File photo of Rigzen Angmo: by arrangement; photo of Leh: Shyam G Menon. Imaging of both: Shyam G Menon

File photo of Rigzen Angmo: by arrangement. Photo of Leh: Shyam G Menon. Imaging of both: Shyam G Menon

Meeting Rigzen Angmo

Early morning September 13, as the fourth edition of the Ladakh Marathon got underway in Leh, Rigzen Angmo couldn’t help calling up those she knew to find out how the run was progressing.

She had to work that day and wasn’t in a position to participate even for fun. In fact, it wasn’t just 2015; the Ladakh Marathon has been on since 2012 but a combination of commitment to work, reluctance and maybe a desire not to revisit a chapter in her life put firmly behind, kept Rigzen away from participating.

Sometime after she confirmed that the race was on, she left her house and reached the roadside to have a glimpse of the runners. “ By the time I got there, those in the lead had already gone past. You can make out a good runner from how he or she uses the feet. The ones I saw must have been the recreational lot,’’ she said, tad disappointed. Later, she switched on the radio to listen to the race report. This September (2015), Ladakhis once again dominated the marathon. Rigzen however, wasn’t happy with the timings she heard. “ Ladakhis can do better than this,’’ she said, adding, “ my respect is more for the timing reported from the Khardunga La Challenge. I thought that was good.’’ The annual event is a composite of four sub-events – a seven kilometre-run for fun, a half marathon, a full marathon and a 72 km-ultra over the high Khardunga La pass called the Khardung La Challenge (for more on the 2015 Ladakh Marathon and the region’s quest to have a good running team, please visit this link:

This September when I reached Leh, all I knew was that Rigzen Angmo was now a senior officer with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Paramilitary personnel can be posted anywhere in India. Even if she was elsewhere in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, it would be difficult for freelance journalist on tight budget to pursue. That’s what journalism has become – a race judged by strength of resources. Media organizations have tons of it; freelancers, none. Where is Rigzen Angmo? – I thought.

When in doubt, have a cup of tea – that’s my recipe for clarity in the mountains. Kunzes served a cup of hot ginger tea. I rolled out my query, explained it. She stopped the work she was doing at the cafe in Changspa and listened carefully. “ Yes, I have heard of her. I think she has a house in Leh. Perhaps if you go there and ask, you may be able to locate her,’’ she said. To my luck, at the said house, I learnt that Rigzen had just been moved on work from Srinagar to Leh. When I finally met her, Rigzen Angmo wasn’t the talkative type. It was obvious that the chance to revisit running as a topic of discussion, made her happy. But her own past, it appeared, was something she had retired from. In 2004, she exited the central athletics team of the CRPF. Thereafter it has been regular office work.

“ Why don’t you come back to running?’’ I asked. For a second or two, Rigzen seemed undecided like somebody on a threshold. Then she replied, “ for years I pushed myself to settle for nothing but the best I can be. It is too deeply ingrained. At the same time, my body is no longer what it used to be, all that running has taken a toll.’’ It was the classic dilemma of erstwhile high performer. Over the couple of times we met to discuss her life in running, Rigzen Angmo hovered around that threshold.

Rigzen Angmo after winning the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in 1994 (photo: by arrangement).

Rigzen Angmo after winning the Kuala Lumpur Marathon in 1994 (photo: by arrangement).

She gave freelance journalist a file of old paper clippings to read and glean her story.

This is a compilation of that and a few rounds of conversation had.

Rigzen was born in March 1969 at Skarbuchan village, roughly 125 kilometres away from Leh. She was the third child of her parents; they were in all five brothers and four sisters. Her parents were farmers. Her mother died when Rigzen was still young. Life changed with the Indian government’s Special Area Games (SAG) scheme under which, talent from remote areas was spotted and groomed. The website of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) describes SAG currently as follows:  Special Area Games (SAG) Scheme aims at scouting natural talent for modern competitive sports and games from inaccessible tribal, rural and coastal areas of the country and nurturing them scientifically for achieving excellence in sports. The Scheme also envisages tapping of talent from indigenous games and martial arts and also from regions/ communities, which are either genetically or geographically advantageous for excellence in a particular sports discipline. The main objective of the Scheme is to train meritorious sports persons in the age group of 12-18 years, with age being relaxed in exceptional cases. The disciplines covered include archery, athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, fencing, football, gymnastics, handball, hockey, judo, kabaddi, karate, kayaking, netball, rowing, sepaktakraw, shooting, swimming, taekwondo, volleyball, weightlifting, wrestling & wushu.

