AN AQABA TO REMEMBER

Nupur Singh (Photo: courtesy Nupur)

Nupur Singh got into running in 2014. Two years later, she quit her job in Delhi and moved to the mountains to organize races. In November 2019 (as reported earlier on this blog), Indian ultra-runners did well at an international 100 kilometer championships in Jordan. In the same event, Nupur – she was not part of the official Indian team but running in the open category – finished in fairly good time.

On November 23, 2019, a team of ultra-runners representing India participated in the 2019 IAU 100 kilometer Asia & Oceania Championships at Aqaba, Jordan. The men’s team won the gold medal and the women’s team, the silver.

Mumbai’s Deepak Bandbe won the bronze medal and set a new national record in the men’s 100 km. Kolkata’s Anjali Saraogi set a new national record in the women’s 100 km; she finished fourth. The course on which, the race happened was a 10km-loop.

Alongside the Indian runners on that loop was another compatriot; Nupur Singh. She was running the same race but in the open category. She was not part of the Indian team. In fact, Nupur had resumed running only in July 2019 after a gap of three years. By November in Aqaba, it was only around four months since returning to running. Nupur finished the race in nine hours, 36 minutes and 15 seconds. She finished second behind British athlete, Joasia Zakrzwenski, the winner of the open race. Joasia finished in 8:25:50 hours. There were just two women in the open race in their gender category.

Nupur’s first race in three years had happened three months earlier – the AFMC Pune Marathon of August 2019, where she finished second overall among women. On October 6, 2019, she ran 60 kilometers at Solang Sky Ultra, which has cumulative elevation gain of 3570 meters and cut-off of 14 hours. She was the overall winner finishing the distance in nine hours, 46 minutes and 48 seconds. Aqaba followed.

Photo: courtesy Nupur Singh

Nupur, 32, is from Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh. She took to amateur running in 2014. But she was not new to sports. “ I come from a conservative business family. My mother was the mayor of Lalitpur,’’ she said. She is the third among four siblings – two brothers and one sister. After an initial phase of schooling in Lalitpur, she did her senior years at Indore Public School. She was into a variety of sports such as swimming, tennis, basketball and cricket besides getting as far as the inter-school nationals in air-rifle shooting, wherein she secured a bronze medal. She moved to Pune to pursue graduation in architecture. As studies took precedence, sports got relegated to the background. Once done with studies, Nupur took up employment in Delhi. “ For three years, I was deeply involved with work with no room for any sporting activity,’’ she said.

In 2013, Nupur decided to take a break and went on a solo trek to Kedarkantha in Uttarakhand. “ This trek helped me get into the outdoors. I started trekking regularly. I also bought a cycle and started doing bicycle trips,’’ Nupur said. She spent a lot of time training to cycle from Manali to Leh, a trip that is hugely popular among amateur long-distance cyclists in India. After trekking and cycling, the next thing she got into was running. Nupur enrolled for the 2014 edition of Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and finished the race in two hours, pretty good time for a first time runner. It encouraged her to pursue running. Alongside the treks and bicycle trips continued.

In 2016, she quit her job in Delhi and moved to the mountains to organize races. She shifted to Bir in Himachal Pradesh. She joined hands with Vishwas Sindhu to co-found The Hell Race, which includes a clutch of races mostly held in the foothills of the Himalaya, besides routes in other ranges. That put a complete brake on her personal running plans. Organizing races under the Hell Race banner took up all her time. It involved traveling to various destinations, finding routes and marshaling the logistics required for the races plus other responsibilities.

Photo: courtesy Nupur Singh

In 2019, she decided to get back to running seriously. For that, she resolved to move away from The Hell Race but not from organizing races. Vishwas and Nupur decided to split The Hell Race. Of the many races organized under the banner, Nupur decided to take three and resume them with coach and ultra-runner Sandeep Kumar under the enterprise called Grand Indian Trails, also known as GRIT. “ We split on amicable terms,’’ she said. This new arrangement, Nupur hoped, would give her time for her own running. From the basket of races held previously under The Hell Race, the Deccan Ultra, Bir Billing Marathon and Coffee Trails are currently organized by GRIT. “ The best part of organizing running races is that both running and organizing are co-related. It needs discipline at my end to focus on both equally,’’ Nupur said.

In February 2019, she had met Sandeep Kumar at Deccan Ultra. The Deccan Ultra includes the Sahyadri peaks of Kalsubai, Alang, Kulang and Madan (Alang-Kulang-Madan is one of the classic hikes of the Maharashtra Sahyadri) in its route. Nupur decided to train under Sandeep in ultra-running. From Sandeep she learnt about IAU’s open category at the 100 km race at the Asia & Oceania Championships in Aqaba, Jordan. She applied for the same. Sandeep was part of the official Indian team heading to the championships. “ My training started in earnest only in September. Sandeep helped me with goal-setting, training plans, nutrition, recovery, running gear and race strategy,’’ Nupur said. Her preparations entailed all the elements required for an ultra-distance race – speed workout, core and strength workout and long runs. “ I could have done better in training. My weekly mileage was in the range of 100-150 km but my single day long run could not exceed 60 km,’’ she said.

At the race in Aqaba, Nupur’s first 50 km went off quite well. “ My target was to finish the first 50 km in 4:30 hours. I finished the distance in 4:15. At around 60 km, I had to slow down. I started to have stomach issues. At 70 km, I had to take a toilet break and then resort to some bit of walking,’’ she said. Headwinds were quite strong. Although the elevation was only 75 meters, repeated running on the 10 km route and the variations in temperature had an impact on many of the runners. “ The Indian crew was absolutely amazing. It is because of the crew members that I was able to finish the race quite well,’’ Nupur said. A lesson from the championship that Nupur takes home is that she needs to work on her nutrition. She recently shifted to being vegetarian. According to her, this choice has been helping her immensely in post-training recovery.

