T. Gopi is among India’s leading marathon runners. Assigned to pace the army’s best hopes in the discipline at the 2016 Mumbai Marathon, Gopi found himself not only running his first full marathon but also securing a podium finish. Qualifying thus for the 2016 Summer Olympics, he went on to finish a creditable twenty fifth in the marathon at Rio de Janeiro, covering the distance in 2:15:25. In August 2017 at the IAAF World Championships, Gopi placed twenty eighth in the marathon with a timing of 2:17:13. In November that year, he became the first Indian to clinch gold at the Asian Marathon Championships covering the 42km-distance in 2:15:48. In February 2018, Gopi improved his timing further from the figures returned at Rio; he completed the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon in 2:15:16. Media reports said that Gopi had commenced the run at a pace suited for 2:13, slowed down at the halfway mark and picked up pace again in the last ten kilometers but was unable to recover lost ground.
In January 2018, soon after the Tata Mumbai Marathon (he finished first among Indian elite athletes), Gopi spoke to this blog. A small abstract from the interview was immediately published on this blog in a report on podium finishers from the 2018 edition of the event. Here are some more excerpts including the runner’s account of what lay between him and the national record:
The 2016 SCMM was where you made your mark as a marathon runner. Can you explain how that happened?
I had this feeling that I may be able to qualify for Rio when the qualifying time was disclosed as 2:19. But that was one to one and a half months before the 2016 SCMM. I asked my coach if I may attempt the marathon. He didn’t discourage me. But he pointed out that there was little time to prepare and be good enough to meet the qualifying standard. I left it there. I focused on the Asian Cross Country Championships, the national level selections for which were due a week or so before the 2016 SCMM. I was following that schedule. It was in this phase that the coach asked if I can be pacer for a distance of 25-30km at SCMM for Nitin (Nitendra Singh Rawat) and Kheta Ram. I reached Mumbai for that task following my cross country selections, where I had placed second. On race day at SCMM, I ran well without any problem for 30km. At 35km there was only Nitin and I left (at the front of the Indian elite group). Given I had executed what was expected of me I was told that if I wanted to, I can slow down. But I said I will continue and stop if I sensed anything going wrong. At about 38km Nitin pulled ahead. I stayed where I was, maintaining my pace because I had no experience at truly long distances; in my work-outs I hadn’t trained beyond 25km. At the same time, since I was past 38km, I was confident I will complete the race. I remember Nitin opened a gap of almost 200m. Eventually I finished the race. That was also when I noticed the time on the screen – 2 hours, 16 minutes. I was very happy that I had run within the qualifying time for the Olympics. What can I say? I was just happy.
Can you tell us something about your background – where you grew up and how you became the athlete you are?
I was born 1988 into an agricultural family, at Kalloor in Wayanad, Kerala. As a family we had no connection with sports. I am the only child of my parents. We now stay in Sulthan Bathery. My father is a farmer; years ago, he also worked as a wage-laborer but now he does his own farming. My mother is a housewife. I studied at the government high school in Kakkavayal. It was in eighth standard that I came into sports; that was the time I participated in the state level sports meet. I was interested in sports even earlier, I was interested in running but I didn’t have a proper environment for it. School was some distance from home. I therefore stayed at the school hostel. My physical education teacher – Vijayi – she encouraged my progression in sports. After eighth standard, I stayed at her house and finished my studies. Her house was close to the school and residing there helped me gain practice time for sports. Those days, the disciplines I participated in were 800m, 1500m and 5000m. My interest from then itself was to run long distance. It wasn’t because I wasn’t good at speed – I used to run the last leg in the 400m relay for my school team. I was interested more in long distance running.
Was there any specific reason for liking distance running?
That is hard to say. I liked sports and used to play whatever games were available including football. Sweating, panting – I was used to all that. Looking back, I think I had a decent capacity to handle panting. Maybe all that slowly built up endurance and made me good at distance running.
Sportspersons from Kerala, often say that the state’s best distance runners come from hill districts like Idukki and Wayanad. The argument forwarded is that you grow up on a regimen of tackling uneven terrain, ascents and descents. Is that true of where you grew up and did such conditioning contribute to what you are?
Where I grew up, such terrain was there but not in a pronounced fashion. For example, we also had fields, which were flat and big enough to play games.
Following school, how did life pan out?
After school, I joined Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam. I trained under P.I. Babu. Mar Athanasius College has a name in sports in Kerala. There was a reason why I joined that college. When I was in high school, completing my eleventh and twelfth, two teachers from this college had come inquiring if I would be keen to join Mar Athanasius College upon finishing school.
