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.)      

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