “ I ran it at half marathon pace and ended up walking the last three kilometers to the finish,’’ she said outlining the lack of experience she had in races and race strategy then.

In the period that followed, Savio D’Souza – former national champion in the marathon and well known coach in Mumbai – was brought in to train the team. A structured approach was introduced. Given Ladakh’s cold winter with sub-zero temperatures, runners like Jigmet and Tsetan, begin their training in April. Around July, Savio visits them in Leh, gauges their standing, imparts tips and before returning to Mumbai, gives them a training schedule. “ We then keep in touch on the phone. They call me and tell me what they have been doing. The thing about them is – they are utterly dedicated. If it is too cold and they haven’t managed to run in the morning, they will run in the afternoon. I give them a training schedule, they follow it to the T,’’ Savio said. The intervention paid off. Between Tsetan and Jigmet, the latter was always the faster runner. Tsetan had completed the 2013 Ladakh Marathon in 4:54:05. By 2017, she was completing TMM in 3:14:42, four seconds behind Jigmet; both runners in the elite category for Indian women to boot. That was the year Jigmet finished on the podium for the first time in Mumbai.

A week had elapsed since 2019 TMM. It was late evening. At the Mumbai University’s athletic track, the hours of training had just concluded. “ Let me explain what happened in 2018,’’ Savio said. That year, the Ladakhi runners had failed to repeat their podium finish in the Indian women’s elite segment. “ The podium finish of 2017 was unexpected. Next year, it became a burden. Ahead of race their discussion was about who had turned up to compete in the elite category. If you run to defeat others, you end up running someone else’s race. You have to stick to your plan. But the whole thing was new for them. They were under pressure. When you run under stress, you commit mistakes; your race plan goes haywire. That’s what happened in 2018. Last year they got distracted by the elite runners. This year was different. They ran their own race. The attitude was – whoever comes, we are not bothered. Now we will do better,’’ Savio said. At 2019 TMM, Jigmet was back on the podium in the Indian women’s category; she placed third with a timing of 3:10:43, Tsetan finished fifth clocking 3:13:05. With podium finish secured for the second time, it appears both Motup and Savio have to contemplate: what next?

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr Aashish Contractor was Medical Director of the Mumbai Marathon from 2004 to 2014. Now Head of the Department of Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine at Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, he produced a photo on his computer showing the Ladakhi runners from a 2018 visit to the hospital to assess their VO2 max level. “ VO2 stands for volume of oxygen – it basically tells you how much oxygen your body can consume while doing exercise. It is considered to be a gold standard of one’s cardiovascular fitness. For someone to do well on the world stage in long distance running, cycling, swimming, rowing or skiing – they must have a very good VO2 max. We tested six Ladakhi athletes. All of them had phenomenally high numbers, definitely world class,’’ Dr Contractor said. But it has to be seen in proper perspective. As the doctor put it, you can’t be a world class athlete without good VO2 max but high VO2 max does not automatically guarantee that you will be world class athlete. Between the two – potential and performance – lay other factors like circumstances; training, mental strength, diet, experience and strategy. VO2 max is therefore an indication of potential, especially endurance. “ That’s the most important attribute you can measure in a distance runner,’’ Dr Contractor said. At the apartment near Mumbai’s Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), where the runners from Ladakh stay, Jigmet reflected on what she required to improve. “ My weaknesses are two. First, I am still slow compared to other elite runners. Second, I tend to run a marathon like a half marathon. My pace progressively drops,’’ she said. Figures prove her correct on the first and marginally correct on the second. At 2019 TMM, both Jigmet and Tsetan had pace across splits ranging from 13.1 to 13.5 kilometers per hour. This compares with Sudha Singh (winner among elite Indian women) who straddled 16-16.3 and Jyoti Gawate (second among elite Indian women) who ranged from 15.3 to 16. As regards splits, Jigmet was fairly consistent barring minor variations, which is actually good. Both Sudha and Jyoti had pacers. “ My goal now is to run a marathon in three hours,’’ Jigmet said. Savio wants her to get there on her own steam, without pacer.