Did they come looking for you at school because it is a college that seeks out talent in sports?
Yes. Students from different schools, having track record in sports, have gravitated towards Mar Athanasius College. The management of that college took interest in sports. In school I had begun running the 10,000m and my time used to be around 33 minutes. Within one year of being at Mar Athanasius College, that lowered to 32 minutes. After two years attending my degree course, I was moving into the third year, when I got selected to the Indian Army. I then shifted to Hyderabad.
How did you come to join the army?
That is an interesting story. I was at home and 21 years old; to be precise the start of 21. Once you are fully past 21 years of age it becomes difficult to get entry into organizations like the army and railways. My friends Ajesh and Aneesh – they studied at the same college as I did – they wanted to go for trials being conducted for enlistment in the army. They asked me to go along. I wasn’t physically in best shape but I had my certificates, accumulated from sports events at university level, with me. As it turned out, I got selected to join the army but the other two didn’t make it. I joined the army in 2009 and underwent training for a year. In 2012 I moved to Army Sports Institute. In 2013, I secured a bronze medal at the national cross country championships. Since then I have been a podium finisher at the nationals in the 10,000m, either in cross country or on track. My marathon running commenced only in 2016 with that year’s edition of SCMM. I am now known as a marathon runner. In 2016 at the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games, I had run the 10,000m in 29:10. I could have done better but the last two kilometers proved to be problematic; my stomach was very tight. Had that not happened, I believe I could have taken that timing to below 29 minutes. The discipline I was originally interested in was the 10,000m. The marathon – I was interested in it but I never expected that I would be able to tackle it so quickly. It just happened.
You said you are now known as a marathon runner. What do you see yourself as?
I see myself as a long distance runner tackling distances beyond 1500m.
Can you describe the Rio experience and your passage to Rio following the 2016 SCMM?
After SCMM, I was battling a shin bone-injury. I was being treated in Delhi. The injury took time to heal. The training camp for the Olympics was in Bengaluru. I got three months to be there and prepare. Within that, in the first month there was interference from treatment protocols etc. I could devote two months to focused preparation. It was with that amount of training that I reached Rio. The Olympics was my first major international competition in the marathon. I wasn’t particularly tense. I knew I hadn’t had much training. The silver lining was that in training, the gap in performance between Nitin, Kheta and I wasn’t very big. The men’s marathon was on the last day of the Olympics. The women’s marathon had less than ideal weather. It was very warm; you would recall what happened to O.P. Jaisha. Luckily for the men, the night before their marathon and on the morning of the event, it rained. It was therefore not too hot. Sole problem was that the road was slippery in parts. For the first 25km, I managed to stay with the first batch. That was all I had the capacity to do. Eventually, I finished twenty fifth in the field. But then again, something tells me, that had I enjoyed more time to prepare, I may have finished within the top 20.
What do you think you lacked?
That is hard to say. I had worked out only so much. You therefore tend to conclude automatically that you worked out only so much and your performance corresponds to that. I have also had a continuing problem with my hamstring. It improves through treatment but then after strong competition, it gets tight again forcing me back to treatment. However on the whole, I was quite satisfied with the outcome at Rio.
Now that you have run with international athletes what is your assessment of where Indians stand in the marathon and how we can improve?
To tell you honestly, for the first 30km or so, we manage to stay in the first batch. What happens in the next 12 km, we can’t explain. In that distance, some block is occurring in the body. What this is due to, on account of what shortcoming this is happening – I don’t know. We don’t know how others are training. But there are videos available. We watch it and try to make relevant changes to how we train. The coaches do that. For example how I trained ahead of Rio is not how I train now. Many things have changed. The thing is – in the training phase, there is faith that we can live up to the targeted timing. What we are finding difficult is carrying that over into a competition scenario.
What are your immediate plans for the future?
My desire is to break the national record set in 1978 by Shivnath Singh. That is the goal. The first target however is performing well at the Asian Games.
You ran the marathon at Rio in 2:15:25. The national record is 2:12. From a runner’s perspective how tough is the job of slicing away those few minutes?
From a runner’s perspective, if you can cover every kilometer in three minutes eight seconds, you should be able to run a full marathon in 2:12. When we design our work-out we orient it towards this. However what we feel we can do while training is not quite what it is like in the thick of competition. For instance during work-out (training) I had the confidence that I will do 2:14. But that didn’t happen. There are also variables to consider like the weather on a given day. Conditions have to be hospitable. Not to mention, that challenge of sustaining the last 12 kilometers in good form. At the world championships, I could hang on to the first batch till around 27km. Thereafter they pull ahead while we remain at the same state or tend to fade.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)