BRUCE FORDYCE ON COMRADES AND RUNNING

Bruce Fordyce (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Bruce Fordyce still holds the world record over 50 miles; a mark he set in 1983 at the London to Brighton ultramarathon. He won that race three years in a row. At one point in his running career, he also held the world record over 100 kilometers. However Bruce is best known as the man who won the Comrades ultramarathon in his home country – South Africa, nine times, eight of that in a row. Altogether he has run Comrades thirty times. That string of victories and his close association with the event opened a window of opportunity – he gets to travel and speak about Comrades. Now 63 years old, he was among guest speakers at the expo preceding the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). On race day, after completing the full marathon in Mumbai, Bruce spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:

At the expo preceding 2019 TMM, you spoke of how you got into running. Could you revisit that narrative for this blog?

My running is a combination of a few factors. As a young child I was always a good runner and not such a good ball sport player. I was passionate about cricket but useless at it and quite passionate about rugby but too small for it, rugby is for big guys. But whenever we ran I ran well and the longer the distance, the better I did. In my final year at school, I won the cross country. My school was one of artists, politicians and creative people. It wasn’t sporty. So it gave no indication that you could be a world beater. I went to university at Johannesburg and for two years I did no exercise whatsoever. I was aware that I was unfit. Then a couple of things happened.

We had television in South Africa only from 1976.  Until then the nationalist government wouldn’t allow us television because they didn’t want us exposed to the rest of the world where we might see races mingling and stuff like that. Eventually they couldn’t hold back the flood gates and we got television in 1976. Television showed us the Comrades Marathon. Now it is 12 hours of live broadcast, back then it wasn’t live, it was telecast a couple of weeks later. That was inspiring to me because it showed some ordinary people finishing. The race was quite small then; probably a thousand runners. Now it is 25,000. Those telecasts inspired me to run. It is also important to know that Comrades is part of the South African sporting fabric. Everybody knows about it. The final nudge was – in June 1976, the students in Sowetto rioted against being taught lessons in Afrikaans, which in their opinion, was the language of the oppressor. They wished to be taught in their home language – Zulu or Khosa – or English, but not Afrikaans. I was a university student and we decided to march in solidarity. We got set upon by the police. I got disillusioned. I was trying to find something to do. All these things came around at the same time and I decided – I am running the Comrades Marathon. Plus one of my fellow students at the university – he is still a friend – had run the Comrades. He showed me the medals and stuff. I started from there.

The Comrades happens in the beginning of June or end of May every year. My first run was ten minutes around my university rugby field. I ran loops and I did it at night because I didn’t want anyone to see. But I progressed quickly. Within a few days, I was running for half hour. Then I ventured on to the road and started going further and further. I trained on my own for six months. Then at the beginning of the next academic year, I joined the university athletic club. I was terrified because I thought these are all real athletes. However, I found that I was one of the best. Those days and even now to some extent, the road running program in South Africa is geared towards Comrades marathon. If you are a complete beginner, everybody would be busy doing their first half marathon. Right now (we met in mid-January), they would be doing their 32k runs. Next month, they would do their first full marathon. The following month, they would start doing their first ultras. End of May, they run Comrades. I was taken through that whole build-up. I completed my first marathon in 2 hours 45 minutes and my first ultra was a 56k, which I did in 3:35. At my first Comrades, I placed 43rd out of perhaps 1200 runners.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Comrades Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Many cities worldwide now have their own marathons. The Comrades is called a marathon but it is actually an ultramarathon of 89 kilometers. How did Comrades become such a big fascination in South Africa?

We have a city marathon – the Cape Town Marathon, which is at the same level of certification as the Mumbai Marathon. It happens in September. But it is not the same as Comrades. We also have another race, which is nearly as famous called Two Oceans. That is also in Cape Town, 56k, held in April. Comrades will turn 100 years old soon. That will be a bumper year.

I really believe that sporting isolation (experienced during South Africa’s apartheid years) made us look inward. When you get banned, you start looking inward at what you have got. We were passionate about cricket and rugby. In cricket, if you have a series against India now, the stadiums would be packed. But those days (when the sporting isolation was on), this sort of things wouldn’t have happened; we would never have played India, India wouldn’t have come. So, inter-provincial games, interstate games – they became huge. Those games – home and away – would be packed. It was similar in rugby. Comrades, partly, had the same trend. What was unique about Comrades was that –people with nothing to do on that day would wake up and watch. And then what happened is – the event progressed to live television coverage. It is 12 hours of live telecast. The winners finish in five and half hours; the winning ladies finish in six hours and yet people sit glued to the television for another six hours and all they are watching is people walking! They watch because they have a loved one in there, they have a friend or they have run it before. And then on the sides of the road you have a huge number of spectators.

The sporting press also contributed, speculating on who might win an edition. In the early 1980s, which was when the event began growing, there were some characters. These characters (they were participating runners) made the race seem like theatre. The race also had traditions. One is – it changes direction every year between the two cities. When you have run the race ten times, they retire your number and give it to you – so my number is 2403 and nobody else can run in that number. My number is colored green, which identifies you as a person who has done ten Comrades or more. The route is very famous. For instance along the way you pass the Wall of Honor, which is an embankment with shields on it. All these things combined have made the event magical.

The Internet has this video of you at Comrades from the year you won it for the first time – you are seen running with a black band on your arm. How was that experience for you?

Terrible! The first time I ran Comrades I was 43rd, then I finished 14th, then third, then second – I can tell you: third is wonderful, when you are third in a marathon you can’t believe it; second is bitter, you know you could have won and first is first obviously. I had come second and I really knew I could win it. The following year, a month before the race, Comrades to its shame, allowed itself to be part of the nationalist government’s celebration of twenty years of apartheid rule. It was called republic day. They had fly pasts and tank parades – all those kind of things you see fascist countries doing. It was horrific. Politicians gave speeches about how wonderful South Africa was when actually most of our population was second class citizens. Because of the regime, those of us who loved sport had been completely isolated by the world. A lot of people withdrew from that edition of Comrades. Some of us said – let’s not withdraw but show our disagreement by wearing black arm bands. We got harassed by the security police for doing so. On the day of the race, people were throwing tomatoes and eggs at me; there was a lot of booing. I won the race. I broke the course record. But I was a very unpopular winner. In retrospect, Nelson Mandela and some of those who were being held as political prisoners on Robben Island said they were amazed. They watched! Sixteen years later, in 1997, I got an award from Mandela and that was definitely because of the race with arm band. So I was originally an unpopular winner. But then as we all know – the public love a winner. You win again, then again, and they start forgetting they were booing you.

