As of mid-2019, O. P. Jaisha still held the national record in the women’s marathon. It isn’t something she wished for. Her aspiration was to excel in the middle distances. Thirty six years old when she met this blog for a chat, she was picking up from where she had left off and preparing for a final shot at the disciplines she loves.
In August 2016, as the year’s Olympic Games drew to a close, O. P. Jaisha, India’s national record holder in the women’s marathon who participated in the discipline at Rio de Janeiro, was battling controversy.
After fainting at the finish line in Rio and being stretchered off to hospital, she had complained that there was no hydration support for her run by Indian officials. For a while the charges were traded. It seemed sad state of affairs for one of the finest distance runners India had produced. After her return to India, the athlete fell ill. Gradually Jaisha sank from public attention. Three editions of the Mumbai Marathon – the event that propelled her to marathon glory for the first time – took place without her running it. By January 2019, Jaisha’s course record in Mumbai was also erased; the new course record became Sudha Singh’s.
It was now almost three years since Rio.
Thanks to the city’s new metro, the trip to Bengaluru’s Sports Authority of India (SAI) training complex had become tad easy although the last stretch was still a mix of public transport and walking. Stopped at the gate I told the security staff that I had an appointment with Assistant Coach, O. P. Jaisha. Locating her took a while. But when she appeared at the facility’s synthetic track there was no mistaking the lightly built, small sized athlete who still held the national record in women’s marathon.
Of Kerala’s 44 rivers, three flow eastward. At 57 kilometers, the Kabini is the longest of these three. One of the tributaries of the Kabini is the Mananthavady River. The town of Mananthavady in Wayanad district stands on its banks. Jaisha was born here in 1983; to be precise in the village of Thrissilery. She was the youngest of four sisters. Their parents were laborers. Money was scarce. Life was tough. When Jaisha was around five years old, her father had a major accident. “ Knocked down by a bus, he came under its wheels. We thought it was all over,’’ she said. Miraculously he survived. But he was bed ridden. The incident affected Jaisha’s mother. She became depressed. It was an extremely difficult time for the family. They had a couple of cows. They sold the milk and somehow got by. Wayanad is among Kerala’s hill districts. It has elevation ranging from 700m (roughly 2300 feet) to 2100m (6890 feet). Mananthavady is at an elevation of 2490 feet. Much later, reporting on Jaisha the successful athlete, the media would devote attention to this phase when yet to be athlete walked regularly on hilly terrain carrying milk to sell to the local milk society. It harked of the training at altitude endurance athletes do and which Jaisha herself would formally experience later in life. Not to mention, it made the Jaisha story similar in tenor to how elite African marathoners described their childhood in the hills of Kenya and Ethiopia.
The three sisters attended the local government school in Thrissilery. None of them were into sports at this stage. About 25 kilometers away from Jaisha’s village was Thalapuzha. When the time came for eleventh and twelfth standard education, Jaisha headed to the government school there. She was very interested in the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and wished to join it. But her slight build and small size came in the way. To toughen herself, she began learning karate. Then a crucial incident happened. Jaisha participated in an 800m race held as part of the local Panchayat Mela. She had gone to attend the festival and according to later profiles in the media, participated in the race for a lark. At this event, she beat a girl who was national champion at school level; that too by a wide margin. For her and those around, it was an eye opener. Soon, besides learning karate, Jaisha started competing in middle distance races.
Given how far Thalapuzha was from Thrissilery, time available for training at the school was not much. But she proved to be good at running the middle distances. Kerala has a strong track record in athletics in India. It was among early states to come to prominence in this regard. One of the main reasons for this was the eye for sporting talent maintained at school and college level. Talent was scouted and invited to join college teams. Changanassery is a major town in central Kerala. It is well known for its schools and colleges. Assumption College from here has a reputation in sports at the inter-college and university level. After her twelfth standard, Jaisha’s coach from Wayanad, P.G. Girish, helped her get admission at Assumption College. At the college, her new coach was P.V. Valsy. In just her second year at the college, Jaisha won a bronze medal in 5000m at the inter-university level. By the third year, both medals and records grew more frequent. At a meet in Guwahati, she became the first woman athlete at inter-university level to secure three gold medals – in 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m. Eventually in 2005, she was selected to be in the national camp. She also got a job as ticket collector with Indian Railways; she was the first from her family to get a job. “ I had to look after my whole family on that salary,’’ she said.
We were chatting on the side of a large ground with mud track at the SAI facility. An athlete or two dropped by to speak to Jaisha and clarify doubts in their training. It was evening and most of the grounds were bustling with activity. Summer vacation and associated coaching camps for children added to the ambiance. Training was on for a variety of sports. If you looked closely at the athletes practising on the synthetic track, jogging by on the mud track or the cross country trail, you spotted a well-known face or two. This was premises familiar to Jaisha. In 2005, following her selection to the national camp, she had reported to the very same facility. Roughly a year after she got into the national camp, Jaisha won a bronze medal in 5000m at the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha, Qatar. According to a detailed profile of Jaisha in Indian Express (published in September 2015), after the Doha event she turned her attention to family commitments; there was debt to repay, her father was still bed-ridden. She sold the house she had bought to address part of the debt and the family’s medical bills. She used the prize money she got for her performance in Doha to marry off her sisters. This diversion wasn’t without its impact on her performance in sports.