“ Using the word speed can be misleading,’’ Dr Contractor said. All running involves speed. In a marathon you have to sustain decent pace for the two and half to three hours that the run lasts. This can be viewed as a case of endurance. But can high VO2 max – often cited to highlight endurance – be construed to also imply promise of maintaining good pace for the duration of a marathon? “ It is hard to answer it directly. Let’s put it this way – if you took a roomful of 50 people and you tested all for VO2 max and you made them all run five kilometers, it is likely that their performance would be in the order of their VO2 max roughly. If you train them all equally, they have the same circumstances in life – then again, the result would be the same. But if you take away those variables and everybody eats differently; lives differently – then there is the possibility that somebody with low VO2 max may beat somebody with a high VO2 max. Mental strength, how badly they want it – so much goes into it,’’ Dr Contractor said. In a competitive marathon, there are several elements at play – among them: endurance, race strategy and pace. Motup’s ongoing project is founded on the premise that Ladakhis have good endurance. Rimo’s team of runners brings that to the table. Not just that; team members couldn’t recall an instance of Did Not Finish (DNF) from their ranks, ever since they started traveling out to races in the plains. Both Motup and Savio said that no matter what difficulties they faced, the runners typically finished a given race. Between the two critical attributes – endurance and pace – pace would also seem an animal inspired in part by ecosystem. Endurance grows in you as part of location and lifestyle; probably why residents of hills and mountains end up with superior endurance compared to plains dwellers. Pace on the other hand – one can legitimately suspect – feeds off competitive circumstances too.

In Ladakh, there is only one marathon – the Ladakh Marathon. In a region with few popular initiatives in athletics, the Ladakh Marathon has been consistently topped by the likes of Jigmet and Tsetan. Given it is one of India’s most expensive marathons (acclimatization schedule forces long stay in Leh for participants) elite runners from the plains don’t turn up to participate even as a matter of curiosity to pitch their ability against high altitude. The event’s USP revolves around running in Ladakh, the adventure tourism destination. It has come to enjoy a high level of attraction among foreign runners with travel companies marketing packages around the annual marathon. It has also extended the local tourist season with hotels booked and high spending visitors – Indian and foreign – in town. Simply put – although local runners win the race comfortably, beyond a point neither the event nor the local ecosystem in running can serve as robust proving ground for the events of the plains because the required level of competition is absent. And without runners as good as you or better than you around, local runners needn’t feel compelled to push themselves. The ecosystem contrasts the circumstances runners from the plains hail from. But that is where Ladakh’s runners are for most part of the year; they come out to compete in city marathons for only around four months every year.

2015; Savio on a training run with Ladakhi runners during a visit to Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When they leave Ladakh for the plains in November, Rimo’s team of Ladakh runners – especially those running in elite category – make a jump to truly competitive environment instead of gradual transition. This was particularly felt in the run up to 2019 TMM because Delhi’s prestigious half marathon, which the team likes to run for accumulating race experience, got shifted to October. According to Savio, the team needs to participate in more races; there is also the need to have more races happening in Ladakh as that is runners’ home ecosystem. More local races contribute to bigger pool of local runners and hopefully thereby, greater competition for existing top notch runners in Ladakh. The breeding ground of most Indian marathoners is the middle distance categories (reference here being to 3000 meters to 10,000 meters) including the steeplechase. Indian elites like Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi, O.P. Jaisha, Sudha Singh and Lalita Babbar – all spent time in middle distance disciplines before coming to the marathon. It was true of the late Shivnath Singh too whose national record in the men’s marathon, set in 1978, was still standing at the time of writing. The great Emil Zatopek’s competence spanned 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. Ladakh’s running calendar lacks a basket of middle distance races. Competitive ecosystem and middle distance – isn’t that where speed is picked up and ingested into potential marathon runner’s system? Both Sudha Singh and Jyoti Gawate (Jyoti who finished the full marathon at 2019 TMM in 2:45:48 hails from challenged circumstances) have more race experience than Jigmet. Sudha who has won medals for India internationally, has the ecosystem of the national camp – an assembly of India’s best – to train in. Further, both Sudha and Jyoti don’t have to worry about weather while training. “ When I go to Ladakh we do some speed training on the road. But road is not ideal surface as it can cause injury. Ladakh does not have an athletic track and so far, we haven’t been able to locate a good mud track. Further once the runners leave Ladakh for the plains, given races they are scheduled to participate in, we have to train conservatively making sure to avoid injury,’’ Savio said. Motup hopes he can pitch in to bridge the deficit with an array of treadmills to keep the momentum of training going on in Leh even in times of inclement weather. But the gap in infrastructure is clear.

