A LIFE OF HER OWN

Kavitha Reddy (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2019, Pune-based marathon runner, Kavitha Reddy, ran two World Marathon Majors – the London Marathon in April and the Chicago Marathon in October. She finished London Marathon in 3:23:01, a new personal best. Six months later, at the Chicago Marathon, she surprised herself with a finish of 3:14:19, yet another personal record. With these two runs Kavitha has qualified for the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group Championships, slated to take place as part of the 2020 London Marathon on April 26, 2020. Its the latest chapter of a story that commenced in 2013 with jogging around an apartment complex.

April 16, 2018. Hundreds of runners wearing several layers of clothing were struggling to cope with the elements in the holding area of Boston Marathon. The weather was dismal. There was lashing rain and strong wind. It was the worst weather in 30 years. Ahead lay 42.2 kilometers of the iconic race. Among the runners assembled, was a homemaker from Pune, getting her first taste of genuinely cold weather.

Born 1974, Kavitha Reddy is currently among the fastest woman full marathon runners in the amateur category in India. Her progress has been impressive considering she had no previous exposure to sports during her years in school and college at Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. Studies were soon followed by matrimony and Kavitha became a homemaker, traveling with her husband Deepak and residing in various places – Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Mumbai and finally Pune.

Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy

Her foray into fitness happened eight years ago in Pune. It was driven by health reasons. She had a thyroid condition; it ran in the family. “ My mother suffered a lot on account of arthritis and thyroid problem. I did not want to go through that. I therefore enrolled at a gym to keep myself fit,’’ Kavitha said. Life chugged along. Kavitha stayed engaged in her role as homemaker, taking care of Deepak (he currently heads the HR department at Bajaj Finserv) and their two sons. But she longed for something that would be her own, giving her distinct identity apart from the homemaker she already was. When one of her husband’s friends chanced to mention a half marathon in Malaysia, she decided to give it a shot. “ I did not even know the distance. I just felt I should give it a try,’’ Kavitha said.

A half marathon is roughly 21 kilometers. Kavitha wasn’t a runner; she would have to start from scratch. The year was 2013. She started jogging around the apartment complex she stayed in. Next she checked online and found that groups of runners were meeting at Pune’s race course. “ It was sometime in September. Training had commenced in the running community for the annual Mumbai Marathon. I met the runners at the appointed place and time. They were getting ready to do a five kilometer-warm-up run. They asked me to join. I ran the distance and found myself feeling quite comfortable,’’ Kavitha said. She was encouraged to run another loop. “ I went ahead. I didn’t know that someone starting out shouldn’t run so much on the first day,’’ she said. The bug latched on. Running became a part of her routine. She ran with the group once or twice a week; over time she began joining them for Sunday long-runs. Like the popular Bandra-NCPA run in Mumbai held on the first Sunday of every month, Pune has a monthly counterpart reserved for the last Sunday. In January 2014, running in that event, Kavitha covered 19 kilometers. Her first race was a half marathon in Goa in February 2014, availed when there on a holiday. She crossed the finish line in two hours and four minutes, timing that would generally be considered very good for a first time racer. By now, she was training regularly with the runners she had met at the race course. They called themselves Pune Marathoners Club. Started by the late Michael Francis, it has since changed name to Pune Road Runners.

Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy

As the 2014 running season progressed, Kavitha attempted her second half marathon – this one organized by Running and Living – at Aarey forest in Mumbai in June. “ There I heard about Hyderabad Marathon. I asked Michael Francis if I would be able to do the full marathon there. I was keen also because Andhra Pradesh is my home state. Michael didn’t say no but he warned me that it would be tough,’’ she said. Kavitha commenced her preparations with a modest training schedule of running three days a week. But she diligently put in the mileage Michael had recommended she do. “ On race day in Hyderabad, up until 30-35 km, the run was good. I had the company of a fellow runner. However the last 10 km was lonely as he had to move ahead,’’ she said. Kavitha finished the run in four hours, 19 minutes and 38 seconds, a fairly good time for somebody running a full marathon for the first time. Although attracted more and more to running, Kavitha had continued her strength workouts, hitting the gym thrice a week. That year, after the Hyderabad Marathon, Kavitha’s foray into running got deeper and toward the latter half of 2014, she participated in four races – Pune Running Beyond Myself, Pinkathon, Pune International Marathon and Goa River Marathon.

The relentless series of races was to prove her first major lesson in running. She completed Goa River Marathon in 2:02:29 hours. “ At Goa River Marathon, I ran the first 16 km well. Then I felt pain in my Achilles tendon and had to walk,’’ she said. Kavitha understood that overdoing things extracts a toll. She had to stop running for two and a half weeks after that incident. She resumed her training for the full marathon as the 2015 edition of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (now Tata Mumbai Marathon) approached. She did her first run post-injury, in the first week of January 2015. She finished that year’s SCMM in 4:13:06 hours. Now back in the game, her training continued unabated. Her next major outing was the 2015 edition of Bengaluru Marathon, which she completed in three hours, 53 minutes, her first sub-four-hour finish. That race was important from other angles too. It was here that Kavitha first heard about `BQ’ (Boston Qualifier) timing. Bengaluru Marathon was also where she first heard of Pune-based runner and coach, Atul Godbole. The very next month she joined Atul’s Motiv8 Coaching with the aim of getting her BQ, which at that time, was 3:45 hours for her age category. The coaching helped (she has been with Motiv8 since November 2015) but at the 2016 SCMM, she finished in 3:48, missing the BQ narrowly.

Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy

In 2016, Kavitha enrolled for the Amsterdam Marathon due that October, aiming to run it alongside a family holiday in Europe. “ Here, I got my BQ with timing of 3:38. That was a new high. I never had any goals. Things just kept happening. I was also learning something new, each time I ran a marathon,’’ she said. By the time she had her BQ in place registration for the 2017 edition of Boston Marathon had closed. So she decided to give New York City Marathon 2017 a try. It would be the first of her World Marathon Majors. This time Deepak’s office pitched in for her; Bajaj Finserv forwarded her application to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), main sponsor of the New York City Marathon. Life as runner has its ups and downs. Kavitha’s outing at the 2017 Mumbai Marathon failed to meet her expectations. She experienced cramps; she completed the race in 3:53. But there was improvement coming up. In November 2017, running in New York Kavitha completed the annual city marathon in 3:33. She followed it up with the half marathon at 2018 TMM where she finished first among women in the age group of 40-44 years (since 2018, she has been running the half marathon at Mumbai Marathon). It was now time to attempt Boston’s iconic marathon. That was how on April 16, 2018, she found herself among the many fighting off the bitter cold at the start line of that year’s Boston Marathon.

At the 2018 Boston Marathon. Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy

As the race progressed, many runners gave up. The bleak weather not only forced the large African contingent out of contention but resulted in the slowest winning time of three decades. That year, completing the race was a test of human endurance. Japanese marathon runner, Yuki Kawauchi, was the winner among men; American Desiree Linden topped among women. Kavitha stepped on the race course with several layers of clothing and yet she felt chilled to the bone. She had no previous experience of cold weather conditions apart from India’s winter. “ The wind and the rain were so bad that I actually felt like I was running in the same place and not moving forward. The last mile felt like a marathon in itself. Even though I could see the finish line, strong winds kept pushing me away,’’ she had told this blog then.

Kavitha finished the race with a timing of 3:34:26, a little over a minute slower than her personal best of 3:33:05 set at the New York City Marathon of November 2017. Most runners finished the race way behind their personal best. Many were forced to quit. Kavitha not only completed the race but also got close to her previous best timing. Later that year, she ran the Berlin Marathon, finishing the race in 3:28:29 hours, a new personal best. The streak didn’t end there.

Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy

In April 2019, Kavitha ran the London Marathon completing it in 3:23 hours, a further improvement in timing. Roughly six months later, in October, it was time for the Chicago Marathon. She had trained well under Atul Godbole for the race. Her target was 3:15-3:17 hours. During the Chicago Marathon, GPS devices do not function well because the route passes through the vicinity of tall buildings. Kavitha trusted her intuition and internal clock. She had prepared for it. In fact, before leaving for Chicago, her coach had made her run a half marathon in Pune without looking at her watch. In Chicago, till the 27th kilometer, she ran fast and in the process set a new personal record for the half marathon distance, covering that segment of the course in 1:36 hours. “ I felt strong even after I crossed the 35 km mark. I continued at the same pace. The last 600 meters were my best,’’ she said. She completed the run in 3:14 hours, yet another improvement to her PB.

Kavitha acknowledges that the road ahead in terms of running economy will be difficult, though not impossible. “ She is extremely dedicated, focused and disciplined in her approach to running. She follows the training plan diligently, to complete perfection,’’ Atul Godbole, her coach, said. A resident of Pune, Atul was exposed to sports, primarily football, during his school years. He took to running and triathlon in 2003 following his return to Pune from the U.S. He coached amateur runners initially on an informal basis before he set up Motiv8 Coaching in 2014. Atul’s training plan for amateur runners tracks their fitness levels and goals. He also trains runners for the ultramarathon. Atul, 39, believes Kavitha can improve her running economy further. “ She will definitely improve her timing. The progress from here onward may be slow but it is not impossible,’’ he said.

Photo: courtesy Kavitha Reddy

On her part, Kavitha chooses her races carefully. “ I try and ensure that I race only two full marathons every year. After my Achilles tendon injury, I don’t race at all the events. I treat many of them as training runs. I am able to control myself. Podium finishes are not my focus. I don’t want to jeopardize my running career,’’ she said. Of all the distances out there, the marathon is her favorite. She doesn’t think much of the ultramarathon given the decent spot she finds herself in, in the marathon. At the same time, she knows that further improvement in her timing may now happen in frugal increments. Although her personal best is up there with the best woman amateur runners from India, she isn’t young. At the time of writing, Kavitha was gearing up for the Tokyo Marathon of March 2020. Once done with the World Marathon Majors, her next goal would be running marathons on all seven continents. “ I have already covered some of the continents in the process of running the World Marathon Majors,” she said.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)

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