In 2010 the Commonwealth Games was staged in Delhi, the first time India was hosting the event. With 101 medals won overall, the host placed second in the medals table. Jaisha wasn’t among those on the podium. In 1500m, she failed to secure a berth in the finals. At the 2011 Asian Athletics Championships held in Kobe, Japan, she bounced back with a bronze medal in 1500m. Same year, she trained for 10 months in Kenya and Italy as part of preparations to run middle distance disciplines at the 2012 London Olympics. But a stress fracture ended her chances of making it to the squad for London. Interestingly, Jaisha was not very empathetic to the pre-Games training done in Kenya. She believes there is considerable difference between Kenyan distance runners and Indians, starting with the food each side is used to. “ India is a big, diverse country. We have whatever altitude we wish to train at, available here itself. Why should we go elsewhere?’’ she asked. The stress fracture wasn’t the end of her downturn in fortunes. The dip in performance hadn’t yet bottomed out. That came in 2013 at the Pune edition of the Asian Athletics Championships. She fared badly in both 1500m and 5000m. Jaisha was left out from the national camp. Among remarks thrown her way then was that at 30 she had probably become too old to be athlete of international caliber. It was at this low point in her career that Jaisha got married. Her husband Gurmeet – he is a former athlete who turned coach – supported her aspirations in athletics. They moved to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh for nine months, where Jaisha trained at SAI’s high altitude training center and slowly regained her form.
Returned to national camp, Jaisha proved her worth at the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea, where she won bronze in 1500m and placed fourth in 5000m. She was now 32 years old. Her career till then had straddled middle and long distance events, all of them track-based. Even though this basket of distances spans 1500m to 10,000m, while training and piling on mileage, athletes in these disciplines cover distances that are much longer. While physical power dominates the shorter distances, an element of mental strength is critical for the longer distances. Age and experience are thus not without merit when tackling long distances. Coaches are known to leverage the mileage of middle distance-training and the rising age of an athlete to create a case for pushing the deserving from middle distances, towards attempting a marathon. Following Incheon, this is what happened with Jaisha. Her weekly mileage when training for 1500m averaged 180 kilometers (assuming one rest day per week that amounts to running 30 kilometers every day). In November 2014 when the national camp resumed, Jaisha was encouraged to try a half marathon (21km). She was reluctant. “ I like track more than road. I am wired like that,’’ she said. But the final word in athlete’s life belongs to the coach.
In late 2014, according to Jaisha, a contingent of India’s elite women middle distance and marathon runners turned up for a half marathon in Kochi. Jaisha was the only one from the lot who hadn’t run a formal half marathon before. As it turned out, she won the race. Her coach felt vindicated. Given half marathon is not an Olympic discipline, the focus naturally shifted to the full marathon. The next major event was the 2015 Mumbai Marathon due in January. In the brief time between the Kochi event and Mumbai, Jaisha managed a 2:50 finish in the marathon during a training session in Ooty, a popular high altitude training location with Indian athletes. Then in Mumbai, at India’s biggest annual marathon, she broke the national record (it had stood for 19 years). On January 18, 2015, The Hindu reported from Mumbai: Jaisha, training under Dr. Nikolai Snesarev for two months following a 1500m bronze at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, clocked two hours, 37 minutes, 29 seconds along the Mumbai seafront on Sunday morning, the best Indian performer and eighth overall in elite women marathoners. Lalita Babbar, who placed second among elite Indian women runners, finished in 2:38:21, Sudha Singh finished third in 2:42:12. The report mentioned that with all three athletes meeting the qualifying standard set for the 2015 World Athletics Championships and none of them having the marathon as core event, they would need to make a choice. It said they had left the choice to their Belarussian coach Dr Snesarev. The report quoted Dr Snesarev: Jaisha will be 33 by the time Rio Olympics comes and has a better chance to make an impression in marathon than distance running. Jaisha too seemed to concur at that point for the report quoted her: I am confident of better timing with more training under our coach. If two months can help us run so well, there is ample time before the 2016 Rio Olympics for preparation. I leave the decision of whether marathon or track to the coach.
