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.
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.
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.
“ 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.)