The story behind a hat-trick of sub-three finishes over 2016-17 at the marathons in Paris, Berlin and Boston
Early May, 2017.
I had completely over-estimated the distance to my appointment from where I stayed. Bengaluru’s Vittal Mallya road ended up very much in the neighborhood. A lot had happened in the 34 years since the man in whose memory the road was named, passed away. Impressive brick and mortar constructions bearing the name of the company he was elected director of in the year of India’s independence, rose nearby. Vittal Mallya’s son, having defaulted on bank loans worth millions was now living in UK. Suddenly, the high flying life wasn’t what it seemed. It smacked of quicksand; a gooey mess that sucks you in if you are not watchful. With an hour to kill and the afternoon heat of an Indian summer to escape, I stepped into a luxury mall the son built. As with all malls, the shift in ambiance worked till the skin’s relief in trading heat for air conditioning wore off. Then, the monotony of synthetic world took over. I tried to think of what lay ahead. Closer to appointment, I reached the assigned office, an address for several businesses. In the reception they all shared, the lone copy of the Bengaluru Times returned me to faces that harked of mall left behind. It wasn’t difficult identifying Vijayaraghavan (Vijay) Venugopal when he walked in. He looked every bit, runner.
Approximately 700 km south-west of Bengaluru and less than 100 km from the tip of the Indian peninsula, is Thiruvananthapuram; erstwhile Trivandrum. It is the capital of Kerala, among early states in independent India to establish a reputation in games and athletics. Most educational institutions here – at least in the decades before Indian independence and in the decades immediately following it – had big campuses with playgrounds. Some colleges were well known for their teams in sport; talk to old timers and you realize, there even used to be an element of talent scouting. In years gone by, at several places in cities, towns and villages, it was common to see open space preserved as a volleyball court or badminton court. Post-harvest, fields devoid of crop served as venue for local football tournaments. In the 1970s and 1980s, a drive along the state’s national highway usually yielded the sight of local matches in progress. Rivers and large ponds at old houses on land yet to be divided into a hundred plots became swimming pools. Point is – the affection for the active life ran deep. It wasn’t cosmetic. Every day, the emphasis on academics grew. But in Kerala, until the recent epidemic of life by entrance tests and professional qualification, it was never deemed bad to indulge in sports.
Vijay was born in 1975 in Thiruvananthapuram. At that time C. Achutha Menon of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was chief minister of this paradox of a state, at once literate and conservative, ahead in social indices yet industrially barren, admiring arts and literature, politically volatile and sport loving. Arguably, the Malayali’s greatest strength and weakness was awareness exceeding what is best for his / her own good. It was a vibrant universe of interesting aspirations and potential self-entrapment. Amid this, through all the frequent processions by flag wielding political cadres and the occasional shut down in capital city, a fleet of buses painted grey plied without fail in the morning and in the evening. Ferrying people to work, they belonged to an organization begun 13 years before Vijay’s birth. Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram is very close to the Earth’s magnetic equator. That made it an ideal place for scientists to do atmospheric research. In 1962, the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) was established. Since then, sounding rockets have been regularly launched from Thumba. The growing organization became known as the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (VSSC). It is today the largest facility of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), doing work on everything from sounding rockets to ASLV, PSLV, GSLV and GSLV Mark III rockets. Vijay’s father worked at VSSC. The family – his parents continue to reside in Thiruvananthapuram – spoke Tamil at home.
Every town in the country has an idea of the best schools around. In the Thiruvananthapuram of the 1970s, Loyola School, located just outside city limits and tad to the north, was among most sought after. That’s where Vijay studied. “ I was the typical school going child – good at studies and good at sports,’’ he said. Loyola had a reputation locally in sports; its basketball team was particularly respected. Vijay used to participate in the school’s athletics competitions finishing second or third but what he was genuinely interested in, was a sport the Kerala of that time wasn’t famous for – cricket. In an irony of sorts, despite cricket played in Thalassery in north Kerala in the early 19th century – much before it was played elsewhere in India – it had failed to excite Keralites as much as football, volleyball and basketball did. Vijay was a good cricketer. He became captain of the school team, played in the district under-12 team for Thiruvananthapuram and played in the under-13 and under-16 teams for Kerala. He dreamt of becoming a state level player competing in the Ranji Trophy, which is a domestic first class-cricket championship.