Photo: courtesy Nupur Singh

Two weeks after Aqaba, Nupur ran the SRT (Sinhagad-Rajgad-Torna) 53 km with cumulative elevation gain of 2350 meters and finished in the top position among women and sixth overall. She had a timing of 7:33:09 hours. At the time of her speaking to this blog, winter was beginning to set in and Nupur was scheduled to head back to Solang, where she has a base. This winter, she may attempt skiing. “ Last year, I learnt the basics of skiing,’’ she said. Sandeep believes Nupur has a good future in ultra-running. “ She trains wells, is quick to learn and works hard. Among women, she is one of the best in ultra-running in India,’’ he said. Going ahead, Nupur has her mind set on the Comrades Marathon (the downhill version) in South Africa, the IAU 100 km World Championships to be held in the Netherlands and the Asia Trail Master Races.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

A TALE OF TWO RESULTS

Jigmet Dolma (left) and Tsetan Dolkar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Early December, Tsetan Dolkar topped the open category for women at the 2019 Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM), among prominent running events in the Mumbai region.

VVMM is one of the races that the team of Ladakhi runners supported by Rimo Expeditions participates in, during their winter season spent running at various events in the plains. Tsetan is one half of the now well-known duo of herself and Jigmet Dolma; both Ladakhi runners who worked their way up the ranks to be currently included in the elite category at races like Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). They usually finish very close to each other.  At the 2019 IDBI Federal Insurance New Delhi Marathon, which served as basis for selecting the marathon team that headed to the 2019 South Asian Games (SAG), Jigmet and Tsetan were apart by just two seconds. Jigmet made it into the Indian team.

According to her, when they are running the marathon in Ladakh, the two may be together for as much as 40 kilometers. In the races of the plains where competition is higher, they stick together till past the 21 kilometer-mark – sometimes more – and then progressively strike out on their own. It’s a sight regular participants at TMM have become used to – if one from this duo passes you by, the other is never far behind. That’s why the racing they did in early December 2019 is important from the perspective of their evolution as runners.

In a departure from the past, at 2019 VVMM, Tsetan was running from start to finish without her friend and fellow competitor from Ladakh for company. Around the same time, at the 2019 SAG in Kathmandu, Jigmet was doing the same thing. Tsetan placed first in the open category for women at VVMM; Jigmet finished fifth in her first outing as part of the Indian team. “ It is an indication of the runners slowly maturing with experience.  When you run alone, you have to know how to keep race strategy going and set the pace accordingly. You have to do that by yourself,’’ Savio D’Souza, Mumbai-based coach who has worked with both these runners, said. Tsetan’s victory was notable for two aspects. First, her timing at 2019 VVMM was better than the time she took to complete the full marathon at 2019 TMM at the beginning of the year. Second, she crossed the finish line with significant lead over those following her. In 2019, while it did have an elite category for men, VVMM did not have a corresponding segment for women. The strongest woman runners in the field were those topping in the open category. “ After 21 kilometers, I missed Jigmet,’’ Tsetan said recalling her run at VVMM and the practice the duo had got used to. She completed the full marathon in 3:10:27. This wasn’t Tsetan’s first time on the podium at VVMM. Three years earlier, it had been a very different experience.

When the 2016 edition of VVMM happened, it was still early phase for the Ladakhi team and their annual winter-outing to India’s races. Realizing that the location of VVMM was away from Mumbai city, the team had traveled to Virar a day before the race and found a place to stay there for easy access to the start point. On race day however, just the opposite occurred. Finding their way to the start line took time and the Ladakhi runners commenced their race much after the rest of the field had taken off. Although Jigmet and Tsetan had their bibs with them, they didn’t have pins to fasten them to their T-shirts. So they clutched the bib in their hand and ran. In due course they caught up with the rest. They not only completed the run but also secured podium positions; Tsetan finishing ahead of Jigmet.  They collected their medals and prize money. But not long afterwards, fellow competitors lodged protests against the duo’s late start. The problem was – while you are allowed to start late, the Ladakhi runners had started too late. They exceeded the grace period. It was a very valid protest. “ We had to return the cheques. Those who complained had a point,’’ Savio said. The result of December 2019 reversed that misfortune. “ This time also we stayed in Virar. But we found a place close to the start line and on race day, reported on time,’’ Tsetan said, putting the result in perspective. December 2019, the cheque is hers to keep.

TMM is anchor for the Ladakh team’s annual outing. Mid-December 2019, the entire team was not yet in place. Given the political developments in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh’s new found status as union territory, there had been uncertainty over exam schedules for some of the young runners headed to Mumbai. The remaining members of the team were expected to join a few days later, Savio said. While the team has kicked off its 2019-2020 season on a good note with Tsetan’s win at VVMM and Jigmet’s debut at SAG, there is something else they have their eyes on. According to Savio, both Jigmet and Tsetan tend to improve as the season progresses. Typically their final event of every season is the IDBI Federal Life Insurance New Delhi Marathon held in February. At its last edition (February 2019), both Jigmet and Tsetan had touched 3:01 hours in the full marathon. That is the closest they have come so far to the three hour-mark. “ I am hoping that they get to three hours or below this season,’’ Savio said.

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