Bruce Fordyce speaking at the expo preceding 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (Photo: Latha Venkatraman)

It wasn’t difficult for you getting back to the race after that experience?

The next year, I was harassed a little bit here and there. People shouted: where is your arm band this year Fordyce? I always used to reply: it is right here, in my heart. Besides I wasn’t the only one with an arm band the year before. I was the most prominent because I won. There were a lot of people throughout the field who were protesting and some of them had a very hard time from other runners. I was alone in front. Some of the others were being asked: what are you doing? Are you a Communist? Don’t you love your country? 1981 was a sad year for Comrades.

You have run Comrades 30 times. You have seen the race changing through the years. What are the changes you have noticed? Are you happy with all the changes?

I am pretty happy with most of the changes. The biggest change is the prize money. I got no money in my day. Now there is substantial prize money. The unfortunate thing with prize money is that it has definitely led to cheating. There have been drug (related) failures. There are some performances that you have to be suspicious of.  One shudders to pick on any country – but Russia….

The size of the race has grown. My first race had around 1200 people I think, the second was 1500 – it grew rapidly with the running boom that was sweeping the world. Now it is 25,000. The race gets sold out in 2-3 days. There is a problem with Comrades in that a part of our population does not have access to Internet. They still post their entry forms. But the event is already sold out. An entry form posted from a remote place will take a week to be received. But if you are in Johannesberg, you wait for the clock to strike midnight and then tap enter. Even the Americans say it is tough for them because they are several hours behind us.

1975 was the first year that Comrades allowed women and black runners to participate. Until then, it was exclusively, an all-white male event. That has been a massive change. Now there are more and more black runners coming in and doing well. Also for me, what has been amazing are the ordinary runners at the back doing 11-12 hours, plus the growth in women runners – now there’s like 5000 women participating.

There have been many Comrades winners from South Africa. There have been winners from Russia, Poland, UK, USA, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Belarus too. Among other African countries only Zimbabwe has triumphed at the event. None of the African countries strongly associated with the marathon, feature on the list of Comrades winners. Why is that so?

They are not coming for it. Haile Gebrselassie always threatened to finish his career with Comrades. But he hasn’t. The cost of winning Comrades, you know – it takes time to recover and it is a significant commitment in terms of training. I have no doubt they will come. But they haven’t yet. I have seen two Olympic medalists running Comrades. One was – Lisa Ondieki of Australia, who won silver in the marathon at the 1988 Olympic Games. She came to Comrades but by then she was past her peak. She said I am not here to race; I want to close my running career with a Comrades medal. The other was Yuko Arimori of Japan; she had the same attitude. It would be hard to get one of those runners who are at their best because at that stage, you can command huge appearance fee. There is no appearance fee at Comrades. You get prize money. But nobody is getting paid to run. Nowadays top runners going to high profile events get fat appearance fee and guaranteed bonuses; time bonus, position bonus. It would be foolish of them to come and run Comrades.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Comrades Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

At a generic level, as running becomes more and more commercialized, what are the changes you see, the ones that you agree with and the ones you don’t?

In the early days, the running magazines that we got, the literature we had – magazines like Runner’s World, Track & Field Times, Athletics Weekly; those were full of serious running with results and stuff like that. On the cover was a photograph in black and white of whoever had just won Boston or set a world record. Now you find some model on the cover. It is not a picture of Bill Rogers wining Boston; it is a model and in many cases, you as runner know – that is not a runner. So that has changed. But what is great is that running has become accessible to the masses. There is no possible way in the 1970s that people would wait for six hours for somebody to finish. Today I saw people waiting for close to seven hours. So it’s got to the masses and that’s great. Before, it was amateur, more serious and more informative. Now it’s got hugely commercial.

In 1981, the year you won Comrades for the first time, you ran with a black arm band. Placed second the previous year, you knew you could win and were running to win Comrades. Yet you made room for your conscience and registered your protest at a larger wrong prevailing in South Africa then. In today’s world of running – amid all the pressure caused by competition; technology, money and branding – do you think athletes will pause to notice such wrongs? Is the current ambiance dominated by the sheer drill of performance dehumanizing sport somewhere; rendering human perspective mechanical and insular?

I think runners would show their displeasure at something contentious but perhaps race directors are careful about which political events they align to their events nowadays.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

RACE WALKING: IAAF COMMITTEE RECOMMENDS CHANGES

Race walking / This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Manish Singh Rawat and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended. Manish (blue vest) had placed 13th in a field of 74, in the 20km race walk for men at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Unlike running, which is the popular face of athletics, race walking lives in the shadows. But it is no less grueling. The timings in the sport would easily resonate with amateur marathoners aware of physical strain. Further, treading the edge of walking and prevented by rules from becoming running, it isn’t easy sustaining the race walk style. The world record in the men’s 50km race walk is 3:32:33; the same for 20km is 1:16:36. Race walking formats may be in for change if the IAAF Council approves recommendations recently placed before it.   

The Race Walking Committee of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has made three major recommendations, which if accepted by the IAAF Council, could witness changes in the format of the sport.

According to the IAAF website, the three recommendations agreed to last weekend at a meeting in Monaco include use of RWECS electronic chip insole technology for competitions from 2021, two events each in race walking for men and women at championship programs (women currently have only 20km) to maintain gender equality and reduction of race distance from the currently prevailing 20km and 50km to 10km and 30km.

The IAAF has said that the recommendations, which followed broad consultation and consideration of feedback from member federations, athletes, event organizers and stakeholders (including broadcasters), reflect the reality that event program across all major athletic meets will become “ shorter and more dynamic.’’ So innovation is required in race walk to “ ensure it remains a core discipline in the World Championships and the Olympic Games.’’

The recommended changes are accompanied by a period of transition. Using RWECS technology will help judges identify athletes who have lost touch with the ground (even as the quest is to move fast, in race walking you are expected to have one foot in touch with the ground always to make sure the sport doesn’t slip into running). It will only be adopted in 2021 provided necessary tests, introduction and distribution of insole chips are concluded by end 2020. As regards ensuring two events each for men and women and reducing the distance for each event, the suggested transition is – move from 20km and 50km for men and 20km for women at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, to 20km and 30km for both men and women at the Oregon 2021 World Athletics Championships to 10km and 30km for both men and women by the 2022 Race Walking Team Championships and continue that format on to the 2023 Budapest World Athletics Championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics (incidentally, the IAAF Council had recommended to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2018 that a 50km race walk for women be included at the Tokyo Olympics).