A bit of a mystery in the story of Ladakh runners is the relation between altitude and distance running. Most people seem agreed on the link between altitude and endurance. But on the other hand, marathons have been increasingly won by those hailing from or training in mid-altitudes, not high altitude. India’s high altitude sports training facilities are also at these mid-altitudes as are the hills and mountains the elite runners of Kenya and Ethiopia belong to. Iten, the famous home of distance runners in Kenya, has an elevation of 7874 feet. Having said that, it must be pointed out that the Internet (to the extent this writer looked it up) did not specify a clear reason why training is set at this belt of elevation, apart from mention that it corresponds to where the best athletes currently hail from and also, where some of the high profile competitions are held, the latter likely in terms of threshold of elevation (for instance – Mexico City, location for the highest altitude at which the Summer Olympics have been staged so far, is at 7350 feet).

Rigzen Angmo with trophy after her win at the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

For runners from Ladakh, the question is how to leverage their natural strengths, train and perform well at altitudes lower than where they come from. They need to marry endurance and pace. For this, do they train high (as in Leh) or train low? Can you simplistically conclude that if the middle altitudes are good for training in long distance running, then still higher altitudes would be better? “ No. Not necessary. You go very high, the air gets rarified; it is difficult to train. Living at altitude is beneficial. Everybody living at altitude will have those beneficial changes compared to you and me. But to be able to train – sometimes the altitude is so high that you get tired. Then training itself becomes difficult. How do you do your sprint workout and your long distance workout and all of that? I think there is a sweet spot as to what altitude is good to live and train at,’’ Dr Contractor said. The story of Rigzen Angmo is characterized by training stints outside Ladakh at gentler altitudes (please visit this link for Rigzen’s story: Her personal best of 2:45:42 set in 1996, is looked up to by the runners from Ladakh. For dwellers of altitude, long stay away from elevation is a tricky quantum. One sensed unease in the runners when the question of extended stay in the plains was discussed. Apparently, such extended stay temporarily saps high altitude residents of some of their strengths at elevation. On return to Ladakh, they find themselves needing to adapt afresh. It isn’t a development the young runners seemed comfortable with.

Savio feels it is time the national authorities took note of this project, which has systematically dispatched runners to Mumbai since 2013 and secured podium finish in the elite category, twice. If they make it to the national camp or at the very least its proximity, the top Ladakhi runners will get the ecosystem to improve their performance further. They will have good facilities and most important, the good fortune of running with those currently better than them in the marathon. “ I wish the authorities took note of how far we progressed despite the challenges faced,’’ Savio said. Motup is acutely aware of the stage the project finds itself in. Rimo Expeditions has funded this journey as well as the Ladakh Marathon, from its own resources. As someone who wishes to see a Ladakhi at the Olympics, he wants more races in Ladakh – a sort of feeder system into the Ladakh Marathon, much the same way the best performers from the Ladakh Marathon find their way to TMM. But that deepening of running culture can’t be done by him alone. Ideally it should be a broader campaign involving local government. At a more immediate level, as a matter of strategizing next stage for the current team of Ladakh runners (including more time spent away from Ladakh if that is the need), one avenue open to him is to get aboard a strategic partner or sponsor for the Ladakh Marathon. Either such move frees up Rimo’s resources to invest more in the running team or whoever decides to partner the Ladakh Marathon, buys into the idea of sustaining and growing the running team as well. In today’s world of sports those willing to associate for visibility or gains in marketing are easily found. What’s tough is finding someone for the long haul of investing in a running team or a project to grow running and see it through. “ So far I haven’t met anyone convincing in this regard,’’ Motup said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)