2018 BOSTON / LONDON MARATHONS – IMPRESSIONS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For some time now, the emergent norm in weather worldwide has been – unpredictable. April 2018 hosted two well-known marathons. The events at Boston and London were separated by less than a week. The contrast was sharp. Boston featured one of its coldest race days while London offered one of its warmest. This year too, there were runners from India participating at both these events. We spoke to some of them about their experience.   

2018 BOSTON MARATHON

The world’s oldest annual marathon provided much to think about with its 2018 edition. The weather on race day was terribly cold and damp. Boston this year became a proposition to know running in the context of its weather as opposed to merely viewing running as methodical execution of race strategy under ideal circumstances. Yuki Kawauchi of Japan finished first among men; Geoffrey Kirui of Kenya finished second. Desiree Linden of US was top finisher among women. The 2018 Boston Marathon triggered an interesting debate on whether women handle adversity better than men. According to a report in The New York Times, the winning times for both men and women were the slowest since the 1970s and mid-race drop-out rate was up 50 per cent from what it was last year. But significantly, the drop-out rate for men was up 80 per cent from 2017, while it was up only about 12 per cent for women. Similarly, overall, five per cent of men dropped out during the 2018 edition of the race while only 3.8 per cent of women did the same. While it would be tempting to attribute this trend amid cold weather to the thicker layer of sub-cutaneous fat women have, fact is, in 2012 when the Boston Marathon was run in very warm weather, the finishing rate for women had been higher than for men.   

Kavitha Reddy, at an event in Pune (Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy)

Kavitha Reddy

On race day as runners scrambled to board the bus taking them to the start point of the 2018 Boston Marathon, the mood was not one of celebration.

The weather was dreary with howling winds accompanied by rain and snow. It was a depressing scenario for Kavitha Reddy. Doubts began to creep into her mind if she would complete the marathon she had come all the way from India to attempt.

“ I was confused. I was unsure whether I should run in light clothing or add warm layers. Finally I just followed the herd and added some more layers of clothing. So there I was, ready for my most awaited marathon, dressed more like a resident of the Arctic than a runner,’’ she said. Kavitha had hand warmers, three layers of clothing, tights and a plastic wrap on top. Despite all this she felt frozen to the bone when she stepped off the bus. At the race venue, runners huddled together, clad in layers of clothing.

Near the four kilometer-mark, she threw away her zipper jacket. At the seventh kilometer, Kavitha is used to taking salt tablets. At Boston she was unable to do that as her fingers were too numb to open the zip of her waist pouch. “ For the first time in my running career, I ran an entire marathon without any salts or energy gels,’’ she said adding that she picked up a bottle of Gatorade from a volunteer, but could not drink as it was too cold.

As she continued her run, the weather got progressively worse and many runners quit the race.

After Heartbreak Hill, at the 34th kilometer, she took a sip of water and threw away her hand bottle. The worst was yet to come. Over the last seven kilometers the weather deteriorated further. “ The wind and the rain were so bad that I felt I was running in the same place and not moving forward. The last mile felt like a marathon in itself. Even though I could see the finish line, it felt like the wind was pushing me away,’’ she said.

Kavitha finished the race with a timing of 3:34:26, a little over a minute more than her personal best of 3:33:05 at the New York City Marathon of November 2017.

In 2015, Kavitha ran the Bangalore Marathon completing it with a sub-four hour timing of 3:53 hours. That was when she learnt about the possibility of qualifying for Boston Marathon; she also realized that she was quite close to the qualifying timing required for the iconic race.

In November 2017 she completed the New York City Marathon and followed it up with half marathon at the 2018 Mumbai Marathon where she finished first in the age group of 40-44 years among women.

For Boston, her coach added some more mileage and tweaked the workouts to make her stronger to tackle the marathon’s route. “ He prescribed undulating routes for my training runs. I did my tempo runs on roads that went up and down. I also included some hills in the second half of my long runs and did some fast finish-runs,” she said.

Going ahead, she will be attempting the Berlin Marathon in November 2018.

Mahesh Londhe (Photo: courtesy Mahesh Londhe)

Mahesh Londhe

A couple of days ahead of the Boston Marathon, the weather turned bad. The run ended up being extremely challenging for Mahesh Londhe. “ We are not used to running in such weather conditions where temperatures are at zero and sub-zero levels. Nevertheless this race taught me that as runners we have to be prepared for any eventuality,’’ Mahesh said.

At the race expo, Mahesh had to buy a whole range of running clothes that he would have to get into if the weather failed to improve. He had to buy thermals, gloves and raincoat. “I have never run wearing a raincoat,” he said.

According to Mahesh, many of the American runners also found the weather quite challenging.

The night before the race was terrible as it rained through the night. At the start point at Hopkinston Village, runners were milling around under tents attempting to protect themselves from cold winds and rains.