“ Changes are not always an easy thing, but it is absolutely necessary to make race walking more appealing for fans and for young athletes,’’ the IAAF website quoted  its Race Walking   Committee chairperson, Maurizio Damilano, as saying in the context of the most recent recommendations. The recommendations will be included in the agenda of the next IAAF Council Meeting, 10-11 March 2019, and if the recommendations of the Committee are approved, the changes will be effective as of 1 January 2021.

Meanwhile, according to information on the website of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), India is set to host its first invitational international race walking championships, in Chennai over February 16-17, 2019. It will be alongside the sixth edition of the national open championships in the sport. A report in The Hindu dated end-January said, top national athletes are expected to take part besides second rung walkers from China, Japan, Korea and Australia. Among Indian athletes due at the event were K.T. Irfan, Manish Singh Rawat, Sandeep Kumar, Eknath Sambhaji, Ravina, Soumya Baby and Shanti Kumari. The event in Chennai will be an opportunity for Indian race walkers to qualify for the IAAF World Championships due later this year in Doha, Qatar.

Race walking traces its roots to the 17th and 18th centuries; the first competitors were footmen who ran / walked by the side of their masters’ coaches. The aristocracy of the day staked wagers on who would win a race. Some of these were multi-day races. By the 19th century, the sport now popular, was called pedestrianism. Race walking first appeared at the Olympics in 1904 with a half mile race included as part of a 10 event-all around championship, an early forerunner of the decathlon. The men’s 20km-race walk began featuring at the Olympics from 1956 onward. Women’s race walking was introduced at the Olympics in 1992 as a 10km-format; it was increased to 20km in 2000.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

SEBASTIAN COE SPEAKS OF BRINGING FANS CLOSER TO THE ACTION

Sebastian Coe, President, IAAF (This photo was downloaded from the IAAF website. No copyright infringement intended).

Fans connect to a sport through its athletes and the next generation of stars would need to embrace the new technology that the IAAF is planning to introduce to its World Athletics Series events to bring fans closer to the action, Sebastian Coe, President, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has said.

Speaking at the Leaders’ Sport Business Summit in Abu Dhabi in end-January, he said that agents were sometimes too protective of athletes to the detriment of fans and wider sport.

Coe, a former world record holder in middle distance track events, Olympic champion and chairman of the organizing committee of the 2012 London Olympics, called on athletes to express their personality. “ Sometimes the technology that brings those competitors more intimately into the lives of the young audience that we are all trying to chase at the moment, means that some of it is invasive,’’ he was quoted as saying in the report on the meeting, hosted on the IAAF website.

Elected to the post of IAAF president in 2015 – a time when sports was shaken up by doping scandals – Coe has been reported as most likely seeking reelection for a second term. In an interview to Reuters at the earlier mentioned meeting in Abu Dhabi, he said that the initial part of his tenure was about reform and “ providing confidence…that we are a sport worth investing, time, resource and finance into. The next leg of the journey has to be about innovation, it has to be about growing the sport, creating an exciting experience, particularly for young people.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

JYOTI AND THE EIGHT MINUTES

Jyoti Gawate

Jyoti Gawate has been podium finisher multiple times at the Mumbai Marathon, India’s biggest annual event in running. Focused on the marathon and lacking in resources, she trains back home in Parbhani with none of the facilities that grace elite coaching circumstances. Her’s is a story tinged by what if. What if she had the support and ecosystem others enjoy?   

On January 20, 2019, two runners – both around 32 years old and assigned to the Indian women’s elite category – lined up at the start of the year’s Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

Their respective trajectories in sport were quite different.

In her 32 years, Sudha Singh had become national record holder in the steeplechase, Asian champion in the discipline and represented India at two Olympic Games. Given the marathon has for long been favored hunting ground of athletes specialized in running’s middle distance formats, she was also among India’s leading woman marathon runners. In fact, at 2019 TMM, Sudha who works with Indian Railways was the defending champion.

Jyoti Gawate on the other hand, was the winner among Indian elite women in 2017; she had finished two minutes behind Sudha in 2018 to secure second place. That year Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper summed up her predicament in a post-race report. She had won 15 of the 30 full marathons she participated in, including the Allahabad Marathon five times in a row. “ I am still jobless; what more can I do?’’ the paper quoted her as saying.

In every marathon, the start and the hours of running thereafter are pristine. No regrets; only goals, maybe even blank head. At the start line of 2019 TMM, there was a goal for Indian elites to run to. That edition of the Mumbai Marathon was widely perceived as among last chances to meet the timing required for participating in the IAAF World Championships due in Doha, Qatar, later in the year. For women, the cut-off time for Doha was two hours, 37 minutes. Sudha had a personal pacer – Vicky Tomar, a steeplechaser she trained with in the national camp. They knew each other’s style of running. The race organizers had provided Jyoti too, a pacer – Marius Ionescu, a Romanian long distance runner who had been to the 2012 London Olympics; he had also been winner and runner up at the Dusseldorf Marathon, his best timing there being 2:12:58.

The day was Sudha’s.

Jyoti Gawate

She completed the race in 2:34:55, a new course record. Jyoti finished second in 2:45:48, cutting five minutes from her timing at the 2018 Mumbai Marathon. According to her having Marius as pacer helped. At the start of the race, she had nursed mixed feelings about her prospects. On the one hand, she felt she could get to 2:40; on the other hand, she was worried if she would improve her timing at all. “ The pacer helped me a great deal. He chalked out the entire plan on how to run the distance. He helped me maintain the pace. I completed the first half in 1:20. After that my speed suffered a bit. But the pacer helped me maintain the speed during the second half of the race,” she said. The splits tell the story. Sudha ran the first two splits at 16.1 km / hour each and the last two in 16.3. For Jyoti, it was 16, 15.5, 15.4 and 15.3.

Jyoti managed a personal best. However, it was far from the remarkable result Sudha produced. Sudha became eligible for selection to the Indian squad for Doha; Jyoti didn’t. Contacted some days later, Jyoti was – as usual – back to training in Parbhani, the district in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region that she hails from. Her work was cut out – to knock off was eight minutes; that’s the gap between her new personal best and the qualifying time for Doha. She had one race left to accomplish it – the National Marathon Championships in New Delhi scheduled for February 24.