Picked up under this scheme when she was in the ninth standard, Rigzen moved to Leh’s Lamdon School for her matriculation. SAG selected her for running middle and long distance races. In the file, there was an old newspaper photograph from the district level selection race that placed her with SAG. It showed a young Rigzen racing, clad in salwar kameez and wearing normal footwear. She finished first. Rigzen said she owed a lot to SAG, in particular its director B.V.P. Rao. “ Whatever I am today is because of him,’’ she said. Years later, Rao would be one of the founders of Clean Sports India, a movement for corruption free-sports in the country. Amarnath K Menon, writing in a May 1988 issue of India Today (available on the Internet), described Rao as “ an IAS officer who stays at the Nehru Stadium and is building up a pool of sports medicine specialists, social anthropologists, ex-international sports competitors and sports promoters. The article said, “ the greatest advantage of the Special Area Games Programme (SAGP) is that it takes all round care of the trainees, including their schooling, unlike other government supported schemes. Its provisions of food, clothing and education, besides the prospects of winning a medal, are its main attraction.’’ Rigzen’s visit to Delhi happened “ one August,’’ as part of a team of 18 trainees from Ladakh. They received coaching for 15 days at the capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. It was her first taste of formal training. Following this, on return to Ladakh, she was coached regularly as part of the SAG scheme. She trained in the morning and in the evening, attending school in between. After matriculation, Rigzen completed her twelfth standard through open school. Later she graduated with a degree in physical education.

According to Rigzen, nobody pushed her towards the marathon. The shift was something she decided more or less on her own by observing how she performed. A high altitude dwelling-Ladakhi, she seemed to do well in long distance runs requiring endurance. In 1987, she ran the 10,000m race at the senior nationals, winning a silver medal. “ I felt I could do better at still longer distances,’’ she said. In 1989 she ran her first half marathon at the Rath India Open Marathon in Delhi, finishing fourth. In 1990-91 she ran her first full marathon at the same event. P.K. Mahanand, writing in the Economic Times in February 1995, said this of Rigzen’s performance, “ when she took part in the Rath Marathon in 1991, she became the first Indian woman to return a time of under three hours for an athlete on a marathon debut – she clocked 2 hours, 53 minutes.’’  From these beginnings, Rigzen Angmo went on to be among India’s top woman marathon runners, in the same league as Asha Agarwal (the first Indian woman to win an international marathon – the Hong Kong marathon), Sunita Godara and Suman Rawat. The highlights of her career would include podium finishes in international marathons at Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu. Rigzen believes that she could have done more had it not been for the problem of talent in India restricted by the politics at the country’s sports organizations.

Rigzen Angmo after winning the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (photo: by arrangement).

Rigzen Angmo after winning the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (photo: by arrangement).

In her time, India’s woman marathon runners were a force to reckon with on the Asian stage. “ If there was enough encouragement, we could have made a mark at the global level,’’ she said. But that was not to be. To start with – the discipline wasn’t any of the fast and powerful sprint events which captivate audiences, it was the marathon, that too, women’s marathon in an India awash in male chauvinism. Second, sports bodies, usually manned by politicians and the politicking types, never backed talent fully. Rigzen recalled how after being permitted to run a race overseas, the Indian sports body in question declined any kind of support. They approved her participation but how was she to fly abroad if they won’t give her an airline ticket? She wasn’t a rich person. Somebody then pointed out that a gentleman she kept passing by at a park in Delhi during her regular training runs was a Member of Parliament. She sought his help. He arranged free airline tickets. She flew overseas, participated in the event and earned a podium finish. That was merely one example. In the file, a magazine article by Ranjit Bhatia dwelt on Rigzen’s participation at the London Marathon (consequent to her impressive showing at the Rath Indian Open Marathon) not being cleared by authorities. “ Her recent selection to represent the country in the IAAF World Marathon Cup in London on April 21, came almost simultaneously as the rejection of her trip was announced,’’ he wrote.

Rigzen wasn’t the only one navigating choppy waters.

A February 1997 article in the Hindustan Times by R.M.S. Atwal on India’s woman marathon runners (Rigzen among them) mentioned Asha Agarwal’s predicament. Asha, often deemed the first lady of women’s marathon in India, had quit her job with the Railways on an assurance that she would be appointed as an Assistant Director (Sports) in the Delhi administration after three months spent in a junior position. That didn’t happen. Result – she not only stagnated career-wise but got demoted, the report said. It quoted her, “ I have got nothing on assurances from successive governments while people (other athletes) with top connections are rising and rising. I think nothing materializes without a godfather in this country.’’ In India, athletes are on their own in more ways than just the motivation to excel and the commitment to train.