Very often, things appear clearer in retrospect. Jaisha the marathoner may have arrived on the national scene with her performance at the 2015 Mumbai Marathon but in her mind it was still the middle distance disciplines that she worshiped. Some three weeks after the record breaking run in Mumbai, she secured gold in 5000m and 10,000m at the 35th National Games held in Thiruvananthapuram. In August 2015, at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Jaisha improved her national record in the marathon further, lowering the time to 2:34:43. She finished eighteenth in the field. The top 20 finishers qualified for the 2016 Olympics due at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Not even a year since that half marathon in Kochi and some six months after she debuted in the full marathon in Mumbai, Jaisha had landed an Olympic berth in the discipline. The marathon had given her more fame and money than the medals she won in middle distance running. Yet unbelievably – and in some ways predictably given her heart was in the middle distances – she had an argument with her coach over what discipline she should focus on. She wanted to be in middle distances. Eventually her coach relented. Their faith was based on the timing she returned in Ooty while training. “ At least 15 times there, I did 1500m in 4:01, 4:02, 4:03….like that. If you correct it for lower altitude it translated to around 3:57, which was good for participating in the Olympics,’’ she said. It was amid this reorientation that the 2016 Mumbai Marathon happened. Jaisha, the defending champion among Indian women, finished third in 2:43:26. The first place among elite Indian women that year went to Sudha Singh who covered the distance in 2:39:28; Lalita Babbar placed second in 2:41:55. At least one news report on the event mentioned that both Lalita and Jaisha had made their preference for track events, clear.
For Jaisha, the 2016 Mumbai Marathon was sadly the beginning of another slide. Returned to Bengaluru’s SAI facility, focused on the 1500m and pushing pretty high daily mileage, she injured her leg. It was probably because the synthetic track was new at that point in time and therefore, a trifle hard – Jaisha mused in retrospect. Thereafter she couldn’t train on synthetic track for 1500m, a discipline run on the track. It was back to the marathon and training at altitude in Ooty. When she reached Rio in August for the Olympics and yet another rendezvous with the marathon, she wasn’t fully recovered from injury. “ Rio was warm. We had trained in cool Ooty, where we would train at 4 AM. In Kenya, they used to train on warm afternoons,’’ Jaisha said. Race day was particularly warm; condition suitable for potential dehydration, injury and aggravating existing injury. The rest of the Rio story – from alleged lack of support by Indian officials in hydration to athlete’s collapse at finish and controversy afterwards – is known.
Following return to India, Jaisha tested positive for H1N1, a strain of swine flu. Unknown to her, a break of roughly two years from competition was commencing. During this period, there were promises made to athlete that were not met. On her return from Rio, Kerala’s sports minister E. P Jayarajan asked Jaisha what she wanted. She said she wished to be a coach. Later she submitted a letter to the state chief minister on the same. The government, she said, promised a job. Nothing happened. In the meantime, she rented two houses in Wayanad with her own money and started training Adivasi children from Wayanad and Kollam. “ I want to help underprivileged youngsters who are interested in sports,’’ she said. Having resigned her job with the Indian Railways and joined SAI as an assistant coach in Bengaluru in April 2019, the children were still foremost on her mind. “ I want to bring them to Bengaluru and give them coaching here. I hope people contribute to the required resources. Athletes like me, T. Gopi and Preeja Sreedharan are just a few examples of the talent in Kerala’s Wayanad and Idukki districts. There are so many others who will emerge if the right support is offered,’’ she said.
Thirty six years old as of May 2019, Jaisha appeared to be on a course quite opposite what coaches normally recommend. If the logic of November 2014 was that 30 year-old Jaisha should shift from middle distances to trying the marathon, then at 36, Jaisha is catching up on what she missed. She wants to focus and give one final shot at the disciplines she loves. “ In my athletics career I was made to do this event and that. Whatever they told me to do, I did it as best as I could. Other athletes were smart enough to wriggle their way out of such compulsions. I wasn’t,’’ she said. Jaisha has a point in that regret over lack of focus. Among the disciplines she was dispatched to do just because she was good at running middle distances, was the 3000m steeplechase. She took it up in 2008 and by 2010 had broken the national record. On the other hand, the discipline was odd choice when juxtaposed on her small size. “ When I do the water jump in steeplechase I land in the water while most others clear it. I compensate by catching up in the running section,’’ she said outlining her plight. Not to mention – meandering meaninglessly through various disciplines is invitation to injury.
The marathon had come her way in a similar fashion. It is a different matter that she set a new national record. There were aspects to that switch, which she didn’t like. From 180 kilometers weekly mileage when training for 1500m, the figure shot up to 280 kilometers for the marathon. “ As part of training for the full marathon I have run 105 rounds of the 400 meter-track,’’ Jaisha said. But in an effort to stay lean and fighting fit, there wasn’t much alteration in food intake alongside. Result – against an optimum body weight of around 43 kilos, there were times when she was 39 kilos. “ I can’t endure that. Throughout my career, I feel, I have been an experiment for my coaches,’’ she said. Then there is that spiritual disagreement with the marathon. “ I am fundamentally a track athlete,’’ Jaisha said. That is the space, range of distances, style of running and overall time for given discipline, she enjoys. In 1500m she has touched good timing – she hasn’t forgotten that. Over the next several months, alongside her responsibilities as assistant coach with SAI, she wants to train and get herself back to form in 1500m and 5000m. Then, she hopes to make it back once more to the international stage. By January-February 2020, she expects to be ready for her first major event. Won’t she miss the marathon particularly since the national record is still in her name? “ Records are made to be broken. I don’t have an attachment to the marathon,’’ she said. And what if this final tryst with middle distance events, fails? “ Then, I will call it a day knowing well that I tried,’’ she said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)