Born February 1987, Jyoti has been running the full marathon for the last ten years. In the very first marathon that Jyoti participated – Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) as the Mumbai Marathon was known then – she finished the run in 3:12 hours and placed second on the podium in the Indian women’s category. The following year, she finished the race in 3:05:29 hours emerging winner among Indian women. Jyoti has been running the Mumbai Marathon for the past ten years securing top position among Indian women in 2011 and 2017 and second position in 2010, 2018 and 2019. Running marathons is livelihood for Jyoti. The prize money she earns from the races that she participates in helps her contribute to her family’s modest finances. Her father, Shankarrao Gawate, retired as a class four employee from government service. Class four-job in government service often refers to service as peon, sweeper and attender. Her older brother Ravindra works as a police constable. Her younger brother Kiran is yet to find proper employment; he too is trying for a job in the police. As part of formal education, Jyoti did her BA and B.P. Ed (Physical Education). In 2014 she secured employment with Mumbai Police but quit after eight days because she feared she may not get time to train for the marathon. “ I would have had to wait for one year to find out if I would be part of the sports team or not. I could not afford to lose time. In that period, my running career would have ended,’’ she said.

Jyoti has won many of the races she goes to. But long-term support has remained elusive. She hasn’t been able to get any job, brand support or sponsorship or for that matter, an invitation to join the national camp for the marathon. She tried for a job with Indian Railways, employer for many sportspersons. At age 25, she submitted her application for a job with them. She heard nothing. She hasn’t seriously pursued other avenues of work like being a sports teacher at a school. She is therefore forced to participate in races including 10k, half marathon and full marathon and earn money from podium finishes. A podium finish as elite athlete in some of the major marathons helps her get prize money bigger than what is offered at smaller races. Her elder brother supports the family. Jyoti’s earnings add to it. Life’s rigors shape character.

Jyoti with her coach Ravi Raskatla

At the Mumbai Marathon, Jyoti is a recipient of pre-race hospitality from Procam International, the organizer of the event, if she has been a podium finisher in the previous year. “ In 2011, she was offered accommodation at Trident Hotel in South Mumbai but she felt uncomfortable about staying there. She therefore stayed at the legislators’ hostel in Colaba,” Ravi Raskatla, her coach, said. Indeed for some years thereafter, whenever she came to Mumbai for the annual marathon, she stayed at the legislators’ hostel. For 2019, Procam arranged her stay at Hotel Supreme at Cuffe Parade. “We always travel by train from Parbhani to reach Mumbai for the race. We leave the morning after the race as we like to collect all the newspapers before heading back to Parbhani,” Ravi said outlining the pivots on which the annual outing hung. Travel by train, sleep, a marathon run, newspapers collected to keep memory of event and performance, alive – beneath the hype and marketing of modern day running that’s life stripped to bare bones that count.

Jyoti got introduced to running during her school days at Prabhavati Shala in Parbhani. She began running the middle-distance disciplines – 3000 meters, 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. “ During my school days, I participated in some races but there was no structured plan to it. There was no training either,” she said. In 2003, she got into running more seriously. “ I enrolled for a 12k police run in Parbhani. That’s when I started training to run,” she said. Two years later she was spotted by coach Ravi Raskatla, who took her under his wings to train her.

“ Unlike many elite marathoners, who are also into other track and field events, Jyoti focuses on marathons,’’ he said. Of the 35 marathons that Jyoti had participated in by early 2019, she had won 16, ended in second position six times and in third place, thrice, he said. She has been a winner at multiple editions of the Allahabad Marathon, Hyderabad Marathon and Bengaluru Marathon. In 2011, she took part in the Asian Marathon Championships in Thailand and finished seventh among women with a timing of 3:17 hours. She was selected to run in Thailand because of her win at the 2011 Mumbai Marathon, where she was winner. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) funded her trip and stay. In 2018, she ran the SCO Marathon in China finishing in ninth place with timing of 3:02 hours. It was AFI that invited her to run at the event. They also funded her trip. However none of this support – valuable as it is – ever progressed to an invitation to be in the national camp, something athletes dream of given the superior facilities in that ecosystem.

Jyoti now hopes to get closer to the required qualifying timing for Doha, at the National Marathon Championships, New Delhi. Dilip Patil is retired deputy commissioner (sales tax), and an ultra-marathon runner. He has participated in the New Delhi marathon before. “ The course there is much better and the weather is also pleasant compared to Mumbai,’’ he said. He has been running for the past 14-15 years. He has completed the Comrades Marathon in South Africa several times. Dilip is one of the organizers of the Amaravati Half Marathon, where Jyoti has been running and winning. “ Jyoti and a group of runners hailing from similar background like her come and participate in the Amaravati Half Marathon. We organize their stay for the race,” he said. Jyoti gets some financial support from individuals in Parbhani including doctors and businessmen but no sponsorships. In 2017, she approached a prominent state politician for assistance. He promised to help. She heard nothing thereafter. Dilip believes Jyoti will be able to reduce another ten minutes from her marathon timing if she has access to scientific training and proper nutrition.

We wrote to Matt Fitzgerald, the U.S. based coach, sports nutritionist and author of many books on running, about Jyoti’s prospects for improving her marathon timing over the next one year period. “ Jyoti can improve if she raced less, improved her diet and did some strength training. In the absence of these changes, I expect that any improvement she does experience in New Delhi will be due entirely to more favorable weather conditions and possibly if she finds herself on pace in the late miles,” he replied. With Delhi’s weather expected to be much better, Jyoti would be able to run about four minutes faster assuming everything besides the weather is the same, Matt said.

Jyoti Gawate

“ I don’t feel any pressure from the Doha qualification norms. My training is good and I am confident it will carry me through. In Delhi, the weather is much cooler; that should help me run better,’’ Jyoti said. Further, the race in Delhi starts at 6:30 AM as compared to Mumbai’s 7:40 AM start. Her coach believes she will be able to come within striking distance of the elusive mark, soon. “ She should be able to get to 2:40 at the National Marathon Championships,’’ Ravi said. The IAAF World Championships in Doha is not the only event out there to aspire for. In 2020, there is the Tokyo Olympics. Given there is considerable time to be lopped off before sub-2:37 is reached, the coach-ward duo is also looking at the possibility of enrolling this year (provided funds are found) for the London Marathon in April and Berlin Marathon in September to help achieve the qualifying time. “ Though Doha Championships would be out by then, hopes for 2020 Tokyo Olympics remain alive,’’ he said adding that the Berlin Marathon would be followed by another Mumbai Marathon and the National Marathon Championships. As per the rules of the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), the qualification period in marathon for 2020 Tokyo Olympics runs from January 1, 2019 to June 29, 2020. However, it must be borne in mind that the selection process for elite events has been tightened by the IAAF; it is more than just timing now with athlete ranking and participation at multiple races also factored in.

