Talking to Nitendra Singh Rawat, among the finest marathon runners in India
It was early November 2017, around 7 AM.
Winter was in the air. Not yet the season full-blown but its approach.
The area around Kumaon Regimental Center’s (KRC) Somnath Ground in Ranikhet was already bustling with activity when I got there from Mall Road. There were troops in uniform lined up for morning jog and columns of what seemed to be new recruits, dressed in track suit, limbering up. In between, I found the type I was looking for – already sweating, well into morning’s share of work out; no jogging but real running. Clad in shorts and singlet, they passed by like bullet train to my vintage steam locomotive. Indeed the whole road proceeding from Somnath Ground to Kalika seemed the stuff of army’s running. There were lines drawn at regular intervals on the tarmac, each indicating distance and potential turnaround point for those repeating loops. At one curve on the road, a distinctly athletic man, running fast uphill, with strides much longer than mine, broke through to early morning sunshine filtered on to the road by the adjacent pine forest. “ Hi Shyam,’’ he shouted as he ran by. It was the man from day before yesterday; the chat at Meghdoot. It isn’t always that an Olympian mentions your name. I felt my spine automatically straighten to the best running posture it could adopt; my journalist-slouch was briefly history. Amid my huffing and puffing, I managed to shout back, “ Good Morning!’’
Most hill stations in India have a Mall Road dating back to British India days. These settlements typically grew around a central mall. Over the years, Mall Road became a hub for human activity and socializing. Some Mall Roads have even become avoidable for those seeking peace and quiet. You don’t visit the hills to be in the bustling center of yet another town – do you? That’s what makes Ranikhet’s Mall Road different. All the activity is at least three kilometers away, where the local market took shape. This Mall Road is quiet, except for vehicular traffic. It is a road largely lost to army cantonment, some residences, a post office, an officers’ mess, a few shops selling grocery, a tea-shop or two and a hotel – Meghdoot Hotel. Some three kilometers away from Meghdoot, towards Ranikhet’s market, a panoramic view of the Himalaya opens up. On a clear day, snow-capped peaks stretch from one end to the other with the 7120 m-high Trishul, beautiful and dominant up front. The mountain guarded by many of these peaks, including Trishul, sits recessed and therefore appears tad small despite its 7816 m-height. Nanda Devi was first climbed by H.W. Tilman and Noel Odell in 1936, thirty six years before Meghdoot opened in Ranikhet. The town and its bus service of the 1930s find mention in Tilman’s writings about the expedition. As does “ Garul’’ – likely modern day Garur – the settlement through which the expedition, moving on from Ranikhet, proceeded to Joshimath via Kuari Pass.
Garur is now a busy, small town on the road from Ranikhet to Bageshwar. Nitendra Singh Rawat hails from there. That afternoon, it wasn’t difficult for me to identify him among the people gathered near Meghdoot. The track suit with `India’ printed on it, made it easy. We sat down for tea and conversation at the hotel’s restaurant. In training for the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) due later that November and the Tata Mumbai Marathon of January 2018, he brought his own flask of water to drink. Nitendra was born 1986 in Anna village in Garur. He is the eldest; he has two younger sisters. His father, who eventually worked as a contractor, also offered at one point, a service that harks of erstwhile geographical remoteness and bygone times – villagers in the region entrusted him with their exposed film rolls; he accumulated them, got them processed in Delhi and provided photographs. Nitendra spent the first five years of school life in Garur. For the next five, he shifted to Ranikhet and its Army Public School. For eleventh and twelfth grades, he returned to Garur. At this stage of his life, he wished to be a doctor. He was as active as any youngster born to the hills; he played cricket, basketball and hockey – all as recreation, not for potential career in sports. “ I never thought I would become an athlete,’’ Nitendra, among India’s best marathon runners at the time of writing this article, said.