After school and pre-degree, Vijay joined the College of Engineering, Trivandrum (CET). He studied mechanical engineering. In this phase of life, studies took precedence. Yet he continued to play cricket, remaining good enough to be part of the college team. CET’s cricket team was strong; it has produced Ranji players. One of the years Vijay was at CET, they topped the university in cricket. To keep his interest in athletics alive, Vijay participated in track and field disciplines at college. However, there was a practical reason for his partiality to cricket. Vijay liked to excel at what he did and he knew that competition in track and field events in Kerala was tough. “ In athletics, you could win at your school or college and be the king of all you surveyed there. But step out and you got killed by competition. It was that competitive in Kerala,’’ he said, an observation speaking much of the breadth and depth of sporting activities in the state. By the time Vijay was at CET, Kerala’s fame as a powerhouse in Indian athletics was firmly established. In the 1970s, names like Suresh Babu and T.C. Yohannan were frequently mentioned in the media. Then, in 1976 – a year after Vijay was born – a young P.T. Usha was spotted by coach, O.M. Nambiar at a prize distribution ceremony. The rest is history.
While Vijay’s craze for cricket was strong enough for him to feel that getting a spot in a Ranji Trophy squad was greater achievement than securing entry to an Indian Institute of Management (IIM), what did happen after his B Tech in mechanical engineering was admission for MBA at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT), Delhi. Here, they formed a cricket team and Vijay was part of it. But in a match he suffered serious head injury after being hit by a ball. Following IIFT, he joined the pharmaceutical company, Dr Reddy’s. In 2002, he shifted to Lupin Limited, another pharma company. He recalls wining a 100 m dash at a company sports meet. But once again, what assumed importance was cricket. Vijay became opening batsman for Lupin’s cricket team. Every year in Mumbai, pharmaceutical companies competed for the Merck Shield; it was a cricket tournament among pharma companies. When Vijay was at Lupin, the company won this shield once and finished second twice. “ Yet, a truly active life was eluding me,’’ Vijay said pointing out that in his view, the years between age 20 and 32-33 years of age were given to preparing for employment and then staying surrendered to employment. In 2004, while Vijay was based in Mumbai, the first Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) happened. Once or twice, he applied to run at the event but didn’t go. It did not excite him enough. Further, through school, college and subsequently corporate life, his fancy had remained with team sports. Distance running on the other hand, appeared an invitation to court and dwell in personal ecosystem. There is a certain solitude that comes with running. The impulse to embrace such sport wasn’t yet there in him.
In 2007, while still at Lupin, Vijay moved to Shanghai in China. He was there for the next three years. In China, he took to playing badminton. He also added the breast stroke to his repertoire of swimming styles picked up long ago at the Water Works Swimming Pool in Thiruvananthapuram. The year after he arrived in China, the Beijing Olympics took place. Seated among spectators at the stadium known worldwide as Bird’s Nest, he watched Usain Bolt in action. He also got an opportunity to see Formula One racing in Shanghai and see the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic play at the Shanghai Masters. In 2010, Vijay returned to Mumbai with Lupin. A year later, he left the company and Mumbai. Alongside, he decided to look for a different sport to stay engaged in; cricket’s time was up. “ Looking back, I think this was also a product of the stage and age in life I found myself in. By nature I am not an extrovert. I don’t build friendships and relationships easily,’’ he said, illustrating the shift from an early romance in life with team based activities to pursuits truer to his nature. Besides, as he pointed out, emergent allegations of betting and match fixing had taken some of the sheen from cricket. In 2000, the Hansie Cronje episode surfaced, which also named former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin; in 2010 three Pakistani cricketers would be implicated on match fixing charges, by 2013 the Indian Premier League (IPL), which commenced the year after Vijay moved to Shanghai, would also run into turbulence over spot fixing. As the habits and tendencies of market seeped into a cricket becoming more commercial by the day, the game’s purity and standing took a beating. Those lost years – the age from 20 to 32-33, spent surrendered to career and cricket – would have been ideal for a physically demanding activity like running. Contemporary life is such that the mind wakes up to the loss, only later.