This general trend of navigating a politics ridden, rat race-ambience was besides the issue of being a woman training for the marathon, in the India of those days. For Rigzen, hailing from the closely knit, mountain community of Ladakh, training at home was challenging. Driven, she maintained a rigorous training schedule. Very few in the mountains could fathom the eccentricity of it all. Why would a woman want to run 42km? Why would a woman log close to 200km a week as training in an attempt to run 42km at a race? You stood out as an odd ball pretty easily. “ The problem wasn’t so much in my village where I was known; it was more towards town. Being a woman it was difficult to practise. I used to avoid being seen practising in public, preferring instead, places where people were few,’’ she said. When away from Ladakh, the bulk of Rigzen’s training happened in Delhi, Patiala and Bengaluru (Bangalore). Athletics was better known in the cities and for the girl from the mountains, training here made more sense. “ Everything outside Ladakh was new and different for me. I looked at it as encouragement. I still miss the stadiums I trained in,’’ she said. There was one thing though about ` outside.’ People in the plains and cities therein, knew nothing about Ladakh. “ They would ask: where is Leh?’’ she said laughing. There were other valid reasons for Rigzen training outside Ladakh. The training window in Ladakh is small; no more than four months a year given the region’s reputation as cold desert. The training window is bigger in the plains. She feels Ladakh is too high an altitude to develop all that goes into the making of a competitive endurance athlete. She found mid-altitudes like Shimla, better suited for the purpose. Further, back in her days, a good, consistently available diet for the competitive athlete was more possible at training centres in the plains or well established towns in the hills, than in Leh.

Rigzen Angmo (photo: by arrangement).

Rigzen Angmo (photo: by arrangement).

As other articles in the file showed, those days it wasn’t easy anywhere in India for a woman marathon runner. In February 1995, The Pioneer published an article by Neena Gupta on India’s woman marathon runners. It quoted Sunita Godara, “ mind you, every outing, each road-run for me is a lesson in the cultural heritage of India and women’s place in it.’’ The article added that in small towns, Sunita had an escort with her while running. In Patiala, she had an army subedar accompany her. It also quoted Asha Agarwal, “ since I could not run alone, I had to be accompanied by my father or brother on a cycle.’’ This report mentioned that Asha had sought a transfer from being Welfare Inspector in the Railways to being Supervisor (Physical Education) in the Delhi Administration so that she can stay around the Delhi University campus where the atmosphere was more congenial for her practice. “ However she was reportedly demoted to the non-gazetted post of a senior sports teacher. The discrimination did not end there. The post was abolished in July 1994 and consequently, her salary stopped,’’ the article said.  More than one report cited women having to prove that they are capable of marathon distances before being taken note of. As if that wasn’t enough, they witnessed their races shortened to smaller distance owing to low participation or pressured to conclude early for taking longer time than men. Such practices wouldn’t be tolerated overseas where a discipline is a discipline. Of interest for freelance journalist reading these articles in 2015 was that 15 years after they were published at least one of the officials quoted therein defending the sports federation’s side in allegations related to inadequate support for women’s marathon, became an accused in India’s Commonwealth Games scam. In such time span, athletes come and go. Officials, stay forever. That is India’s sports. “ After the SAG phase, I reached wherever I did on the strength of my personal effort. My husband Tsewang Morup supported me,’’ Rigzen said.

On September 13, barring some of the runners from Ladakh, it is unlikely anyone running the Ladakh Marathon would have recognized the small woman watching them from the side of the road. Fewer still would know the times in which she ran for India or the fact that she is the only runner from Ladakh so far to earn podium finishes at international level. Born to the mountains and focussed on her job as a Deputy Commandant, Rigzen Angmo has not been in touch with any of her contemporaries from the pioneering lot in India’s women’s marathon. She admitted that staying away from each other may also have much to do with the competitive environment in which they all originally met and raced. As the topic of running revisited her life – even if only as discussion – she said, there was a question she had often asked herself: why hasn’t Ladakh produced another Rigzen Angmo despite greater interest in sports and improved prospects for youngsters?

“ What do you think is the reason for that?’’ I asked.

“ I don’t know. There is ample talent in Ladakh. Further, these days, more young people travel out from Leh for studies than used to before. So it is not lack of exposure. Perhaps they should appreciate that good education isn’t all about studies. It includes sports too. You need to be sufficiently interested and committed to practising. You must also aim high. Only then will you reach at least half way. If you don’t aim at all, then where will you reach? To succeed in the marathon, you need perseverance, hard work and will power. Anyway the fact is – I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time with Ladakh’s young people and those among them, who like running. Only if I do that can I say anything for sure,’’ she said. Then she dropped a hint; a SAG-sort of hint, one that is known in Indian sports: “ we must go to the villages…it is in the villages that you will find good runners.’’

Rigzen said she would like to help train young runners. But she has zero appetite for politics and given her past knowledge of the politics at India’s sports bodies, she fears that engagement with sports may reopen the Pandora’s Box. “ I don’t want to go into any situation that entails politics,’’ she said. According to her, she has thought of starting a running club or something similar in Leh, after retiring from the paramilitary. “ I can’t do that alone. I will need help. I also can’t do it alongside my work, which is why it will have to be after retirement. In the meantime, it is good that Rimo Expeditions has begun work on grooming a team of competent, young Ladakhi runners,’’ she said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the dates of events and timings at races are as provided by the interviewee. Where photo credit says `by arrangement,’ the photo concerned has been sourced from Rigzen Angmo.)

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