Amid all the challenges she has faced, one factor that has been favorable for Jyoti has been the absence of injuries. “ She has not had any injuries in the last several years she has been running marathons,’’ Ravi said. Running as she does to make ends meet, Jyoti does not believe she is racing too much. On the contrary, every time she races she feels rejuvenated. “ I have to participate in races because the money I get so helps me buy shoes and food,’’ she said. Participating in high profile events like the Asian Championships, World Championships or Olympics is extremely beneficial for athletes like Jyoti. “ If I get into any of these, it is possible for me to get grade one job in government service,’’ she said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. The photos used in this article were provided by Jyoti Gawate.)

LADAKH RUNNERS / FROM POTENTIAL TO PERFORMANCE

Jigmet Dolma (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In seven years of participating at the annual Mumbai Marathon, Rimo Expeditions’ team of runners from Ladakh, have made it to the podium for elite Indian women, twice. The time taken by these women runners in the full marathon – they represent the new generation of runners from Ladakh – is yet to dip below three hours. But they are within striking distance despite the limitations in which they train back home. There is a sense of what’s next opening up in the program. Key to it is Indian sports authorities taking note of the improvements in performance made. Question is: will they?

Jigmet Dolma remembered the first time she ran in the elite category at the Mumbai Marathon.

She and fellow runner from Ladakh, Tsetan Dolkar, reported to the start line of the 2017 edition of India’s biggest marathon. It was a year when the field in Indian women didn’t have some of the prominent elite runners. But elite is nevertheless elite; the atmosphere is more purposeful, a sense of aim prevails. At such levels of competition, even relaxation is ingredient for enhanced performance. As runners warmed up ahead of battle, the duo from Ladakh felt nervous. “ I was a bit scared,’’ Jigmet said. But being underdog helps. Many runners who secured podium finishes in their career would recall the buoyancy afforded by that predicament. There are no expectations. You run free. That year Jigmet finished third in the elite category for Indian women. Tsetan completed the race in fourth position, the two separated at finish by a mere four seconds. Then, the uphill began. You have podium position to live up to.

At a café in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, some days after the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), Chewang Motup put his project in perspective. Motup owns Leh based-Rimo Expeditions, among the best known adventure travel companies in India and organizers of the Ladakh Marathon. He started the Ladakh Marathon with a simple goal in mind. In distance running which counts on endurance, training at altitude is recognized as helpful. As location, Ladakh enjoys high average elevation; much of it is over 9800 feet high. Born to altitude, people from here should have a bank of endurance. Rigzen Angmo is good example. In the 1990s, she ran sub-three marathons, was podium finisher at national and international marathons. But that was years ago and a case, not repeated since in Ladakh. Motup wished to unlock the potential for endurance running in Ladakh by encouraging a culture of running. He also wanted to see local runners representing India at the Olympic Games. Hence the choice of the marathon for unlike the ultramarathon more easily associated with Ladakh’s mountainous landscape, the 42.195 kilometer-distance is firmly recognized as Olympic sport.

Chewang Motup (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hailing from Igoo village, Jigmet was into running while still at school. But it was the Ladakh Marathon staged in Leh at an elevation of over 11,000 feet that brought her (she used to run the half marathon) and Tsetan to local prominence. Although their early timings are quite slow compared to the pace at which marathons and half marathons are run in India’s cities, they were consistent podium finishers in Leh. Rimo Expeditions pioneered an annual program for Ladakhi runners – selected on the strength of their performance at the Ladakh Marathon – to travel to races at Indian cities with the Mumbai Marathon as main focus. “ My first visit to the Mumbai Marathon was in 2013,’’ Jigmet said. After a couple of years spent participating in the half marathon at the event, in 2015 (so she recalls), she ran the first full marathon of her life in Mumbai. “ I ran it at half marathon pace and ended up walking the last three kilometers to the finish,’’ she said outlining the lack of experience she had in races and race strategy then.

In the period that followed, Savio D’Souza – former national champion in the marathon and well known coach in Mumbai – was brought in to train the team. A structured approach was introduced. Given Ladakh’s cold winter with sub-zero temperatures, runners like Jigmet and Tsetan, begin their training in April. Around July, Savio visits them in Leh, gauges their standing, imparts tips and before returning to Mumbai, gives them a training schedule. “ We then keep in touch on the phone. They call me and tell me what they have been doing. The thing about them is – they are utterly dedicated. If it is too cold and they haven’t managed to run in the morning, they will run in the afternoon. I give them a training schedule, they follow it to the T,’’ Savio said. The intervention paid off. Between Tsetan and Jigmet, the latter was always the faster runner. Tsetan had completed the 2013 Ladakh Marathon in 4:54:05. By 2017, she was completing TMM in 3:14:42, four seconds behind Jigmet; both runners in the elite category for Indian women to boot. That was the year Jigmet finished on the podium for the first time in Mumbai.

A week had elapsed since 2019 TMM. It was late evening. At the Mumbai University’s athletic track, the hours of training had just concluded. “ Let me explain what happened in 2018,’’ Savio said. That year, the Ladakhi runners had failed to repeat their podium finish in the Indian women’s elite segment. “ The podium finish of 2017 was unexpected. Next year, it became a burden. Ahead of race their discussion was about who had turned up to compete in the elite category. If you run to defeat others, you end up running someone else’s race. You have to stick to your plan. But the whole thing was new for them. They were under pressure. When you run under stress, you commit mistakes; your race plan goes haywire. That’s what happened in 2018. Last year they got distracted by the elite runners. This year was different. They ran their own race. The attitude was – whoever comes, we are not bothered. Now we will do better,’’ Savio said. At 2019 TMM, Jigmet was back on the podium in the Indian women’s category; she placed third with a timing of 3:10:43, Tsetan finished fifth clocking 3:13:05. With podium finish secured for the second time, it appears both Motup and Savio have to contemplate: what next?