Garur, Ranikhet – they fall in the eastern half of Uttarakhand, traditionally known as Kumaon. Kumaon University maintains two campuses; one in Nainital, the other in Almora. Wanting to graduate in science, Nitendra attended classes at the Almora campus. The town had a ground, where people ran regularly. “ I wanted to be able to do that,’’ Nitendra said. He joined the runners. Despite his desire to be as good as the others, he found running, boring. Then one day a friend arrived wishing to enroll in the Indian Army. Uttarakhand is among states sending the highest number of recruits to the army. Indeed running in the hills is entwined with enrolling in the army; approaching recruitment season sees more people running on the road just as an approaching major marathon does in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai or Bengaluru. Although the recruitment plan was his friend’s, Nitendra also ended up taking the relevant written and physical tests. Following this, he went back to his studies. Unknown to him, he was accepted for joining the army. The call letter was posted to his home in Garur, where it caused a flutter. Being the only son, it wasn’t an easy decision for Nitendra’s father to send him off to the army. An extended meeting involving relatives was required to approve his enlistment. In 2005, Nitendra joined the army. He was accepted into the Kumaon Regiment, one of the most decorated regiments of the Indian Army. Its regimental center is in Ranikhet (the Naga Regiment is also based here). The army got Nitendra who had once found running boring, to run. “ Training was hard,’’ he said. Everyday routine involved running 4-5 km. Weak runners merited punishment, typically running longer distances. “ You run as best as you can because you don’t want to be punished,’’ Nitendra said. His first cross country run as part of training wasn’t a case of strong finishing. But when the selection for the regiment’s cross country team was done, he stood first in trials. He became part of KRC’s cross country team. KRC is a place where a sportsman can find jackets bearing different insignia – some have the regiment’s name written on them, some have ` Services’ and a few, ` India.’ “ I knew I wanted one,’’ Nitendra said.
Fired up, he tried running with the best runners around. Too much too soon usually spells disaster in running. Keeping up with the best took a toll on Nitendra. He came down with shin splints in both legs. He was advised rest for six to seven months. In 2007, he was labelled RTU (Return to Unit) and sent to join Sixth Kumaon, then based in Delhi. In 2008 beginning, the unit moved to Poonch near the Line of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan. It was hard work. Engaged so, Nitendra wondered: why not put in the same hard work in sports, back at KRC? He began taking sports within the army seriously. He worked his way up the levels. The 2008 Cross Country Championship was held at KRC in Ranikhet. Cross country typically has two disciplines – four kilometers and 12 km. Nitendra finished fourteenth in the four kilometer version. That gained him a berth in the army cross country team. Towards the end of that year, the cross country training camp was held in Hyderabad. A little over a year later, in January 2010, Nitendra represented Delhi state in the national cross country championships. Following this event, he was among those selected and dispatched for that year’s World Military Championships held in Brussels. On return from Brussels, he decided to work still harder. When he ran 5000 m on track, he returned a timing of around 15 minutes, 30 seconds. Within one month, he had it reduced to 15:07. At a subsequent national level athletics championship, he ran the 5000 m in 14:29. That was a major turning point. He was selected for training at the Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune. Over 2010-2012, he ran several races in which he covered 5000 m in timings in the range of 14:30 to 14:50.
Reaching ASI was a boon in more ways than one. It is among the best facilities for training athletes in India; Nitendra thinks that in some departments it is on par with the best in Asia. Here an athlete gets to focus on his discipline. For Nitendra, ASI also meant a miraculous opportunity to work with a senior athlete turned coach from Uttarakhand, he had only heard about till then. Surinder Singh Bhandari, hailing from Gairsain, still held the national record in 10,000 m at the time of writing this article. He joined the army’s Garhwal Regiment. Nitendra’s selection to train at ASI coincided with Bhandari’s appointment as a coach there. Subsequently both coach and ward would also make it together to their first national camp; this one held at Bengaluru. “ ASI was a good environment to be in. Everyone there was a top class athlete. That motivated you,’’Nitendra said. By May 2013, coached by Bhandari, he ran the 5000 m in 13:55, the first athlete from his batch of runners to touch that mark. Great performance is like a knife’s edge. Six months later in November, he experienced pain in his knee. It was diagnosed as meniscus tear. Surgery followed. Nitendra was once again, out of training. The break lasted 2-3 months. When he reported back to the national camp, the situation was demotivating. He was unfit; he had gained weight. Coach Bhandari told him to jog easy for 20 minutes or so. While that may have been the correct route for return, the overwhelming impression Nitendra had was – everyone who trained with me has gone way ahead. He was in the slow lane, alone. It was also equally clear that he would have to work his way back from zero.
