The 2019 Comrades is over. For most participants, race day would have been the culmination of a few months of preparation. This year five runners from India secured sub-9 hour-finishes. We spoke to them.
In June 2019, Mumbai-based Deepak Bandbe was among the 200 odd runners from India attempting the Comrades Marathon, held annually in South Africa. Close to 25,000 people had assembled to run Comrades, the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon masquerading as a marathon.
Deepak covered the distance of 86.83 kilometers from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in seven hours, forty-three minutes and thirty-four seconds, emerging the fastest runner from India in 2019.
Fellow Mumbaikar Amitkumar Yadav was the second fastest from the pool of runners from India. He crossed the finish line in 8:53:02; an hour and 10 minutes behind Deepak. Bengaluru-based runner and coach, Ashok Nath finished third from this lot with a timing of 8:54:14.
Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon of around 87-89 kilometers run between the cities of Durban on the sea coast and Pietermaritzburg in the hills, at an elevation of 1955 feet.
The race alternates each year between uphill and downhill versions. The event was first held in May 1921.
This year’s event was an uphill run commencing from Durban with runners having to complete a total distance of 86.83 kilometers within 12 hours overall with multiple cut-offs in between. The race held on June 9, 2019, started at the Durban City Hall and ended at Scottsville Racecourse in Pietermaritzburg. The overall winner was Edward Mothibi of South Africa who completed the race in 5:31:33.
Five runners from India finished inside nine hours and received the Bill Rowan medal. Apart from Deepak Bandbe, Amitkumar Yadav and Ashok Nath; Ramashish Maurya and Deepak Budhrani were the other two runners to end up with the medal.
The Bill Rowan medal was introduced in 2000 and is named after the winner of the first Comrades Marathon in 1921. The medal is awarded to runners finishing in 7:30 hours to sub-9 hours.
Ashok Nath, who finished third among runners from India at Comrades Marathon, was earning his fourth Bill Rowan medal in four finishes at the event. The heat did impact his running to some extent during the second half of this year’s race, he said.
In the same event, Mumbai-based ultramarathon runner, Satish Gujaran, earned his green number for running and completing Comrades Marathon for the tenth time. Green number runners are allowed to retain their Comrades Marathon bib number in perpetuity.
Deepak Bandbe, who was the fastest among runners from India, started running about four years ago. A resident of Borivili in Mumbai, Deepak would take time out to do some bit of walking and jogging, primarily with the aim of staying healthy.
An employee of Wasan Motors, Deepak spends a lot of time on his feet talking to potential buyers of vehicles. He, therefore, felt the need for some element of physical activity. Noticing his speed during these workouts, runners from the Borivili National Park – Green Runners (BNP-GR) took him aside and urged him to take up running seriously.
Over time, the group helped him with every aspect of running from registering Deepak for events to incurring his costs for matters related to running.
As part of his training for Comrades, Deepak had participated in Tata Ultra 50k in February 2019 and ended up winner with timing of 3:43:06 hours.
In January 2019, Deepak attempted his first full marathon at Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). He finished third overall among amateur runners and first in his age group of 25-29 years. His timing was 2:41:37.
“ I heard about Comrades Marathon from Mahesh Nagwekar, who is one of the main persons at BNP-GR. The group offered to fund my stay and travel. They took the complete financial responsibility for my participation at this event,’’ he said.
He trained well following a plan provided by his coach Daniel Vaz. The training was aimed at finishing the run in around seven hours, 30 minutes.
“ Unfortunately, I fell short of it by about 13 minutes. I finished the run in 7:43:34 hours,’’ Deepak said.
In South Africa, there were rains two days prior to race day. Runners were, therefore, hoping for good weather. At Durban, the starting point, race day morning was quite cold.
“ I was in A group, just ten meters from the start line-up. It was great fun running the event. There was a feeling of festivity in the air,’’ Deepak said.
“ Up until 45 kilometers, I managed to keep my pace at around five minutes per kilometre. The uphill portions of the run were quite steep. There are five to six major hills but in addition to these big hills there are about 15-20 small ones,’’ he said.
At around kilometre 67, he started to feel cramps in his left leg and had to slow down his pace.
“ I gave all I had to get a 7:30 finish but the heat and the hills got to me as the kilometers went by. It was quite humid,’’ he said.
Deepak said that he was amazed by the amount of support all along the route. “ It was great fun. I would love to do the downhill next year, if possible,’’ he said.
Once the recovery period is over, Deepak will be cutting back on mileage and focussing on training for the marathon. His immediate plan is to run Hyderabad Marathon later this year.