Savio D’Souza (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dr Aashish Contractor was Medical Director of the Mumbai Marathon from 2004 to 2014. Now Head of the Department of Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine at Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, he produced a photo on his computer showing the Ladakhi runners from a 2018 visit to the hospital to assess their VO2 max level. “ VO2 stands for volume of oxygen – it basically tells you how much oxygen your body can consume while doing exercise. It is considered to be a gold standard of one’s cardiovascular fitness. For someone to do well on the world stage in long distance running, cycling, swimming, rowing or skiing – they must have a very good VO2 max. We tested six Ladakhi athletes. All of them had phenomenally high numbers, definitely world class,’’ Dr Contractor said. But it has to be seen in proper perspective. As the doctor put it, you can’t be a world class athlete without good VO2 max but high VO2 max does not automatically guarantee that you will be world class athlete. Between the two – potential and performance – lay other factors like circumstances; training, mental strength, diet, experience and strategy. VO2 max is therefore an indication of potential, especially endurance. “ That’s the most important attribute you can measure in a distance runner,’’ Dr Contractor said. At the apartment near Mumbai’s Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), where the runners from Ladakh stay, Jigmet reflected on what she required to improve. “ My weaknesses are two. First, I am still slow compared to other elite runners. Second, I tend to run a marathon like a half marathon. My pace progressively drops,’’ she said. Figures prove her correct on the first and marginally correct on the second. At 2019 TMM, both Jigmet and Tsetan had pace across splits ranging from 13.1 to 13.5 kilometers per hour. This compares with Sudha Singh (winner among elite Indian women) who straddled 16-16.3 and Jyoti Gawate (second among elite Indian women) who ranged from 15.3 to 16. As regards splits, Jigmet was fairly consistent barring minor variations, which is actually good. Both Sudha and Jyoti had pacers. “ My goal now is to run a marathon in three hours,’’ Jigmet said. Savio wants her to get there on her own steam, without pacer.

“ Using the word speed can be misleading,’’ Dr Contractor said. All running involves speed. In a marathon you have to sustain decent pace for the two and half to three hours that the run lasts. This can be viewed as a case of endurance. But can high VO2 max – often cited to highlight endurance – be construed to also imply promise of maintaining good pace for the duration of a marathon? “ It is hard to answer it directly. Let’s put it this way – if you took a roomful of 50 people and you tested all for VO2 max and you made them all run five kilometers, it is likely that their performance would be in the order of their VO2 max roughly. If you train them all equally, they have the same circumstances in life – then again, the result would be the same. But if you take away those variables and everybody eats differently; lives differently – then there is the possibility that somebody with low VO2 max may beat somebody with a high VO2 max. Mental strength, how badly they want it – so much goes into it,’’ Dr Contractor said. In a competitive marathon, there are several elements at play – among them: endurance, race strategy and pace. Motup’s ongoing project is founded on the premise that Ladakhis have good endurance. Rimo’s team of runners brings that to the table. Not just that; team members couldn’t recall an instance of Did Not Finish (DNF) from their ranks, ever since they started traveling out to races in the plains. Both Motup and Savio said that no matter what difficulties they faced, the runners typically finished a given race. Between the two critical attributes – endurance and pace – pace would also seem an animal inspired in part by ecosystem. Endurance grows in you as part of location and lifestyle; probably why residents of hills and mountains end up with superior endurance compared to plains dwellers. Pace on the other hand – one can legitimately suspect – feeds off competitive circumstances too.

In Ladakh, there is only one marathon – the Ladakh Marathon. In a region with few popular initiatives in athletics, the Ladakh Marathon has been consistently topped by the likes of Jigmet and Tsetan. Given it is one of India’s most expensive marathons (acclimatization schedule forces long stay in Leh for participants) elite runners from the plains don’t turn up to participate even as a matter of curiosity to pitch their ability against high altitude. The event’s USP revolves around running in Ladakh, the adventure tourism destination. It has come to enjoy a high level of attraction among foreign runners with travel companies marketing packages around the annual marathon. It has also extended the local tourist season with hotels booked and high spending visitors – Indian and foreign – in town. Simply put – although local runners win the race comfortably, beyond a point neither the event nor the local ecosystem in running can serve as robust proving ground for the events of the plains because the required level of competition is absent. And without runners as good as you or better than you around, local runners needn’t feel compelled to push themselves. The ecosystem contrasts the circumstances runners from the plains hail from. But that is where Ladakh’s runners are for most part of the year; they come out to compete in city marathons for only around four months every year.

2015; Savio on a training run with Ladakhi runners during a visit to Leh (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When they leave Ladakh for the plains in November, Rimo’s team of Ladakh runners – especially those running in elite category – make a jump to truly competitive environment instead of gradual transition. This was particularly felt in the run up to 2019 TMM because Delhi’s prestigious half marathon, which the team likes to run for accumulating race experience, got shifted to October. According to Savio, the team needs to participate in more races; there is also the need to have more races happening in Ladakh as that is runners’ home ecosystem. More local races contribute to bigger pool of local runners and hopefully thereby, greater competition for existing top notch runners in Ladakh. The breeding ground of most Indian marathoners is the middle distance categories (reference here being to 3000 meters to 10,000 meters) including the steeplechase. Indian elites like Nitendra Singh Rawat, T. Gopi, O.P. Jaisha, Sudha Singh and Lalita Babbar – all spent time in middle distance disciplines before coming to the marathon. It was true of the late Shivnath Singh too whose national record in the men’s marathon, set in 1978, was still standing at the time of writing. The great Emil Zatopek’s competence spanned 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. Ladakh’s running calendar lacks a basket of middle distance races. Competitive ecosystem and middle distance – isn’t that where speed is picked up and ingested into potential marathon runner’s system? Both Sudha Singh and Jyoti Gawate (Jyoti who finished the full marathon at 2019 TMM in 2:45:48 hails from challenged circumstances) have more race experience than Jigmet. Sudha who has won medals for India internationally, has the ecosystem of the national camp – an assembly of India’s best – to train in. Further, both Sudha and Jyoti don’t have to worry about weather while training. “ When I go to Ladakh we do some speed training on the road. But road is not ideal surface as it can cause injury. Ladakh does not have an athletic track and so far, we haven’t been able to locate a good mud track. Further once the runners leave Ladakh for the plains, given races they are scheduled to participate in, we have to train conservatively making sure to avoid injury,’’ Savio said. Motup hopes he can pitch in to bridge the deficit with an array of treadmills to keep the momentum of training going on in Leh even in times of inclement weather. But the gap in infrastructure is clear.

A bit of a mystery in the story of Ladakh runners is the relation between altitude and distance running. Most people seem agreed on the link between altitude and endurance. But on the other hand, marathons have been increasingly won by those hailing from or training in mid-altitudes, not high altitude. India’s high altitude sports training facilities are also at these mid-altitudes as are the hills and mountains the elite runners of Kenya and Ethiopia belong to. Iten, the famous home of distance runners in Kenya, has an elevation of 7874 feet. Having said that, it must be pointed out that the Internet (to the extent this writer looked it up) did not specify a clear reason why training is set at this belt of elevation, apart from mention that it corresponds to where the best athletes currently hail from and also, where some of the high profile competitions are held, the latter likely in terms of threshold of elevation (for instance – Mexico City, location for the highest altitude at which the Summer Olympics have been staged so far, is at 7350 feet).