Nitendra shared his sense of gloom with Bhandari. But the coach kept on motivating him. Commencing an altogether new journey, Nitendra first trained with juniors. Then he trained with elite women runners. Inch by inch he improved. By February 2014, he was good enough to restart the old training. Four months later, at national level competitions held in Lucknow, he was back to being in the top three in the 5000 m. Alongside, the need to make a decision emerged. To be an international class athlete in the 5000 m, Nitendra knew he would have to break the 13 minute barrier and be able to sustain such performance. As of late 2017, the world record in the discipline belonged to Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele with a timing of 12:37:35. The Indian national record hailed back to June 1992, when Bahadur Prasad ran the distance in 13:29:70. Nitendra, running the 5000 m and tasked with improving his performance in it, felt he wouldn’t be able to break into sub-13 minute realm. On the other hand, the mileage athletes accumulated in training, even for a discipline like the 5000 m, was sizable. They had the endurance to attempt longer distances if they wanted to. Nitendra began telling Bhandari to help him transition to the marathon. Eventually the coach relented. The army runner became Bhandari’s first ward shifting to marathon territory. The switch happened in March 2015 at Dharamsala. In June that year, Nitendra ran his first formal marathon at the trials held to select athletes for the upcoming World Military Games in South Korea. He completed the run in 2 hours 21 minutes. Selected for the event, ward and coach moved to Ooty in Tamil Nadu to train at altitude. Ooty is favorite destination for high altitude training in Indian athletics. It is 7350 ft up in South India’s Nilgiri Hills. It is both a hill resort and a military base, Wellington, roughly 11 km away, being home to the Indian Army’s Madras Regiment as well as the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC).
According to Nitendra, the army’s facilities here include a proper running track. If you are selected for a formal national camp in athletics at Ooty, then the arrangement provides you quarters to stay in. If you are not part of the national camp, committed athletes knowing well the value of training in Ooty, rent their own accommodation and train. Given top class athletes keep shifting in and out of national camps, many of them are familiar with both these modes of training in Ooty. A typical Ooty schedule for Nitendra was: wake up at 4.20 AM, do yoga and exercises, then head to the ground for training. For the World Military Games, Nitendra and Bhandari set a target of 2 hours 15 minutes. Nitendra completed his run in South Korea in approximately 2:18, slightly outside the qualifying mark for the 2016 Olympic Games scheduled in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A day after this run, Nitendra was told that he had qualified for the Olympics. He thought it was a joke. But it turned out to be true because in the meantime, the qualifying mark for Rio had been lowered to 2:19. Nitendra’s 2:18 in South Korea was sufficient to be eligible to run the marathon in Brazil. By evening that day, the news of his qualification was officially disclosed. He phoned up his father in Garur to convey the information. The family couldn’t believe it. “ Olympics is the dream of every sportsman,’’ Nitendra said.