Amitkumar Yadav, who was the second fastest runner from India at Comrades this year, fell short of training because of setbacks at home. His father passed away in April following illness for some time.
“ For the last few months, I had been travelling to Kolkata to be near my father during his difficult days. I almost considered cancelling my plan of running Comrades,’’ he said.
As part of his training, he did a full marathon each in Delhi and Chandigarh and one 70 kilometer-training run at Lonavala, near Mumbai.
Amitkumar had participated in the 2018 edition of Comrades Marathon, the downhill version, finishing the run in 9:28 hours. “ Last year, I started the run very fast and lost steam halfway through. I ended up with cramps and had to slow down,’’ he said.
This time around he opted to be prudent. He went through a nine-hour pace plan offered at the race expo and decided to go slow. Nevertheless, he aimed for sub-nine hour finish.
A sprinter in his younger days, Amitkumar moved to long-distance running in 2012 when he was posted to Mumbai. A civilian employed with Indian Navy, he has now moved into ultra-distance running.
For Bengaluru-based Ashok Nath, this was his fourth Bill Rowan medal. All his four finishes at Comrades have been within nine hours, the mark that qualifies you for the Bill Rowan medal.
In his previous uphill version of Comrades in 2015, Ashok had finished the run in 8:54:01, thirteen seconds ahead of his 2019 finish of 8:54:14.
“ I run at a pace that is comfortable for me to maintain through the distance. If you chase a pace you may end up doing something silly,’’ he said.
Though he uses a GPS device, he prefers not to pay too much attention to it.
Ashok’s training for Comrades was limited to a period of five weeks after his return from Boston Marathon in mid-April. “ A sub-8:30 finish would have been in order. I miscalculated the heat. I am not used to training in the heat as I often finish my long runs by around 7 AM in Bengaluru,’’ he said.
The morning of race day was cool. But as the hours went by the heat intensified, the runners this blog spoke to, said.
“ This time the race started in the city of Durban. For the first 30k you pass through townships and then you come to the mountains. But in the last 40k, the route is an open highway with barren land around. The weather changes are very palpable,’’ Ashok said.
“ I am not a natural long-distance runner. I prefer the shorter distances. I have to be cautious when I run the longer distances,’’ he said.
Mumbai-based Ramashish Maurya was running his third back-to-back Comrades Marathon this year.
In the previous editions, Ramashish was unable to get a sub-nine hour finish. In 2017, he finished in 9:56:09 and in 2018 in 9:29:09 hours.
“ I wanted to complete Comrades within nine hours. I also wanted to rectify the mistakes I did in the previous two runs,’’ he said. His training for the race was not as extensive as expected but the quality of his training was good. He also paid a lot of attention to hydration.
“ I did some hill training in Lonavala and Malabar Hill. But I took care not to over-train. I have a hectic routine at work and at home. Further, my daughter was appearing for an important examination,’’ he said.
On race day, tackling Comrades in South Africa, he approached the uphill sections very sensibly. “ I think the hills should be respected. I moved faster on the flat and downhill sessions,” he said.
After Polly Shortts, the last cut-off point, he sped to the finish line completing the race in 8:54:46 hours.
In 2019, Deepak Budhrani too was running Comrades Marathon for the third year in a row.
This year, he finished the run in 8:55:10 becoming one of the five runners from India to finish the race within nine hours.
In the 2017 edition of Comrades (up run), he had finished in 10:28:23 hours. In the down run of 2018, he crossed the finish line in 9:31:28 hours.
“ My training for 2019 Comrades was very good. I did not want to make the mistakes I committed last year,’’ Deepak said. He trains with Run India Run, under Coach Samson Sequeira.
“ I followed the training plan meticulously,’’ he said.
“ I had a chat with the nine-hour bus pacer at the expo but on race day I decided to go ahead of the bus. I finished the first half of the distance in 4:23 hours. For the second half, I followed the nine-hour bus until the last cut-off,’’ Deepak said.
The last seven kilometers, he chose to run at a fast pace. After Polly Shortts, the last cut-off, Deepak’s speed increased to 5:37 minutes per kilometer. Up until Polly Shortts, Deepak’s pace ranged from 6:09 to 6:40 minutes per kilometer. The spurt in speed helped him cross the finish line well within nine hours, he said.
According to him, the idea of running for the Bill Rowan medal seemed realistic after he met Bruce Fordyce, nine times winner of Comrades Marathon, earlier this year at a meeting organized by Amit Sheth, Comrades Ambassador for India.
(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)