In 2011, Vijay moved to Pune with a company called Emcure Pharmaceuticals Ltd. The new job had less travel attached to it. Daily life swung between work and family. There was space available to be filled. Compared to Mumbai, Pune was a smaller place. Facebook had grown to be a popular tool to connect with people. The city had runners. Vijay spent his time running a bit, swimming and visiting the gym. He explained how his interest in running grew. “ In the amateur space in India, running is among the few activities that are goal driven. By nature I need some small goals to achieve. Looked that way, running is measurable and finite,’’ Vijay said. He started going out with running groups in Pune. In December 2011, he did a 10 km-run. Next year, he ran the TCS 10K. In 2013, he was back in Mumbai, this time for his first SCMM. Having found a sport that fit his nature, Vijay’s next priority was to ensure that he didn’t rush into it. His first half marathon was in 2012, in Pune; his first official half marathon was in Hyderabad, in August 2012. Registering for his first serious SCMM thereafter, he however didn’t follow any specific training plan. Nevertheless he completed the 2013 event’s full marathon in 4:02. Doing the full marathon in Hyderabad in August that year, he decided to attempt a sub-four. “ I was really humbled by the experience; it was miserable after 27 km. I finished in 4:07,’’ he said. He recalls asking Kochi-based runner, Ramesh Kanjilimadhom of what may have gone wrong. “ The first thing he asked was – which training plan did you follow?’’ Vijay said. That was the moment Vijay understood the importance of training plan. Looking around for a plan that fitted in with his nature and priorities, he zeroed in on the Run Less Run Faster program. Authored by Bill Pierce, Scott Mur and Ray Moss, it featured only three days of running per week and had much cross training thrown in. “ I have since tweaked it a bit but till date, that is essentially the running plan I follow,’’ Vijay said.
Vijay’s wife grew up in Bengaluru. In 2013, Vijay and family shifted from Pune to Bengaluru, where his wife commenced working while Vijay dabbled in some entrepreneurial ventures (by 2015, Vijay and his partners would launch Fast & Up, a sports nutrition brand, currently well-known to the Indian running community) . A challenge in Bengaluru was managing his susceptibility to asthma. The city has one of the highest incidences of the condition; a 2007 report available on pharmabiz.com said that Bengaluru accounted for an estimated 25 per cent of all asthma cases in India. Despite this, on the bright side, Vijay’s life in running was beginning to fall in place. Running the full marathon at the 2014 SCMM, Vijay breached the sub-four barrier by a wide margin. He completed the race in 3:34. That was a huge improvement. While his new training plan was definitely delivering results, his approach to improvement was also noteworthy. He wasn’t targeting improving in the age category he belonged to; he was targeting the best he could be. Next goal was to crack the 3:30 mark. However at the Spice Coast Marathon in Kochi later that year, Vijay could complete the full marathon in only 3:37. With it, his 2014 calendar concluded, for Vijay does not run more than two or three marathons a year. “ The decision to run only a few marathons is a combination of borrowed and personal wisdom. Elite athletes advise so. In my particular case, I need adequate time for training and recovery. So two to three full marathons a year appears optimum,’’ Vijay said.
A couple of months later at the 2015 SCMM, the 3:30 barrier fell; he finished the full marathon in 3:23. Why are his improvements in timing, sizable? Why are they not by small increments? “ I don’t know the reason for that but that’s how it has been,’’ Vijay said. Same year, running the half marathon at the Bengaluru Marathon, he got his first podium finish with a timing of 1:29. According to Vijay, he values all distances in running between 5 km to 42 km. He does not foray into races exceeding 42 km. “ Eighty per cent of the time I am in training mode. It is only the balance 20 per cent that I compete,’’ he said. In November 2015, he returned to Kochi for the Spice Coast Marathon. It is a flat track. At the eighth kilometer, Vijay tripped and suspected he had injured himself. However, it seemed manageable. At 21 km, he actually took the lead. “ Suddenly I saw the police escort in front of me,’’ he said. That year, he won the full marathon at Spice Coast. His timing was 3:14. It was both satisfying and a turning point. As the gap with the three hour-barrier reduced, new goals loomed. Then at the 2016 SCMM, a setback occurred. Usually for the asthmatic Vijay, running at sea level is a better experience than running in Bengaluru. Unfortunately a week ahead of SCMM, he got an asthma attack. Its effects continued into race day in Mumbai. He was targeting timing below 3:10. He maintained the required pace till the 26 km-mark. Then he found he couldn’t sustain it. He pulled out. It was his first Did Not Finish (DNF).
