SRINU BUGATHA: A COMEBACK STORY

Srinu Bugatha (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Meeting Srinu Bugatha, winner among Indian men at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon

At his hotel room, Srinu Bugatha and his training partner A. B. Belliappa studied the former’s splits.

Hours earlier on Sunday (January 19), Bugatha had emerged victor among elite Indian men at the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM). He had clocked 2:18:45. The course record for Indians held by fellow army runner Nitendra Singh Rawat is 2:15:48. Paced by two Kenyan runners, Bugatha had commenced his run hoping to have a crack at the course record. Mumbai’s annual marathon is not exactly record-friendly. Its course includes an uphill segment and the weather can be warm and humid. On Sunday however, the weather was supportive and early start for the amateur categories appears to have ensured relatively smooth progression for the elites. It could have been a day of new course record for the Indian elites. Overall for the race, Ethiopian runner Derara Hurisa did set a new course record of 2:08:09.

Armed with his findings from the splits, Bugatha turned to his mentor and motivator, Vickrant Mahajan seated nearby. He had run at fine pace for most of the way. By his own account till around 35 kilometers he was targeting the course record. But the Peddar Road uphill took a toll. Past that, his leg muscles felt tight. “ I was very slow over the last two kilometers,’’ he said, the realization overshadowing his sense of accomplishment.

“ Don’t forget, we nevertheless have several positives in there,’’ Mahajan reminded.

“ Still, it’s like getting out on 93 or 94,’’ Bugatha said resorting to cricket for metaphor.

A middle distance runner specialized in 5000m, 10,000m and cross country for most part of his career, the Bugatha of 2020 TMM is a comeback story. In 2018 he had placed third behind Gopi T and Nitendra Singh Rawat with timing of 2:23:56. His timing of 2020 is therefore a new PB (personal best). What makes it interesting is that those are the only full marathons he has run. He had been on the podium in half marathons and 25K runs but that 2018 podium in Mumbai was the only precedent in the full marathon before Sunday’s victory. In 2018, Bugatha was in the national camp for marathoners ahead of the Commonwealth Games. The training then had timing of 2:12 hours (Shivnath Singh’s still standing national record) in mind with weekly mileage sometimes hitting 220 kilometers. That proved tough for Bugatha to handle and he came off believing track events – the middle distance disciplines he was used to – were his forte.  He stopped running marathons. According to Mahajan (he is the person behind Superchampions Foundation), in April 2019, he chanced to give motivational talks at the Army Sports Institute (ASI), where Bugatha trained. Slowly Bugatha warmed up to him and started to share his thoughts. The subsequent drift back to the marathon, Mahajan said, was “ partly’’ Bugatha’s decision.

In December 2019, Bugatha participated in the 5000m at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu. As per information on the website olympicchannel.com, he placed fifth. At the 2019 Tata Steel 25K (an event where he has had several podium-finishes before) held on December 15, he topped among Indians with timing of 1:18:31. From December 18, 2019 onward he started training for TMM. In other words, the first place finish and PB of January 19, 2020 was the product of a mere month of preparations, in which time the longest training run he did was a 40km-run on January 2. “ Imagine what someone like him can do with proper training. I believe today’s win is the beginning of a journey,’’ Mahajan said on Sunday. Both he and Bugatha outlined the changes already put in place. A typical middle distance runner’s weekly mileage (that is, over six working days) aggregates to around 120 kilometers. As he geared up for TMM, weekly mileage went up to 180-200 kilometers, Bugatha said. Then, there has been the instilling of self-belief that targets like Shivnath Singh’s national record in the marathon are not beyond chasing; “ mental calibration’’ as Mahajan put it. Finally, there was the weeding out of distractions. For the past six months, Bugatha hasn’t been using a smartphone.

A. B. Belliappa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Hailing from Vizianagaram in Andhra Pradesh, Bugatha’s career in running started after he joined the Indian Army in 2010. “ I have been running for the last five years,’’ he said. After a long time spent tackling the middle distances, he said, he is now resolved to focus on the marathon. Joining him in the transition is his training partner, third place winner among Indian men in the half marathon at 2020 TMM and a familiar face at half marathons and 25K runs in India – Belliappa. On Sunday, Belliappa was racing after a phase of injury. Although targeting course record and since introspecting where he got it wrong, Belliappa’s finish in 1:06 hours wasn’t far off his PB of 1:04. Like Bugatha, he was thinking of focusing on the marathon now on. It seemed mutually supportive. Mahajan believed that a reasonable target in the marathon for Bugatha, 27, would be qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. Given qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics requires breaking the longstanding Indian national record in the marathon, the qualifying mark for 2024 will be likely stiffer. Mahajan said that there may be an attempt to qualify for Tokyo too; towards that end Bugatha hopes to participate in the Barcelona Marathon of March 2020.

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

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