Realizing the gap that stood between him and the best marathon runners due to assemble in Rio, he decided to proceed with a realistic training program. For target he chose the 2:15:25-world record (mixed gender) in women’s marathon set by UK’s Paula Radcliffe at the 2003 London Marathon. The event he had in mind to try and achieve this, was the 2016 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM / now called Tata Mumbai Marathon). January 17, 2016 in Mumbai was a remarkable day for the Indian Army’s runners. While the men’s winner overall was Kenya’s Gideon Kipteker who ran the distance in 2:08:35, Nitendra set a new course record for Indians with a timing of 2:15:48. While this was marginally slower than Paula Radcliffe’s world record, it was remarkably close to the 2:15:40, which Bhandari had predicted ahead of that edition of the SCMM and conveyed to Nitendra’s Commanding Officer. “ It shows how well my coach knew my ability,’’ Nitendra said. Further credit to the army, two more of their runners – T. Gopi (2:16:15) and Kheta Ram (2:17:23), qualified for the Rio Olympics. The story didn’t end there. Roughly 25 days later, at the 2016 South Asian Games held in Guwahati and Shillong, Nitendra achieved the target he had been chasing. He ran the full marathon in 2:15:18; timing faster than Paula Radcliffe’s record. “ That was two personal bests within a gap of 25 days,’’ he said, sipping his tea. It was now evening and being early winter, the sun’s dip below the horizon was also an early affair. Winter sunshine is one of the best things there is. It stands out for warmth amid cold and light in grey environment. Meghdoot’s restaurant faced west. Evening brought shafts of sunlight into the restaurant.
For writer from Mumbai, the hotel’s story was engaging. Ranikhet is at an elevation of 6132 ft. Decades ago, the land on which Meghdoot stands belonged to a Parsi gentleman known simply as Rustomji. The building he constructed came to be called Rustomji Building. Today, the Parsi community’s best known address is Mumbai. Back then, Ranikhet’s Rustomji Building wasn’t alone in its Parsi origin; there was also Sorabji Building and Jamshedji Building nearby. On the land he leased near what is today’s Mall Road, Rustomji built a single storey structure that housed shops and had a stout basement which functioned like a storage depot of sorts. This structure was destroyed in a fire. Rustomji rebuilt it. The building, besides its shops, had a billiards room and a skating rink built of polished teak from Assam. Jamshedji Building in the neighborhood had a second billiards room and shops, while Sorabji building had a cafe. Additionally, there were dance halls in these old buildings, there were wine shops, tailors – all of which probably made the Mall Road of those days different from its current quietness. Further up from Mall Road was Chaubatia identified with bungalows for military officers and British India’s government officials. In due course, the British India Motor Company became a tenant at Rustomji Building. They operated buses on the Haldwani-Ranikhet route, linking Kumaon’s hills to the plains. The environs of today’s Meghdoot, was then, the location of the bus station, a workshop to repair buses and a petrol pump. Along the way, the British India Motor Company sold out to a transport company from Nainital; they continued to run the bus service. Then at some point, the bus service and the bus station, folded up. Their disappearance, leaving market three kilometers away as local hot-spot, would have contributed to the peace characterizing today’s Mall Road. In 1958, ownership of the property that used to be Rustomji Building, changed hands. On February 2, 1967, for the second time in its history, the building was victim of a fire. Rebuilt, the new structure opened as Meghdoot Hotel in May 1972.
Like winter’s sunshine, good times don’t last long. By May 2016, following a series of strong performances, Nitendra was getting early signs of hamstring injury. The Olympic Games in Rio was due to begin on August 5. After the national camp for Rio bound-athletes held in Bengaluru, Nitendra reached the Brazilian city with the rest of the Indian squad. He recalls being very excited to be in Rio; it wasn’t just the chance to be at the Olympics, it was also a chance to meet stars he had kept track of – among them, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and UK’s Mo Farrah. Nitendra’s own story however wasn’t playing out well. Within 3-4 days of arrival in Rio, his hamstring injury started acting up. He underwent physiotherapy. For the first few kilometers of the marathon at Rio, Nitendra said, the pain from his injury, on a scale of 1-10, was at 5. At this stage of the race, he was with the lead pack of runners. By the fifteenth kilometer, the pain worsened. He began dropping back. One reason for this, he believes, was the course, which was wet from rain. If you run fast on a wet course, your hamstrings are bound to work harder attempting to provide better grip for your feet on slippery surface. It took a toll. While Gopi and Kheta Ram produced personal best timings to place 25th and 26th respectively, Nitendra completed the marathon at Rio in 2:22:52, placing 84th. Interestingly, Gopi’s 2:15:25 at Rio matched Paula Radcliffe’s record, which Nitendra had chased in 2015-2016 and eventually bettered by seven seconds at the 2016 South Asian Games. For Nitendra, his performance at Rio and injury meant another challenge.