Rigzen Angmo with trophy after her win at the 1995 Bangkok Marathon (Photo: by arrangement)

For runners from Ladakh, the question is how to leverage their natural strengths, train and perform well at altitudes lower than where they come from. They need to marry endurance and pace. For this, do they train high (as in Leh) or train low? Can you simplistically conclude that if the middle altitudes are good for training in long distance running, then still higher altitudes would be better? “ No. Not necessary. You go very high, the air gets rarified; it is difficult to train. Living at altitude is beneficial. Everybody living at altitude will have those beneficial changes compared to you and me. But to be able to train – sometimes the altitude is so high that you get tired. Then training itself becomes difficult. How do you do your sprint workout and your long distance workout and all of that? I think there is a sweet spot as to what altitude is good to live and train at,’’ Dr Contractor said. The story of Rigzen Angmo is characterized by training stints outside Ladakh at gentler altitudes (please visit this link for Rigzen’s story: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/09/28/the-spectator/). Her personal best of 2:45:42 set in 1996, is looked up to by the runners from Ladakh. For dwellers of altitude, long stay away from elevation is a tricky quantum. One sensed unease in the runners when the question of extended stay in the plains was discussed. Apparently, such extended stay temporarily saps high altitude residents of some of their strengths at elevation. On return to Ladakh, they find themselves needing to adapt afresh. It isn’t a development the young runners seemed comfortable with.

Savio feels it is time the national authorities took note of this project, which has systematically dispatched runners to Mumbai since 2013 and secured podium finish in the elite category, twice. If they make it to the national camp or at the very least its proximity, the top Ladakhi runners will get the ecosystem to improve their performance further. They will have good facilities and most important, the good fortune of running with those currently better than them in the marathon. “ I wish the authorities took note of how far we progressed despite the challenges faced,’’ Savio said. Motup is acutely aware of the stage the project finds itself in. Rimo Expeditions has funded this journey as well as the Ladakh Marathon, from its own resources. As someone who wishes to see a Ladakhi at the Olympics, he wants more races in Ladakh – a sort of feeder system into the Ladakh Marathon, much the same way the best performers from the Ladakh Marathon find their way to TMM. But that deepening of running culture can’t be done by him alone. Ideally it should be a broader campaign involving local government. At a more immediate level, as a matter of strategizing next stage for the current team of Ladakh runners (including more time spent away from Ladakh if that is the need), one avenue open to him is to get aboard a strategic partner or sponsor for the Ladakh Marathon. Either such move frees up Rimo’s resources to invest more in the running team or whoever decides to partner the Ladakh Marathon, buys into the idea of sustaining and growing the running team as well. In today’s world of sports those willing to associate for visibility or gains in marketing are easily found. What’s tough is finding someone for the long haul of investing in a running team or a project to grow running and see it through. “ So far I haven’t met anyone convincing in this regard,’’ Motup said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)   

“ EVERY RACE COUNTS’’ / TALKING TO KIEREN D’SOUZA

Kieren D’Souza (This photo was downloaded from Kieren’s Facebook page.)

Kieren D’Souza is among India’s promising, young ultra-runners. He has consciously chosen to make a livelihood from running; he does it as a full time job much the same way many of us go to office. Increasingly partial to trail running, he lives and trains in Manali, where the Himalaya provides the sort of landscape and environment for running, he identifies with. Kieren has been to ultramarathon races abroad, including the world championships. A regular visitor to the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) as part of his association with the pain relief gel-brand Volini, he spared time at the 2019 TMM expo to talk to this blog about his experience, living off running. Excerpts:

It was in 2012 that you ran your first ultramarathon in Bengaluru. Roughly four years later in Leh, by the time you won the 111 kilometer-category of La Ultra The High in 2016, you had begun setting yourself up as a full time runner; someone hoping to provide for oneself through running. How has the journey been so far at a personal level and in terms of supporting yourself financially?

As a journey it has been perfect. I don’t wish I was doing anything else. I resolved to run full time in 2014; I got around to doing so in 2015. Every day has been a blast. I don’t remember having so much fun. That way it has been brilliant. As regards the goals I had set for myself – it has been slow but consistent progress. I am not where I want to be yet, but I am climbing up the ladder. I wish it were faster, though. On a financial level – a life of this sort has meant a lot of work. There is a lot of running around, a lot of approaching people and a lot of disappointments. You have to work with people, companies and brands. I understand that I have to work with them and I was mentally prepared for it when I started this journey. It has been a lot of hard work and definitely not the easiest thing.

Did you have a full understanding of what making a career of running entails, when you embarked on this journey in 2014-15?

Did I know that it would be hard to make money? Yes, I knew that. Did I know it would be so hard? I did not know that. It’s been a lot harder than what I thought, I guess. There are some similarities in what companies are looking for, but essentially every company looks for something different. Even people within companies look for different things. It is not the easiest to reach out to people. Finding the right contact is tough. Everything has been a process – from learning who to reach out to and having them respond to you. If I get a reply from some of the people I got in touch with, I am most excited. It may not even materialize into anything but just getting response; sometimes those are the most exciting things. Most of these exchanges – 99 per cent of it – don’t convert into an association. But having said that, the fact is – I need to do this. Nobody else is going to do this for me.

We are right now at the expo preceding the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). If you keep aside the elite foreign athletes attending the race and you look at the Indian elite – most of them; are gainfully employed with one organization or another. Then there are some from the amateur category who race because prize money complements earnings from other sources or in some cases, is the only source of livelihood they have. In India, you don’t yet come across athletes who consciously run full time for livelihood or support themselves completely through running’s ecosystem.

That’s one thing I tell others – I can think of very few people who are living off only running. I mean there are the elite athletes but they are usually working with the armed forces, railways or the state-owned oil companies. They are supported by these organizations. That makes the choice I made tough, but I am okay with it.

There is the conventional logic that if you have a hobby you like, then you support it with earnings from some other source. There is also the argument that if your hobby – or an activity you genuinely like – becomes your source of livelihood, then it starts losing the fun originally associated with it. Have you ever felt so?

No. Like I said – last four years of doing this, I never thought on any day that I should be doing something else. I can’t think of sitting at a desk right now. I live in Manali and I love getting out every single day. I was talking to a friend a little earlier and he was saying that when I get back, it may be snowing and there won’t be much running I can do. It does not deter me. I will probably pack a bag; wear my boots and hike six hours every day. I don’t care. I love to get out. At the heart of it what I enjoy is – getting out and moving. Running is the simplest way of supporting it; it is accessible to me everywhere.