1896 is a special year in the world of sports. That’s the year the modern Olympic Games made their debut in Athens, Greece. Less importantly, it was also the year the first Paris Marathon – the Tour De Paris Marathon – was held. According to Wikipedia, the current Paris Marathon traces its origin to 1976. The event is normally held on a Sunday in April and participation is limited to 50,000 runners. The route is attractive, passing as it does through the heart of Paris. Vijay had decided that once he breached the 3:30-mark, he would try running overseas. He applied for the Paris Marathon of April, 2016. After a couple of weeks spent putting the DNF at SCMM behind him, from February onward, he started training for the Paris run. That month there was a half marathon in Delhi; he finished it in 1:23. Back in Bengaluru, he mostly trained alone for Paris. Once, Soji Mathew – the half marathon specialist from the Indian Railways – joined the training run to pace him. Soji has been a podium finisher at major events in India, in his chosen discipline. “ I like running with better runners,’’ Vijay said. During these training runs he was reporting timings like 3:02 for the full marathon. He went to Paris with a plan for 3:10. One good thing about being in Europe and US is that Vijay’s respiratory system functions well. He finished the full marathon in Paris with a timing of 2:59:48. It was his first sub-three. “ I was genuinely happy for it,’’ he said.
The nature of a marathon course plays a role in the timings athletes can set. Flat courses are prized in this context. In the world of marathon running, the maximum number of world records has been reported from the Berlin Marathon. The current world record of 2:02:57 is in the name of Dennis Kimetto of Kenya; it was established on September 28, 2014 in Berlin. This city marathon was begun in 1974 and usually takes place in the last weekend of September. With the outcome in Paris, Vijay qualified to run at the 2017 Boston Marathon. But before that iconic race, there was Berlin. The 2016 race in Berlin saw altogether 46,950 entrants from 122 countries; among them, Vijay. Running the full marathon, he completed the race in 2:55. That was his second official sub-three. Berlin done and with Boston due the next year, Vijay skipped the 2017 SCMM. It was important not to overdo. Meanwhile in Berlin, Vijay had developed a new goal. “ The charm of Berlin is that it offers the fastest course. For me, the challenge was to replicate the sub-three I earned in Paris. That I did. What I have seen in India is that people crack sub-three but then find it hard to sustain it. In the current running scenario, a lot of amateurs are knocking at the doors of the three hour-mark. Breaking it consistently is the responsibility of some people to show,’’ Vijay said. Can he make it a hat-trick in Boston? That was the challenge at hand.
Begun in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon. In running, it is historically significant. For most people, to go and run in Boston is to be part of a great tradition. It typically ends at that. Vijay on the other hand had a concrete goal – a third sub-three. Given he ran few events every year, he planned for Boston carefully. Two things particularly bothered. First, Boston’s is not an easy course; there are plenty of ups and downs. For someone new to sub-three timing in the marathon, ensuring similar result in Boston won’t be easy. Second, the city experiences fluctuations in temperature with some race days being warm, some cold. Vijay’s careful approach paid off. He completed the 2017 Boston Marathon in 2:57, among best timings in recent years by an Indian who is a resident of India and traveling there to run the race. He had a hat-trick in the bag. Vijay does not look at his sub-three timings as licence to be apart. He wants more people cracking the sub-three barrier. “ When you have a mass of people doing better, then you will also do better. So it is important that you have a sizable population registering good timing in running,’’ he said.
What is Vijay’s goal now?
The globe’s six leading marathon events – the races in Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin, New York and Tokyo – are part of the World Marathon Majors. “ I am now looking at getting sub-three at all the six major marathons. It will be challenging because you have to maintain timing and also stay injury-free. I am not getting younger. My next full marathon will probably be 2018 SCMM. Getting a sub-three in Mumbai would be nice,’’ he said. There is also another emergent angle. Several businessmen have put their capital behind sports they fancy or are synergic with their business; some do the least they can in terms of active participation in sport but leverage media to make it seem significant. Few actually excel at given sport. Vijay is now the CEO of Fast & Up. Although Vijay’s entry into running preceded the creation of Fast & Up by a few years, his subsequent excellence at running does make him among the few CEOs around who not only have hobbies synergic with their work but can also be taken seriously in the sport concerned. Asked if the combination of sports nutrition brand and its CEO, passionate about running, was conscious choice, he said the situation was coincidental. “ Running started in 2013 in right earnest and Fast & Up happened from late 2015. So it was purely co-incidental. But I do concede the synergies. I try to stay away from the brand as much as possible, when it comes to me as an individual in running. You would have never seen me promoting my runs / podium finishes and the brand together. Many a time when the internal team wants to portray my finishes from the official Fast & Up handle, I vigorously dissuade them. Fast & Up is promoted by other athletes who genuinely like the brand and a host of well-wishers. For me the brand should grow up as an institution. Individuals don’t matter,’’ he said. Does the combination others imagine in their head, put pressure on him to perform? “ No. I don’t see it as a combination. However I am aware of the fact that people may perceive a close association. As long as you are sincere to what you do, it does not matter,’’ he said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with the subject.)