Nitendra Singh Rawat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

For ace marathon runner Nitendra Singh Rawat, the countdown to the 2019 IAAF World Championships due in Doha, is occasion to reflect.  On September 9, thanks to injury, he had put out a Facebook post announcing withdrawal from preparations for the event.

“ I don’t know where I am getting it wrong in my training,’’ Nitendra, who is among India’s best long distance runners, told this blog in Bengaluru, some ten days after that post on social media. At the Sports Authority of India (SAI) facility, his daily schedule remained pretty much the same as when everything was fine and he was training systematically. There was an early morning dose of training, rest, strengthening exercises by early evening and another round of training after that. All this with one difference – given injury, the work load was light. The schedule was mixed with cross training and periodic visits to a trusted physiotherapist in the city. “ It is something like active rest. I am hoping to nudge the work load slightly higher next week, maybe try some jogging or light running,’’ he said.

Nitendra had qualified for the Doha World Championships at the 2019 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), which he had won with a timing of 2:15:52 (he and Sudha Singh were the only Indian athletes qualifying so at 2019 TMM; Gopi. T made the mark at the 2019 Seoul Marathon). He had then headed to the 2019 London Marathon before settling down to a training schedule focused on Doha. “ I was doing well. The training during off season is very important when planning for major events,’’ Nitendra said. Then, the setback occurred. The injury started with discomfort in the hamstring. When exertion continues despite a muscle injured, other muscle groups that step in to compensate become affected.  The Facebook post had mentioned complete rest advised, following “ back hamstring and glutes injury.’’

The progression of injury sounded familiar. “ I was in the tapering phase of preparations for Doha and gearing up for the inter-state championships when I began sensing pain. The injury started to interfere with my training. I had no problem running for a long time. The issue was with interval training or if I stopped and resumed. I got to the point where normal movement started to hurt. There was a meeting to decide how athletes were faring. I told the authorities myself that I shouldn’t be in contention for Doha as I am injured. At such venues you have to try your best. You can’t do that if you are nursing injury,’’ Nitendra said.

Rest and recovery should heal the injury. However, looking ahead, he has to make some conscious choices. Athletes typically work back from goals. For all elite athletes the next big objective is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Its qualifying mark is tough. For the 2016 Rio Olympics, the qualifying time for male marathoners was two hours, 19 minutes. For the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, that has tightened to 2:11:30. In other words, any Indian male marathoner qualifying by virtue of timing for the event (there is also additionally, selection based on ranking) would have set a new national record in the discipline. The existing national record is 2:12:00.

From an athlete’s perspective what is it like attempting to bridge the gap between current Indian performance and 2:12:00? Is it too formidable a challenge? “ When I was in England for the London Marathon, I shared my room with an elite runner from Italy. At the race, he improved his timing by a couple of minutes or so. There are multiple, helpful factors that converge on race day making such improvements possible. You train hard but those supportive elements also have to manifest. How, when and where that happens is beyond my capacity to explain,’’ Nitendra said.

Photo: courtesy Nitendra Singh Rawat

With little over three months remaining for 2019 to conclude, the next big event in his mind was the annual marathon in Mumbai. Among Indian elite runners, Nitendra is both the defending champion and the course record holder at TMM. It is an event that is close to his heart. But in the run up to Tokyo, the catch is this – although TMM is an IAAF Gold Label race, the course is a tough one (even among the World Marathon Majors, it is to Berlin and its fast course that everyone heads if they are pursuing a record or personal best). Viewed so, Mumbai may not be among most obvious options if you are chasing that stiff qualifying mark for the Olympics. You have to include other options too in the basket of races for consideration. Ideally for a marathoner seeking berth at the Tokyo Olympics of July-August 2020, the last big competition can be upto three months prior to the Olympics, not closer than that, Nitendra said. You have time till then. There is some conscious choosing and planning, he will have to do.

“ All that, after I overcome this injured phase. Healing and recovery is top priority for now,’’ Nitendra said. There was interesting sub text on that front too. Hailing from Kumaon in Uttarakhand, Nitendra believes that he gathers more injuries when training in cities. “ I am not saying that I don’t get injured in the hills. But it seems to me that I get injured less there,’’ he said. He hopes to get back to the hills but maybe somewhere else, not Kumaon; Kumaon is home and being close to home could be distracting for athlete in training. He also hopes that sometime in the future he gets to coach others, including good amateur runners.

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

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