To labor the point a bit more in the interest of clarity – conventional Indian logic encourages you to secure yourself first and then take your chances. Are you the sort who believes that the chances must be availed first, security will follow?

I guess I was born with the spirit of adventure and running is taking me there. Back in 2013 -14, the running circle I was in had a lot of people who were in their thirties, forties and fifties. Even today many of my friends are much older than me. From their ranks, there were those quitting jobs – good corporate jobs – and getting into other things that interested them. When I thought of taking on running full time, I was at a cross road – either do it now when I am 21–22 (his age then), when I have fewer responsibilities and can take such risk or wait till I reached 45–50, which was 25–30 years away. I was not very keen to wait till 50. Maybe I would have got married, had children and got everything sorted out; but by the time everything gets sorted out, I would have also been way older. I had worked for a year before I made my decision and I knew I wouldn’t last at a desk job. I also did not want to become old and then look back and regret not having done what I wanted to. The assurance of security was not there when I made up my mind, but then I had to take the plunge – it was not a blind one, the future looked blurred, but I knew where I wanted to go, so I took the plunge.

The ultramarathon used to be associated with the older lot of runners. Now you have a lot of young runners entering the sport and they are setting new standards of performance. In your travels overseas you would have met some of these young runners, who like you, are into the sport full time. When you compare the ecosystem of support they enjoy and what you have here, what are the elements missing?

There isn’t a clear, black and white answer for this. In places where the sport and sporting culture is more established, there are a lot of other things – there are running stores, cycling stores; people can work in these kind of stores, you can avail coaching at colleges, schools etc. So there are ways to make money off the sport. If you are really good there are people who get sponsorship. I think we lack this ecosystem here. We have few running stores still in India. There is a big difference between how stores here and overseas work; there is difference in the operational style of running communities too. I don’t think a runner here goes to a running store to pick up a shoe. They will probably ask another runner. Slowly all that is changing; the opportunities are opening up. At the same time, it would be incorrect to assume that the going is easy for runners overseas. It is hard work for them too.

Kieren D’Souza (this photo was downloaded from Kieren’s Facebook page.)

Within the world of running would you say the ultramarathon is among disciplines that are hard to find sponsorships in?

It is a much smaller sport than road running. However, there is more sponsorship available now than before. The sport is growing.

At the end of the day, people are going to notice only the performance – typically the time a runner took to cover given distance. How you got there, whether you ran full time or part time, recedes in relevance. How does your choice of running full time then justify itself?

Because I am running full time, I have lot more at stake. I approach every race, very seriously. I don’t take any race for granted. You won’t see me going and doing a fun run or racing just for the heck of it. I plan things out because every race matters for me. Every race counts. In the grand scheme of things, when you are looking at performance, every race counts. When I am running I think about all this. When I fare badly, it definitely goes through my head. When I do well, it goes through my head. When you are not doing well and you have all this at stake, you have to control your thoughts and be in the moment. When you are doing well you can’t be just flying as well. You got to be in the moment. The things at stake prompt me to work hard. Still, I also slack off. But I don’t like it; I hate slacking off. The structure I work in adds a lot of pressure, most of it – me putting it on myself. None of this is however a burden on me. I enjoy getting out and doing it.

You have participated in ultramarathons overseas; you have also been to the world championships. How do Indian runners compare with talent overseas? What are the specific ingredients missing when training here?

I won’t be able to talk about specific ingredients because as runners, we are all different. But in general, in the sport we are way behind where the rest of the world is. For me personally, every race has been an opportunity to learn.

Specifically about you: what is the catching up you require to do?

I am still behind the winners, right? So – what is it that I must do to get faster? Getting faster – that is the basic thing.

Are you your own coach?

I have always been my own coach. I did train with Pace Makers for a year or so. But other than that I have been on my own. Probably that is also one reason why my progress has been slow. Maybe it would have been faster if I worked with a coach. But I don’t think we have a coach in India who can help me with trail running or ultra-running. The people you could work with are online. I am not excited to work with someone online. I interact with a lot of runners and discuss my training with them. If I feel I need to, I then make adjustments to the training plan accordingly. I was also working a lot with Henrik Westerlin, discussing my training plan and following some things he had shared with me last year.

We have the problem of the urban paradigm with its traffic, pollution, people and congestion, sparing no part of this country for long. Even Manali has changed over the years. Do you think you may have to shift elsewhere to train; maybe even move out of India?

I lived in Europe for a few months last year. The thing I miss the most in India is the company and the quality of athletes I got to train with overseas. The congestion aspect – I can work around it. Particularly because I am in Manali; if I was in the cities it would have been a different case. In Manali, I stay clear of the town. If I ever move out of Manali it will be to avoid the growing congestion but that thing about company – that will still be missing.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

JOVICA SPAJIC AMONG WINNERS AT ARROWHEAD 135

Jovica Spajic (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Serbian ultra-runner, Jovica Spajic was among winners at the 2019 edition of Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, noted for the very low temperatures in which the race happened, this January end.

As per results available on the race website, he was joint winner along with Scott Hoberg of the US. They finished the 135 mile race in 36 hours, nine minutes. The winner among women was Faye Norby of the US with a timing of 48:34:00. Jovica, Scott and Faye were listed in the supported category of runners. Jeff Leuwerke of the US, finished first in the unsupported category of runners. He too completed in 48:34:00.

Readers in India may recall Jovica from the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, the ultramarathon held annually in Ladakh. In 2016, Jovica had been joint winner with Grant Maughan in the 333 kilometer-category of the event (for more on that race please click here: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/). Finishing eighth overall among runners (as Faye and Jeff were joint sixth) was Ray Sanchez with timing of 49:33:00. Back in 2011 he had finished second in La Ultra The High, at that time 222 kilometers at its longest. Grant Maughan commenced 2019 Arrowhead in the unsupported category but pulled out later.

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Arrowhead 135 and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

Arrowhead 135 is among the toughest endurance races. “ It is a human powered ultramarathon taking place in the coldest part of winter in the coldest city in the lower 48 states. Our average finish rate is less than 50 per cent; the finish rate for new racers is much lower. 2014 finish rate was 35 per cent,’’ the race website said. The 2019 race categories included bicycle, ski, foot and kick-sledding. Runners may be supported or unsupported.

Late January 2019 the media had reported of very cold conditions in the US caused by the polar vortex. Its impact was felt at Arrowhead 135 too. According to Runners World, temperatures this year at Arrowhead were as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 34.44 degrees Celsius). It said that this year 146 participants started the race. USA Today, which pegged wind chill during the race at “minus-68’’ reported that only 52 of the 146 participants finished the race, a completion rate of 36 per cent.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)