“Up until the 13th mile, I was able to keep up my pace of sub-3 hour finish. But the cold started to get to me and I had to slow down,” said Mahesh.

By the 19th mile, Mahesh had to slow down and was almost on the verge of giving up. However he decided to continue.

“The most amazing thing was the number of people who came to cheer the runners in such atrocious weather. There were children too among them, handing out hydration. People had come with raincoats for the runners. It was such a heart-warming sight,” Mahesh said.

Along the route, Mahesh could see that runners were quitting. At the finish line, Mahesh was in quite a bad shape with fever. He was rushed to the medical center. He finished the run in 3:59:17 hours.

Born in Mangalore, Mahesh was into cricket in his early years. He moved into running later and then got into triathlons. He has completed several triathlons including two Ironman competitions in Australia and France and a half Ironman in Sri Lanka.

A certified coach for Ironman, Mahesh was aiming for a sub-three hour finish at Boston. But what Mahesh ended up with was an experience that will be forever etched in his memory – running an iconic marathon amid severe cold, howling winds and lashing rain. “ It was the experience of a lifetime,’’ he said.

Karthik with K.C. Kothandapani (Photo: courtesy Karthik Anand)

Karthik Anand

Bangalore-based runner Karthik Anand kept an eye on weather reports in the run up to the Boston Marathon. He was mentally prepared for hostile weather.

Still it was extremely tough. “ I did not expect it to rain so heavily for the entire distance. I was hoping that the rain would taper but it just kept getting worse,’’ he said adding that strong winds made things really bad.

On race day, for the 11:15 AM race-start, Karthik left his hotel at 9 AM. “ That meant I was drenched for two hours even before the race started,’’ he said. He started his race much slower than planned. With heavy rains and winds, maintaining constant pace was important.

“ My hands were numb and I could hardly remove any gels from my pockets. The toes of my feet were all numb. I was shivering and my jaws were quivering from the cold. Because of wet clothes I also had to experience lot of chaffing,’’ Karthik said. He had to use extra jackets and track pants for protection from the cold weather. The jacket and track pants were thrown away before the start of the race. He used gloves to keep his hands warm but discarded them after the fifth kilometer.

Race Day, 2018 Boston Marathon; Karthik all layered up (Photo: courtesy Karthik Anand)

Karthik finished the race in 3:57 hours. “ The happiness of finishing Boston marathon under such tough conditions gives me immense pleasure,’’ he said.

Karthik’s training for Boston Marathon was under K.C. Kothandapani, among Bengaluru’s best known coaches. The training featured mileages of 90-100 kilometers every week, incorporating speed workout, tempo runs, hill runs, recovery runs and long runs apart from strength training.

Karthik started running in 2008. “ I had enrolled at a local gym. One of my friends who used to often run on the road forced me to join him. There has been no stopping since,’’ he said.

After some years of running, Karthik decided to attempt the world’s major marathons. He has already completed Berlin, Tokyo and Chicago apart from Boston. “ I will be running the New York Marathon in November 2018 followed by the London Marathon in April 2019. If I get an opportunity I will surely do Boston once more. It’s a beautiful course with a lot of crowd support,’’ he said.

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ramesh Kanjilimadhom

Ramesh has run before at Boston, he has also run the Chicago Marathon. The third big marathon of North America – New York – has evaded him because its dates are very close to Kochi’s Spice Coast Marathon, which is managed by Soles of Cochin, the running group Ramesh identifies with.

This April, the Boston Marathon happened in very cold conditions. “ The weather in New England is dynamic. There is a saying there that if you don’t like the weather, you should wait for five minutes. That’s how fickle it is. Seasoned runners from Boston tell you of it,’’ Ramesh said. The marathon’s 2018 edition witnessed one of the worst weather conditions in its history.

“ I reached the US a week earlier. I ran a half marathon in Virginia, near where I used to live. It was cold but the run went off well. I could handle the cold. Until about two days before the Boston Marathon, the weather forecast spoke of mildly windy and wet conditions. Then it suddenly changed to strong wind and rain,’’ Ramesh said.

Three years earlier, in 2015, he had experienced near similar conditions in Boston, although not as bad as it was manifesting now. Running the race’s 2015 edition, he had slipped into hypothermia. He had then walked randomly into a building, where people took good care of him, covering him in a warm blanket and feeding him hot soup. Cold and Ramesh don’t seem a great combination; in 2010 too, he had ended up shivering and experiencing hypothermia after a marathon in upstate New York.

Luckily in 2018, while in the US to run the Boston Marathon, Ramesh stayed with a friend whose son was into rowing. The son had a collection of warm clothes Ramesh could borrow to layer himself for the race. Additionally, his friend offered to be at the finish line with more warm clothes, just in case that was needed.