“ In the run up to Rio, I received a lot of encouraging messages on social media. There was much expected from me. Bad performance changed it, I must have disappointed well-wishers. The sentiment in messages reversed. I began getting messages with a negative tenor to them,’’ Nitendra said. The experience scarred him. Rio left him an Olympian but he does not enjoy talking of it. He avoids public functions around that. Meanwhile injury meant exit from national camp. “ I wish Indian sports supported athletes in a more sustained fashion. Injuries happen and athletes will tumble from the high position they held. You must not disown them at every fall. The support and encouragement given to athlete should be consistent,’’ Nitendra said. Post-Rio, when Nitendra had to leave the national camp, he wondered what would be the best option. An old detail, probably forgotten in the thick of preparations for this event and that, surfaced in mind. He was born to the mountains in Garur; he was admitted to the Kumaon Regiment – which is a regiment from the mountains, KRC in Ranikhet is perhaps a thousand feet lower in elevation than Ooty but not significantly so (besides if you want still higher elevation, it is easily found in the Himalaya). Why not move back to KRC and train in Ranikhet? When I met him at Meghdoot, Nitendra was dividing his time between training at Somnath Ground and running on the road; he had measured out loops on the road near Rani Jheel (a small lake) and the road to Kalika. “ This is a good place to run except that at this time of the year, early morning can be cold,’’ he said. Most important – he intended to stay injury free. On October 22, 2017, around ten days before I met him, Nitendra ran the BSF Half Marathon in Delhi, covering the distance in 1:03:55. But he wanted an event of higher profile to formally measure his comeback. So on the radar next was the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) of November 2017 followed by the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) in January 2018. As for whether he dreams of going for another Olympics – the answer to that is: yes.
One can imagine and plan for races. But there is no greater teacher than being in a pack of elite runners. Having run with the world’s best in Rio, what does Nitendra think about India’s chances in the marathon? “ I don’t think genes matter. Hard work does,’’ he said. He explained the dynamic: once you have somebody make it to a certain level, then the whole field shifts to a higher benchmark. He offered the example of Vijender Singh and the impact he has had on boxing in India. It is the same in running. While the late Shivnath Singh’s national record in the marathon (2:12:00) has remained one of the longest standing records out there, in more recent times, as Nitendra moved into 2:15 territory, there were others who improved alongside nudging the expected timing in Indian men’s marathon, a few notches up. That’s how the field grows its competence. Somebody breaks a barrier; others catch up. “ The only thing is you shouldn’t get injured doing whatever you are doing,’’ he said. It was now a near empty restaurant. There was the two of us at our table, the owners of the hotel, a waiter – else it was empty. Nitendra’s camp was roughly 5-6 kilometers away. He dialed a friend to hitch a ride. “ So, what do you plan to do?’’ he asked me, putting the flask back in his bag. I thought of my journalist-slouch, my apology of a daily run and Olympian across the table. I hesitantly ventured, “ well, I like running from here to Katpudia. Reach there, have breakfast, take the share-taxi back. I plan to do that day after tomorrow.’’
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with the subject. Timings at races are as recalled by the interviewee. Except for one photo clicked by the author, all other photos used herein were provided by Nitendra Singh Rawat and have been acknowledged as such. Research used for a couple of earlier articles written by the author, has been included in this piece.)