Ramesh reached the start line of the Boston Marathon wearing four layers of warm clothing. “ Still it wasn’t enough for me, given the wind,’’ he said. The running was miserable; he took it slow and easy. Playing in his mind were memories of previous runs in cold weather. “ I was cautious. I was dreading what lay in store at the end,’’ Ramesh said.

He knows the Boston race route well. He knows how to strategize his passage; what objective difficulties to anticipate on the course and how to tackle it. Yet none of that past experience helped to elevate his spirits. All through, the bleak weather lingered in mind, a persistent annoyance.

“ The beauty of Boston is its crowds. This time the crowd was thinner than usual. But those who came cheered and supported the race as best as they could. The event’s volunteers also went out of their way to encourage runners,’’ Ramesh said. Despite the encouragement, runners pulling out of the race, electing not to finish – were many.

Ramesh finished the marathon in three hours, forty minutes; he last saw such timing was in 2013 or so. That was how much the weather slowed him down. On the bright side, he completed with no shivering or hypothermia. The multiple layers he wore helped. Thermal blankets were distributed and this year, the blankets were better than before. His friends who met him at the finish line brought hot chocolate.

Ramesh said that he wasn’t surprised at all by the race results dominated by North American runners. Given the weather, he had an inkling that such outcome lay in store. “ Having said that, Yuki Kawauchi of Japan finishing first among men shouldn’t seem out of place. He is known to do well in cold weather,’’ Ramesh said, adding, “ one thing did surprise me – notwithstanding the cold weather, the timing returned by some of the podium finishers is really good.’’

Looking ahead, Ramesh said he would like to run the London and Berlin marathons.

Brijesh Gajera (Photo: courtesy Brijesh Gajera)

Brijesh Gajera

Brijesh Gajera has been running for the past ten years.

About four years ago he realized that it was possible for him to qualify for one of the world’s most competitive marathons – Boston Marathon. He was edging close to the qualifying time of 3:10 hours assigned for his age category.

At the 2017 edition of Mumbai Marathon, he finished the full marathon in 3:03 hours, thereby qualifying for Boston.

Brijesh – he works with Cisco – commenced his training for Boston in November 2017. “ I trained as per my plan,’’ he said. After training under Bengaluru-based coach K.C. Kothandapani for several years, he spun off on his own; he evolved both his own training plan and group.

At Boston, he found the expo well organised.

On race day, the holding area where runners were milling around was slushy as it had been raining since early morning. “ I had four layers of clothing until the start of the race. Once the race began I discarded the top two layers,’’ he said.

Despite the weather conditions, for about 24-25 kilometres, Brijesh’s run progressed in tune with his target of bettering his personal best of 3:03 hours. “ At that point there was heavy downpour. We are not used to such conditions. I was quite cold and shivering,’’ he said.

Even though the weather kept deteriorating, the thought of quitting the race did not cross his mind. “ This was my first run overseas. So, there was no question of quitting. I wanted to complete it at any cost,’’ he said.

Brijesh realized that timing and similar other personal targets would have to be chucked out of the window; the focus had to be on completing the race.

(From left) Brijesh, Gurudev Nagaraja and K. C. Kothandapani (Photo: courtesy Brijesh Gajera)

“ At the 38 kilometer-mark, a runner from Peru asked me to run with him as he was also finding the going tough. This was his first run overseas. We ran the rest of the distance together,’’ Brijesh said.

He completed Boston Marathon in 3:40 hours.

Brijesh then went on to run the Big Sur International Marathon, held annually along the Pacific Coast. He completed that event with a timing of 3:55:59 hours. “ This marathon was spectacularly scenic. It was fun with people singing and dancing along the route. I took it easy as I wanted to stop and take pictures. Along the way, it did rain and that brought some worry,’’ he said.

Back from his running and hiking sojourn, Brijesh intends to rest a while and then focus on filling his running calendar with suitable events.

2018 LONDON MARATHON

For UK, the winter of 2017-2018 was unusually cold; the media named the cold spell: The Beast from the East after the causative weather pattern spanning from the Russian Far East to the British Isles. By April 2018, it appears to have been another story. Held annually since 1981, the London Marathon witnessed its hottest race day ever for the 2018 edition. According to reports, extra water was provided and more cooling showers added along the route to combat the heat. The organizers told runners to leash in their appetite to push themselves for improved timing; they were also advised to avoid fancy dress clothing, which could lead to over-heating. The results at warm London were a sharp contrast to Boston. Of the top ten finishers among men, barring one runner – Mo Farah, the rest are all from Africa. In the women’s segment, six of the top ten hailed from Africa, while one person was from Bahrain. Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya topped among men; Vivian Cheruiyot also from Kenya, topped among women.  

Pervin and her husband Kushru, at the 2018 London Marathon (Photo: courtesy Pervin Batliwala)

Pervin Batliwala

Standing at the start line of the 2018 London Marathon, all Pervin Batliwala could see was a sea of humanity. “ There were people and more people,’’ she said.

For her, the race was not easy for two reasons. First, it was very warm. The race day of 2018 was the warmest in the event’s history with temperatures touching 24.1 degrees. “ The sun was very strong. It hit you really hard,’’ she said, adding that unlike in India where races start early, in London the start was around 10:30 AM. This meant the average marathoner is running through late morning hours and into the afternoon hours.

The second factor that bothered Pervin was the crowd. There were far too many runners and it was very difficult to make one’s way through the crowd.

Nevertheless, Pervin’s outing at her second world marathon major – her first was Boston Marathon in 2017 – went off well. She finished in 4:16, largely within her expectations.

“ I achieved what I had planned and trained for,’’ Pervin said, adding that her GPS device showed that she had run about 500 meters more as she had to wind her way through gaps in the crowd of runners on her path.

“I worked very hard for this run. I have not taken a break at all starting with the race in Delhi late last year followed by Mumbai Marathon in January this year, Thane Hiranandani Half Marathon in February, Navi Mumbai Half Marathon, also in February and now the London Marathon,” she said.

The London Marathon, according to her, starts at three points and converges at the 5 km-point. “ The roads are narrow. Over and above that many runners kept throwing bottles,’’ Pervin said.

Following a holiday overseas, Pervin’s next race will be her third from the world marathon majors – the 2018 New York City Marathon scheduled for November. Following that, she will be doing her fourth major at Tokyo in February 2019.

“ I now want to focus on strength training, where I have shortfall to bridge,’’ she said. Pervin does not plan to do London or Boston in the immediate future. Her focus is now on completing all the six marathon majors.

Kiran (orange T-shirt) at one of the editions of the Chicago Marathon (Photo: courtesy Kiran Kapadia)

Kiran Kapadia

For Kiran, running the London Marathon was an awesome experience despite the downsides of 2018 race day. “ It was quite hot and because the race starts late we had to bear the brunt of the sun,’’ Kiran said.

Kiran finished the marathon in 3:50 hours, tad outside his target of around 3:40 hours. “ After the 12th kilometre or so, my legs started to feel very heavy probably because of the heat. I immediately slowed down my pace so as to help myself to go the entire distance of 42.2 kilometers,” Kiran said.

He had a fairly good training season ahead of London Marathon although the unusually warm temperatures of March in Mumbai did impact some of his Sunday long runs.

Kiran, 58, has been running for the past ten years. “ I did my first full marathon at the age of 52,’’ he said, adding that he has run many of the marathons at overseas destinations including New York, Chicago, Prague, Rotterdam and twice at Berlin.

He was involved in sporting activities through his school and college years but his foray into running happened much later. “ When I hit my mid-40s I realised that I was leading a sedentary lifestyle and with it came demons in the form of cholesterol and triglycerides edging above acceptable levels,’’ he said. This was his wake-up call and he immediately plunged into walk-run activity graduating to running.

All in all, the London Marathon was a great experience with awesome crowd support. It was a well-executed race, he said.

Mehlam at the 2018 London Marathon (Photo: courtesy Mehlam Faizullabhoy)

Mehlam Faizullabhoy

Record high temperatures on race day at London probably hit the targeted timing of many runners. But Mehlam Faizullabhoy ended up with a new personal best of 3:38 hours.

He attributes it to his strength training.

In training, Mehlam’s mileage also fell short because he travels on work very often. “I travel a lot and therefore miss out running days. But I do a lot of strength training. Wherever I travel to, I use the gym seriously,” he said. Mehlam believes that strength training is what helps runners get through the last 10 kilometers of a marathon.

London marathon was an enjoyable experience for Mehlam. “ It is a very well organised race with great atmosphere and fantastic crowd support,’’ he said.

Mehlam has had an active sporty life through school and college and the years after that with sports such as rugby, cricket and badminton being his preferred choice. Knee injury forced him to give up badminton and move to spinning. Eventually he moved to running.

He did his first half marathon at the 2009 edition of Mumbai Marathon. The very next year, he graduated to the full marathon and from then on has run a total of 12 full marathons, two of them overseas in Barcelona and Rotterdam.

“ My training this time was quite good. Actually, I had started way back in July 2017 as I was scheduled to run a race in Tokyo in October 2017. But the run there got cancelled because of a typhoon,’’ he said. That training came in good stead for the Mumbai Marathon in January 2018 where Mehlam scored a personal best of 3:42:53.

Mehlam is due to participate in the Chicago Marathon later this year.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

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